Stropping leather thoughts?

Discussion in 'Maintenance, Tinkering & Embellishment' started by beoram, Jul 12, 2014.

  1. beoram

    beoram

    Nov 27, 2001
    Does horse shell cordovan make the best material for a razor strop? What about the equivalent bit of fibrous rump muscle from other animals? Say water buffalos or yaks or whatever?
     
  2. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    The very best razor strops were traditionally made from Russian Red Leather. This was vegetable tanned horsehide that had been pulled over rounded logs for several days by really strong, (and probably very bored) men, compressing the leather and causing the natural silicates in the leather to migrate towards the surface. These strops were used without any compounds, but 'dressed' 2-3 times a year with good quality leather dressing.

    Today's Shell Cordovan horsehide is the closest approximation to that old Russian Red process. When produced from good quality hides by a reputable maker, this hide makes the very best razor stop. If made from lower quality hides, it still makes a very good strop, just not a really 'great' strop. Using the same process to make Cordovan cowhide results in a good strop too. Basically, it's just a mechanical compression with a trip hammer rather than pulling over logs. (Yes, there are some other factors in producing Cordovan leather too, but the most important from a strop perspective is the impact compression of the fibers and the migration of the silicates to the surface.)

    I have access to lots of water buffalo hides (I live in Northern Thailand) and have tried using this leather for strop making. It works, but it doesn't seem to be any better or worse than cowhide. A lot depends upon which section of the leather you use. The 'Shell' of Shell Cordovan Horsehide defines the specific part of the leather; the two small sections just forward of the horses rump on either side. If the strop were to be made from horse butt leather or horse shoulder leather, it would have different qualities. The same is true for cowhide. The leather from a cow's belly is much less dense than the leather from its shoulder or back. Following this, a strop made from belly leather will not be as good as a strop made from shoulder or back leather. The belly leather will be too soft. It will dent easily with your fingernail.

    The amount of silicates in the leather depends upon what the animal has been feeding on. Everything they eat has silicates, and those are then found in all leathers. More silicates in plant matter than in animal. For that matter, humans have lots of silicates in their skins too, (Vegetarians have more than Cannibals,) but our skin isn't dense enough for good strops. Thank God... A horse that's been grazing in the North 40 will have a higher silicate level than a horse that's been feeding on oats and sweetfeed. Some farm acreage has a higher level of silicates than the farm across the valley.

    Will the average strop user be able to tell the difference? No...
    Will the average 'razor' user be able to tell the difference between a high quality cowhide strop and a low quality one? Most likely. But between a high quality horsehide and a high quality cowhide strop? Hmmmm.... maybe a barber who shaves a lot of customers every day will be able to tell by the shave, while the daily shaver will be able to tell only by the drag on the razor over the strop rather than the resulting edge.
    The biggest difference will be in the number of passes one needs to take to bring the edge back; a high quality horsehide strop might require 10 passes while a high quality cowhide strop require 15 to get 'the same edge.' The horsehide won't make a 'better' edge. It will just get there faster.

    As long as the strops have generally the same density, the average 'knife' sharpener will have no idea at all. Good quality strops need to be very firm or the edge will roll over when press down onto the leather. There should be virtually NO deflection of the leather at all from the blade. No leather rising up and curling over the edge during the stroke.

    Good quality shoulder or back leather from vegetable tanned cowhide can be made into a very high quality razor strop with less than an hour's work and a rolling pin. It just won't look pretty or have an exotic name. Glue it to a 1x3x12 piece of MDF, call it 'Esmeralda,' and you can sell it for $75 if you throw in $2 worth of compounds...


    Stitchawl
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2014
  3. beoram

    beoram

    Nov 27, 2001
    Many thanks for lengthy and informative reply.

    Are there notable (species-related) differences between Horse cordovan, cow cordovan, water buffalo cordovan? I'm curious why Horse cordovan seems to be the best. Do horses have more silicates? (I suppose silicates turn out in the cordovan muscle part as well as the skin?) Are horse rump fibrous muscles tighter than the equivalent on cows or buffalos?

    I've noticed that newly-made (horse) shell cordovan strops are indeed quite expensive, so I was just curious about whether there were other animals who had equivalent 'cordovan muscles' from which equivalent strops could be made, and whether it would be worthwhile to do so. I mean, have you tried out water buffalo "shell cordovan" leather?

    There seems to be a lack of cosmic justice there - that if one were to make a human-skin strop, a vegetarian's skin would be better suited than Hannibal Lecter's....
     
  4. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    Let's start the answer with the definition of 'Cordovan.' Do NOT use Wikipedia for this! It keeps calling it a 'muscle.' Muscles are not leather. Skin is leather. Muscles are the parts of meat that you eat. The term 'Cordovan' is used for two concepts; process and color. The process (where Wiki screws up,) is to first split off the very thin surface of the skin and then pound the hell out of the remaining part after it has been soaked in a water/chemical dye solution to completely saturate and color it, compressing the fibers of the leather into a very tight, dense sheet with the resulting burgundy coloring. No muscles have been injured in this process.

    Next definition is 'shell.' When leather is cut, there are different areas that have different properties, and each area has a name. These areas are different between species, so cow hide has different area names and cuttings than horse hide, and both have different areas and names from pig skin, goat, lamb, etc. Here is a chart showing the names and locations of the different cowhide cuts, and here is the chart showing the different names and locations of the horsehide cuts. As you can see, the 'shells' are two oval areas just forward of the horse's rump. Goat, lamb, and pig skins are usually sold as whole skins rather than cuts.

    "Shell Cordovan Horsehide" = Put these three terms together and you get a 'process' applied to a 'specific area' of a 'horsehide.'

    Good question. Horsehide has been the favorite leather for strops for the past 200 years because it has a significantly more dense fiber structure than any other generally available leather. There are leathers that are 'stronger ' and more 'supple,' such as Kangaroo, which is why that is preferred for whip making and lacing, but it's not nearly as dense and firm as horsehide. Buffalo hide, especially water buffalo, is very dense, but tends to be lower in silicate levels than horsehide due to the natural silicates found in the grazing areas where water buffalo tend to be found. I know in the rural area where I live, farmers usually herd their buffalo along the sides of roads to eat the grass and weeds growing there. That way they don't have to pay for feed. Good enough to sustain the animals, but not particularly silicate-rich food when compared with Kentucky Blue Grass, alfalfa, clover, timothy, etc., etc. It is the very dense fiber, compacted further by the processing, that makes the 'structure' of the horsehide strop so desirable. Add in the high silicate count and you get a strop that works well as a final step in the sharpening process without the need to add compounds on top of it.

    Vegetable tanned Cowhide, 'steer hide,' buffalo hide, etc., can all be processed, effectively compressing the fibers either by the Cordovan process or at home simply with a rolling pin on dampened leather, but will not have as high a silicate count as horsehide, thus not be 'quite' as effective without compound. They WILL produce the same edge as horsehide, but it will take at perhaps half again as many strokes to achieve it. Horsehide isn't magical. It's just dense and has a high silicate level which makes it superior to other products for use as a strop without compounds. Frankly, the average knife sharpener will get just as good results using less expensive cowhide, especially as most knife sharpeners want to use compounds. Covering up horsehide with compound negates much of its primary value.

    Silicates are found in all parts of the body, not just the skin. And found in all animals and plants, not just horses and cows. It is the single most common element on earth.

    Change 'muscles' to 'skin' and the answer is "yes." Much, much more dense than in cows. And much more dense than in the skin found in a horses' shoulder or neck.

    As I said before, you can't make 'shell cordovan' from buffalo leather, but you can compress the stuff and dye it burgundy color if you wish to.
    I have made strops from horsehide, cowhide, buffalo hide, and kangaroo hide. All of these have been vegetable tanned hides. When being used WITHOUT compounds, my personal experience has been that horsehide worked best, cowhide second. When used WITH compounds, my personal experience has been that horsehide, cowhide, and buffalo hide all work equally well. As long as the hide can be made dense and firm as a substrate for compounds, the results were about equal.

    Keep this in mind: You can make a strop that will work every bit as good as one you buy, and make it for peanuts. A cowhide strop made from good quality leather from the shoulder or bend area, properly compressed, will give an edge just as good as a strop that you pay $50 for from an on-line shop. It just won't have a fancy handle or hanging hook, or if a bench strop, have a smoothly sanded, stained and polished base. Of course, you can add these yourself if those are important to you. Gluing your processed leather to a scrap of MDF wood will work as well as hand-rubbed French Polished Birds-eye Maple. Hooks can be bought at HomePro for a buck... $10-$15 worth of vegetable tanned leather from Tandy or Texas Knifemakers Supply, or some scrap from a local saddlemaker or leather shop, a rolling pin, block of scrap wood for a base, and some contact cement... These and a half hour's effort, and you have a strop (or three of them) just as effective as any you can buy.

    True... It doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, with the intensity that we knifeknuts put into our quest for the very best, I suppose the vegetarians of the world are breathing a sigh of relief that we've discovered horsehide.



    Stitchawl
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
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  5. DREW78

    DREW78

    755
    Feb 23, 2006
    Is there a good source for these strops?
     
  6. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    Do you mean the ones you make yourself? Yes, excellent and very local source!


    Stitchawl
     
  7. DREW78

    DREW78

    755
    Feb 23, 2006
    Yup i can glue leather down. Looking for a good source of horse hide. I'm in need of a new strop so this is good timing
     
  8. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    If you are interested, here is a very good video of how Horween Leather (the world's leader in Cordovan Shell leather production) makes their product, from raw hides to finished shoes. You see every step in the Shell Cordovan production clearly demonstrated. I was fortunate to be given a complete shell of Horween Cordovan a few years ago... It really IS magnificent!

    If it were me, I'd only use horse hide if I were making a strop to be used without compounds. I'd make a hanging strop if I was going to be stropping a straight razor, or a bench strop if I was going to use it for my knives. I'd use 7/9oz vegetable tanned leather. Nothing thinner.
    Best: http://www.sheridanleather.com/Horse_Strips_p/3104.htm - large enough for half a dozen hanging and bench strops
    Cheapest: http://www.maverickleathercompany.com/horween/horse-butt-strips/veg-horsebutt-strips/

    For strops to be used for general knife stropping 'with' compounds, hanging strops for convex edges and bench strops for flat beveled edges, I'd use 7/9oz vegetable tanned cowhide. You can find this in many different sources, both on-line and around most cities. A 12"x12" square with make 3-4 very nice bench strops. A hanging strop needs to be longer, perhaps 16"-18", but both should be at least 3" wide.
    Tandy Leather is probably the most well known source, having both local shops and on-line ordering. 'HobbyLobby,' 'HomeCraft,' etc., etc., or a host of other craft centers all carry suitable leather. Just be sure that it is 'vegetable tanned' and at least 7/9oz thickness.
    On line you can order pieces from Texas Knifemakers Supply, Jantz Knifemakers Supply, or a hundred different leather companies. Just do a search using 'vegetable tanned leather' as your search string, then look for the right size and thickness.

    Once you have your leather, remember that it's up to you to 'process' it into a good quality strop. (Called'casing' leather)
    Wet the leather on both sides in the sink, just for a few seconds, then let it dry for an hour or two. It will be almost as pliable as modeling clay. Then using some sort of rolling pin or smooth pipe, roll and compress the leather over and over on a smooth, hard surface. Do this for as long as you can... 15 minutes is good, 30 minutes is better. If you have the determination, do it for 45 minutes and you'll have a strop that's better than almost anything you can purchase for under $100! (You can see this being done to the Shells in the Horween video, using a machine to do the rolling.) Set the leather aside to dry for 2-3 days while you make the base (or hanging hook and handle,) then using ordinary contact cement, (apply a thin layer to BOTH the rough side of the leather and the top of the base, let it dry for 15-20 minutes, then press together and roll on it to really set the bond,) glue it to the base and let it dry. Trim it to size. Then use 3-4 pea sized 'dots' of ordinary shoe cream (NOT shoe polish or wax!) that you can buy in any shoe store, department store, Walmart, Target, most supermarkets, etc., rub the cream into the surface of the leather. Rub it in well using the heel of your hand. Let the strop sit over night, then using a clean cloth gently rub off any excess cream. The End.
    You now have a strop (or three) better than 98% of those being sold anywhere for any amount of money! It's as simple as that!
    The right leather is important.
    The right processing is even MORE important.
    Once or twice (only!) a year re-do the shoe cream treatment and your strop will be something to pass down to your grandkids!


    Stitchawl
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
  9. TPVT

    TPVT Gold Member Gold Member

    Feb 14, 2012
    this is excellent information. thanks stitchawl.
     
  10. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    You're welcome.
    Is your avatar a view of Camel's Hump from Mt. Mansfield?


    Stitchawl
     
  11. beoram

    beoram

    Nov 27, 2001
    stitchawl - many thanks for all of the additional information - including the make it yourself information. So "shell" is good in general, but horsehide has denser fibre, but that really only matters when using a plain strop rather than something with CrOx or the like on it.

    On the skin vs. muscle ideas - I got that from here: http://straightrazorplace.com/stropping/42218-cordovan-vs-shell-vs-horsehide.html

    there's discussion somewhere about the middle of the page, including:

    "Shell is actually produced from a part of the subcutaneous muscle layer in horses, and other mammals, called the panniculus carnosus. Humans have a similar thin muscle called the platysma (in our necks, not our butts)"

    Is this incorrect? That is, is shell simply from the skin on the rump - is "horsebutt" and "shell" the same?


    I actually started thinking about all of this from looking at my shoes (so I suppose that comes full circle, since shell is also used for shoes) - which are made from yak hide. And I began to wonder what yak hide strops would be like. (Hard to make is my guess, since I understand that Ecco shoes had to figure out how to process yak hide to make useable shoes - at least their website suggested something of this nature.)
     
  12. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    Almost, but not quite... When using any leather strop, a firm dense surface prevents the leather from pushing up around the edge when the blade is pressed into it. The more softer the surface, the more care needs to be used to prevent this from happening. With a firm, dense surface, there is less chance of this going on, so we want our strops to be firm, with a dense fiber construction. Horse hide generally has a more dense fiber structure than cow hide. But again, the body 'location' where the hide is taken from plays into this. Horse hide from the horse's belly will be less dense than cowhide cut from the 'bend' section along the cow's back. With horse hide, the area just in front of the tail on either side of the spine has two oval areas that are especially dense. This 'area' is called the 'shell.' So this means that the Shell portions of the horsehide are going to be the most dense type of leather we can easily get. OK... that takes care of density.

    Now, when using a 'bare' strop (i.e. no compounds,) we are using the natural silicates in the leather as our abrasive. It's not the 'leather,' it's the silicates IN the leather that are doing the final polishing.
    Generally speaking, horse hide has a greater concentration of natural silicates than cowhide. So if our strop is made of horse hide (having more silicates,) we don't have to take quite as many strokes on the strop to finish the edge as we would if we were using cowhide (having a lower concentration of natural silicates.)

    Put these two together and we get a horsehide strop (with a high concentration of silicates) made from the Shell area (the densest fibers) being the most effective and efficient strop to use (without compounds.)

    Yes... and no. Unfortunately, they are getting their information from Wikipedia, and that's often a crap shoot at best. You can NOT make leather from muscle tissue. Muscle fibers, called myofibrils, are in bundles held together by connective tissue called perimysium. You've probably noticed this when preparing dinner and seen a silvery outer layer over some meat, generally called 'silverskin.' If you remove it, and stew the meat long enough, the meat falls apart into individual muscle fibers, and becomes tender. This is what would happen if you tried to make a strop from a muscle.

    The panniculus carnosus IS a muscle. (Skin is skin. It's a discrete 'system' of the body just as the muscular system is.) As your quote states, 'it's part of the subcutaneous tissues.' This part is correct. But it's not 'part' of the skin. (The term 'subcutaneous' means 'UNDER the skin.') It's originates in the subcutaneous facia that lies just UNDER the skin and attaches to bone so that it can contract when its nerve fires. (Muscles can only contract or release. Nothing else.) That this muscle is pulling on the skin might make one consider that it is part of the skin itself, but it isn't.


    Next, 'Shell' isn't really a 'thing.' It's an place.. and area. It's the part of the horse's hide that has a much denser cell structure, much stronger cell fibers, than the rest of the hide. It's easy to see this area as the hair grows differently over it. You can see it clearly in the Horween video that I linked to. This 'area' is cut out from the rest of the hide and processed in a special way. Now here is where the confusion arises... At this point, for convenience sake only, these oval of hide are called shells. The same way we'd call areas of cowhide 'bends,' or 'bellies,' or 'shoulders.' (The cowhide 'shoulder' isn't really a shoulder. It's the skin that covers the shoulder.)

    To prepare this area of the skin (the shell) for the Cordovan Process, both the very top surface (where the hair was) and the very bottom surface (where the subcutaneous facia and panniculus carnosus were) are scraped off. Bare millimeters of material. Again, you can see this scraping being done in the video. This leaves the very dense middle portion of the skin free for continued processing.

    To be precise, the shell area is a 'portion of' the skin on the rump, not the entire rump. Generally speaking, the leather sold as horsebutt is 'usually' the part of the rump hide between the tail and the shells. Once again, you can see this clearly in the video when Mr. Horween is cutting the shell areas free from the hides. Those thin strips that he's piling up at the back of the table are what is 'usually' sold as 'horsebutt' leather. (Note my use of the word 'usually...') Some hide dealers do sell entire rump sections intact, but do keep in mind that it is VERY difficult to tan the shell sections properly because they are so dense. It takes several months in the tanning solution, with constant agitation to get proper penetration.

    For strop making, using any part of the rump section of horse hide will work well. While the shell section will be more dense, the butt pieces will still be more dense than most cowhide, and once compressed properly, will make an excellent strop! They have the same amount of silicates found in any other part of the hide, and will last a lifetime if treated properly.


    Stitchawl
     
  13. unit

    unit

    Nov 22, 2009
    I did not read everything here, but will share this.

    Straight razor forums can be a wealth of information for those seeking very high degrees of refinement in their edges and finishing and maintaining with a bare leather strop. That said, I subscribe to the belief that the strop material is not important beyond your preference in firmness of draw (assuming a certain standard of quality is equal between leather types).

    Personally, I don't even use a bare strip on my knives, and for a loaded strop, I feel that leather source is even less important. Your compound source sure is though;)
     
  14. TPVT

    TPVT Gold Member Gold Member

    Feb 14, 2012
    close! it is from the top of camel's hump. good eye!
     
  15. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    I thought it looked familiar. I've walked every inch of that ridge line, end-to-end on the Long Trail!

    Stitchawl
     
  16. beoram

    beoram

    Nov 27, 2001
    Ah, that clears things up.

    I checked Wikipedia, it looks like the idea about 'fibrous muscle' originates from a 1929 book on shopping (I presume from the section on shoes) [Baldwin, William Henry (1929). The Shopping Book. The Macmillan company. p. 223.]. I'm guessing (haven't seen the book) that perhaps the author of that book asked about the origins of shell leather, someone explained to him that it came from the skin on a horse above the fibrous panniculus carnosus muscle, and he conflated the skin and the muscle in his book on shopping.

    The link on the processing of cordoban leather is interesting - with such dense leather, those shoes must indeed not breathe well.
     
  17. TPVT

    TPVT Gold Member Gold Member

    Feb 14, 2012
    Nice! i've always wanted to do the long trail. one day.

    thanks again for the thread. i have made some strops before (bad ones), but i have never seen the info before on processing them. good stuff.
     
  18. one eye

    one eye

    38
    Apr 23, 2014
    Stichawl does matter how much pressure you apply on the rolling pin while hardening the leather.
     
  19. stitchawl

    stitchawl

    Jul 26, 2008
    While the 'result' is a harder leather, the primary goal is to 'compress' rather than harden. The secondary goal is to cause the silicates within the cell structure to migrate to the surface. Remember, it's those silicates that are needed to do the abrasive polishing with a bare strop. If you just wanted 'hard' leather, you could use a piece of rawhide. Or not use leather at all. Cardboard works well when used bare, as does the cover of National Geographic. Not as good as bare leather (as the abrasives in them are of a larger grit size,) but both are hard, cheap, and easily found.

    With that secondary goal in mind, 'my' thinking is that it would be better to roll longer rather than press harder. If you look at the Horween video, you can see their process. It's a repeated rolling action rather than a single hard pressing. I'm sure there are machines that could 'press' the leather down with a single stroke, compressing it as thin as could be in a single time-saving action, but that doesn't seem to give the desired result... Cordovan Leather, the closest approximation to the Russian Red Leather process. That old process involved pulling the hides back and forth over the rounded ends of logs for several days, rather than just pressing them down with heavy weights.

    When I make my strops, I make sure that the leather has been thoroughly wetted, allowed to dry for an hour or so, then with the leather on a smooth hard surface (the marble kitchen counter,) I use an ordinary rolling pin and the same pressure I use for rolling out a pie crust, rolling end to end, and occasionally turning the leather over. I put some good music on, and roll until I'm so damn bored I can't roll any more... usually about 30 minutes. This produces an excellent piece of leather to use for a bare strop. Then it's up to you how you want to complete it; bench mount or hanging.


    Stitchawl
     
  20. John A. Larsen

    John A. Larsen

    Jan 15, 2001
    I got a cordovan horsehide strop given to me about 20 years ago and it still is hanging in there. I t was a gift from Kramer Leather. I just Goggle "Kramer Leather, Tacoma, WA" and their site came up and they still offer the same strop. John
     

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