Over the past couple of decades I have created a number of products that I found a need for and that were not being served by anyone else. I’ve scoured the world for sharpening stones that would be a better value (price point), created a couple of axe pucks, made a DVD, and innovated odd little things like the precision micro-oiler for dispensing camellia oil. The Constroption has been very welcome in the market as users have discovered the limitations of hanging strops. If you’ve ever thought about something you wanted to see made, let me know and we can collaborate on a design. I keep working on how to deliver… the perfect edge.
The Importance of Having a Sharp Knife
The oldest tool is still our most important tool. In our lives, our businesses, and our families, we all use knives of different designs for the cutting tasks we encounter every day. In this Golden Age of cutlery, we have blades of every design for general and specific tasks. The problem remains though… how do we keep them sharp? A sharp knife is a pleasure to use and a dull knife is an abomination which will soon have you tearing your hair out.
My experience in this area goes back to my childhood in the Lower East Side of New York working in my father’s fur shop. He made fur coats in the traditional European style. Every morning we started the day by sharpening the fur knives so the day’s work could proceed. It was my first trade and the honing of the blades was a critical ritual. That’s what started me off on a lifelong pursuit of attaining the perfect edge.
My first work out of college was living the life of an 1830 homesteader on the frontier. It was an experiment started by SUNY New Paltz to help figure out how people lived day to day before electricity, computers, cars, and all of the modern conveniences. We lived by our edges. We had to chop wood (axes and saws), butcher animals (knives of all types), prepare food (kitchen knives), shear sheep (shears), manage bee hives (cut honeycomb), process the grain harvest (scythes and other cutting implements), and a thousand other jobs all requiring a sharp blade.
Twenty years ago I got involved with the straight razor shaving community. Straight razors, when properly honed, are the most extreme form of sharpening and honing. This required techniques and sharpening stones enabling a very precision form of shaving. I found a family quarry in the southeast of Belgium which has a unique deposit of stones which have been the standard for barbers for several hundred years. The quarry is so old, it was visited by the Romans when they marched through the Ardennes Forest on their way to capture London for the tin mines. Pliny the Younger wrote about these stones!
Today, my sharpening work has broadened to commercial and industrial accounts as well as to the many home chefs who have lately realized that cooking is much easier when the knives are sharp! I sharpen with whetstones – an old fashioned way to do it but the edges last longer than when machines are used to sharpen. Stones don’t heat up the edge and take out the temper like machines do. It’s all part of achieving… the perfect edge!
“I can’t shave with the razor”
Occasionally, I get a customer who comes back to me saying the razor won’t shave their face. I always first ask how many times they’ve shaved with a straight razor. Usually the response is “This is my first time”. SO! What can I tell you? I can guarantee that when I send a razor or knife back to someone, it’s going to be extraordinarily sharp. What I CANNOT guarantee is that you’ll be able to shave your face with it. Why? Because shaving with a straight razor is a skill that becomes better the more often you do it. I can’t give you that skill, it really is something you have to learn for yourself. It’s the same when I sharpen wood chisels. I will give them back to you very sharp but I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to carve the head of a violin. Carving is a separate skill.
I also have had people say “It won’t shave a tomato or a kiwi so I can’t imagine it would shave my face”. OK, stop trying to imagine and shave your face. Straight razors are designed for shaving faces (or whatever). Any test other than shaving your face is an indicator AT BEST! You have to try it on YOUR face to see it work.
The Confusing Belgian Coticule Market
The Belgian coticules have been used by barbers for several hundred years. They’re great stones, especially for straight razors, but developments over the past five years have led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace. When I first introduced these stones into the US market some 15 years ago, there were Select grade and Euro grade stones. The “kosher” stones were so rare that I’ll talk about them later on. Today, there are a number of choices each with their own French name such as La Veinette, La Latteneuse, etc. and they each have their own price point. They’re not all equal as far as honing is concerned.
The stones we sell are all Select grade stones. These are the best of the best and I pay more for them. Why? It’s because discerning customers prefer them. The last thing I want is for someone to buy something from me that they are not happy with and either want to return or sell on eBay.
So, what’s the difference? The Belgians will tell you there’s little to no difference but that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve seen and handled a LOT of coticules over the years. The Select grade is more what I’d call Specimen Grade – thicker coticule, more even end to end, no hairline cracks or veins, etc. The result is a better stone to hone your tools with and you’ll be happier with it. As a coticule will last two or three generations, the small additional cost is really . . . small.