Overhoning - esoteric - maybe a case study in how forums create a false reality

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D_W

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I used this term in the hand tool forums. Jacob asked (though i don't think he's really interested) for an explanation of what "overhoning" is. I don't feel like covering the topic there because it's not on topic. Sometimes a member or two here will provide an answer based on limited background and it reminds me how just how definite "overhoning" became on the shaving forums without ever being close to what it really is.

It also became sort of a woo answer about why an edge didn't feel sharp or a razor didn't hold up. Usually both were the fault of the person doing the sharpening.

If you're not curious or not a fan of shaving stuff, you don't need to read further.
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What the forums decided "overhoning" a straight razor is: honing the razor with too much pressure and creating a situation where the bevel becomes too thin. Razors are hollow and it's possible flex them a little bit. I doubt most people do this much, but you never know. There's no real term for that except to say that someone is using too heavy of a hand and bending the razor and there's no need to do it.

Overhoning became an excuse for all kinds of edge problems - imagine if you came up with an errant definition for a term that was commonly used in the past , and then you had to assess an edge shortcoming that you didn't have the answer for. "I think you overhoned".

Well, sounds dangerous and makes honing a razor sound even more difficult than it is (it's a little bit more difficult than honing tools because you can't just add pressure to finish).

Plus, a lot of older literature always said "DO NOT OVERHONE!". Even some stones did. The stone hold the clue to what overhoning is because their composition didn't make sense to what they were.

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Overhoning is simply a matter of using a stone that's too coarse to create a fine edge on a straight razor and honing all the way to an edge. The stones in question warning against overhoning weren't that fine because fine graded alumina wasn't that common or cheap in the early 1900s. I think a chemist told me that it's easily "precipitated" now and i don't know if it's screened after that or what, but to get a 1 micron alumina is cheap and such a thing probably required crushing and screening or who knows what around 1900. Most finishing razor stones had 1200FF grit or something of the like, and that's fairly coarse. The hones mitigated some of that by encasing the grit in a binder so that the particles didn't stick out the whole way, and then conditioning the surface to gloss the surface and make any abrasive particle that was sticking up kind of dull and conditioned.

so, how do you hone a razor with a stone that's too coarse to hone the tip of a razor into shaving condition?

Simple, you use the hone only enough to flatten any bluntness that is arising due to wear or stropping of the edge - the rounding of the bevel is removed with the too-coarse hone, but the edge of the razor isn't removed. There's really no great reason that the edge of a razor ever has to be removed after it's established as it's a little bit rounded.

The instructions that come with these older hones will often say something like "when razor begins to pull or feel dull, do 3 or 4 strokes and no more and shave with the razor. If the razor still feels dull, do the same with the next shave. Once the razor shaves properly, stop and do not overhone".

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The odd very fine natural hone or specifically conditioned stones of the era that were more costly would say "fine stone - will not overhone". Something like an escher may say that, or a fine coticule. But those stones were expensive and not synthetic and probably out of the reach of reasonableness for the average person who had a strop and linen and maybe a honing paste or two - maybe not. It was common at least in the states for the barber to charge someone to hone a razor that was being stropped on linen and leather - it can be done in five minutes and only needs to be done once every several hundred shaves.

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So, why is the old wives tale gaggle of various definitions (with bending a razor rising to the top on shaving forums) so dumb? Because the modern stones generally go all the way to a level of fineness that finishing the edge any way shape or form with too much pressure or not will create a fine edge. And when a beginner is trying to figure out what they did wrong (they usually honed a whole bunch of parts of a razor that weren't the actual edge and failed to get the finish to the edge, or they created a burr and didn't remove it), they run into some definition like this - it's like telling someone not to bump into a ghost and making them think there's some mysterious problem floating around out there that they could just chance into and never be able to solve.

It also creates some kind of really stupid supposition that you could be using a really fine stone on a razor and "hone too much and eventually the steel falls apart because you overhoned".

So that puts beginners using crazy fine abrasives in a position to believe that they could overdo something they never finished in the first place.

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the interesting part of this is that most people write off the old coarse razor hones as junk, but if they're used properly, they're really useful. Like maybe lifetime useful. You have to establish the edge of a razor once. If you don't drop it or bang it into a faucet, then the linen and leather will keep the edge smooth and relatively immune to denting from hairs forever. As the very slow wear accumulates on the edge, the bevel behind it rounds a little bit and the razor starts to feel dull because even though the edge is still polished and sharp, it's too thick to penetrate hairs easily. You don't need to remove the edge, you need to hone some of the roundness out of the edge back to flat so the edge is a bit thinner. The coarse hone does this without a problem.


An account of these hones would typically be:
1) the question arises - I have a never used razor hone. It feels kind of coarse. How do I use it? it shows a picture of a razor stroke (generally heel to toe) and says use three or four strokes, don't over hone.
2) the next group of 15 answers ranges from describing overhoning (with an answer that makes no sense), to calling the hone junk, to confirming it's too coarse to use and people must've been stupid but tough in the old days, to saying "throw the instructions away, you can't hone something in three or four strokes and the picture of the stroke that they show is the wrong kind".
3) The user goes and tries the hone. They do three or four strokes on a razor that is far more dull than it should be or never was finished, come back and declare that the instructions are definitely stupid because they couldn't tell a difference
4) the next day, the user comes back and says since 3-4 did nothing, they did 100 strokes the next day (!) but the stone felt really coarse and now the razor doesn't shave at all

All declare the hone a scam and ripoff from the old days, "go buy a 5-hone progression of glasstones or chosera, learn the honing pyramid and forget about all of the old hones except for the swaty and the frictionite, and maybe an escher if you can find one".

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What would've been the right way to deal with this:
1) show a beginner the picture of an edge
2) show them what it looks like when it's rounded and point to the parts of the bevel that "stick up" from the original flat bevel when the razor has been used a while
3) tell them that we live in a pretty good time to hone things, they can go get a hand held microscope for $20 and actually see the edge.
4) explain that there is a "honing pyramid" and a lot of fine stones now, and some people will actually go bonkers and hone a razor once a week. But that in the old days, a barber or shaver was pretty careful about the established razor edge and didn't want to remove it, and that the edge itself without any honing bits could last for several hundred shaves with a good razor and still not have much bevel fattening occur.
5) let them know now with their instructions, hone and hand scope in hand, they can do 3-4 strokes with the old hone, look at the big scratches that the "old hone" makes and if they look like they're going to get to the edge, stop honing


To show an approximation of coarseness - here is a razor that was honed by an english slate hone (welsh, I guess), a very fine one. This is my daily shave razor. I was testing the stone and kind of chaffed a little because I knew that meant i'd be ditching my actual edge.



The second picture here is a little bit of burnishing just starting to be established by running the razor over a linen and leather and then another trip to the linen after a shave. Look at the very very edge of the razor, how it is just starting to appear "smudged" or smoother. If you're a long term shaver, you kind of get the edge established after a couple of weeks and then it stays the same pretty much for a year. This is kind of unexciting on a forum when you land with $600 of sharpening stones in hand and you're told that maybe you'll only use the last one for five minutes once a year. It's like getting a super nice hammer and only having one nail.



Here's a 1200 grit honed edge - you can see at the very tip. this would be overhoned if someone were to try to use it to maintain a razor. the edge is a combination of actual edge and strong burr. If you worked hard enough to remove this burr, you'd damage the edge as it chose where to break (above and below the edge line).

if you're having trouble discerning what's here, look at what appears to be the edge, and then notice the tiny white dots here and there - they are the end of the burr. the burr isn't perpendicular to the light, so its reflection goes off into space and not back into the top tube, but the little dots are the ends of the burr where the ragged end reflects just a little light here and there back into the image sensor. that whole burr goes if you strop hard to remove this - it's better to hone it off or hone it thinner with a finer stone than it is to tear it off, though it doesn't matter too much if you're honing and you hone past the part where the edge is torn.



so, there you go jacob - since you asked what overhone is - it's using a too-coarse stone for a razor edge, when the stone isn't designed to hone the edge of a razor off, and you only have a too coarse hone because at the time that stone would've been common, finer stones couldn't be made at a low cost.

Unlocking the mystery of how at least several dozen products that sold well "couldn't have been any good" is also sort of a let down for folks, especially if they've really asserted - and maybe banned or had banned forum members who disagreed and refused to agree with the prevailing opinion. I almost got booted on a razor forum when one of the moderators said "you cannot use oil on a coticule hone and we will not discuss it further", and I didn't know the background (a couple of moderators insisted you can't, someone said you could to them and an argument ensued and they banned someone for trolling). I almost got banned because I showed a picture of one my hones that said "use with water or a fine oil" and then proceeded to demonstrate that the oil doesn't "ruin" the hone, it just sits on the surface and can be abraded or washed off.

....separately - there's probably a bunch of old barber texts that actually describe what this overhoning is, but as with hand tool woodworking, people are more a fan of modern presenters who often lack depth because they don't generally use hand tools for more than finish and fitting work.

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What could possibly be wrong with observing results at an edge then and describing objectives/outcome rather than method to get to it? Well, some of the moderators honed razors for people for a fee. That blew me away, but I guess it's not much different than paying someone to file a saw. If someone got a razor back from a "guru" that wasn't quite right, there's a number of things the "pro" could blame and refuse to give a refund. if you get a razor back and have a microscope and show that it wasn't honed fully, then that's hard to argue against.

I sold some of my unused razors, and sold off some of my sharpening stones. I always kind of figured that if you were going to sell something to someone, you should at least look at it under a scope to determine its fitness, so maybe the people calling themselves pros and charging $20 to hone a razor for ten minutes could probably inspect edges before calling the job done. It takes 30 seconds.
 
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Between the time jacob said "what is overhoning" and I typed the above, Jacob had managed to find a wiki. It's kind of baffling - at least if you assume people are actually trying to find the right answer to something - but there's now a shaving wiki that pretend to advise people getting into shaving with a straight razor, and the goofy bonkers suppositions still have legs.

the legitimate explanation that matches older advice from barbers to "not remove the edge".....nowhere to be seen.

I can't imagine how hard it would be to undertake the relatively simple task of learning to hone with a straight razor and maintain the razor now if starting with internet forums.

it must be the same way for woodworking!!

Finding an old text and mastering the relatively short passages about hand tool work and sharpening/tool setup would have someone 10 laps ahead of basic advice given here and elsewhere, but that sort of discounts the social aspect of the forums. It's not a peer reviewed journal database.
 
Bumping this thread to add that possibly the most informative source for razor sharpening data (rather than opinion) is "science of sharp" - lots of electron micrographs and FIB-milled cross-sections through blades (focused ion beam - able to cut laterally through the blade like a magic spell, revealing the shape). Also some very useful images and discussions about what happens _under_ the surface when grinding and honing steel on various abrasive media. A very good antidote (along with the above long post) to fanciful arguments based on who knows what.

FWIW, I found that 1um lapping film was far better than any of my previous "fine" stones including grey Arkansas, ceramic, or 8k DMT plate, and that the 16000grit Shapton is equally good and lets me plane lovely smooth surfaces that feel like glass, straight from the plane. Rob Cosman's "30 secs to sharp" method worked for me, using this stone & a basic 1000 grit diamond plate for prep, and although it's not cheap, it's very good indeed. cheers to all sharpeners, Miles.
 
Ive got a few stones, nothing expensive, and a set of lapping films, which are great.

Its been ages since i used a straight due to having no time, but i did used to find that after doing half my face, the razor felt less sharp ( although it's also possible that it was just in my head )

And yes, i read a lot about sharpening and honing before attempting it for the first time and the amount of conflicting info was confusing at times. In fact my first couple of attempts at getting an edge were pretty poor, but improved massively when i got the films.
I put that down to either the stones not being great ( mostly cheap chinese ones ) or simply me being a numpty 🤣

Edit to add: ive got a shavette and the blades for that thing are proper sharp 🫨
 
I used this term in the hand tool forums. Jacob asked (though i don't think he's really interested) for an explanation of what "overhoning" is........
Yes, dead right, not interested at all. :rolleyes:
 
Absolutely fascinating! I am so glad I read this. And I think, all forums on all subjects suffer the same problems. Common knowledge disappears, marketing nonsense becomes lore.
Thank you :)
 

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