Many people assume that a razor strop is a simple accessory, but there are dozens of options available that can make a new straight shaver's head spin. There are strops made by major companies, such as the Illinois Strop Company and Straight Razor Designs, and then there are artisan strops by craftsmen, such as Tony Miller and Ambrose. The materials are diverse and there are many types of finishes of leather and canvas that are offered. Each strop has unique characteristics that give it a feel and life of its own.
There are three types of strops: hanging, loom, and paddle strops. They are all used to align the edge of the blade prior to a shave. Loom strops and paddle strops are relatively uncommon, although they are available at several online shaving websites. While the loom and paddle are flat surfaces, the hanging strop must be affixed to an immovable object and pulled taught when stropping a razor. The hanging strop is the most popular type and the one addressed in this article.
Sizes of Strops
Hanging strops are available in two different sizes of widths. The 2" and 3" are the standard production sizes and both have benefits and disadvantages. The 2" strop requires an x-stroke pattern. The x pattern allows the full length of the blade to make contact with the strop. This is the general pattern one would use when honing the blade as well. The disadvantage of this size is that you must do the x pattern or your blade will not become fully stropped. Fortunately with practice the x-stroke can be mastered in relatively little to no time.
The 3" size does not require an x pattern unless the user so chooses to do so. The 3" width will usually cover the length of the blade in a flat stroke; therefore it does not necessarily force the shaver to use an x pattern. While it may be easier for some to run the blade up and down the strop, it does not force the user to learn the x pattern that many experienced straight shavers/barbers use for activities, such as honing. In general, the more you practice with the x pattern, the more you will be prepared for other activities that will come with the straight razor journey.
A strop comprises two parts: some type of leather and a fabric component. The fabric choices are canvas, linen, and the newest craze, compressed felt. This fabric component is used to clean the razor and remove any burrs or rust that may have developed on the razor. After the razor is drawn against the fabric, it is stropped on the leather.
The leather aspect is where the actual stropping benefits come into play. This motion helps to realign the edge after shaves. It actually straightens out the edge that might become bent during a shaving session. There are many different choices of leather available. Since the 1800s, horsehide shell has been considered to be some of the finest leather for use on a strop. This is leather taken from the horse's hind quarters. There are also cowhide leathers that have been treated during the tanning process that are usually referred to as latigo leather. There are also English bridle, buffalo hides, and even synthetic leather options for those concerned with animal rights.
Personal preference plays a key role in which type of leather the shaver prefers. Of course, there are differences in style and color, but most importantly the leathers draw differently. The draw of a strop is the way the blade feels while it is gliding across the strop. The higher the draw, the more it "sticks or is slowed down" by the strop. The lighter the draw, the lighter and quicker the stroke will feel.
Strops for Sharpening
While strops are generally used prior to each shave to realign the blade, they can also be used to sharpen your razor and prolong honing. With a strop, one can apply pastes or sprays made of different materials, such as diamonds or chromium oxide. These materials help to sharpen the blade by removing metal and alter the edge enough to touch up the edge of your razor. It is possible to sharpen a razor on a pasted strop with various paste grit levels, but it is not an easy task since it would require several hanging strops with different grits of paste to achieve a successful shaving edge. However, using a pasted strop is a cheap alternative to stretch the keenness of a blade before having to take it back to the honing stone.
Enjoy the Experience
A new straight shaver should start off with an inexpensive strop or a practice strop as a first purchase. It takes some time to learn the art of stropping, and one is bound to cut into the leather a few times. This is not necessarily a steadfast rule, but I would regret not mentioning this fact of life. Wait until your form is precise before purchasing a high-end or artisan strop.
There are many different types of strops for the straight shaver to enjoy. You might enjoy a particular leather or size, and then in a few months decide that you prefer something different all together. There is one key rule when stropping: It is a technique that must be learned. We all have images of barbers slapping the razor on the strop and doing a very quick progression. This might work for the master barber who has been performing the art for many years; however, someone that has just picked up their first strop should know that slower is actually better. It allows for a more consistent stroke. The speed will come in the future. We all must learn to walk before we can run, but the most important thing is that we have fun while doing it.