Honing with Belgian coticules has a large following in the straight razor world. It’s one of the most traditional natural straight razor hones that are still being mined, and it is championed as the “single stone” solution to honing a straight from start to finish. The average grit for a coticule is said to be around 8K, which is the universally accepted minimum sharpness for a decent shave. Ask on any forum, and you’ll get a term like “buttery smooth” describing a shave off the coticules.
But as a pretty much exclusive synthetic stone guy, I’ve always had my reservations about using a coticule only, and considering that I have synthetics that go up to 30K, or 0.5 microns and compounds that reach the stratosphere at 0.125 and 0.025 microns, it just always seemed unnecessary to use a coticule only to switch to a synthetic stone or a loaded strop afterward since finer edges shave closer – although their edges do become more fragile as the grit increases.
I’m not a complete stranger to coticule edges, though. I have 2 coticules/BBWs (Belgian Blue Whetstone) One is a vintage stone that has the coticule and BBW stones glued together, the other is a naturally occurring coticule/BBW combo stone. Admittedly, I’m not the most experienced coticule honer out there, but I’m a very studious honer and I have had shaves off of razors honed by some seriously reputable coticule honers – so I wouldn’t consider myself a slouch, either.
As I’m not terribly interested in coticule edges, I never really documented my own progressions, although you can find one I did here. There is also an excellent video by Dr. Matt, who shows some professionally honed edges under the same kind of scope I use.
A big hurdle with the coticule honers out there is that they are generally not so willing to subject their work for dissection under the microscope. They respectfully argue that they are happy with their shaves, and that the shave is the ultimate test, not how it looks under the scope. It’s like an argument between religion and science, and many straight razor honers – both synthetic and natural – just don’t want to get caught up in a beauty contest. In all fairness, as a gynecologist once said, “nothing that close looks good.” :)
Generally speaking, under the scope, synthetic hone scratches tend to line up like North Korean soldiers, and natural stones finishes look more like a malfunctioning marching band. This is not a comment on quality, but if your scientific minded like myself, then logic reasons that a more consistent edge will produce a better shave. With natural stones, there is a range of scratches (usually within certain parameters) due to a variable distribution and size of the abrasive particles. There may also be anomalies and inclusions, all which influence the resulting scratches. Synthetic stones are specific formulas, designed to be consistent from stone to stone. The main difference between synthetics and naturals, without veering too much further off topic, is that synthetics generally cut faster and deeper, peeling away the layers of the edge to get a very well defined, thin point at the edge of the edge, and naturals tend to have shallow scratches resulting with an often rounded, thicker edge that is “clean”.
And that leads us to the purpose of this post: To document the coticule side of my naturally occurring coticule/BBW’s edge with a Wade & Butcher Wedge razor. Pictures are taken with a Veho 400, and the actual size is .75 mm tall by 1 mm wide.
The razor had 2 layers of vinyl tape. I used as little pressure as possible, and I did approx 125 strokes between pictures, changing the top layer of tape with each major change in the progression, for example, between heavy and light slurry, and between X and askew X strokes. While the position of the edge is not exactly the same in each picture, it is roughly in the same spot within a centimeter of itself.
The “before” picture is a synthetic stone finish (not by me), and the edge has had a couple of shaves.
This should’ve been an easy “downgrade” but there was a thickness difference between the original honer’s tape and mine (his was PVC and mine is vinyl), and there was a nasty little chip about 1 cm in from the tip, so I hit the Atoma #140 and cleaned it up with a #400 Chosera stone, which I did not document. I then changed the tape, and proceeded to work out the diamond and #400 scratches by doing approx. 1000 circle strokes on each side – in sets of 20 per side – with a heavy slurry on the coticule. I change the tape because it does wear, especially on the coarser grits.
The scratches from the circles (I did use pressure) are those from the coticule. I did monitor this under my usual scope.
The I changed the tape, and with the same heavy slurry, did a series of 125 normal X strokes with no pressure.
Already there is a tremendous amount of cleaning up that was done. You can also see how the area behind the edge is not so effected since there was much less pressure being used compared to when I did the circles. Pressure causes the edge of the edge to flex, and you can even “miss” the edge altogether if too much pressure is used.
I then continued the same X stroke and slurry for another 125 strokes, making it a total of 250 strokes for this particular step (I added a small amount of water to keep the slurry alive between pictures).
There are subtle things happening here – firstly, the area behind the edge of the edge is becoming more uniform. The heavy slurry is quite aggressive, although the scratches are generally more shallow than synthetics. Secondly, the brightness from the reflection shows that were are getting a rather refined finish, even though the edge is still rather jagged – a result of the heavy concentration of loose abrasives rolling around in the slurry.
Next, I changed the tape, and to be sure that I was dealing exclusively with coticule scratches, I switched from a normal X stroke (with the blade perpendicular to the stone) to an askew X stroke (with the blade at a ~20-30 degree angle to the stone. This changes the scratch pattern and exposes anything that might be lurking underneath, such as residual diamond or #400 Chosera scratches. I did ~125 of the askew X strokes, still with the original heavy slurry.
The edge of the edge has actually “come together,” as the white bead along the top of the edge shows. The askew strokes also reveal that while there are a few deeper scratches right behind the edge, they seem to terminate before the edge of the edge itself. This edge, while technically sharp, is somewhat of a false positive – the heavy slurry on the surface of the stone is digging deeper into the steel. This would be a very good knife edge, but it is still too unrefined for shaving.
I continued with another 125 askew X strokes and the same heavy slurry, bringing the total up to 250 strokes. This is essentially my bevel stetting.
The edge of the edge is cleaning up and becoming more uniform. I felt that the maximum potential of the heavy slurry was realized at this point.
I changed the tape, cleaned off the stone, and made a light slurry and returned to the regular X stroke in order to monitor the progression and the effect of the number of strokes would have. I did 125 X strokes.
There is a definite slowdown of cutting action with a light slurry, and as the edge of the edge shows, it is starting to expose microchipping from the heavier slurry that previously cut through it. The bevel itself, however, has less surface variation. I continued with another 125 X strokes, bringing the total up to 250 X strokes with a light slurry.
The bevel is beginning to show more definition, and the edge of the edge also shows a more clear and consistent apex.
With my bevel setting complete without a doubt, I changed the tape, used the existing light slurry, and switched to the askew X stroke to begin the real honing. :) I started with 125 askew X strokes.
After only 125 strokes, we can see clearly along the ridge of the edge. It is pretty even, although there is a certain thickness to it. To be honest, the scratches aren’t all that uneven :) I continued with another 125 askew X strokes.
The ridge line is becoming more consistent, but still a little thick – don’t forget that this edge needs to be thin enough to sever facial hairs without pulling them out of your face.
It is at this point that I feel ready to begin my version of the dilucot method of honing, which prescribes that you systematically add water to the slurry to dilute the concentration, thus bringing the edge of the edge closer and closer together (we’ll discuss this method a little more, later). I changed the tape and did a total of 750 askew X strokes, adding a light spritz of water and documenting the edge every 125 strokes. Watch the edge of the edge more, but you will see a change in the reflection of the bevel, indicating higher refinement as well.
Each set of 125 strokes seemed to get progressively better looking, and if you look closely at the edge of the edge, you see the edge rounding ever so slowly while becoming “cleaner”. I’d say the edge consistency maxed out at 625 strokes, but if look at the amount of reflection on the bevel from the burnishing effect of the progressively shallow cutting action of the diluted slurry mixed with metal fragments at the 750 level, I must go with the 750 strokes being “better looking” overall.
With the dilution done, I rinsed the stone, changed the tape and then used clean water with no slurry. This is less invasive to the edge since the abrasives are partially submerged in the stone matrix rather than rolling around loosely on top of the stone as they do with a slurry. I started with 125 askew X strokes.
There is a significant difference between the diluted slurry and water only. Judging by the reflection of the bevel, the edge is firmly in the 5K-8K Range (3.5 – 2 micron range). You can see the thin line at the edge of the edge, but we have made a rounded point, or something resembling a convex edge. I did another 125 askew X strokes, bring the total up to 250.
There is a marginal improvement to the edge of the edge here – the ridge line comes to a point, although somewhat rounded. There isn’t much room for improvement on this stone at this point.
So I switched the tape one last time, and diverted from the traditional dilutcot method, and instead of finishing on a clean, but wet stone, I opted to use the coticule clean and dry. This is a bold move on my part, but there a method to my madness. Dry stones load up with dust from the hone and the blade, clogging the pores of the stone, thus making the surface of the stone even less invasive, or more refined. It also adds a burnishing/polishing element, which is arguably a cleaner edge of the edge caused by metal on metal, rather than metal on stone.
The edge doesn’t look as good here because the stone has not begun to load up enough with dust and debris. I did another 125 strokes bring the total up to 250 strokes.
At first glance, this may look worse than picture 18 off just water, but if you look closely at the entire ridge line, you can see that it does come to a point, and is completely shiny. Picture 18 is very close, but isn’t quite as clean.
I stropped with about 20 strokes on linen and 20 strokes on leather. The shave was surprising smooth, and it did cut the hair on my face with relative ease, and no pulling at all.
Having a good shave is always nice, but we have to look closer at the variables here. I’m not trying to downplay the success of coticules, but rather looking to dig a little deeper into their world to see how it fits into mine, with my synthetic mentality.
To begin, Sheffield steel – and Wade and Butchers especially – are famously smooth shavers. The characteristics of a great steel matched with the coticule edge is definitely a winner here. I know for a fact that the coticule shaves I have previously had were good, but not as well matched, IMO. In many cases, a honer may use a coticule for the honing process, but then proceed to finish on chromium oxide or pasted strops to achieve a better level of smoothness than just off the stone. Of course, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV) depending on the stone itself – they say some coticules are better finishers than others. I disagree, but not completely – I’m of the mind that natural stones within the same type (i.e., all coticules) there will be an average finish/scratch because of the mineral consistency within a stone type, they’re just operating in wider +/- parameters than synthetics.
Secondly, you would be quite surprised just how used to an edge we can become – both good and bad edges. I’ve shaved with blades that have left me raw, yet some people swear they were velvet squeegees, and I have had people say that an edge I am completely in love with was too sharp for them. It’s a total head scratcher until you take into account technique and sensitivity levels – but there seems to be a consensus that everyone has a beard that is too tough for measly steel blades! :) I got a very solid 1.5 day shave out the W&B, which is nothing to complain about at all. The blade didn’t pull, however, the shave was not as close as I am accustomed to. I was feeling stubble much sooner than I would’ve liked. It wasn’t a 5 o’clock shadow, but more like an 8 or 9 o’clock one. To further put things into my perspective, I had been experimenting with Arkansas stone edges for the previous couple of weeks, where some of the shaves were downright bad and pulling like mad. It could be that this was contextually a “very good” shave, but it would take a comparison shave with one of my usual razors – where I generally get a 24-36 hour o’clock shadow – to recalibrate myself.
The final variable here is the dilucot method combined with the overall lack of observation under the scope. The dilucot method clearly works once it has been personalized by an individual, but the natural stone edges I have seen from people pretty much all look like picture 5 – the false positive picture. This honing by feel is all good, and again – the shaves are not terrible, but after seeing these edges under the scope I am going to risk pissing a lot of people off and say that it is a minimalistic approach to honing that still requires additional steps in order to be fully successful. For example, the prescribed 60+ strops each on canvas & leather, which brings the edge together in a convex shape, or by adding an additional layer of tape to bring the edge together.
Overall, I found this documentation of a coticule edge to be quite eye opening because I really looked closely under the scope at what I was doing and it showed that coticule scratches can be quite consistent and that true comfort in a shave can be achieved off of a single coticule - if you take the time. One of the key factors needed is the burnishing of the edge, which is allowing the swarf to “polish the grooves”, and the more strokes you make, the better the results. Even though this particular coticule was not sanctioned a “finisher” (I actually bought it off a hunting knife centered retailer) I feel the results were quite satisfactory, even though the shave wasn’t as close or as long lasting as I would’ve personally liked.
I must admit that I did stray from the exact dilucot method, which uses more force and also claims to be very quick, because my sharpening philosophy does differ. The first rule of the philosophy is “Good, Fast, and Cheap: pick any 2″. Automatically, a coticule is considered a “cheap” investment (not cheap quality) because it is a single stone solution – barring any major buying sprees :P You can then proceed to pick one more of the trio, of which I always choose “good”. Others will choose “fast”, and I think those fast results are the ones we’ve been seeing more of under the scope.
By consciously picking “good”, it took a lot more time and effort to really squeeze the max out of my coticule. I’m sure the diehard coticule guys will argue that I went too far, or spent too much time, etc.. But because I monitored my progress under the scope, I was doing more than going by feel, and is what leads me to conclude that the dilucot method works, but is minimalistic in its approach unless it is modified by the individual honer.
That’s when we can start to argue if synthetics are better than naturals :)