Running the Progression

(on a hollowground razor)

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.

Read that first paragraph again. Are you SURE you set your bevel properly? Why are you sure? Are you engaging in faith-based honing, or do you have actual proof that it is set? If you only THINK that the bevel is set, then you only THINK you are ready to run the progression. In other words, you are probably wrong and will probably fail. Why set yourself up for failure? SET THAT BEVEL, or at least KNOW FOR A LOGICAL ABSOLUTE FACT that the bevel is set before you continue here. Don't set yourself up for failure.

Okay? Okay, then. The basic principles of progressive honing are that:

  1. every honing medium leaves a scratch pattern behind on the steel,
  2. finer media leave finer scratches and coarser media leave coarser scratches,
  3. Coarser media in general cut faster and remove more steel,
  4. finer media generally cut more slowly and remove less steel,
  5. finer media can eventually remove the coarse scratches, replacing them with its own finer scratches,
  6. a big jump in grit is not practical because it removes only a miniscule amount of steel relative to the scratch depth of the coarser medium,
  7. a good progression utilizes moderately sized jumps in grit size, and
  8. each grit size/stage must be used long enough to completely do its job of obliterating coarser scratches before advancing to the next level.

Progression honing generally entails honing at fairly light to very light pressure, using alternating laps with the edge leading. Classic honing. In this example we will use lapping film. It offers the most consistent results, the BEST results, SOONEST, and for the CHEAPEST entry. Since film is obviously the best medium for running the progression, my instructions will be for lapping film. And so if you expect best possible chance at immediate and resounding success, then you will use lapping film. If you will not use lapping film then this tutorial will be of only limited use to you. The whole philosophy of The Method is to offer the beginner a fully systemized paint by number set of instructions that cannot fail if the practitioner only follows them precisely. To use another medium would be to do a complete end run around that precept. And when you make one change or one substitution in The Method, you will cheerfully make another. And another. And another. With each change you make, you literally exponentially increase your chance of failure. Yes, stones of various types can work as the progression. Some types, nearly as good as film. But this is notet about that. I am not about to describe every single type of stone and every single technique I know or know about. So you will use film. I hope you understand. Anyway if you are a beginner and a SMART one, you haven't bought any stones yet, and film is way cheaper than stones. So don't argue. Get your film and your acrylic plate if you do not yet have it.

And So, you need:

So apply the first grit to your plate, which will probably be 9u. To do that, remove the protective paper from the top side and wipe down the film piece carefully. You do not want any dirt, lint, hair, dust, whatever on either plate or film.

Wet plate and film. Stick one corner down on the plate and sort of squeegee, sort of roll the film down on the plate with the edge of your hand. The goal is to get the film stuck with water surface tension and suction, with zero debris or bubbles under the film. In other words, as flat as the acrylic is, that is how you want the film to be. Squeegee all water out from under, with a credit card or drivers license or whatever.

Now hone, using alternating laps, with the weight of your hand or a bit less. Keep the shoulder from running up onto the plate. Lead with the edge a bit. Use a slight x stroke. After maybe a dozen or two dozen laps you should notice that the razor's resistance to the stroke movement and cling to the film are increasing slightly. This is called stiction and it is a valuable form of feedback. When stiction increases and then stops increasing, you are very likely there. Also, sharpness as indicated by one of the standard sharpness tests will increase just so much, then stop increasing. Visual feedback is important. The appearance of the bevel and edge under a very bright light tells you a lot. Watch the reflection. Roll the razor and see the reflection of the light source travel across the blade and onto the bevel, where it should suddenly appear and suddenly disappear in a dazzle of brilliance as the razor is rolled. Re-acquire the reflection on the bevel and tilt the razor to make the reflection travel up and down the length of the edge. You should be able to tell that you have a very flat bevel, still, and that it is consistently so up and down the razor. Doesn't have to be of consistent width, but flat, yeah.

As a beginner, you definitely need to be honing in hand. Honing in hand prevents or mitigates many common newbie mistakes. Bench honing is fine, once you are an old hand at honing razors, if you insist. When you are just starting, you need to be holding the hone in your off hand. The paradox of bench honing is that the effort to control the razor actually causes the razor to flex and to be honed incompletely or unevenly. Misdirected pressure can cause all manner of honing problems. Poorly regulated pressure can create a fin edge. Improper torque can result in excessive wear to spine or to edge. The absolute worst scenario is the newbie using not one, but two hands to destroy his edge on stone. And so one of the fundamental laws of Method honing is that honing must be done in hand.

Done with the 9u film? No not quite. A hand-weight of pressure is still way more than is needed to raise a wire or fin edge. So add a half dozen pull strokes per side, alternating between show side and back side. Then peak the apex with 10 or 12 regular laps with only the weight of the razor. You did this after setting the bevel. Do it again now, and at every stage of honing. You will get a much nicer edge if you do this. To refresh your memory, a pull stroke is a movement across the hone, as if dragging the razor off the side by the tail. The motion is incomplete, only about 3/4" of travel. The purpose is to break up the parallel scratch pattern and also to strip artifacts from the edge. Pull strokes can round the apex very slightly and so follow-on light laps are essential for peaking the apex back up to maximum sharpness.

Now on to the next stage. which in our example will be 3u or three micron grit. Wash your hands and wash the plate. You do not want loose 9u abrasive to contaminate the 3u film. Apply as you applied the 9u film and hone in similar fashion, except now you need to reduce pressure a bit more, to just the weight of the razor and a finger, more or less. The razor should still be very easy to control, especially when honing in hand. You are honing in hand, right? If not, you fail. You can't follow instructions. You do not deserve a good edge and you likely won't get one. Remember, The Method is all about systematically following instructions, DOING instead of LEARNING. Learn on your own time. Doing in paint by number fashion will make your edge something to marvel at. Learning means making mistake after mistake after mistake, with corrective action guessed at and experimented with, until EVENTUALLY some day you are making so-so edges that slowly improve as you learn. Learning takes time and sidetracks you from the goal of simply HAVING a great edge on your razor. Nothing wrong with learning the art of honing. Here, we are practicing the science of honing. When you have created a handful of astonishingly sharp edges, you can always come back to The Method when you are frustrated with your learning progress. You will always have it as training wheels. You will have a benchmark to aspire to in your experimental honing forays. So for now, stick to the program. Follow The Method exactly like Simon Says. You will be glad that you did, especially as you read accounts of newbies failing to get their razors sharp, desperately seeking answers to the "what am I doing wrong?" question. Now, hone in hand. You have been told and it has been explained, and you have no excuse.

You should get more pronounced stiction at this stage of honing. 9u barely gives you any stiction, and visual feedback along with sharpness increase are your main indicator there. 3u is all about the stiction. It may take 20 laps, it may take 80. Or more. Or less. Don't worry so much about the lap count. Lap counting leads to faith-based honing, the strong belief that you are done because you simply MUST be done, or you are not done because you simply CAN'T be done yet. Use the force, young Skywalker. Feel the stiction. At the end, add pull strokes and extremely light peaking laps.

Under a very bright light, examine your bevel and edge carefully. As you roll the razor in the light and watch the reflection move across the razor, you should get a powerful flash of reflection as it appears and disappears from the bevel. It should not wander across as if on a rounded surface. You should see only a single facet here. The edge should be looking quite smooth and straight, with no big teeth or gouges in the edge. When looking straight-on at the edge, you should of course have no reflection at all. The edge should be essentially invisible.

It is a good idea as a beginner to stop right there and try to shave with your 3u edge. Rinse and wipe your blade, and wash your hands. Lather up your face. Strop on hanging leather about 50 laps, and try shaving. A 3u edge should shave, even if not all that well. This is roughly equivelant to shaving off an 8k Norton synthetic stone. Not the best shave experience, but it tells you that you are on the right track and everything so far is good. This edge should barely treetop forearm hair at a very low height above your forearm, almost touching the skin. If it in fact will treetop as high as 1/8" above the skin, you are doing pretty good. Being able to shave with it at this stage is the most revealing tell, though. If it simply will not shave, there is no point in continuing to the finish. The 1u film cannot do the job of the 3u film. Every stage must do its job completely. That job is obliterating all coarser grit scratches and replacing them with its own shallower scratches. The fact that the scratches are perhaps no longer visible to the naked eye is beside the point. It is not about the appearance. It is about the refinement and polish of the surface, and the resulting smoothness of the edge. Remember, finer film removes much less steel. Obliterating scratches requires removal of steel to get the surface down to the level of the bottom of those scratches. When you exponentially decrease the speed of honing by exponentially increasing the fineness of the abrasive, you are making it essentially impossible to progress further. 9u to 1u is basically an impossible jump. Sure, given a couple of weeks and several sheets of film I am sure you could do it to win a bet or something, but sticking to a maximum jump of 3x makes it much more practical and much less likely that you will fall back on faith-based honing.

Once you have performed your shave test, give the edge a half dozen very light laps on the 3u film to return it absolutely and definitely to pre-shave condition.

So is your 3u edge up to the mark? If so, then move on to the 1u finish! Your used films are still good, by the way. You should typically get at least a dozen sessions out of a piece of film. Wash them and let them dry before storing them in separate envelopes to prevent cross contamination, for future use. Wash your plate and your hands, and apply your 1u film. It is now more important than ever that the film be applied nice and flat, with no debris or bubbles under it. Now you will reduce your pressure even more, to just the weight of the razor. If you can manage to gradually reduce pressure even more, that's great, but there can be control issues when stiction gets strong. And it will get quite strong on the 1u film. Pay attention to the feedback, not the lap count, for determining when the edge is done. You will still want to add some pull strokes and I like to begin the 1u stage with a half dozen pull strokes per side just to clear any artifacts left from the previous stage. Every 10 laps, give it a couple of pull strokes on each side. This helps to break up the stiction to manageable levels and help prevent the razor from grabbing and skipping on the film.

When stiction reaches a plateau and no longer increases, do a final set of pull strokes and peaking laps, and rinse the film well, but leave it on the plate because you are not done. Whip up some shave lather and apply it to the film, and hone some more. If you keep the pressure light and add a couple pull strokes every 10 laps, you will never have a problem here, with fin edge formation. Light pressure is the key. The lather creates a buffer between steel and film, reducing scratch depth. This will bump sharpness up a notch. Try to reduce pressure further, until it doesn't even feel like the razor touches the film at all. Feedback will be light and variable, and not very revealing. Luckily the amount of honing done with lather is not as critical. Just get some done. A couple hundred laps is not excessive. You are not putting much wear on razor or on film with this technique. Refresh the lather as necessary, include pull strokes, keep the pressure light and gradually reduce it, and you can hardly do any harm and will probably do some good.

Congratulations! If you followed directions precisely and correctly, your razor now has as good a 1u edge as human hands can create. Strop and do the treetop test. You should get some treetopping at 1/4" above the skin of your forearm. Results can vary a bit due to differences in hair texture but this is a pretty good rule of thumb, that treetopping at this height means the edge should shave well. The test here is redundant in a way, but still very important as a baseline. Now the real test. Lather up and shave. Well, you just did already, at the 3u stage, so wait until tomorrow. But you should get a very nice shave, with sharpness equal to the best Jnat edge, and comfort not far behind it.

If this is not your first rodeo and you have your balsa strops set up, properly mounted, lapped, and pasted, then run your diamond on balsa progression for light saber sharpness and comfort. Otherwise use your 1u edge for a few shaves, and maybe hone another razor or two and see if you get repeated and consistent good results. Your future improvement with the pasted balsa depends on getting good edges from your 1u film. The balsa cannot make a dull edge sharp. It can only make a sharp edge a bit sharper and smoother. If you can't or won't get a good edge from the film, you simply cannot get good results from the balsa.

If you have no intention of ever even trying the balsa, first of all, my condolences. You will never know just how sharp a razor can get. Second, you may want to try yet another technique to improve shave comfort. This is the Picopaper Trick. Picopaper is a term that is sort of a joke. A forum member at Badger and Blade offered some for sale for $10 a sheet, with a guarantee that it would make a .3u film edge comfortable enough to shave with. In reality it was an inside joke; all the regulars knew it was just damp copier paper. Anyway, so cut paper slightly undersize related to the film piece. Apply to the plate, lightly spray some water to dampen it slightly, then apply film over the picopaper. Hone, preferably with lather, weight of razor, a half dozen laps. Presto. You have mellowed the edge quite a bit with little loss of cutting power. Once you have nailed it, feel free to experiment with different amounts of water, lather, pressure, etc. but don't expect a picopaper edge to play nicely with the balsa. They are not really all that compatible.

Congratulations. You have bypassed the Stone Age, and moved right into the Scientific Age. While all the grunting cavemen are rubbing razors on rocks, you are pushing the limits of sharpness. You will not be tempted to spend $400 on a Jnat or a Coticule or a set of Shaptons or Naniwas. You will not struggle with cheap, soft Kings or Bear Moos, or cantankerous and slow as a sloth ultrahard Arkansas stones. Rocks are for guys with brow ridges who walk on their knuckles. You are above that, now. And you still have the balsa progression to look forward to!

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