You might be wondering what stropping is. In a nutshell, it is a method of knife or razor sharpening. You are not sharpening your tool so much as making it keener as you are not removing any metal in the stropping process. When you hone a razor or a knife you are simultaneously straightening and polishing the blade. You use a flexible fabric, newspaper or leather to do this. The choice of material is up to you. Stropping is usually associated with old fashioned straight razors though it is entirely possible to strop your knives in the same way. Going forward we will use the term razor or blade so as not to confuse the instructions along the way.
If you are a stropping novice, it pays to be patient. You will get a far superior result from working slowly. If you have seen any Wild West movie and watched the barber stropping his blade at a fair clip this is incorrect. Stropping quickly will damage your razor and the strop itself. Stropping is not sharpening a blade. What you are doing is making it keener. The blade itself may feel sharper, but as you haven’t removed any actual metal in the stropping process, this is not sharpening in the traditional sense of the word.
What is Stropping?
You have your razor and you’re ready to get started. You need to buy a shaving strop; however, this is not an easy decision.There are many different varieties of strop. There are different types, brands, sizes and materials. You should be asking yourself what exactly is stropping, so let’s break it down.
How to Strop Your Razor
Regardless of what type of strop you are using your technique should be consistent. It is a relatively simple process, but it needs patience and a gentle hand to do. You may not find this a natural process when you first start. It does take patience and some time. Once you have the technique started, you should go very slowly. It is not worth damaging either your blade or your strop in the interests of trying to emulate what a video of the technique looks like. Remember that when you see those, it has taken that person a long time to get that comfortable doing it. You will also find that depending on the type of strop, spray and other details we will go over; your technique will differ slightly.
Set the razor over the surface of your strop. The blade should be facing away. You then draw the razor towards you over the surface. With a light touch, leading with the spine of the blade.
On reaching the end of this draw, turn the razor onto its spine.The edge should now be facing you.
You now use the second part of the strop (the webbing) to “heat” your blade and this helps in removing oxidation. It also enables the smoother side to avoid any burs that would make it feel less “sharp”.
If you have chosen a smaller sized strop, you need to do this a few times to be able to cover the whole blade. This particular way of stropping is known as the x-stroke. It’s called the x stroke as this is the shape your ‘sharpening’ will take as you move your hand over the strop.
You must remember to be slow and steady and light. You must also avoid rolling the blade onto its edge. Doing this will cause damage to both the strop and the razor.
Sprays and Pastes
Getting the right size paste or spray for your needs is essential. You need to take into account the type of finish you are looking for and the type of material of your strop. Sprays and pastes have very small grit, and so we measure their size in microns for accuracy. Usually, you can expect to find sprays and pastes classified from 1 micron down to 0.1 microns (equivalent to 14000 and 100000 grit respectively).
A Basic Paste
Pastes are classified by colour by most major manufacturers. These have become an industry standard in many parts of the world; however please ensure that you double check the micron size as some classifications may differ in different parts of the world.
- Red: for fine to medium sharpening. You need a separate strop for use. 1 micron
- Black: primarily used for touch-ups. You need a separate strop for use. 1-2 microns
- Grey: usually used for the linen or canvas side and it helps to refresh the blade.
- White: only slightly abrasive. It is mainly used for conditioning the linen or canvas part of the strop.
- Yellow: no abrasiveness in this paste. Yellow classified pastes are mainly used for conditioning the leather part of the strop.
For a more commonly available paste Chromium oxide is the cheapest and easiest to find. You can usually see it in 0.5-micron size which should be sufficient for most needs. You need to avoid DIY shops though when buying as their chromium oxide pastes will not be pure and could damage your blade.
Diamond Sprays and Pastes
You can imagine this is high-end quality and is available in different sizes. If you are looking for a super sharp edge, this is the one for you; however, without proper knowledge of the various applications you could achieve a corner on your blade too sharp for use. Diamond paste is also the most expensive option you can choose. As mentioned previously, this does not necessarily mean a better result though.
What Kind of Strop Should You Get?
You will already know for razors that hanging strops are indeed the more popular. The Hanging Strop is the one familiar to everyone from barber shops. If the blade you are sharpening is a straight razor then indeed a hanging strop seems like the obvious choice. It is also a more traditional choice. There are many different types so we’ll review the basics.
You take into consideration three things when looking for a hanging strop: size, material and age (new or vintage).
For size, strops come measured by width and length and are usually 2 to 2,5 inches wide which is considered standard. You can now find 3-inch strops, and this allows you to avoid using the x-stroke technique. The size has zero effect on the quality of the stropping, so it is a personal preference.
The material for hanging strops will be leather. Different types of leather come with different kinds of “draw” (“resistance” to the layperson). You might have a personal preference for a “wedge” style blade might be better with a stronger draw. You might decide for a lighter draw as they tend to perform better with sprays and pastes. The choice is down to your personal preference.
With a primary and secondary component, you need to decide what type of leather your primary will have.
For your primary, your choices are:
- Vegan leather: Synthetic, medium to high draw, no break in period.
- Buffalo: with a medium to large draw, it also has a medium to a long break in period.
- Horse shell leather (Kanayama ): medium draw, medium break-in period.
- Kangaroo: Light draw, a short break in period.
- Latigo cowhide: heavy draw, medium break-in period.
- Basic cowhide: light to medium draw, very short break in period.
- English bridle: This has a light to medium draw, with a very long break in period.
For your secondary component your choices are:
- Cotton webbing
All work with pastes.
You can, of course, use a random material like a belt. You may have seen this done, but we don’t recommend it.
If you are craving after a vintage strop is aware that they may need quite a bit of restoration. Should you decide to buy a new one then, of course, breaking in period would apply.
Alternatives to Hanging Strops
Newspapers make very good strops for straight razors. You can use it with pastes. The ink on the paper is slightly abrasive so perfect for this usage. You don’t have to maintain it. You can use pastes with it. If you are a beginner, this is an ideal choice as you hardly risk damaging your blade while you learn and have not had to spend a lot of money on a strop that you are not comfortable using.
A bench strop is a piece of leather fixed to a wooden base. You put this on a table or workbench. These types of strops are great with sprays and pastes and for practising your technique.
These come as basic models or multi-material with many sides. A basic model will be a wooden paddle with a piece of leather attached to it. They are difficult to find. The different sides of this strop are useful for different gradations of stropping a blade.
Balsa Wood Strop
These are the cheaper option, and you can find them quite easily. A piece of balsa wood that you impregnate with your paste or spray you wouldn’t use this every day for fear of damaging your blade.
With is leather wound around a metal or wooden bracket, This type of strop makes a circle reminiscent of a knitting loom, hence the name. They are now rather expensive but what makes it unique is how you’re able to adjust the tension in the leather. Akin to a hanging strop in use, but without needing to be attached to a surface.
Looking After Your Strop
When you run your hand over the strop and feel it is becoming too smooth and losing draw, it’s time for a clean.
Cleaning the Leather Side:
You will need a few things: saddle soap, a clean rag, some neatsfoot oil. You can find these at any shop that sells leather equipment. Alternatively visiting specialist shops or online retailers is a trendy way to get the type that is mainly made for cleaning strop leather.
Make a lather with some saddle soap and gently clean the leather. Get a clean damp rag and remove the solvent. Let the strop dry then apply some neatsfoot oil.
Cleaning the Secondary Component
You will need some powdered laundry detergent and a fingernail brush.
Add two tablespoons of powder laundry detergent to a bowl of warm water and use a fingernail brush to rub onto the material gently. You’ll then need to rinse the secondary component clean of all soap and then without wringing it, hang it to dry. Under no circumstances put it in a drier or hang over something heated like an open fire or a radiator. Drying it this way could cause the material to shrink. Let it hang and dry, and you will find that it will retain a perfect shape.
You need to take care of your strop as well as you take care of your blade. Every day you should run your hand over it. The natural oils in your hand will keep it at a great draw consistency. Over time you will automatically know and feel when it needs cleaning.
Stropping takes time and patience to master. It is not a quick process when carried out either. You will find that when you have your favourite blade and have chosen a strop to suit you that you come into your own. You will have a lifetime of enjoying your strop and your blade. Picking the right one for you and maintaining it will ensure you keep this a lifetime and can even pass it on to next generations.
Welcome to the world of stropping!