LA’s Ross Cutlery has been sharpening blades since the 1930s, when straight razors were the norm, so we thought owner Allen Wattenberg (who’s been performing the daily grind at the store himself since 1964) would be an ideal source of incisive wisdom. “Before each shave, you need to strop the razor,” he says, “it doesn’t take long, and it’s the only way to keep it sharp.” (The strop, by the way, is the leather thing that menacing characters like to caress with their straight blades in bad horror flicks.) Place the strop on the edge of a table, then lay the razor blade flat on top of the leather. Now move the blade backwards, keeping it flat. Do this ten times, turn the blade over and repeat. If you don’t have a surface handy, and your strop has a loop at one end, you can hang it from a hook and pull it taut at the bottom, but bear in mind that the strop must be straight, otherwise your blade will become misshapen over time.
Around six times a year, your razor also needs to be honed; that is, sharpened on a stone—as with stropping, the action is named after the tool. (Needless to say, the first thing to do is go and get yourself a hone—they’re usually around $25 at specialty cutlery stores.) Put the hone on an even surface, and lay the blade flat on top of it. Move the blade in the direction of its cutting edge (which you may want facing away from you), as if you’re trying to shave the stone. At first glance, this will look like a bad idea, but, as Wattenberg explains, “the spine of a straight razor works as a guide for the cutting edge, so you won’t damage it.”
But before you start rummaging around the house for other things to sharpen, heed Wattenberg’s warning; “If you try this technique with a kitchen knife, all you’ll do is scratch up the edge, because of the shape of the blade. If you try it freehand, you’ll just damage it.”
Whether you’re stropping or honing, you should use very light pressure, “about a pound,” according to Wattenberg, who clearly has a more precise sense of his strength than we do. Keep to a regular routine, and your razor should outlast you, as long as you remember to get it professionally reground and realigned every two or three years. As with most forms of maintenance, some tasks are best left to the professionals.