Stropping: How to Strop and What You Need
Stropping is the single most important skill you must learn as a straight razor user. Much more important than honing, stropping will keep your razor sharp for many months. Different stropping leathers will also put the final finishing touch on the razor’s edge after honing. Great stropping technique is the difference between a mediocre shave and a great shave.
You don’t need a fancy strop, but you should want one; eventually. The truth is, you can get pretty “ok” results stropping on rolled up newspaper and/or your hand. The best results come from stropping on leather. Now, you don’t really need to buy an expensive leather strop, you don’t even need to buy an actual strop. A strop is just a piece of leather. You can use a belt, a strip of leather from Tandy Leather, or a real strop. Of course, actual strops provide some advantages, but you’re going to damage your first strop, so don’t pay a lot of money for it.
When you are ready to purchase your first real strop, you have to decide which type of leather you want. Some leathers have a lot of drag (aka draw), others have none. The most popular leathers in order of draw amount are: buffalo, latigo/bridle, regular, horsehide, and cordovan. Other exotic leathers include kangaroo. You must decide what properties you want in your strop. In the end, it doesn’t make a huge difference, but the strop leather does influence the edge; more on this later.
The next thing you need to decide on is the cloth component. This part is not absolutely necessary, and to be honest, you could just use old jeans or your current jeans and strop on your thigh. However, the cloth component provides many advantages and is highly recommended. Modern options include cotton, linen, and nylon. Nylon does not work very well, so I only recommend cotton or linen. The quality of the cotton and linen also makes a huge difference, so make sure you buy from a quality source. The better the quality of the cloth, the better the edge; more on this later.
The final option you can decide upon is whether to buy a hanging or paddle strop. This is purely personal preference. I use a hanging strop for storage reasons. A paddle strop is easier for beginners to use due to its rigidity. I do not believe a paddle strop is worse than a hanging strop, but all the best strops are hanging.
If you have a cloth component, you strop on that side first. The recommended number of strops is also a personal preference, but I have found that the best results come from at least 100 back and forth passes. The 100 passes can be made up from any combination of cotton, linen, and leather. There is no such thing as over-stropping, but your arm will get tired, and you could roll the edge.
Words alone cannot explain how to strop. But I’ve found this great video that shows you how to do it. After you watch the video below, I’ll talk about some of the finer points of stropping.
The idea behind stropping is to strop in an X-Pattern so that the entirety of the blade comes into contact with the leather. If you have a 3″ strop, you can strop straight, but I still prefer an X-Pattern to ensure the blade contact. A straight stropping motion will not work with curved blades. Below is an illustration showing you how to make an x-stroke motion.
Flipping the blade presents the greatest danger of nicking the strop. To reduce the danger of cutting into the strop, start turning the razor before stopping completely. This way, the edge will be off the strop when you stop the razor and start to go the opposite direction.
The pressure required is enough pressure to keep the spine and edge of the razor on the strop. Any more pressure and you run the risk of cutting into the strop or rolling the edge. Rolling the edge happens when the edge is perpendicular to the strop and you drag it across the leather. _|_ As you can see, this dulls the edge and cuts your strop. Use too little pressure and the edge may come off the strop; this is both ineffective and increases the risk of damage to your strop.
Even though your strop may be wide enough to accommodate the entire blade, stropping in an X-pattern is advised. Only a perfectly straight razor will lay perfectly flat. No razor is absolutely perfect, and I believe the x-pattern imparts a better edge to the razor. That said, stropping in a straight line is much easier and I recommend you master the above two tasks before attempting to master the x-stroke.
Caring for your Strop
The only thing you need to do to take care of your new strop is rub it down with your palms once in a while. Yes, you heard me, that’s it. You don’t need neetsfoot oil, strop dressing, or anything else. The normal daily stropping will keep your strop cleaned and buffed. The oils in your hands will keep it oiled and supple. If your strop is old and crusty, you need to restore it.
The most complex operation in strop maintenance is applying oil to rejuvenate the leather. For normal, everyday maintenance, all that one strop maker recommends is to rub your hands up and down the strop. This will transfer the natural oils in your hands to the strop leather. If you use the strop every day, the daily action of the razor and your oils should keep the strop hydrated. In extreme cases, your strop may have dried out. Meaning, the natural oils found within your strop have evaporated. If this has happened, don’t panic. Your strop can be brought back to life with the simple application of oil.Neatsfoot oil is distilled from the shin bones of cattle. Neatsfoot oil is used as a conditioning, softening and preservative agent for leather, making it ideal for strop rejuvenation and conditioning. It is useful for all types of leather and is widely used. It is also relatively inexpensive. An alternative to neatsfoot oil, if you have aversions to animal based products, is light mineral oil. This is not to be confused with heavy mineral oil widely found at pharmacies and supermarkets in the U.S.. Light mineral oil is thinner. It also goes by the name of butcher’s block oil or food grade mineral oil. It can be special ordered by your local pharmacy as well. This derivative of oil production serves as an alternative to neatsfoot oil.
You can tell if/when your leather is in need of conditioning if you experience high levels of “leather dust.” You will notice the dust after a round of stropping. The leather particles are being shed much like our skin sheds cells on a daily basis. However, your razor shouldn’t be coated in this “dust.” It is a sign that your strop could use some conditioning because it is dried out and needs oil.
To condition the strop, just put a little bit of oil on the palm of your hand, and rub it up and down the strop. Repeat as necessary.
What if I Nick It?
If you happen to nick your strop, provided it isn’t a big gash, you can still use your strop. Depending upon the level of damage, typically, you merely need to remove the loose piece. Sometimes it may be necessary to use some VERY fine grit sandpaper to polish up the area to make sure it is smooth. In other cases, you can use a very small application of superglue to glue back the two pieces to create a smooth surface again.
Provided you are reasonably careful with your strop, and take good care of it, it should last a lifetime!