Why Do You Need to Strop Your Straight Razor?
Stropping is essential for keeping your razor in a good condition and getting a great shave. When you shave it is not only your beard and face that get a beating. The process of cutting your beard (especially if it is thick and coarse) causes micro-damage and misalignment to your razor edge.
Matt from Razor Emporium does a great job explaining what happens to your razor edge when you shave. He compares it to the edge of a sheet of paper. When you shave, your hair makes little dents and crumples the edge. It starts looking more like the crumpled up edge of a sheet of paper. The more you shave, the more indented and misaligned your razor edge becomes.
You might say - who cares, I still get a great shave. That's true...until your razor gets so jagged up that and bent out of shape that it starts dragging on your face and doesn't give you a smooth shave anymore.
The same micro-dents also appear on your disposable safety razor blades. This is why, depending on the blade, after several shaves, you notice dragging and dulling of the blade. In the case of the disposable safety razor blades, you just throw them out. Throwing out your solid straight razor every three days, however, might cost you a pretty penny.
This is when stropping comes into play. Stropping your razor aligns the blade, gets rid of any edge dents and fixes any other mild damage.
To strop your razor you need a strop (obviously). Here, we'll explore the different types of strops you can buy and how to pick the best leather strop for a straight razor.
Sharpening vs. Stropping
When I first got into the shaving game, I thought sharpening your blade and stropping were the same thing. As I read more on the subject I realized they are quite different. When you sharpen a blade you remove some of the metal to even out the edge. Stropping, on the other hand, doesn't remove any metal from the edge. It just aligns it so that the edge is straight.
Stropping is like brushing or flossing your teeth - it maintains your blade in good health and ensure a smooth shave every time. Sharpening, on the other hand, is more like going to the dentist for a filling. If your blade has chipped off, no amount of stropping will fix it, just like no amount of flossing will ever cure a cavity.
Most experts recommend stropping your razor before you shave by making 20-25 passes on the strop. Sharpening your blade is something you do less often and may require the help of a professional.
That being said, you could use your strop to sharpen your blade. You will have to apply some kind of a sharpening paste or cream on your strop to turn it into a sharpening tool.
The Anatomy of a Strop
In its simplest form a strop is made of four basic parts: a leather strip, a fabric strip, a hook and a handle. Hang your strop with the hook to a wall or another immobile object, hold it with one hand by the handle and glide the blade with the other.
The most common strops you will find today are the hanging ones (described above). If you look hard enough you can also find more traditional strop designs like the paddle and loom. I suggest you stick with the hanging strop as it is the simplest one to use. If you want to geek out, though, go with a paddle or a loom strop.
Traditionally, based on the leather material and how it was treated, strops could be four different types: Russian, Russian shell, horsehide, and canvas. The Russian shell strops were made with horsehide from the back thy of a horse and were considered to be the highest quality. The Russian strops got their name from the Russian technique of tanning the leather used to make the strop.
Nowadays, you can find leather strops made with cowhide, horsehide, shell cordovan (similar to the Russian shell), and even synthetic ones. How fancy you go depends on how much money you want to spend.
The fabric piece of the strop can be made of linen, canvas or some synthetic material. Its purpose is to remove any rust, dirt or larger bends on your blade before you start stropping on the leather side. Traditionally, a linen strop was the preferred strop material for many barbers. Nowadays, however, there are some synthetic strops that also do a great job.
Strops come in two standard widths: 2 and 3 inches. The best width for beginners is the 3-inch strop, which covers the full length of the blade. Using a two-inch strop will require you to use the x-stroke technique, which takes some practice.
What to Look Out For When You Pick The Best Strop for Your Straight Razor
Just like pretty much anything related to wet shaving, what makes a strop the best depends on your personal preference. There are, however, several things to look out for when buying a strop. If a strop you like checks off most of the items on the list, you've got a winner.
Strops generally come in two widths: two and three inches. Go for the three-inch strop. It covers your whole blade (most razors are three inches long) and you don't have to use fancy stropping techniques. Shavers in some forums suggest picking a two-inch strop as a good option for travel. Comparing the size of both, I don't see much space or weight savings.
The draw is the grip the leather has on the blade when you slide it along. A very smooth strop may have little draw and may not do as good a job at aligning your blade. On the other hand, if your strop has too much draw, it may be hard to glide along the blade and you may lose control over it.
Whether the draw matter is a somewhat a contentious issue. Some experienced shavers argue the draw doesn't matter because it has no impact on the sharpness of the blade. Others, disagree and believe the draw serves as a good feedback on how sharp your blade is.
If you are a beginner, the draw is a good way to tell whether you use the proper technique to strop your blade.
Another good way to tell whether you use the correct technique is the audio feedback the strop gives you. When you slide the blade across the strop you hear a swoosh sound. Hearing the same sound with every stroke shows your that your technique is consistent. If the audio feedback changes, then your stroke is probably a little off.
The Fabric Piece
Back in the day the best strops, the ones preferred by serious barbers, were the ones with canvas. The fabric material could be cotton or linen and either one would do a great job stropping. There are some strops with a synthetic fabric piece and some purists may turn up their noses to those. In reality, however, many strops made with synthetic fabric work just fine.
If you are just starting out, go for a strop with a synthetic fabric piece. They tend to be cheaper and if you cut up the leather piece, you won't feel as bad throwing the strop out.
The Leather Piece
The leather piece is the heart and soul of the strop. Whether you like how your strop works or not, depends on the leather.
There is no shortage of different kinds and varieties of strops on the market made with different kinds of leather. From fancy bison leather strops to cheap and dirty synthetic leather pieces, you can find it all.
If you don't have much experience, the best way to go is with a cowhide leather strop. These strops usually give you a nice draw, they are relatively cheap and, overall, do a good job at cleaning and aligning your blade. Try to go with a Russian cowhide strop, where the leather has been tanned using the traditional Russian techniques of tanning. The strops made with Russian tanned leather tend to perform better and are considered good quality.
If you want to go fancy, you can try a horsehide or a bison leather strop. The horsehide strops tend to be slicker and, thus, have less draw than the cowhide ones. Some users report that after you work them in, however, they do a better job. This claim is debatable, as others report that they haven't seen improved performance from their worked-in horsehide strops.
To keep things simple, go with a cowhide strop.
Where to Get a Strop
You already know this: shaving with a straight razor is not something most guys do. The straight razor shavers are a tiny group, albeit a very cool one. Because most guys use the standard cartridge razors to shave, they don't have a need for a strop, and, naturally, most drug stores and barbershops don't sell them.
As the wet shaving sub-culture gains popularity, however, there more specialized places that cater to this group. In large cities across North America (and I'm sure Europe too) specialized men's grooming shops pop up and they tend to carry strops.
Many of these stores also sell online, which is great for people too lazy to go in person or those who live far away. Here are some good places with physical and online presence where you can find strops.
West Coast Shaving
The New York Shaving Company
202B Elizabeth Street
New York, NY
146 East 49th Street
New York, NY
The strop selection at The New York Shaving Company.