Straight Razor Info

Miscellaneous Ramblings (aka FAQ’s) – Straight Razors

The following are extracts from emails sent to our customers that we seem to repeat so often that we thought we would share them with the general public, in the hope that they would be of help to those exploring straight razor shaving for the first time. We have been keeping them for a while in a file called “Jim’s Miscellaneous Ramblings” and thought we would just keep that title (sounds so much better than “frequently asked questions”).  We will add to this as time goes on.

Do the more expensive razors use better quality steel?

As it relates to the razors made by the manufacturers that we represent, the answer is no.  We have discussed this issue at length with our Dovo factory representatives and can unequivocally state that the steel in all Dovo razors is of the same high quality.  The only thing that may differ from time to time is the source of the steel.  One term that you see used is “Swedish Steel”.  This is nothing more than a brand name for steel that does in fact come from Sweden.  Dovo sources steel from several other countries as well.  In marketing terms, Swedish Steel does have what we call a “positive brand image”.  So, Dovo continues to use it, where appropriate, on the “slip-case” style packaging, for some of their razors such as our “Best Quality” and “Imitation Tortoise Shell” razors.  Another term that you see used is “Silver Steel”.  This is just another brand name with more historical significance than anything else.  To my knowledge, the steel composition of the Dovo razor with this marking is no different from any other carbon steel razor they sell.  The Thiers-Issard razors that are called “Sheffield Silver Steel” are made with the same C135 Carbonsong steel used in their other razors.  Also our new line of razors from Böker features a “Silver Steel” model that was historically made with steel containing silver but is now made from the same carbon steel as the rest of their line. This is why I have always loved marketing.   Generally speaking, what you pay for when you purchase a more expensive razor is either adornments to the blade face and spine or more expensive materials used for the scales, such as ebony, Micarta, or horn.  Now this is not to say that there are not less expensive razors being sold in the marketplace that are made from lower quality steel.  They are most certainly out there but we would advise caution and recommend you doing your research before making a purchase.  Some of these razors are being advertised as being made in Germany.  However, the true source of most of these low cost razors is far from Germany.

What does the term “Made in Solingen” mean?

While I don’t doubt that there may be misuse of the term by some unscrupulous makers, when it comes to straight razors, by German law, for the razor to be marked “Made in Germany” the blank used to make the razor must be forged in Germany.  Further, by the law of the City of Solingen, for the straight razor to be marked with that city’s name, the blank must be forged in Solingen.  In addition, a minimum of 85% of the production steps that are involved in the manufacture of a product must take place in Solingen, before that product may be marked “Made in Solingen”.  So, perhaps you can understand why “Made in Solingen” means so much to the people of that city.

What do you recommend as the best straight razor for the first time user?

First, I feel that a basic Dovo carbon steel razor is the way to go.  I would recommend one of our Dovo Best Quality in 5/8” or 6/8”.  You can invest in a razor with fancier scales (handles) and more “bells and whistles” for your 2nd razor, when you are sure this is for you.  Most start the 5/8” blade, but many will eventually move to the wider blade as they continue with this style of shaving.  Carbon Steel razors are of as fine a quality as Stainless Steel razors. In fact, most prefer them over Stainless Steel razors for everyday use.

What is the difference between a Carbon Steel and a Stainless Steel straight razor?

The primary difference between the two is the hardness of the steel. It is more difficult to achieve an edge on Stainless Steel.  However, when you do, it lasts for a longer time. Conversely, it is easier to achieve an edge on Carbon Steel; but that edge dulls more quickly that Stainless Steel. Thus, it requires more frequent maintenance.  Rusting should not be an issue with either with normal care.  It is important to carefully wipe the blade after use and let it air dry before putting it away. We recommend a daily treatment with a light coating of oil. We sell our Razor Oil in a convenient applicator bottle for this purpose, but any light mineral oil, like sewing machine oil, will work.

What do you recommend for a razor strop?

As for a strop, I always recommend that you buy the best one that you can justify.  This is the one piece of equipment that you will use before each and every shave.  There are a number of excellent products available from both domestic and German makers.  Whatever you choose, it should be constructed of high quality leather and have a secondary stopping material to use with or without abrasive compounds.  (We strongly recommend that you do not put abrasives on the strop that is used for your daily stropping to avoid contamination of the leather.) The leather should be flat, pliable, and have optimal draw.  We have worked with some veterans in the straight razor community to develop our own line of Latigo leather strops. The Vintage Blades Latigo Hanging Razor Strops are hand crafted using only premium hides.  They are available in a 2” and an extra wide 3" that allows stropping without the traditional “X” pattern. We also offer a line of deluxe English Bridle Leather Strops that are mated to our White Linen to meet the needs of even the most discriminating shaver.

How to Use Your Straight Razor Strop

A straight razor needs to be stropped each time before use to align the edge and keep it sharp enough to cut your beard effortlessly.  (Some actually strop both before and after every shave.)  When using a hanging strop for the daily pre-shave stropping, start on the non-leather strop and perform 20 to 25 complete passes or round trips on the strop, up and back. Then switch to the leather strop and perform 30 to 40 passes, up and back each time before shaving.  Instructions for the positioning of the razor, the pressure and motions used while stropping are discussed and shown later on in this guide.  

When we refer to the “non-leather” strop, the material used is often referred to as “linen” or “canvas”. Today, a variety of materials are used for this strop, including real linen, felt, and a woven webbing, like that found on our Vintage Blades Brand strops.  They all perform the same role and can be used as is or with a variety of abrasive substances.  If you use a paste, spray, or abrasive compound, it should be used sparingly for the best results.  

The conventional wisdom is that the strop does not sharpen a razor but instead aligns the micro-serrations of the edge.  It is also felt that working the blade on the non-leather strop first helps to heat the steel, making it easier for the leather to do the final polishing.  However, whatever theory you believe, the practical application is that a good strop and the proper technique in its use is an essential part of your daily shave.   

In our view, a hanging strop should not need any additional treatment before use, not even a strop dressing.  The only real care it will ever need is careful use. Keep it dry and clean. The best treatment you can give any strop is a daily rubbing with the palm of your hand.  If any tendency towards cupping is seen, flex the strop the opposite way, side to side, gently, while running your hands the length of the strop. If you feel that you must use a dressing, do so sparingly and use a product designed for leather. With this in mind, our strop maker has developed a lanolin based Strop Conditioner for this purpose.   

When using your strop be careful not to cut or nick the surface of the strop.  Proper stropping technique will help you to prevent this.  Just remember to keep the blade flat on the strop with very little pressure and utilize a nice slow rhythmic stroke as you strop your razor. There is no need to strop very quickly as seen in the movies or to slap your razor on the leather as you change directions.  If you do put a nick in the strop and so long as the nick(s) are not deep, there will be little effect on performance of the strop.  Do not store the strop where dust will build up on the surface.  While we commonly use them in the bathroom, it is not really the best place to store them because of moisture and humidity.  It is always best to hang the strop when not in use. We have a Leather Strop Hanger to make the job easy to do.  

All leather used for razor strops, regardless of how they are finished contains very small voids or micro-pores. In normal use, particularly in the typically humid environment of the average bathroom, most strops will tend to cup or bow in time from the absorption of the water vapor into these pores.  The Latigo leather that we use for our strops has been chosen specifically because of the special tanning process used that fills these pores with a variety of natural waxes and oils.  Not only do these waxes and oils help to prevent the absorption of the water and therefore the cupping, they also give the leather those unique qualities that produce the optimal draw (or feeling of resistance) for a razor strop.

Do not hit the razor against the strop or press hard against it.  Only the weight of the razor is needed to get the best results. Too much pressure will round the edge and actually dull the razor.  The hanging strop should be at waist level when pulled taut so it does not sag when stropping.   The blade is drawn across the strop at a slight angle starting with the heel of the blade leading and ending with the tip of the blade against the strop at the far end when finished. You are trying to use the entire width and length of the strop to cover the whole blade of the razor. Make sure the thick spine is leading and the sharp blade trailing when you strop so as not to cut the strop.

Upward Pass

Downward Pass

Always make sure the razor lies perfectly flat against the strop. You do not want either the front or back edge to lift away from the strop. This can also cause dulling of the edge or nick the strop.  The proper honed edge is developed by the edge and spine lying against the razor, not with it lifted as in honing a knife. Never move the sharp edge towards the strop, always away from the direction of travel.

Proper position and direction                    Improper position and direction

When you finish each stroke and are ready to change directions, the razor is rolled (flipped) over on its rounded back edge, never on its blade. The razor should remain in contact with the strop the entire time and not lifted off of the strop at the end of its stroke.

Proper rolling on spine of razor                         Improper rolling on edge

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A Perspective on Sharpening Your Straight Razor

One thing that you will quickly discover is that there are as many recommended techniques for sharpening a straight razor as there are recipes for baking a cake.  Our intent here is not to add further to that mix but to offer some advice on the basic tools you may want to consider purchasing should you desire to “hone your own”.

Almost everyone buys a Waterstone for sharpening their straight razors and the Norton 4000/8000 Combination Grit Waterstone is generally viewed as the hone of choice in the straight razor community.  In addition, there is a wealth of information out there on its use.  One thing we always recommend is finding an older, inexpensive razor to practice your honing skills, rather than taking the chance of damaging your favorite razor while learning.

For many people, that is as far as they go with their honing.   However, some find they desire an even finer edge than they can achieve with the Norton.  What you can use to refine the edge after the Norton are two different things.  There are stones of finer grits and there are abrasive compounds.  These products can be used in combination or separately.

These finer grit stones are usually referred to as “finishing stones” and include natural stones like Belgian Coticules, our 12K Natural Finishing Stone, and synthetics like those made by Shapton and others.  Some can go up to grits of 20k and higher and can be quite expensive.

The other approach is to use abrasive compounds such diamond pastes or sprays and Chromium Oxide.  These are usually applied to a strop (paddle or hanging) that is dedicated to their use.  It is not recommended that these products be applied to the strop that is used for your daily stropping to avoid contamination of the leather.  We also sell a product called a Balsa Wood Bench Hone designed specifically for use with these compounds.  We have a brief guide on the use of abrasive compounds below.

We always employ Chromium Oxide as the last step for a final polish whether using other abrasive compounds or not.  It can be used on most any media, even newspaper; however, we prefer balsa or leather.

The basic setup that we recommend would include the following:

Step 1:  Norton 4000/8000 Combination Grit Waterstone

Step 2:  12K Natural Finishing Stone

Final Step:  Chromium Oxide - Semi-Paste - 0.5 Micron

You can add other steps to your honing process prior to the Chromium Oxide, such as Diamond Spays or Pastes or even finer stones as needed, but you should always finish with the Chromium Oxide. 


How to Use Diamond Sprays and Chromium Oxide to Sharpen Straight Razors

Like other aspects of straight-razor use, razor-sharpening has benefited from modern processes and materials. The use of today’s abrasive compounds in your razor-sharpening regimen can greatly improve the quality of your razor’s cutting edge and significantly add to the comfort and closeness of your shave.

Razor sharpening pastes have been around for years. The most common pastes used a fine powder of iron oxide, chromium oxide or graphite as the cutting agent, suspended in a carrier. This was spread onto a leather or wood surface, used as a strop to finish the edge. A bundle of strops would hang in a corner of the barbershop, each dedicated to a different type or coarseness of sharpening-paste. The use of sharpening-pastes is similar to the use of hones. You begin with a coarser grit to accomplish the most work in the shortest time, moving on to progressively finer pastes to refine the edge, ending in a finely polished, mirror-like finish. Advances in metallurgy produced ever-harder steels, rendering ineffective the compounds used as cutting agents in the sharpening-pastes. They were actually softer than the blade they were expected to sharpen. Using such a sharpening paste made the blade duller, not sharper. All this changed with the development of diamond sharpening compounds.

Diamonds are the hardest substance known to man—far harder than any steel yet developed. Industrial-grade diamonds, similar in hardness to gemstone-quality diamonds, are by-products of the diamond-mining industry. Their flaws, color inconsistencies, or other characteristics render them unsuitable for jewelry. Also, in the process of cutting and polishing gemstones, significant waste is produced. When all this is crushed to a fine powder the resulting particles acquire irregular cutting-edges. Being harder than any other substance, the particles hold those edges longer than any other material. This diamond powder does the actual work of sharpening.

However, all diamond compounds are not equal. The best are very carefully controlled in their manufacture, to assure consistency in the size of the actual particles. For example, a compound classified as “one micron,” though it may have particles smaller, should contain no diamond particles larger, than one micron. This is important, especially in a close-tolerance application such as producing a highly refined razor edge. Another differentiation between compounds is the carrier. In an industrial polishing application, an oil-based carrier may be acceptable. In sharpening a straight razor, a water-based product is preferable.

Many feel that the best tool to use with abrasives is a paddle strop or a “bench hone”. A surface of soft wood (such as balsa) or leather can be chosen. Whatever tool is used, the surface must be sufficiently rough or grainy to hold the abrasive. With too smooth or hard a surface, the compound will simply be wiped off with each pass of the blade – not only wasteful and expensive, but ineffective.

Your abrasives should be applied to the surface of your strop in very small amounts. For a typical-sized paddle-strop, when using our diamond sprays, 6 to 10 sprays distributed evenly over the surface is adequate. For our Chromium Oxide Semi-Paste, 4 to 6 pea size dots should do it. The dots should be thoroughly worked into the surface, using the fingertips or the heel of the hand. The more time spent on this step, the more effective the sharpening action will be. With successive use, as the surface becomes more built-up with abrasives, the effectiveness of the sharpening action will be improved. So, do not clean off the surface after use. When the effectiveness seems to have diminished, simply add a small additional amount and continue.

*Please note that our diamond sprays use deionized water as a carrier. It is recommended that you wait at least 6 to 8 hours for the strop to dry thoroughly prior to use.

As in using all abrasive compounds, a surface coated with a given grit should be dedicated to that grit alone. While it is possible to increase the grit size, you cannot decrease it. A surface once used for .25 micron may subsequently be used with 1.0 micron, but you cannot do the reverse. Sharpening with diamond sprays is similar to the use of other multi-paste systems and to the use of hones; that is, a coarser grade is used for a dull blade, followed by finer and finer grades until a properly refined edge is reached.

The following represents a typical process that can be used to maintain your razors.

  • Begin with 1.0 micron diamond spray
  • Follow with 0.50 and/or 0.25 micron as needed
  • Finish on the Chromium Oxide Semi-Paste for a final polish

* To prevent cross-contamination, completely wipe off the blade when moving from coarser grit to finer, and again before moving on to the Chromium Oxide pasted strop

The motion used on the diamond coated surface is identical to that employed with any other pasted paddle-strop or hanging-strop - working from the blade’s heel to the point as you travel up or down the surface, leading with the razor’s back, and applying no pressure - using only the weight of the razor to maintain constant contact between the razor edge and the surface. The typical “X pattern” used with traditional pastes and stropping is recommended.

Your razor is now ready to use. Routine use of the un-pasted leather, pre-shave stropping may be resumed for successive daily shaves. When needed (most probably every 2-3 weeks), a repetition of this process should be all that is necessary to keep your razors in perfect shaving condition.


The Story of Dovo

(Taken from the Dovo website

According to the documents held by the magistrate's court of the then independent local authority of Wald, near Solingen, Germany the company DOVO Steelware was founded in 1906. At the beginning, DOVO was purely a factory producing open razors, with a forge and hollow grinding shop. The founders, Mr. Dorp and Mr. Voos, employed a staff of 13.  By 1930, Solingen had become bigger through the incorporation of outlying villages, (including Wald), and the law passed in 1938 to protect the name of Solingen gave it greater pride and security as well as a still greater sense of local identity.

As Mr. Dorp and Mr. Voos wanted to retire, Fritz Bracht took over the DOVO company shortly before the second World War. A good move, as the small knight with sword and hammer had meanwhile made inroads into the markets in Western Europe and North America. Even during the war, the symbol of the knight managed to find its way abroad and to become established there. Because of the introduction of the electric razor, Fritz Bracht had to create a second source of income by producing hair scissors. By talking shop with users in the salons in his own town and elsewhere, he found out everything he needed and wanted to know about hair scissors. EUREKA, a model of hair and thinning scissors with a curved cutting edge, put life back into the business after the war. In 1951, the young technician Mertens joined the company. Along with other "old hands", he is a motivating force behind the production of scissors. Ernst Kirschbaum, who had completed his law studies and obtained a doctorate, joined the company in 1953 as a son-in-law of the family. The need for recovery after years of ruin and the employment of additional young staff meant that business was able to increase in style. The motto was "New names for new markets".

The following brand names or companies were taken over:

1952 - brand name "Tennis" (open razors) 
1957 - brand name "Bismarck" (open razors) 
1957 - brand name "Ankerflagge" (open razors) from the Carl Rader company
1968 - Erich Hartkopf company. The scissors were jointed by pocket knives of the brand name "Teufelskerle" 
1969 - brand name "Kronpunkt" (open razors) from the Heups company 1970 - brand name "Fontana" (open razors)
1973 - Heups & Hermes company (pedicure clippers and instruments)
1996 - Merkur company (shaving equipment) 

Since the death of Dr. Ernst Kirschbaum, his son Markus Kirschbaum, who has a degree in commerce, runs the family concern in the third generation along with the long-time Managing Director Jürgen Stremmel.