The bevel is not simply the foundation of the edge. The bevel IS the edge. At least the apex of the bevel, where the two bevel planes intersect, is the edge. The progression and the finish simply polish the bevel faces and consequently refine the edge line. If the bevel is imprecisely or incompletely set, then further work on the edge is useless, and the edge will never improve to shave ready condition.
Many beginners stubbornly insist on continuing the honing process, in what I call faith-based honing. Faith-based honing is when you believe strongly that a finer hone will improve an edge, any edge, that it MUST improve any edge, because it is finer. Faith-based honing seldom works, and when it does it is only by accident. Not a recipe for consistently good edges!
To re-iterate, the bevel IS the edge. It is of greatest importance, and neglecting to ensure absolutely without a doubt the quality of the bevel will give the newbie honer nothing but poor, unusable edges, and tears of frustration. There is NO POINT WHATSOEVER in continuing to hone hone hone a razor if the bevel is not set and verified!!!!!!! Do not ignore that absolute law of honing! If you do, you will FAIL. FAIL. FAIL!!!!
This document is aimed at the new or relatively new honer, not the grizzled old pro or ancient zen master honer who is one with the steel. The biggest problem that newbies have is improperly set bevels or uncertainty whether the bevel is properly set or not. And so I will here present a method of setting the bevel that will incite howls of outrage among some stick in the mud traditionalists and elitists. This method is called:
The burr method is novel in that it not only sets the bevel, but also verifies it. It is also "wasteful" of steel. It removes slightly more steel than is strictly necessary to have a good bevel from one end of the blade to the other. However, setting the bevel is something that only needs to be done ONCE, for as long as the razor is owned by the same person. When done according to directions, the process is very straightforward. Left to his own devices, the newbie unfamiliar with setting the bevel and honing in general will attempt it, hone, finish, try the edge and find it lacking, hone some more, and some more, resulting in failure after failure, and eventually try again to set the bevel, and again, and again, and again, and end up removing even more steel than simply setting the bevel by the burr method. The burr method removes subjectivity and guesswork. It is systematic, at least more systematic than simply going at it until you think it must be done by now. (Another aspect of faith-based honing!) The burr method is definitely not the only way to set a bevel. In fact, not really even the best way, for a honer with some experience. For a beginner, it is perfect.
The basic principle of the burr method is simple. The two bevel faces must meet at or very near the central plane of the razor. To do this, obviously both bevel surfaces must be encountering steel at or just beyond the central plane, ensuring this meeting of the two in steel. If the razor is honed on one side until the bevel face breaks past the apex, and any significant amount of honing pressure is used, a burr will form. Now, how a burr forms is when the steel at the very edge becomes thin enough, it will flex upward off the hone. And so the very apex of the edge gets no further contact with the hone, but steel just behind the upwardly flexed apex does contact the hone and is made thinner, until it, too, flexes upward under pressure. And so a very narrow portion of the blade's edge curls upward off the hone. This burr can be felt, or even seen under the low magnification of a loupe or magnifying glass, or even the naked eye if it is under bright light. The existence of the burr proves that the side that was honed, has been honed enough to meet with the other side properly once it, too, has been honed equally. The burr is raised on one side, then the razor is flipped and honed until the burr is raised on the other side. Then the burr, which cannot be allowed to remain, is honed off by the use of regular alternating laps. The burr proved the bevel. The final laps cleaned and cleared the bevel. Done.
That was the theory. Now here is the practice. First, you need a proper bevel setter. This can be a natural or synthetic stone, or it can be lapping film on an acrylic plate, or it can be wet/dry sandpaper glued carefully to the same plate. The important thing is that it be absolutely dreadfully flat, and in the proper grit range. The typical bevel setter is 1000 grit or around 12u or 15u in the case of lapping film. In reality you can easily go as coarse as 600 grit or as fine as 2000 grit. To set the bevel, the edge needs to be relatively undamaged, with no major dings, pits, cracks, chips, etc. Such damage needs to be addressed with edge repair methods before beginning the actual bevel setting.
I must point out that stones, except for diamond plates, need to be lapped when you first receive them, and periodically thereafter to maintain perfect flatness. Eyeball flat is not good enough. Get all your ducks in a row before you begin. And I will time out here, and say something I always say... NO you can't use this, NO you can't use that, NO this or that won't work. Or maybe it would. But if you want to nail this first time up, just do it the way I am telling you because THIS way DEFINITELY DOES WORK. Change something and you definitely can forget about the "definitely", and maybe you can forget about the "does work" part, too. Experiment all you like, if you think failure is fun. As this document is primarily aimed at beginners, and it is important to hand a beginner an easy base hit instead of a fastball that an old pro would whack over the fence, I am presenting the road more traveled and insisting that the newbie stay on it until a few successes have been made. So DO IT LIKE I AM TELLING YOU, and REPEAT UNTIL YOU GET IT RIGHT. If you don't get it right, you are not following directions, period.
Carrying on, Secondly you need a razor that is worth messing with in the first place. This means no Pakistani and no No-Name Chinese junk RSO's. An RSO, by the way, is a Razor Shaped Object. Looks kinda like a razor but not razor steel and can neither take an edge, nor hold an edge, and can't be relied upon to shave your face properly. Also even if it is a known and respected brand, if there is a crack, toss it. If the razor has been honed into a misshapen parody of a working razor, toss it. If it has a big frown, set it aside, maybe one day you can fix it. Ditto if it has a big smile. A straight edge is easier to begin with. Major rust and or pitting, especially near the edge is another disqualification. Don't inflict your noob talents on a valuable heirloom or heirloom quality razor, either. You want something expendable for your first time at bat. A Genco or Union or similar mass produced vintage that still has plenty of meat on it is fine. A Gold Dollar 66 or 1996 or 100 through 208 model will be okay. But not your precious. And not something that will only give you a failure. No Dovo entry level "Best Quality" or "Special". Too many issues for a beginner.
So you have a decent razor and a decent bevel setter, right? If not, stop. Do what I say. Stop. Don't even try until you have your tool, (the bevel setter) and your candidate. (a honeable and usable razor). There is no point in making the attempt, otherwise. Even the practice will be flawed so don't try to "just for practice" without the two necessary ingredients. Just following directions is hard enough. Don't make it COMPLETELY hopeless by adding substandard elements to your incomplete understanding.
So now you are set? For real? Okay, here we go, and no excuses from here on out. Hold the hone in your off hand. Right handed? Okay, then that means hold it in your left hand. Out in front of you, unsupported. Hold the razor in your dominant (right) hand. Rest it on the hone with the shoulder of the razor NOT on the hone. Edge should be away from you, spine toward you. Spine and edge should be flat on the hone. Stroke the razor away from you. Do this several times to get the idea. Stay on the same side of the razor. Now, make some back and forth oval passes on the hone. Let the heel of the razor a bit further out away from you than the toe. This is your heel leading angle. Got it? Okay, stop. Spray water on the honing surface and go for real, and count 50 oval laps. Do not flip the razor, just keep honing the one side. With the edge away from you and spine toward you, you are honing the "show" side, where any fancy etching or stamping will be. The side facing upward is the "back" side, the more plain side. Pressure should be fairly heavy, about the weight of your entire arm.
After your 50 oval one sided laps on the show side, check for burr. On the back side, which was the up side when honing those first 50 laps, run your finger from the spine to the edge and on beyond the edge as if driving off a cliff. If the burr is present, you will feel a very slight catch from the upturned burr. You may be able to see it better than feel it, under an extremely bright light. Look for a reflection where there should be none. If no burr is present, paint the bevel area with a sharpie marker and give it a couple of oval laps. Examine the edge under a loupe or magnifying glass, and see where the sharpie ink has been removed by the hone. That is obviously where you are making contact. Where the ink remains, obviously you are not making contact. You can shift the weight back and forth slightly on the razor to move the contact area around along the edge. If the contact area does not go out to the edge, maybe it was previously honed with tape. Maybe the edge just isn't there yet. Either way, more steel has to come off. So do another set of 50. Test. And another set of 50 and test. If you get up to 200 laps, stop. We got to do something else. Flip the razor onto the back side and hone the same number of laps, then feel for the burr on the show side. When honing the back side, the show side will be up, the edge will be toward you with the heel slightly closer to you than the toe, and the spine will be away from you. Now if you feel no burr then flip back onto the back side and do another set of 50, If no joy, then yet another. That's 100 and that is plenty. If the burr were ready to break over, it would have, and you would be able to feel it. So switch sides again. Keep doing this until you get a burr, then equalize so both sides have the same lap count. Then do sets of 50 one side, 50 the other, until you have a detectable burr all along the edge, on first one side and then the other. There. You are all done with that burr business.
The secret to this is obviously to detect the burr as it first begins to form. Initially it can be rather hard to be sure of it. It helps to feel BOTH sides, and compare. One side will be just slightly more catchy than the other.
Now after all that work to raise a burr, you are going to hone it off. With only the weight of your forearm, do a set of 10 oval laps on each side. With the weight of just your hand, do another set of 10 per side. Now do a set of 6 per side. Reduce pressure to just the weight of the razor and a finger. Do a set of 5 per side. Reduce the pressure to the weight of the razor and do a set of 4 on each side, still oval laps, still only one side at a time. Then three on one side and then the other. Then two. Then begin honing with regular alternating laps, still with light pressure.
To hone alternating laps, you stroke the razor edge first away from you, then at the far end of the hone you flip the edge up and over the spine and back down onto the hone toward you, and stroke it back toward you. At the near end, once again flip the edge up and over so it is ready for the "away" stroke again. That is one lap. The edge always leads. The edge is always lifted and flipped over to change direction. The spine always remains on the hone. The shoulder stays off the hone. The heel leads slightly ahead of the toe. And finally, you pull the razor slightly across the hone as it travels toward you and away from you. This is called the X stroke. If possible, practice this a bit with an old beater razor or a Gold Dollar.
After 10 alternating laps, do a few pull strokes. This helps to clear the edge. To do a pull stroke, lay the razor as usual on the hone. Instead of stroking away or toward you, pull the razor directly to the right, off the hone, but only a short distance. Total movement should be about 3/4" or so. This helps to strip any vestiges of burr off the edge. About a half dozen pull strokes should do it. Then peak the apex back up with 10 more very light alternating laps.
At this point, the razor should shave your forearm easily, cut a cherry tomato easily, (EASILY!!! I can cut a tomato with a dull hatchet, but it doesn't cut easily!) and it should drag nicely if you pull the edge lightly across the base of your thumbnail. The edge should undercut the honing water and leave a dry hone behind it. Under a very bright light you should see the reflection of the bevel become a very bright flash as you roll the razor, and you should see zero reflection when looking straight down at the upturned edge. If there is any doubt, do sets of 10 very light alternating laps preceeded by a couple of pull strokes on each side until you are satisfied.
If you were able, and willing, to follow these directions exactly, then your bevel is now set and set well, from end to end. If an upturned toe did not get sharp, don't worry about it. That last 1/8" or so is not important, and in fact for a beginner that last tiny bit of the toe SHOULD be dull. Hey, in 50 years if nobody screws it up, the edge will catch up with the overhoned toe, anyway. Don't try to "fix" the dull toe. You will only make the problem worse, and for no good reason.
Did you tape the spine? Did you? Did I TELL you to tape the spine? Right. I didn't, did I? So, why did you? You were using a standard razor of no particular value and of very ordinary geometry with ordinary wear. What POSSIBLE REASON could there have been to use tape? I give up. You are untrainable. If you followed directions, you have succeeded and you move to the head of the class. More on tape in another chapter.
Did you fail? Try again. Now, you are REALLY wasting steel. Good thing you are doing what I told you, and using an expendable razor, huh? Which brings up the point that if you failed, it was not the method that failed. It works. It has a proven track record. You, on the other hand, now have a batting average of .000 so who is probably wrong, me, or you? Do it again, and pay attention to the instructions, this time. Figure out where you departed from the directions and don't do that again.
As I said previously, this is not the only way to set a bevel. However it is the simplest way for a beginner to set the bevel with the surest chance of success. All he has to do is follow instructions. Once you have set a few bevels with zero issues, by all means try a different way. You can always come back to The Method if you are having problems. The Burr Method will always be there for you, ready to act as your training wheels.
Once your bevel is set, you are ready to run the progression. The heavy lifting is done. The edge is formed, and only needs a bit of polish to make it shave nicely. Furthermore, you now know how to hone a knife quickly and effectively. Just sayin.