Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shaving with a Garden Knife

On Sunday, we tried applying the Scary Sharp method of knife sharpening to a straight-edge garden knife, and found that it only took a half-hour or so to get it from "found-in-the-silverware-drawer" dull to "easily-shaves-arm-hair" sharp.  Since our ultimate goal was to be able to shave with it, our natural next step was to take it into the bathroom and see if our success with hair on the corporal extremities could be extended to the chinny-chin chin.

It's working!  It's working! Ha ha ha!  For some reason, we forgot to take a 'before' photo, so we have to jump to the halfway point.  Should I stop here, Katie?  "No, someone might confuse you for Harvey Dent."
The finished product.  OK, the process could not exactly be described as 'pleasurable,' but it's a clean face produced by a garden knife we found in the drawer a couple hours prior.  Solid A-minus work.  (Edit: Katie says, "But it took you an hour to shave, you didn't get as close as you do with the normal razor, and you've got lots of nicks--more than usual.  It is pretty cool you could take a random knife and make it sharp enough to shave with, but still...B-plus tops.")

Admittedly, the knife is definitely not as sharp as a normal 4-blade cartridge razor, and it's probably good the shaving cream has lots of aloe in it.  This was a first try on the straight blade shaving, but there's definitely more missing than just operator inexperience.  So...what do we need to improve for the next attempt?

Quick searching of the internets suggests several details of preparation that experienced straight-blade shavers tend to, even when they're using the proper tools.  In many fields of research, there is a saying that, "an hour in the library can save a month in the lab."  In the Homestead Laboratory, it also seems that five minutes on the internet can save an hour in the bathroom.  But anyway, what did we do wrong?

  1. Not fine enough honing.  We topped out at 2000 grit sandpaper.  Some sources recommend working up to a surface with at least 4000 grit, and even up to 8000 grit.  Given the difference in the ol' arm hair test between 1500 and 2000 grit, this alone could account for a lot of the discomfort.
  2. No stropping.   Even after honing with a very high-grit sandpaper, stropping with canvas and/or leather is required to straighten out the micro-teeth still present on the cutting edge from the abrasives.  It's advisable to work sequentially down to the point where just the bare leather strop (or, more precisely, the silicates present in the leather) are able to quickly put a finishing edge on the blade.  Chromium oxide is commonly recommended as a 'stropping compound' (with grit between sandpaper and leather silicates), although some folks also claim success with the more DIY-friendly wood ashes.
  3. Insufficient beard prep.  Keeping a beard warm and pliable is a whole 'nother ball game compared to arm hair.  If it takes an hour to get from one ear to the other, there's a lot of time for the beard hairs to cool down and decide they don't want to be shaved, after all.  This was definitely part of the problem, even with frequent re-warming.  Still, the current blade would probably work fine for eyebrows, if we wanted to shave them off for some reason.
  4. Wrong tools.  Well, maybe.  Using a random garden knife to shave certainly didn't make things any easier, but folks who know what they're doing seem to be able to make just about anything work.
 How do you shave sustainably?  Do you have any other suggestions for us?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. I shave sustainably by growing an epic beard. :)

    1. That's probably part of the reason you don't get many smooches from Katie. :-)



  3. I love AoM! I started reading it regularly after doing my 'research' for this post. Katie says I probably should have started a little sooner, but I would have probably done it this way anyway, just to see. (Dad would chime in here, "just like when you were three years old and we kept telling you not to touch the hot stove!")

    But yes, a handlebar mustache is a good tool to have if you commonly find yourself in bare-knuckle boxing matches. :-)