Finishing or Refreshing the Edge with Lapping Film
Your Gateway Drug to Honing
The well informed beginner to straight shaving will buy a shave ready razor for his first razor. This way he knows that if his shave isn't all that great, it is his shaving technique that needs to be evaluated and improved. It is EXtREMELY difficult to try to teach yourself shaving and honing at the same time with the same razor!!!!!!!!! I simply cannot stress this enough.
The problem is a shave ready razor will not remain shave ready forever, without intervention to refresh or maintain its sharpness. Stropping doesn't really do that. Stropping only burnishes the steel and straightens out areas that have become deformed by collision between the fine edge and the tough whiskers. It does not remove steel, does not sharpen steel. And so in time the razor will begin to dull. You may get 60, 80, even 100 shaves from a good razor before it becomes uncomfortable to shave with, especially a razor made from particularly hard steel. You may in the beginning of your shave journey find that your edge becomes noticeably dull after only 8 or 10 shaves due to poor shaving or stropping technique. You can send the razor to a competent honer for a touchup or if you feel up to the task you can try to do it yourself. Either way it is suggested that you have a backup razor on hand for shaving with because either way your primary razor is out of commission for several days at least.
If you choose to refresh the edge yourself, the requisite kit is pretty simple and the technique is, too. Mainly your choices of hone are natural stone, synthetic stone, or lapping film. All stones must be lapped when you get them, and periodically thereafter. It is important that your hone be very flat. The flatter, the better. Just because it looks flat doesn't mean that it is actually flat. Also, the surface can load up with swarf, the microscopic bits of steel cut away from the razor when it is honed. Or it can glaze up. Lapping is another topic but just know that it is a thing. Also stone quality varies a lot. Usually you get what you pay for. A good synthetic finisher such as a Naniwa Superstone 12k costs about $90 and up. A nice Jnat of good size along with a set of naguras, or slurry stones, will probably start at around $250 and can easily go up into the 4 figure range. Cheaper alternatives aren't really worth messing with, in stones. But there is one that is as effective or even more so than a well kept Naniwa, but costs chimp change. That is Lapping Film.
Buying What You Need
I need to be perfectly clear right now, before you start clicking buy buttons. There are many products on the market meant to resemble lapping film, with names meant to mislead the buyer into thinking that they are lapping Film or are just as good as. Do not fall for that. If it says:
or similar nomenclature other than L A P P I N G F I L M then it is not Lapping Film and you are wasting your money if you buy it.
- lapping paper
- polishing paper
- finishing paper
- polishing film
- finishing film
- sharpening film
There are two basic types of lapping film, PSA or Pressure Sensitive Adhesive backed, so called "sticky back", and plain back. For the beginner on a budget, plain back is highly recommended. This is not because plain back is cheaper, but because you will waste less film trying to mount it properly. Also results will likely be better with plain back, especially at finer grits, because the thickness of the adhesive is variable and it is compressible. For your first stab at it, get plain back. 3M is the benchmark brand and you can't go wrong with it.
One other component is needed: something to mount the film on. A plate. This must be large, thick, very smooth, and very flat. Preferably cheap. The one substance that truly fits the bill is cast acrylic sheet, 3/4" or 1" thick. The 1" thick is definitely better. I get mine from TAP Plastics. Google for them. Their prices are very good for cut to order pieces. Acrylic is best because:
- It is cheap. There is a $10 minimum order from TAP so if the total comes to $10 you know you can get a second one and save money.
- It is cut to order so you can get whatever size you want, including the ideal and MOST HIGHLY recommended 3" wide x 12" long. Please do not substitute. This is the size you need.
- It is light weight. This is important because especially if you are still learning, it is very important to hone IN HAND. Honing in hand offers a lot of advantages. Most of all, with the hone sort of floating out there in front of you supported only by your unsupported hand, it and the razor can find their own favorable alignment and you can more easily regulate honing pressure. Many newbie mistakes are directly attributable to bench honing. HONE IN HAND. If you don't, if you think it is okay to disregard this, don't be shocked or disappointed when your first attempts at retouching your edge are not very impressive.
- It is virtually unbreakable.
- It is very flat when you get it.
- It is dimensionally stable. Does not warp under normal use and storage.
- It is also a very good base for a balsa strop.
Lapping film should be aluminum oxide, sheets either 8-1/2" x 11" or else 9" x 13". Plain back is better than PSA. The grit you want is 1u, or One Micron. This is just slightly finer than the Naniwa 12k Superstone. Perfect for finishing, or for refreshing an edge. 1u is all you need for this. You will get 3 pieces out of a sheet, cut longways. Each piece should do about a dozen razors, maybe more.
- NanoLapTech is a very good source for film. No clickety feely buy buttons here. Email them to order. Top notch supplier, great prices.
- ThorLabs is another good one. They have film in the bigger 9x13 sheets. They include Lab Snacks in every order!
- Amazon is a good place to shop for film or acrylic.
- Ebay if you feel like a bit of a gamble.
- Best Sharpening Stones is one I have not tried. Prices are a bit high but they sell single sheets.
- Lee Valley is a respected company for sharpening supplies though I have never bought from them.
- Metallographic, another untested source.
- Precision Fiber Products is another one I have no experience with.
- TAP Plastics, a great source for acrylic.
Putting It All Together
Your acrylic may have a slight burr at the edge from the cutting. Remove this by stroking a file along the top surface's long edges at a 45 degree angle. You don't need to make a big flat bevel, just a very small one to take the burr off the edge so nothing sticks up above the flat surface. No file? Use sandpaper, then. Whatevah.
Cut your film in thirds, lengthwise. Remove protective paper from acrylic, if present. Make sure acrylic and film are both very clean, no dust, lint, hair, whatever. Wet the acrylic and the film. Set one corner of the film piece down on the acrylic and carefully roll it onto the acrylic with the edge of your hand. squeegee the water and all air bubbles out from under with a drivers license or credit card. Even the slightest bump will have a seriously bad effect on the edge. Initially you can slide the film around to position it with the edge where you want it. PSA film is much more difficult to apply. I won't go there. You are on your own. I did tell you to get plain back, right?
Now you have a very large and very flat finishing hone. It will never need lapping, only replacement of the film. Hone with water. I suggest a spray bottle. Wet the film down so that you have small puddles on the film. Lay the razor down on the film, touching down with the spine first and then bringing the edge down on it. Stroke the razor away from you, edge leading. At the end of the stroke, flip the edge of the razor up and over, with the spine remaining on the hone, and do the return stroke. That is one lap. As you hone,
- Make sure that the shoulder and stabilizer never ride up on the hone. If it does, then the toe of the razor gets too much pressure and the toe is swept up. Also the heel end of the razor doesn't get honed.
- The edge must never touch the hone unless the spine is already on the hone.
- Flip the EDGE up and over while the spine remains on the hone, not the other way around
- Hone IN HAND. The hone should be floating out in front of you in your unsupported hand, so that it and the razor can find their own best alignment and you can control the pressure more accurately. If you bench hone, don't come crying to me about poor results cause I am telling you how to do it right.
- Pressure can be the weight of your hand the first half dozen laps or so, then decrease to the weight of razor and a finger, then just the weight of the razor. Too much pressure creates a fin edge.
- Watch for the feedback. It's not a certain number of laps that will gitter done, it is going until feedback tells you that you are done. At this stage your feedback will be in the form of what we call stiction. The razor will seem to stick to the film and retard its passage as it is stroked up and down the hone. When it seems to peak, you are there. It might be a dozen laps, it might be two hundred laps.
- Every 10 laps or so, do a couple of pull strokes. To do a pull stroke, lay the razor as usual on the hone. Pull the razor directly to the right about 3/4" or so. Flip the razor and again pull it to the right a distance of 3/4" to the right. This strips artifacts from the edge and breaks up the scratch pattern. Then after pull strokes, do a few extremely light regular laps to peak the apex back up.
Done? Maybe Not.
The Lather Trick
So you have put a nice refresh on your razor with 1u lapping film. It shaves again. Is that good enough? HELL NO! You can still up your game a lot. One way is the lather trick. Whip up some shave lather. Rinse the film good, so there is no swarf or slurry. Apply lather to the film and hone, beginning with the weight of razor plus a finger. Gradually reduce pressure as you hone, replenishing lather as necessary. As you reduce pressure it will feel as though the razor is not even in contact with the film. That's what you want. This allows the lather to serve as a buffer between film and steel so that the scratches are shallower. Finer grit makes shallower scratches. So, making the media leave shallower scratches is essentially making it behave and produce results comparable to a finer grit and creating a sharper edge. Continue reducing pressure until you are at a pressure of no more than the weight of the blade, and less than that if you can manage it. Feedback will be variable. The process can easily require a couple hundred laps because with lighter contact, abrasion is reduced. When you really nail it, this technique delivers a surprisingly sharp edge.
The Picopaper Trick
There are those who come in to film honing from coticule honing, particularly the dilucot method. To them the sharp edge created by lapping film may be perceived as harsh. To tame the high geometric precision edge rendered by film, you can do the picopaper trick. All picopaper is, is regular copier paper, trimmed to just slightly smaller than the film piece, dampened and applied to the acrylic plate. Film is then applied over the paper. Hone on it with about a fingerweight of pressure, a half dozen laps or so. Do not overdo it. Begin with two pull strokes and then regular laps. This gentles the edge a lot and is an especially valuable technique when honing a razor with a very tight bevel angle. Don't do this on a Gold Dollar or ZY or Titan or other similar razor with a very obtuse bevel angle.
Post-Finish Treatment on Balsa
A standard 1u film edge is the ideal prerequisite for a lapped and pasted balsa post-finish. Do not use picopaper if you intend to hit the balsa. Lather is fine but maybe not really needed. Set up balsa strops with .5u, .25u, and .1u diamond as per The Method as found in Edge Maintenance with a Pasted Balsa Strop.
Sub-micron film is infamous for rendering a harsh edge. And so beginners who attempt to bump up their film edges to a higher level are often disappointed. However if you insist on progressing to say .3u film, use picopaper underneath the film and go no more than a dozen very light laps preceeded by a couple of pull strokes. I will warn you that you might or might not like this edge. To achieve a sharper edge, really your only option is the balsa.
Now... Is It Sharp?
When you think you are finished, you better make sure that you KNOW you are finished. Simplest way is to use the TTT, or TreeTop Test. Simply pass the razor briskly over your forearm, 1/4" ABOVE the skin. If your razor is good and sharp, you should see at least one or two hair tips lying on the razor, severed by the edge as you swept the blade above the arm. If the razor does not treetop at 1/4", try a bit lower. If it won't treetop at all even at 1/8" above the skin, you don't have much of an edge and it isn't going to shave well. Try again!
The Big Picture
Edge refresh will likely make up about 95% of your honing. You should never have to set the bevel and hone from scratch more than once on any razor you own unless you damage it. But if you use it, eventually you will dull it unless you are doing daily edge maintenance on the balsa. And so refreshing on 1u film will be a happening thing for you. If you only buy true shave ready razors, it can be the ONLY sort of honing that you do. Plus this is the finish stage for full honing from scratch. For all these reasons, this is the most important aspect of honing to become skilled at. Possibly the only honing that you will ever do.
Because you WILL DEFINITELY be finishing or refreshing, this is the first thing you should learn. It is your gateway drug to honing in general. In many ways it is also the easiest part of honing. So start here, find your groove, and wait until you are profficient before you expand your repertoire.
- Badger and Blade, or B&B, is a very popular wet shaving forum with considerable activity in the straight razor subforums. I am known as Slash McCoy there.
- SharpRazorPalace, SRP for short, is another forum that is maybe a bit more straight razor oriented. My Nomme de Plume there is CrescentCityRazors.
- The Shave Den, or TSD, is another forum where I am active as Slash McCoy.
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