All was quiet in the razor world until Murray Carter of Carter Cutlery, an ABS Master Bladesmith and 17th Generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith, decided to make a straight razor sharpening video.
Those of you who do not know Murray Carter should know that he is probably one of the more controversial knife makers out there, and his sharpening techniques almost always come under fire on forums everywhere. At the same time, he is highly respected, and just as many people love his techniques and defend them on forums everywhere.
We’ll get to the videos in a minute, but before we go further, I’d like to say that I have no axe to grind (pun intended!) with Murray Carter and his techniques, or any of the people mentioned in this post. The purpose of this post is to respectfully offer more tangible evidence and arguments than those who have argued with Murray Carter and his techniques surrounding this saga.
This post is colossal, and covers a great deal, but I feel it is necessary in order to cover the huge range of accusations and counter arguments that have flown back and forth regarding the first video, which we will watch now:
If you go to the actual youtube video and read the comments, you’ll find that this caused quite a stir in the straight razor community, and provoked the following video response from Brad, aka Undream22, who, by the way, does downright amazing razor restores:
While Brad is certainly respectful in his video response (it’s more of a friendly challenge), it lacked any technical details as to why tape and slurry were used (not that Brad doesn’t know why, he just failed to state more detailed reasons in the video), and were two of the points Murray covered in his response video – along with edge trailing vs. edge leading, and a hanging strop vs. a paddle strop, as seen below.
Before we continue, Murray’s second video must be viewed in the correct context – it was a reply to what amounted to outright bashing by certain members of the shaving community.
1.0 – Carter’s method re-created
The initial reaction from the straight razor world to Murray’s first video above was essentially “you can’t do that”, “it’ won’t give a smooth shave”. To be more exact, “we don’t do it that way in the straight razor community” is pretty much the point those involved tried to make. Personally, I am on my own honing/sharpening journey, and while I may or may not agree with everything about Murray’s razor sharpening method, I don’t want to be an armchair critic. So to find out for ourselves, several of us from the Badger and Blade (B&B) forum tried to recreate Murray’s method as per the first video. You can read the entire B&B thread here.
In the first video, aside from getting a burr on the razor with the 1K, Murray took very few strokes at each subsequent level. I actually sat down with Michiel Vanhoudt (check out his Belgain Sharpening blog) and he watched the video while walking me through how many strokes as I honed up my Boker Red Injun razor. I took microscope pictures at each stage with my Veho USB microscope at 400x, with the actual picture size being 1mm wide by .75mm high. While I do have the King 1K and 6K stones and people do use them in razor honing, I don’t prefer them. I used a Chosera 1K and a Shapton Glass 6K stone instead. I realize these stones work differently, but it’s the method that was in question here, not the stones themselves.
The major differences between “traditional” razor honing and Murray’s method is that traditional methods advocate not pressure on the blade, using any one of several stroke patterns, with the most common being the “X-stroke”. This usually results in more overall strokes, and a “sneaking up” on the edge of the edge. Murray’s is much more related to knife sharpening, where he goes in a back and forth motion on one side until a burr forms, then switches sides and goes back and forth until a burr forms again.
Up first was the Chosera 1K edge, edge leading
You can the the edge is established and would look almost the same if “traditional” straight razor methods were used (no pressure, and single-sided, alternating strokes). One thing in common at the earliest stages of razor honing and knife sharpening is that Razor honers also employ the use of circles at the lower grits for bevel setting, which is certainly no stranger as a knife sharpening stroke.
According to the 1st Carter video, he took only 2 strokes on each side with the edge now trailing. You can clearly see the criss-crossing and overall mess on the bevel, however, there was some improvement to the edge of the edge, along with a hint of more polish, Overall, you can see the 1K Chosera scratches going from the top left to bottom right, and the 6K from top right to bottom left. Note, however, the vertical lines, which are from going back and forth on the 1K to establish the burrs from the first step. The 6K has not fully removed the deeper scratches.
The deburr was not really necessary in my opinion, but I can see people without any honing or sharpening experience creating burrs that would need removal, since in knife sharpening, there is much more likelihood of a burr being formed.
Then onto 2 more strokes, edge trailing on the 6K. Now we can see a clear “polishing of the grooves” as denoted by the concentration of blue hue at the edge of the edge, which are still really 1K scratches as indicated by their direction.
Now Murray says you don’t need to do this step, but trust me – you’ll want to He also says any old Chromium Oxide will do, and this is true - but the stuff from Hand American is tops ;) . You’ll note at the edge of the edge, there is a straight line, despite all the scratches still evident. This is a promising sight, as the chromium, rated .5 microns, or 30K really cleans up the grooves of the underlying 1K and 6K scratches.
Lastly, Murray stropped with newspaper, which I wonder if it really has any effect, but won’t go into here. Yes, there is some more shine on the edge, which is indicative of there being more polish, but that could very well be due to variation in the picture – the Veho 400x is good, but not exactly easy to get repeatability. But hey, that’s what Murray does (and a lot of others), and there seem to be enough positive results from it from both the knife and straight razor communities.
After stropping, the edge passed the HHT – but it seemed to have a little whittling action before the hair actually popped. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive for the HHT test.
The shave itself was a decent WTG with no real pulling, but with some resistance – A basic shaving edge, IMO, so it “passes” in that regard. I was actually impressed. ATG was a bit less comfortable, but it still “worked”. The Bay Rum aftershave gave me a home alone moment that lasted a lot longer than I would’ve liked.
A little bit of perspective is needed here, IMO. If you’re a knife guy coming over to shaving, Murray’s method is a very good segue, and not a terrible introduction to your first straight razor shave.
2.0 – After Speaking with Jason from Carter Cutlery…
Apparently, our efforts over on B&B were noticed, and I ended up on the phone with Jason from Carter Cutlery. We had a wonderful conversation, and he revealed that the first sharpening video was, in fact, edited, and that Murray did more than a mere 2 strokes per stone.
This opened up the method big-time, meaning that we could get the razor sharp at each level before moving on. It also meant that no matter how much we may agree or disagree on the method, it should work so long as one moves on at the right time – in other words, learns how to maximize the method. It was a huge relief because I don’t think I want to ever feel that much burn again after a shave!
No pictures for this progression, but Michiel Vanhoudt did a wonderful Veho 400x picture progression, here. He also made a video of his shave, broken into 2 parts, Part 1 and Part 2. Our resident crazy Swede, Jens Skandevall, also did a nice shave video using a modified version of the King 1K/6K method, here.
Here’s what I wrote on B&B about my 2nd shave:
I redid my Boker last night by raising a burr on the Chosera 1K, deburred on a plastic tray (although I did do several alternating strokes on the 1K first), then about 40 laps per side on the 6K Shapton Glass, stropped on newspaper, and jumped to the 30K Glass – all with deliberate knife pressure. I “cheated” and did about 30 laps on the Tony Miller Leather, and the blade passed the HHT quite nicely this time.
The shave this time was a lot more comfortable. WTG was much smoother than the initial try – I’d say a 7 out of 10. I was dreading the ATG, wondering what would happen this time…. but the ATG was actually much better – about a 7 out of 10 again, no real pulling and no immediate indication that there would be irritation. The result was a decent shave, not quite BBS, but certainly good for a first go around with this method.
The aftershave revealed some sting, but this time it was well within acceptable parameters – a light sting that dissipated within 10 seconds (the first shave’s sting lasted more than 5 minutes…)
Conclusions – Murray said it best – that no one can reproduce his hand on his stones with his razor. With no limit on strokes, anything goes, and technique fills in most of the gaps. As this was my first real attempt at this method, I got acceptable results, but since it is new and unknown to me, there is probably a lot of room for tweaking, and gaining enough “time in” to ultimately get more satisfactory results.
3.0 – Doing Murray Carter’s Method “My Way”
Since Murray’s second video has already been published by the time of the 2nd shave, the third one was going to be my best attempt at achieving the most refined edge in the least amount of stones. But since I can’t be Murray Carter, I decided to take what I learned and mix it with what I already knew. Besides, I know I want more than a .5 micron edge on my straight razor
I took the time to document this, and I think we’ll see a rather big difference from the original method, with limited strokes.
There is clearly a much better defined edge of the edge with consistent scratches throughout. The only difference here is that I used “knife” pressure instead of no pressure. You can also see the flexing of the metal by the way the scratches “bend” toward the bottom of the bevel. We’ll discuss this later.
The 6K Shapton Glass, edge trailing and with knife pressure, revealed something that counters what Murray talked about in his second video about edge trailing vs. edge leading (which we will discuss in more detail later). I did a “uni-pyramid” on the 6K, starting off with 10 strokes on each side, then 5-4-3-2-1-1-1-1. There was a significant amount of swarf on the stone, which when combined with the pressure seems to have created chips.
You can also see just how well the 6K scratches are established (from top right to bottom left), and the last remaining 1K scratches (from top left to bottom right). So at this stage, you can also attribute the chipping to “underhoning” which describes chipping that is caused by revealing the deepest scratches left by the coarsest stones when using finer stones.
I jumped to the 16K Glass stone next for 2 reasons. First because I routinely jump from 5K to 15K on the Shapton Pros with my knife sharpening without any problems. Secondly, because of the less-than-desirable reviews the 16K Shapton Glass stones receives from the straight razor community, saying it causes chips (which was addressed here).
Anyway, you can see just how fast and even the 16K Shapton Glass stone is – there are no scratches left from the 1K at this point (I only see 2 random ones well above the edge). I used about 10 alternating, edge trailing strokes here, still with knife pressure. The edge looks quite amazing, actually, with no real “polishing of the grooves” as experienced with the 1.0 version.
And because I am accustomed to edges finer than 30K, or .5 micron finishes, I used some of Ken Schwartz’s 0.025 micron (640,000 grit!!!) Poly Diamond spray on balsa for 5 strokes, then cleaned it all up with 50 strokes on my Tony Miller Hanging Leather Strop:
As you can see, the edge of the edge has become rather consistent and even, the browning is actually leather residue. I’d say at this point, we have at the very least, removed all the 1K scratches, and most of the 6K scratches. The edge is essentially a very clean 16K edge, with some remaining, yet polished 6K grooves.
Here’s my review of the shave as posted on B&B:
I shaved with the Boker last night and got a very close shave – but just a hair short of BBS. The edge held up for the entire shave, and it seemed to shave closer when I used more pressure. I did 2 full passes. The Bay Rum aftershave burned a little more than the previous shave, but not what I would call out of the ordinary.
Before concluding this saga, there are a few more things that Murray Carter has brought up, some which are just not talked about enough: Taping the spine, razors as tools, pressure, hanging vs. paddle strops, and edge leading vs. edge trailing.
Taping the Spine of a Razor
In Brad’s (Undream22) reply video to Murray Carter, he explained reasons for tape, which amounted to keeping it pretty, and to make it easier to hone. I think Brad missed the most important reason for taping the spine, and that is for proper edge strength/geometry.
Murray stated, and I think most people agree, that razors have their own built-in jig, or guide, and should be honed flat on the stone. But with today’s quest for precision, perfection and flat hones, I think we have assumed certain things about razor manufacturing and honing processes that are just flawed. The big one for me is that we think razor manufacturers of western razors knew of the optimal edge angles and thus produced the optimal spine thickness to blade height ratio on every razor with their corresponding grinds.
I see it this way - In the history of razors, they started off more as big forged wedges with softer steel. They needed the thick spines in order to hold the softer and less pure steel at the edge in place. Hanging strops were perfect for drooping loosely enough to caress the edge of the edge (we’ll get to that more later). Initially, people who owned razors and razor hones were most likely barbers who shaved many people each week. If you look at the constant upkeep that takes, you will see a dished natural hone, and a corresponding convexity to the edge angle of the razor which is more obtuse than the spine thickness to blade height ratio. In other words, a razor was big so it could hold an edge thin enough to shave without folding over on itself, and it was reinforced by the convexing of the edge. Watch this Popeye cartoon at 2:30 and you’ll see what I mean about the dished hone.
Razors became more and more hollow ground as steel quality improved, and it is my belief that once the industrial revolution began, manufacturers and users expected to have a breaking in period of new razors on old, dished stones in order to create the proper geometry and the thinner steel meant less production costs, increased production speed, and quicker breaking in period for a new razor.
Fast forward to today, where technology has gained incredible speed in the quest for sharpness – flat and precise stones are now what we promote, with constant maintenance. When you get to certain stones like the Shaptons, they don’t break down and form a finer paste – they keep removing layers of steel at each level, making the edge of the edge extremely flat and sharp, yet evermore thin and fragile. (Other stones, like Kings and Superstones dish much more readily to create that convexing of the edge, though.)
Hence, the use of tape in order to artificially create the proper geometry suitable for any given razor.
An excellent example was this Klas Tornblom hollow ground, which was so thin that it produced a terrible shave because the edge of the edge was too weak to hold up to the strain of shaving.
It ended up with 3 layers of tape before it produced a burn-free shave.
This is the real argument for tape, in my opinion. Saving the aesthetic of a razor is secondary to me as well, and as Brad stated, some people/customers don’t want to prematurely wear out the steel on the spine.
Which leads us to our next discussion topic.
Razors as Tools or Heirlooms?
This is an excellent argument that all knife makers seem to have the same stance on, and one that Murray Carter was also adamant about in his reply video – Knives/razors are tools. They are not meant for the altar, and you should use them and they should wear.
One thing Murray may have missed was the fact that many of the straight razors on the market are antiques that are over 100 years old in many cases, and the vast majority of the world’s sought after razors are no longer being produced (the famed Wade & Butcher is only one example). In my opinion, they should be preserved as well as used. In fact, the best way to preserve them is to use them.
It’s probably better to see it from the perspective of a Japanese sword polisher – if you are given the task of removing the surface rust from a 100 year old Katana, you will not go to town on it – you will actively preserve as much as the steel as you can, while removing only what is necessary. Even if the sword is no longer being actively used, it is still maintained and kept in a functional state.
Well, you can argue that Murray Carter does act to preserve his razor/tool by doing the bare minimum necessary, but knife sharpening techniques in general tend to use up “extra” steel when sharpening simply because of the burr that is formed and then removed. But if you listen closely, Murray also says that he doesn’t always go back to the 1K each time. Believe it or not, I’ve even seen Brad, a renowned razor restorer, come under fire for his preservation methods from other restorers because he uses a buffer to remove rust and to polish the blades. You just can’t please some people!
This leads us into the most controversial area of Murray Carter’s method: Pressure.
Techniques aside, pressure is a critical component of knife sharpening and razor honing. It’s one of those things about sharpening and honing that is not easily conveyed, other than relatively subjective terms such as no pressure, light pressure, medium pressure, etc. As someone who straddles both knife sharpening and razor honing worlds, I can see from Murray’s videos that he is using a good deal more pressure on the razor than I do, and a lot more than what is generally promoted in the straight razor community.
I’ve often pondered why less pressure was better, when more pressure would arguably just get the job done faster. It is clear from the microscope pictures that with Carter’s method, some pressure isn’t all that bad. But what I’ve come to believe is taken from more from my experience with luthiers (violin makers) and their scrapers which are used to thin and even out certain areas of the violin (cabinet scrapers are a little different, being bigger, they generally use the corners and burrs on either side of the scraper ). In order to create the luthier’s scraper edge, it is sharpened, and then literally bent with a rod (burnished), creating a little “hook” or claw that scrapes the wood out. When it needs to be sharpened, everyone knows that you need to remove ALL the metal that was bent, or burnished, because it was stressed in the burnishing process and became too fatigued to hold an edge.
Go back to the straight razor, and we are dealing with metal much more fragile than the luthier’s scraper. I’m of the mind that pressure on the edge of the edge of the straight razor from repeated strokes causes the metal to fatigue enough to influence the integrity of the edge.
But the 1K Chosera picture from experiment really drives this theory home. I did back and forth strokes with knife pressure, which flexed the entire bevel – but I instinctively lessened the pressure as I made my final strokes, which allowed the bevel to “spring” back into a higher position, and the scratches only hit the edge of the edge and not the entire bevel.
Look at the picture again:
The angle of the scratches caused by the flex is shown by the longer vertical line, and reads 245.88 degrees. The smaller line is caused from the relaxing of the steel with less pressure, and reads 342.32 degrees – a difference of ~3.5 degrees in the scratch angles. It is not an anomaly in my honing technique, or caused by a stroke that careened out of control.
Now here’s the wrench – based on the Tornblom razor in the spine taping section above which took 3 layers of tape before it shaved well, we could argue that pressure on an edge that is too thin will remove the unnecessary metal partially through abrasion, and partially through what could be seen as self-regulation by the amount of flex the edge itself allows (within reasonable pressure limits – whatever that means!)
Of course, the razor community will argue that the bevel is the strongest and truest if less/no pressure is used, and it’s an argument I subscribe to – but I got you thinking, didn’t I?
Edge Trailing vs. Edge Leading
I don’t have much to say on this topic – Murray is correct about the surface of the stone, though. Here’s a picture of a 2K Shapton Pro stone at 400x. The white is the abrasive and resembles tiny craters.
I don’t have a problem with edge trailing or leading, and I don’t think it is a huge deal in the razor community in general. However, I do prefer edge leading because the edge abrades against fresh abrasive and pushes the swarf and debris out of the way like a snowplow or bulldozer, and I personally think it leaves a more precise edge. With edge trailing, the edge may not get caught on the craters in the stone’s surface, but it ends up running over all the swarf and debris.
Michiel Vanhoudt sent me a picture which showed edge trailing strokes from the Carter method on a 15K Shapton Pro, and in all honesty, I think it was more a cause of the pressure used rather than trailing or leading edge:
Michiel’s picture actually shows the edge of the edge being burnished, or pushed out of alignment from pressure. It is not a burr. If there were less or no pressure used, the edge would more than likely not be burnished, though.
Hanging Strop vs. Paddle Strop
Finally, we approach the final detail in this epic blog post: The use of hanging vs. paddle strops.
Murray advocates a paddle-like strop specifically so that the edge of the edge remains as true to being point at the top of a triangle, and does not round over, which, by definition, dulls the edge. However, leather is quite squishy, and compresses to round over the edge of the edge no matter how lightly you strop. Hanging strops don’t work to minimize that effect since they will droop more than a paddle strop.
Using either is acceptable for straight razors, but what’s most important is the use of clean leather before the shave. Let’s say you don’t have the fancy microscope pictures to help you, and your edge looks like Michiel’s picture with the burnished edge. That will be a harsh shave, for sure. Leather acts to caress, and in some situations the leather even abrades the metal ever so slightly, thus minimizing any burnishing.
In going back to precision that is offered by Shapton stones for example, the edge of the edge does become quite thin, and there seems to be some level of self-regulation of the edge of the edge with stropping – in other words, it takes the edge that is say .05 microns wide, and convexes it so that it is, say .10 microns wide – still within the limits of thin enough to cut hair, but with added strength and smoothness.
To touch briefly on edge trailing vs. leading again here is necessary – with edge trailing strokes on stones, I feel that the edge runs over the swarf and debris, but when stropping on clean leather, you must use edge trailing or you’ll cut your strop, but more importantly this is where Murray’s theory on stropping comes into better light- with a clean substrate, edge trailing will allow the edge to run over the bumps smoothly. Here’s a closeup of a bovine leather strop, courtesy of Michiel Vanhoudt:
(Check out Michiel’s other microscope pictures of stropping substrates)
The first, and most important question is: Does Murray Carter’s method of razor sharpening work? The answer is clearly YES.
Is it the most desirable method? Well, as all most things related to sharpening, it depends If you want a quick and easy edge, yes, this method works, and produces a rather decent shave when you have an idea of what you’re trying to achieve at each level. With enough practice, it can be tweaked to a level that Murray Carter himself achieves.
There is a significant amount of wear that the razor will receive with this method, though, and here it depends on your stance – is it a tool to be used, or a 150 year old razor that you’d like to see have another 150+ years of great shaves? For modern day production straights, such as Dovo and Boker, for example, they most certainly don’t “make them like they used to,” and therefore, I can see using them up like tools. At the same time, some of the older razors were subjected to not-so-ideal treatment, and may take some serious restoration efforts to return them to shave ready condition, and once there, the idea of preserving the razor should be paramount.
It constantly amazes me just how much controversy is associated with sharpening techniques and it’s compounded when you add the politics of the straight razor world of honing. Hopefully some of the arguments presented will get people thinking about the bigger picture, and start people off on their own journeys to find out for themsleves.