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The Truth about Coticules... as I see it.

February 11, 2011 — P

LPB-1In recent months, little has been more controversial in the straight razor community than Belgian Coticules and their fraternal twin, the Belgian Blue Whetstone (BBW).  Robin recently dealt with the uproar resulting from the release of Coticule.be's team of researchers.  Without getting into the personalities and politics at the center of this Hone War, allow me to tell you the truth, as I see it, about Coticules.

When I first started participating a lot at Straight Razor Place, I had a difficult time wrapping my head around people who have Hone Acquisition Disorders (henceforth HAD).  With that problem, you can image how loopy I thought people were who collected stones because of their appearance.  "These are just tools", I thought.  Isn't the only point to get a great edge?  

The short answer: No...

Over time, I've come to not only understand collecting stones, I've started a modest collection of my own.  I have synthetic and natural razor hones, but recently, I started collecting coticules, and one strata specifically - La Petite Blanche.

Coticules in general have a certain appeal to a small niche of the straight razor community, but what's the truth about these stones?  

First, let me say, there's nothing magical about them... at all.  They are just a tool that works.  They don't provide a shaving experience that's any better or worse as a rule than any other stone, but they do provide a very rewarding experience.  Anyone who has experienced the satisfaction derived from shaving with an edge honed well by himself knows what I'm talking about.  For me, there's another level of satisfaction that I get from using a natural stone (any natural stone).

What's appealing to me about coticules is the same thing that appeals to me about any natural stone.  Taking something found in nature and being able to use it to create a great shaving edge has a romantic element that I cannot quite explain.  My first experience with naturals was with a Chinese natural (very cool, but kind of boring aesthetically), and then I got a Japanese natural.  That Kiita/Asagi blend was my first experience in honing an edge that seemed dull on my face while being absolutely keen.

My next natural was my first La Petite Blanche Coticule (below)

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At least a hundred years ago, maybe even more, the different strata of coticules found in the Ardennes were named.  Recently, those strata names became more commonly known due to the mapping efforts of Bart Torfs of Coticule.be, but he's relaying information more than anything else.

Now, this LPB was bought because I'd heard of one stone honing and wanted a good option for razors that were warped or had smiling edges.  Since, I don't have too many razors like that, I didn't mind whatever extra work it might take to get a good edge on a coticule.  To my great delight, I was able to get a very good result (like those with my Japanese Natural).  But, what I enjoyed most was the challenge and experience of doing one stone honing.

To anyone who is interested in using a coticule, I'd say, get ready to earn your edges.  Many make recommendations aimed to give the best chance for success (ie, synthetic stones), and that's a concept that I can support, or at least understand.  However, the draw of honing on natural stones is strong for some - me especially.  

I literally would prefer to do 500 strokes on a coticule than to do 100 on my Shaptons.  I have no logical reason for this, but I just enjoy that process.  Having said that, I think people who get into coticule honing should be prepared to have to do that on occasion.  Also, I have to utilize a vast armamentarium of strategies to max out the edge on my coticule that I really didn't have to worry about on my Shaptons.  

But what are the benefits?  The experience... that's it.  These stones are very capable, but I doubt seriously that even coticule enthusiasts would necessarily prefer those edges in a blind shave test.  In fact, that was demonstrated in the study about BBWs and their ability to hone razors.

Think about this for a second.  With all the recent talk about coticules, and the resulting hype and drama, those who like them best almost universally agreed that in a blind shave test the BBW provided results that were as good or better.  Now, that's not surprising until you think about the fact that BBW were so universally denounced in the razor community that a year long project and blind tests were required to demonstrate that they actually could work.  The point about the study was never to make a claim for BBW being better than anything else, but rather that it was a viable tool for some... So, the fact that there was little to no difference, while not surprising to some, really speaks to the very minor differences people are talking about when comparing finishing stones.

I've said it before, and I'll be the broken record.  There really isn't that much difference in final results of honing on coticules versus anything else.  Again, even coticule enthusiasts graded a stone that has virtually no heritage in razor honing as providing an edge as good or better than the blind test of the coticule. Expect no magical results. 

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So, why do I collect La Petite Blanche strata coticules?  I honestly don't know, but it likely has to do with the fact that it was my first type of coticule, and I find the aesthetic variability just draws me to them.  I've had several types/strata of coticule, and the end results are all very similar, but they really are like a box of chocolates with each having their own characteristics.

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Recently, there have been several guys developing one stone honing techniques with various other stones, and I applaud that effort as well.  The more I do in this hobby, the more a minimalist approach appeals to me (something that is common I think with guys who spend a lot of time in this scene, but certainly not everyone).  Lynn Abrams recently shared that he's been successfully doing this with a barbers hone.  How about that for another affordable option for a new guy? 

To sum up:  Coticules are versatile, enjoyable to use stones, but there is a learning curve involved to master them.  They may take more work, but they provide a great challenge and a delightfully existential honing experience for me.  However, at the end of the day, there's no magic... 

P.S. All pictures in this post are of my La Petite Blanche Coticules