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Selecting a Strop

February 16, 2011 — P

StropsNow that you have determined that you want to try your hand at straight razor shaving, you have to consider some maintenance aspects of the endeavor.  In order to master artisan shaving, developing effectual stropping skills is essential.  However, picking your strop is an important consideration and it should be researched considerably.  Stropping is King, afterall.

The information in The Practice and Science of Standard Barbering still rings true today.  When discussing strops, four basic types are most commonly found: Russian, Russian Shell, Horsehide, and Canvas.  

The canvas strop typically accompanies a leather component, comprised of either woven silk or linen in either a rough or fine finish.  Recently, some strop makers have substituted the fine linen component with a synthetic woven material that has proven quite effective for today’s users.  Apparently, finding sufficiently suitable “natural” fiber canvas strops is not as easy as one would hope.  

One strop maker, renowned for his linen components recently limited his production drastically, leaving only the DOVO V-pattern linen component as the readily available high quality canvas strop on the market for the traditionalist who prefers a natural canvas strops.  If traditional materials are not a critical consideration, Straight Razor Designs’ synthetic canvas strop has proven itself to be very effective, in my experience.  

The straight shaver’s leather strop is the headliner, though, and without a high quality leather, your stropping will suffer.  But to understand why, you need to understand what is happening at the razor’s edge.  In 1931, Popular Science  published an article demonstrating what happens after shaving with a razor.  They demonstrated through photomicrographs that after shaving, an edge suffers from rust and microchips in the edge.  A protective coat of a petroleum based product (Vaseline) helped with the rust, but the most telling pictures demonstrated the mildly abrasive effect of stropping (page 55, notice the reduction of “peeks and valleys”).  

In order to undo the damage done by shaving, strops need enough “draw” (friction felt when stropping the razor) to abrade and burnish the steel.  "Russian" strops where typically cowhide leather made in various countries, using the Russian tanning methods.  After a break-in period, barber manuals described Russians strops as “one of the best strops in use today.”  Again, this still rings true for today’s shavers.  Russian leather strops have an agreeable draw and are very effective.  In fact, cowhide strops are the preferred stropping material by a considerable majority of shavers today (if wetshaving discussion boards are any indication) because of their ability to restore a razor’s edge to shave ready condition.  

The job of a strop is three-fold: to clean, undo damage to, and realign the razor’s edge.  This is partially achieved through mild abrasion, but there is an element of plastic flow caused by the forces applied to the edge by the friction of the strop.  A good canvas strop in combination with a cowhide strop is the most effective way to complete these three tasks from my experience, and they remain your best bet for performance as well as value for your money.

Horsehide, on the other hand, tends to be slick and smooth, rendering them less effective initially.  In fact, I’ve found that it takes many months of use for standard horsehide strops to break in enough to be as effective as their cowhide counterparts.  Shell Horsehide is another story, though.  They are tauted to be very effective, but shell horsehide strops are difficult to find in today’s market, leaving us with primarily medium quality horsehide strops available.

So, what should you buy?  DOVO Russian strops represent a good value because they are leather and canvas strops that work well and are relatively inexpensive ($60 US).  There are also several smaller shops making high quality strops.  Straight Razor Designs have two excellent varieties (Premium I and Premium IV English Bridle) that are reasonably priced ($85 to $95 US depending on desired length) and as effective as any strop on the market.  Old Traditional, available exclusively through The Different Scent, may have the best leather strop available today according to their patrons, but that's likely as subjective as saying that any particular finishing stone is the best.  It is more expensive, and ships from Germany, but there are worse ways to spend money.

This is likely as good a place as any to discuss the size of strops.  Old Traditional strop makers are adamant that a 3" wide strop will inevitably "cup" (ends fold up so that it resembles a half-pipe); however, SRD maintains that is a non-issue with their strops (I have not noticed cupping on any of my SRD strops).  So, while width is a consideration (2 1/2" to 3" being my recommnedation), length seems to be more important to me.  That's likely why my favorite strop is th SRD Premium IV (extra-long).

 I would certainly encourage new straight razor shavers to resist the temptation and advice to buy a cheap “beginner’s strop.”  Stropping is too critical to the successful journey to become a proficient straight razor shaver not to invest in.  Additionally, many strop makers are making strops with replaceable components that allow for easy replacement of damaged leather strops.  This makes the value proposition of cheap beginner strops that do not even offer a canvas strop component very unattractive.

Comments (2)

Modular strops

Nice one, Paul. Only two things to add:

  1. Modular strops, ie ones whose components can be replaced, are a good investment. Once you have terminally nicked an Old Traditional, it is basically gone. Wheras you can upgrade modular strops.
  2. Cupping is an issue. I prefer leather components that are flexible (eg for rolling the strop up during travel), and wide leather components do have a tendency to cup. Thicker, and therefore stiffer, ones may not actually cup, but if they get uneven, they will likely stay that way.

Thanks

Robin,

Thanks for the addendum.  As I said, I have not experienced cupping, but I certainly do not doubt that it is an issue. Also, I heartily agree with your point about the modular strops.

Again, thanks for the comment

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