This article is meant to be verrrrry basic. As in "okay, I'll speak verrrrrry Slowwwwwwwwwly...". Skilled honers, don't bother reading. You will be bored to tears, or else offended by my methods. Get lost. This is for the beginners. You already have your own methods and they work just fine, right?
So, Mr. Honemeister Wannabe, you have your hollowground razor, which you bought shave ready or had honed to shave ready condition by a skilled honer. You shaved with it and stropped it and shaved with it and stropped it, and now, several weeks later, or maybe a couple of weeks later if you are a bit heavy handed, it is starting to shave not so well. Pulling, tugging, skipping, when before, you were getting fairly good performance out of the edge. You can, of course, send your razor out to a recognized honer for a touchup, and maybe you did that already. And now you want to tackle it yourself. Good for you!
Hollowground razor, not a wedge. Wedges are a different topic.
So you have a formerly sharp, now somewhat dulled razor. You also need a finishing stone. Want to do this today, or would you rather take a month or two? If the former, get yourself a good quality finisher like a Shapton 16k or my favorite synthetic finisher, the 12k Naniwa Superstone. Forget about Sharp Pebbles or Bear Moo or naturals. Get the right stuff. Don't worry... it will last for a long time. You could use lapping film, too, and TBH it is IMHO easier and gives more consistent results, but I will get into that in another article. The idea of using film is sort of scary to some guys for some reason. They are more able to wrap their minds around the idea of rubbing steel on rock until sharp. The Stone Age is still not over for some of us, I guess. But due to popular demand, I am herein describing rock rubbing instead of modern age film honing. Get a proper finisher. Yes, you can eventually learn to hone on naturals and shave off them. Eventually. I don't have the patience to teach you so go somewhere else for that. This is all about synthetics, chiefly the 12k Naniwa. There are a few other things you will want, as well.
You will need:
When you first get your new Nanny, you will need to lap it. Pretty much all new stones must be lapped before use. If you insist on trying to hone on your new finisher without lapping it, I suggest you go elsewhere for instruction because I am unable to help you. If you want to hang out with me, you got to shape up and live righ, and lap your stones.
There are lots of ways to lap your stones. SiC powder or other abrasives on glass. "smoothing stones". Diamond plates. The best way, IMHO is a full sheet of sandpaper carefully glued to a very flat surface such as a 12"x12" 3/4" thick acrylic sheet or the sink cutout from a granite countertop or a polished marble floor tile or a plate of very heavy (minimum 3/8" thick) glass. Any of these could be less than flat enough! Best bet is the cast acrylic from TAP Plastics. Flatness counts. No, you can't eyeball it. Looking for daylight under a straight edge? Meh. Better than no test at all. The total bee's knees would be a calibrated granite lapping plate. But they cost I think around $50 for a basic model. If you wanna go there, go there. You have my blessing. You will be ensured of having the right tool for the job. Me, I find that the cast acrylic works great. Don't use thin stuff. Too flexible!
To prepare your lapping plate, take a whole sheet of 320 or 400 grit red resin type sandpaper and lightly spray the back with 3M or Loctite spray adhesive. A full size sheet, 8-1/2" x 11". Stick a corner down onto the plate and while pulling it tight, gradually roll the edge of your hand on the sandpaper so it sticks onto the plate with absolutely no wrinkles, bubbles, or debris underneath. This is very important. The idea is to end up with a crazy flat abrasive surface for lapping your stone.
To prepare the stone, draw a grid on the top surface of the stone with a pencil. Pay attention, and follow directions, or go home. Turn the stone grid side down on the sandpaper and begin rubbing it, without rocking the stone, with the pressure centered consistently on the stone, from corner to corner for the longest possible stroke without overrunning the edges of the sandpaper. Overrunning is why this is better than diamond plates or "smoothing stones". Overrunning will leave the stone very slightly dished. Enough to matter? If you are asking that, you need to stop reading and just do your own thing. If you want me to guide you, then follow, don't explore. Keep rubbing until the grid is nearly gone. Brush the sandpaper off with a toothbrush or a soft bronze bristle gun cleaning brush. Wipe the stone down with a soft cloth like a tshirt. Re-draw the grid and go again, this time until the grid is completely gone. Now the stone is flat. The reason for two stages is that loose grit from the stone will build up underneath it and cause irregularities in the surface or more likely grind away the grid before the stone is fully flat. The second go should only require a few laps on the sandpaper. If you want, you can switch to a finer sandpaper, 600 to 1000 grit. This won't make it flatter but it will leave a finer finish on the stone. Optional.
Next, lay a big chef knife on the stone and rub away. Use water. This burnishes the surface of the stone to its natural grit level of finish. It won't take long, maybe 50 laps with medium pressure.
Now your stone is ready for action. If you didn't lap your stone, go home. Play some Minecraft or watch women's beach volleyball or reruns of Friends. But if you are ready, then here we go.
Fill a spray bottle with water. Hold the stone in your hand, honing surface up, one end pointing back at you, one end pointing away from you. Just hold it. Sort of bounce it in your hand, your arm not braced on anything. Get used to the idea of the stone sort of floating out there in front of you. Do that for a few minutes. Then introduce the razor. Lay the blade flat on the hone. Touch the spine down on the stone before the edge makes contact. The spine will always make contact before the edge. The edge will always break contact before the spine. This is important. Just hold the blade on the stone for a minute. Let them float out there together, not pressed together tightly but just together. The weight of the razor and about half the weight of your hand pressing the razor down onto the stone. Get used to the feeling. Put the stone and razor down. Pick them up and do it again. And again, until it feels very natural and normal.
Spray water on the stone and lay the razor on the stone, near the end closest to you, with the edge pointing away from you. You should have the "show" side down on the hone, the "back" side showing upward. Gently scoot the razor further onto the stone until you feel the shoulder of the razor butt up against the side of the stone. Get used to this. You must NEVER let the shoulder ride up onto the stone! Now keeping spine and edge on the stone, stroke the razor away from you, nearly to the far end of the stone. Stop. Carefully flip the edge up and over the spine while the spine remains fully in contact with the stone. Stroke the razor back toward you. When it is near the nearer end, again flip the razor with the spine remaining on the stone, so that once again the edge is pointing away from you, just like when you started. That is one lap. Do this one more time, this time thinking about your pressure. The razor should be pressed to the hone by barely more than the weight of the razor. When you are again back in the starting position, stop. Now let's introduce the "X" stroke. Stroke the razor away again, but this time pull the razor slightly across the stone so that the path of the razor veers off toward the right (assuming you are right handed and hold the razor in your right hand) as if you were falling asleep at the wheel and gradually driving off onto the shoulder of the road. About an inch of sideways travel is enough, assuming a full size stone, i.e. at least 2-1/2" wide. The Naniwa is wide enough. Flip the razor, slide it across so that the shoulder just makes contact with the edge of the stone, and X stroke the razor back toward you. You can see why it is called the X stroke, right? Get used to this. Do a few more laps with the X stroke.
Look at your edge. Is it fairly straight, or is it slightly curved? Stand the razor spine upward, edge downward, looking at the show side. If the edge turns upward at the heel and toe end, with the middle sort of sagging down, you have a smiling razor. A completely straight edge is much easier to learn, but a slight smile is more common. A deep smile you should leave until you have honed a couple of straighter edges. So, you have a straight or nearly straight edge? Let's continue.
With your Sharpie marker, paint the bevel of the razor. Look at the razor. See right at the edge, where you have a flat surface where the razor is ground to it's final edge? You will see it on both sides of the edge. This is the bevel. It is two planes that intersect at the shaving edge, or the apex. The bevel surface is also seen on the spine of the razor. When you hone, you are wearing steel away from the bevel at both edge and spine. So paint that bevel, Go ahead and paint it at the spine, too. This is sort of a tattletale, to let you know where the razor is contacting the stone and where it isn't.
Give the razor 3 or 4 laps, same light pressure, using the X stroke. Now examine the razor with your magnifier under a bright light. Wherever the ink remains, your razor did not make contact with the stone. If there is a slight smile, you may have to lift up slightly or push down slightly on the shank to roll the unhoned part of the edge down onto the stone. Since you are honing in hand, you can use a more intuitive approach. Roll the stone to right or left as required. Only a very slight roll should be required. Re-paint the bevel and try again, this time rolling the stone. Start the stroke with the stone rolled to the left, and as the razor travels along the stone, roll the stone to the right. Check the bevel again. Don't overdo the roll! That will only result in an upturned toe or heel. Roll just enough to hit the entire edge during the stroke. Practice this for about 20 laps, repainting the bevel every 2 or 3 laps. Spray more water on the stone as needed.
By now you should be getting the hang of the stroke. If you are paying close attention, you may notice that the razor is beginning to stick to the stone as if it were being sucked down tightly to it. This is called "stiction", and is a form of feedback to which you must pay attention. As the bevel is honed and comes closer and closer to conforming exactly to the stone, stiction will increase. Finally it will reach a plateau and you are done. Sort of.
As you hone, you should be reducing pressure to the bare minimum. Pressure is the enemy, particularly at the finish. Too much pressure will raise a wire edge. The edge gets very thin as steel is removed by honing, and so it gets very flexible. A bar of steel is very rigid. A long slender steel rod or tube will flex even just under its weight. A very thin sheet of steel will sag readily. The thickness or thinness makes the material rigid, just slightly stiff, somewhat flexible, or saggy and droopy. It all depends on the thickness of the steel relative to its other dimensions. You can't really see it with the naked eye but it happens that the steel of a razor's edge gets so thin that the edge flexes under the pressure of honing. The edge will flex upward, off the stone. As you hone, more steel is removed from just behind the edge, where the steel has more rigidity. And so it in turn begins to get flexible and to deflect upward. The process continues and the edge gets weaker and weaker. Finally you have a full-blown wire edge or fin edge. Same thing, essentially. This edge will feel very sharp initially but will not stand up to any use. There are several ways to control or mitigate a wire edge but the most important is to reduce pressure to the barest minimum as the edge develops. Honing with the weight of the upper body behind it is very heavy pressure. Honing in hand with just the full weight of the arm is heavy pressure. With only the weight of the forearm, medium pressure. With only the weight of the hand (and the razor) is light pressure. The weight of the razor alone is very light pressure. Less than that is extremely light pressure and the razor can be difficult to control when you are using such light pressure because it is so easy to raise the razor off the stone. Honing in hand helps, because the stone yields or pushes back as needed to the pressure of the razor.
So you maxed out on the stiction and you are finished honing. Well, not quite. Very possibly you have a fin edge or a tiny bit of fin edge. One way to deal with it is to use a few "pull strokes" or "stripping strokes". To perform a pull stroke, lay the razor on the hone as usual. Pull the razor directly to the right, longways to the orientation of the razor. As if you wanted to pull the razor right off the edge of the stone. But only pull the razor about 3/4" or so. Roll the hone as you do this, just like when honing. Flip the razor and hit the other side. Do about 4 or 5 pairs of these pull strokes to clear your edge, This can slightly round the apex so finish with about 10 of the lightest laps you can manage, to peak the apex back up.
Another refinement. Instead of full length laps for these peaking laps, use very short x strokes. These short x strokes will not remove much steel but they will take a fully developed edge and make it noticeably sharper and cleaner. Remember to keep the pressure very light, as light as you can manage. Now your razor is ready to strop, and shave. Or is it?
The thing is, just going through the motions does not ensure a quality edge. You need to examine it, and test it. A very bright light is your most important tool for this. Roll and tilt the razor in the light and study the reflection. Notice how the most intense reflection from the light is concentrated in one area, and by moving the razor slightly you can move the reflection. Practice walking the reflection around on the razor for about 10 minutes. Try to walk the reflection right out onto the bevel, and move it up and down the length of the edge. Now get out your magnifying glass or loupe, and study that reflection as you walk it along the edge. Where the bevel is very flat only a miniscule amount of tilt is required to move the reflection onto or off of the bevel. Finely adjust the reflection and look at the very edge of the bevel. What you are looking for is a separate reflection caused by a poorly developed or overcooked edge. Where you see that the edge isn't just right, you know you have to hit the stone again. You may even have to drop down to a coarser grit if there is a ding or chip. You may see that the bevel is split longitudinally into two surfaces, nearly but not precisely parallel. They may reflect one more brightly than the other. One may have recent scratches from the freshly done honing, and the other may be duller from oxidation or brighter from being smoother. Inconsistencies in reflective appearance is what you are looking for. Wiping the razor clean will give you a better view.
After correcting visible flaws, it is time to test for sharpness. There are a lot of sharpness tests but two main ones for testing a finished razor edge. One is called HHT, or Hanging Hair Test. The other is called the TreeTopping Test, or TTT. I won't go into HHT because it is very well documented at www.coticules.be, and also I do not generally use this test myself. The TTT is performed by simply sweeping the razor above the forearm, about 1/4" above the skin. NOT touching the skin! At 1/4" above the skin, a good edge should sever the tips of at least one or two hairs in a pass. That is a good shave-ready edge, at least in terms of sharpness. Keep in mind that results will vary slightly with different hair textures and different sweep technique, but this standard is well, kind of standard.
So, test your edge after honing. Test it again after stropping. Test it again after shaving. Test razors that you get from other sources, especially those claimed to be shave ready. This is a good benchmark for judging whether or not a razor needs some work on the edge.
The shave of course is the real test, the one that really matters. TTT is just a metric. It is a diagnostic tool. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is a careful shave, paying attention to how well the razor performs on your face.
You can up your game with The Lather Trick, or with The Pasted Balsa Progression. Both must be properly executed or you won't see enough edge improvement to make them worthwhile. I will cover those two topics later. Meanwhile,