Honing at Portland Razor Co. Part III


Any informed discussion about honing has to begin by saying: there isn't just one way to make a razor sharp. The ultimate test of any honing method is the act of shaving, and judging how well the blade removes hair and feels against the skin. If it cuts hair and doesn't ruin your face, then it works. How well it works depends on an infinite number of factors that may have nothing or everything to do with honing, from the quality of the steel to whether or not you drank coffee with or without sugar this morning.

Part III of this series covers how we hone a razor at Portland Razor Co., from setting a bevel on a virgin blade to final polishing and stropping...

Everyone has different priorities, and choosing a honing method is no exception. When we founded Portland Razor Co., we decided that a razor would never leave our shop less than shave-ready. It had to be functional, durable, and affordable. Honing became part of that equation, and we needed a reliable, repeatable method for getting shave-ready edges on hardened O1 tool steel that didn't take forever, and also didn't cost thousands of dollars. What follows is the best solution we found to meet our needs.

(Left to Right) DMT Diamond stones, Naniwa Chosera/Professional 1k, Norton 4k/8k, Naniwa 12K "Superstone"

(Left to Right) DMT Diamond stones, Naniwa Chosera/Professional 1k, Norton 4k/8k, Naniwa 12K "Superstone"

Our Straight Razor Sharpening Hone Progression: updated 8/21/2019

  1. DMT Dia-Sharp Extra Coarse diamond stone - lapping plate for 400 & 1000 grit hones

  2. DMT Dia-Sharp Course diamond stone - lapping plate for 4K+ hones

  3. Naniwa Professional 400 - bevel setting

  4. Naniwa Chosera/Professional 1K - bevel setting and honing

  5. Norton 4k

  6. Norton 8k

  7. Naniwa 12k

  8. Chromium Oxide pasted poly strop

  9. Poly strop

  10. Hanging Hair Test


We don't mind getting our table tops wet and covered in metal dust, so our setup utilizes individual stone holders and a spray bottle UPDATE: We now have a dedicated honing station with running water.

Bevel Angle

The angle of the bevel is determined by the height difference from spine to the edge on the razor. A little geometry is required to illustrate this: by changing either the thickness of the spine or the width of the blade, you can manipulate the angle of the cutting bevel as it sits on the hone. A thicker spine in relation to blade width will result in a steeper, more open bevel angle. A wider blade in relation to the spine will create a more acute, or closed bevel. 

Putting this geometry into practice is quite simple: just set the razor flat on its side on top of the stone. We use 7/32" thick steel stock for 6/8 blades to achieve the proper bevel angle. We apply one layer of Super 88 electrical tape to the razor's spine for the factory hone, as this sets the ideal starting angle for the bevel and protects the spine (we don't feel the razor should arrive from the factory with visible hone marks). UPDATE 10/23/2017: due to production changes, we now hone all of our production razors without tape. 

1. Bevel Setting. Setting the initial bevel on a straight razor lays the foundation for all the following steps by establishing the cutting bevel's angle. At this step, we are grinding either side of the blade down evenly until they meet in the middle, creating a continuous cutting surface the length of the blade. The goal is to remove a lot of material quickly, but evenly. Starting on the Extra Coarse DMT stone (now the Naniwa 400), we do this by alternating between small circle strokes with the spine elevated OFF the hone, and longer circle strokes with the spine ON the hone. It's useful to think of the edge as several different parts: ultimately, we want to be removing material from the very edge (front of the razor as it travels across the hone), but any material we remove from the edge must also be removed behind it (the flat surface of the bevel). In bevel setting, we find it best to knock down material at the front first by elevating the spine and to follow up with longer circle strokes with the spine on the hone to flatten the face of the bevel. 

2. Bevel Setting cont'd. We transition to the Coarse DMT (now Naniwa 1K) when we can still see a hair-thin reflection along the edge using a flashlight--we call this the "Shine Test". The bevel is almost set, and so we don't elevate the spine off the stone during circle strokes much, if at all.  We continue until there is no reflection along the entire edge of the razor, passing the Shine Test. The razor can pop hairs at this point, but the bevel is very rough and needs to be smoothed and polished with increasingly finer stones.

3, 4, 5. Honing. After the initial bevel angle has been established, honing can begin. We start on the Naniwa 1K, and move up to the next stone once all the hone lines from the previous stone have been smoothed on the bevel and it has an even shine. If we are honing a razor that has been in use for some time, we can usually start on the Norton 4K stone. However, razors with visible nicks on the edge will start on the Naniwa 1K, or even the DMT coarse if wear is extensive enough.

We use deliberate X-pattern honing strokes (push away, flip over the spine, pull back, with the blade travelling diagonally across the stone drawing an "X"). Some stones are narrower than the length of the blade, and so the diagonal path of the stroke ensures that the whole blade passes evenly over the stone. However, this means that the heel will come off the stone, and we have to be especially careful not to apply pressure to the heel as it passes off the stone, as this will cause a problematic groove on the bevel. 

We sometimes vary our stroke, using 3-4 strokes of each and assessing how the blade is behaving. For example:

  • Apply pressure heel-to-toe as it passes across the hone. This is especially handy on smiling blades, but also helps sharpen the toe and heel of the razor more quickly. We make sure to pass evenly and seamlessly from heel to toe during the stroke, applying pressure as a wave that rolls from one hand to the other.

  • J-stroke. Draw a "J" as the razor passes down the hone. We combine this with heel-to-toe for added variance.

  • (Almost) elevate the spine. Apply rotational torque so the spine aaaaalmost comes off the hone, but doesn't. Here, we can feel pressure transition on to the very cutting edge of the blade, much like bevel setting. We are essentially trying to do the same thing; remove material at the front of the edge before flattening the face of the bevel behind it. We sometimes combine this with a stroke that draws straight down the hone to address the middle of the blade more directly.

6. Polishing. The Naniwa 12K Super Stone has it's own gravity. When the stone is lapped level and has the right amount of water on it, it will just grab the razor and make it perfect. We use very light pressure to move the razor across the hone, and let the stone pull the razor in and do its work. This is our finishing stone and produces the final cutting edge and polish that makes our razors truly Shave-Ready.

7. Polishing on Pasted StropSome shavers like paste, some do not. Well, we like it a lot, and will do a good 20-40 passes on it before sending a blade out the door. Chromium Oxide polishes the bevel and smooooooths that edge just the finest amount without removing much material, while also keening the edge. 

8. Stropping. How well we strop the razor can determine whether or not it will pass Hanging Hair. We strop on nylon for 100+ passes. You'll notice we do not normally strop on leather as part of our honing process. This is because we get comparable results going straight from the nylon to shaving as with leather, although stropping on leather can certainly get you an extra 10% in performance.

9. Hanging Hair Test. We test along the entire length of the razor, cutting a hair unsupported at least 1/2" out. We are looking for dull spots where the hair just slides off the edge instead of exploding... and I do mean exploding! The hair makes an audible "pop" when the blade is sharp enough. 

If you're trying this at home, step 10 is to lather up and shave with it! 

We hope you have enjoyed this series, and thank you for taking the time to learn more about our craft. If you want to learn even more about honing, email us and ask about future class offerings at our shop in Portland, OR.

Honing a straight razor with an X-pattern stroke on a Naniwa 12,000 grit stone

Honing a straight razor with an X-pattern stroke on a Naniwa 12,000 grit stone

Honing at Portland Razor Co. Part I - Overview

WARNING: Razors are extremely sharp. misuse can cause serious injury! Should you attempt any of the tasks described in this article, you do so at your own risk. 

Any informed discussion about honing has to begin by saying: there isn't just one way to make a razor sharp. The ultimate test of any honing method is the act of shaving, and judging how well the blade removes hair and feels against the skin. If it cuts hair and doesn't ruin your face, then it works. How well it works depends on an infinite number of factors that may have nothing or everything to do with honing, from the quality of the steel to whether or not you drank coffee with or without sugar this morning.


Part I of this series will familiarize you with the common terms, concepts and techniques related to honing. We will cover when to hone, and what you need to start honing on your own. Sharpening a razor is quite simple and can be done safely and effectively by most people in the comfort of their own home! This series sets out to demystify the process called "honing," and equip straight shavers with the knowledge to sharpen their own blade.

Basic Vocab

  • Honing: The process of sharpening a razor or similar blade. This is done by methodically passing the razor across increasingly fine stones, called hones.
  • Hone: A whetstone, especially one used to sharpen a razor. The word hone can be used interchangeably with whetstone or waterstone, and is the primary tool for sharpening a razor. These are made from a variety of natural and man-made materials, and come in varying grits. For our purposes, most honing is done with stones between 1,000 and 12,000 grit.
  • Bevel: Refers to the angle of the cutting edge of the blade. Straight razors actually have two bevels: the first is normally called the "hollow grind," and refers to the concave surface that makes up most of the blade. The second bevel, sometimes called the "primary" or "cutting edge" is what actually cuts hair, and this is the one we refer to most while honing. The angle of the final bevel is set by the ratio of spine thickness to blade width, and how the blade rests when the bevel and spine are in contact with the hone.
  • Polished Edge: Describes a perfectly smooth, continuous edge. A truly polished edge will appear as a continuous black line under a microscope. This type of edge is characteristic of well-honed razors. 
  • Serrated Edge: An edge which is dentated, sawtoothed, or jagged This does not mean the blade is not "sharp," as serrations may be microscopic and are often capable of cutting hair. This type of edge is more characteristic of utility knives. 
  • Swarf: Fine pieces of metal, stone, and other materials produced during honing. Swarf is notoriously hard to clean up, gets stuck in the porous surface of hones, and can mar the blade. Swarf can be minimized by cleaning hones frequently.
  • Lapping: A technique for cleaning and flattening hones. This is done with a lapping stone or similar tool with an established, perfectly flat surface.
  • Hanging Hair Test: A test for establishing the shaving potential of a razor. A well-honed razor should be able to cleanly cut a hanging hair, unsupported by at least 1/2 inch. This test is done by holding a hair between your fingers, hanging it perpendicular to the razor's edge, and pushing it into the blade. This test should be conducted along the blade's entire length. 
  • Shave Ready: An arbitrary (but useful) term for describing a razor capable of producing a comfortable shave. For a razor to be called "shave-ready", it must be sharp enough to effortlessly cut hair against the skin without causing irritation. This means that the blade is free of nicks or scratches, and is perfectly sharp along its entire length. While not a conclusive test (shaving is the only conclusive test) a good way to determine whether your razor might be shave-ready is to shine a light at the cutting edge and look for reflections; any imperfections along the edge will reflect light that your eye can perceive. We call this the "shine test," and it is the safest way to check the razor's edge because you don't have to physically touch it. This is most easily done with an illuminated jeweler's loupe.

When To Hone

Starting out, it might be difficult to determine whether your razor needs honing. Indications that your razor might need to be honed include (in order of increasing severity):

  • Your razor does not pass the Hanging Hair test
  • Your razor no longer cuts hair effectively
  • You experience excessive irritation while shaving 
  • There are visible nicks or grooves on the blade's edge

It's hard to estimate how frequently your razor will need to be honed because everybody (and every razor) is different. Some factors that will affect the time between honings include how frequently you shave, the number of passes you do, the coarseness of your hair, your technique, the way you strop... even humidity can be a factor.

If you've decided your razor needs to be honed, you can mail your razor to us and we will hone it for you for $20 plus the cost of shipping. But ideally, you will  be able to keep and maintain your razor yourself for the rest of your life. Not because we mind honing rzors, we actually quite like it, but because caring for your own tools is rewarding and fun!

To hone at home, all you need in addition to your strop and straight razor is a good hone and practice. We recommend the Norton 4k/8k waterstone as a good first hone; the 4k side is abrasive enough to work out minor nicks and scratches, and the 8k is fine enough to produce a shave-ready edge. Combined with a good strop, this combination can keep your razor going indefinitely. 

In Part II of this series, we'll go more in-depth into honing, with tips to get you started at home.