Wedge Honing Theory

Brooksbank 1a.jpg

 How did the Old Timers Hone Wedges? 

While many forum poohbahs are stuck in arguments about whether or not honing with tape on the spine is allowable, my mind is elsewhere.  

Many straight razor enthusiasts will insist that wedges must be honed on tape because there’s no other way to establish a simple bevel that isn’t the entire side of the razor. 

Well, there was no electrical tape when that razor was forged. So, what’s the deal? 

My opinion is that wedge blades were, originally, honed ‘freehand’ with the spine off the stone. I have owned many wedges, and many of them show minimal or zero wear up near the spine. That didn’t happen because a 1700s blacksmith was applying non-existent tape to the razor during the sharpening process. 

Admittedly, a number of wedge blades do show hone-wear. Conjecture infers that those wear patterns happened later on in the blade’s life. Sharpeners accustomed to hollow-ground razors would likely be inclined to hone every blade lying directly on the stone. While this can’t be proven, looking at so many wedges under high magnification brings me to this conclusion. Logic and reason factor in also. Common sense must rule the day. 

If all wedges were honed with the blade in full contact with the stone, every wedge would have a ridiculous amount of wear, the sides would be full bevels, fully polished at one point or another. Such is not the case. Most wedges are not all that worn, and do not show sides that were in full contact with the stone.

 I’ve never seen a wedge with a fully polished side; I reason that wedges were not just put on the stone and ground into submission. I have never seen a sharpening guide, or a mention of one in any barber or sharpening manual. Most every razor from the 1700s shows an abundance of edge wear but zero or extremely minimal wear by the spine. 

This all suggests, to me, that razors were honed freehand, spine up. Long ago, barbers did not have progressions of 12 stones, they had 1-2 stones and maybe some abrasive compounds. I once owned a barber’s kit from the late 1800s; the barber’s license in it was dated 1898. In that kit I found 1 stone, and three tubes of abrasive pastes. Obviously, sharpening then was not like sharpening is today. 

To test my theory, I attempted to hone a wedge freehand. The blade was forged by Abram Brooksbank; a Sheffield cutler in the mid 1800s. Under magnification, the blade showed several different bevel angles. Apparently, someone attempted to hone the razor flat on the stone, but it also appears that they never achieved an apex. There was a mid-level bevel that may have been the result of someone attempting to hone on tape. I matched that angle by honing with 1 layer of 7 Mil electrical tape on the spine. There also was a ‘shadow’ of an old bevel in the steel that was faintly visible due to a sloppy polishing effort. Higher levels of magnification and manipulating my light source defined that ancient bevel more clearly.  I recreated that bevel’s angle by honing the blade freehand on a 1.5k Shapton Pro stone. My first attempt created a plausible bevel, my second effort was better, and the result was much sharper. I polished the bevel on a 5k, and then finished with a series of 3 abrasive compounds. The shave was, not surprisingly, pretty OK. Not great, maybe not even in the ‘good’ zone, definitely not BBS. To be fair, this was my first freehand attempt and better results are possible. But certainly, this experiment does add validity to the idea that freehand edges ‘back in the day’ were both possible and probable. 

I did not measure the bevel’s angle because no one would have done that in the 1700s. I just went for it, using feel and visual inspection along the way. 

The pix below show the 3 bevels I am referring to. 

© Keith V Johnson 2014 - 2022