A frustrating problem that happens all too often is a dull blade. I will attempt to make a precise cut, or thinning skive leather, only to be met with resistance. When this happens, I turn to my leather strop. It polishes my knife and restores the edge to razor-sharp, perfect tune-up that has become a daily practice in my workshop.
A leather strop is a finishing tool used to sharpen blades by removing their burr while also polishing the edge. A strop can be made of any leather with a smooth texture, including suede. Both sides of leather can be used as a strop and can have polished compounds added to help the process.
Keeping your tools sharp is a crucial part of leather craft. Let’s look at the different types of leather and how they perform as a stropping tool.
What Is Leather for Stropping?
Leather for stropping is leather chosen to be used as a polishing tool. A strop is used as a finishing method or a touch-up tool that removes the rolled metal on any tool. Leather used with strops is thick and has no surface texture.
Ideally, a strop should be perfectly smooth to prevent any inconsistencies when using it. Most leather strops are made from three types of leather, vegetable tanned, oil tanned, and suede. Each leather will perform similarly but may have a different draw performance and hold the polishing compound better.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Leather for Stropping
- Leather for Stropping Overview Table
- Why Use Leather for Stropping
- Types of Leather for Stropping
- Which Side of Leather is Best for Stropping
- How To Use Leather for Stropping
- How To Maintain Leather for Stropping
- Pros of Leather for Stropping
- Cons of Leather for Stropping
- Tips for Leather Stropping
- Alternatives To Using Leather for Stropping
- My Personal Research Into Leather for Stropping
- Helpful Leather for Stropping Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Strops are commonly seen as sharpening tools, but while they can help a blade reach its full potential, they do not sharpen. The sharpening process is completely done before a blade is brought to a strop. A leather strop simply removes the burr that has built up during the sharpening process, uncovering the apex of the blade.
This can make strops seem like they are sharpening the blade. Similarly, a blade that has been used can be stropped to remove the material that has rolled over. A strop can only sharpen the blade when a polishing compound is used with the strop. Polishing compounds have micro-abrasions that act as super fine sandpaper; otherwise, a strop only removes rolled metal and polishes the edge.
History of Leather for Stropping
Leather strops have been used for centuries by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. At the time strops were made from raw animal hide or natural leather. Their popularity only grew throughout the Middle Ages, with blacksmiths becoming a highly valued career. During the Industrial Revolution, mass production of knives and tools became more common, and sharpening equipment was necessary.
While the polishing compounds and sharpening methods had changed over time, strops remained largely leather. Today leather strops remain a popular choice for finishing the edge of a blade. While the design and supplies used with a strop have changed over time. Passing a blade over the leather to refine it still holds true, making leather strops a popular tool everywhere.
Leather strops are popular among:
- Knife enthusiasts
Leather for Stropping Overview Table
|Vegetable Tanned Flesh||Firm, with a hairy texture throughout. Good for holding polishing compound|
|Vegetable Tanned Grain||Firmest and completely smooth. Best for the final passes with a strop. No polishing compound is required.|
|Oil Tanned Flesh||Soft, with an oily hairy texture throughout. Semi-flexible surface, good for holding polishing compound|
|Oil Tanned Grain||Slightly firm, with a smooth, waxy finish throughout. Provides a semi-flexible stropping surface with an increased draw|
|Suede||Softest, hairy texture on both sides. Extremely flexible, good for holding polishing compound|
Why Use Leather for Stropping
While there are many great materials to use for stropping, leather remains the most common. Leather is highly durable and much thicker than other stropping materials. Providing a long-lasting tool that can see wear without becoming damaged as quickly. Leather is also smooth while remaining firm, creating a consistent surface that is not rough on the edges of the blades.
It strikes the perfect balance, being soft enough to hone an edge while being capable of removing a burr. Stropping should be done as the last step of any sharpening process or as a touch-up tool. Both will provide a sharp, polished edge that will keep any blade cutting like a razor.
Types of Leather for Stropping
Natural vegetable tanned leather is often considered the best for stropping, while dyed vegetable tanned leather can still be used; the natural color will help show where any polishing compound has been added.
Vegetable tanned leather is also firmer than oil tanned, providing a stable, even surface for working on, and best suited for being mounted onto a board or other firm material. Since the leather remains as natural as possible, the draw while using a vegetable tanned strop is limited, making for quick, smooth passes with little resistance.
The second most popular choice for stropping is oil tanned leather. Oil tanning is a type of chromium tanning that stuffs the leather with oil to make it more durable. You can feel this waxy coating when using it for stropping.
Oil tanned leather has an increased draw compared to vegetable tanned leather, slowing down each pass. Oil tanned leather is also soft and more flexible than vegetable tanned. This makes it a great choice for those looking for a barber or travel-type strop.
Suede is not a popular leather strop, but it can still provide a good finish on the edge of tools. Suede is the softest and most flexible leather, allowing it to be rolled up without damage. This can be helpful for those looking for a strop that can be traveled with. Suede is best at holding a polishing compound.
As they are added, the fibers stick closer together, making a good stropping surface. Since suede has a similar surface on both sides of the leather, it can hold two different types of polishing compounds, allowing users to slowly build up a polish with multiple levels of compound intensity.
Which Side of Leather is Best for Stropping
The grain side of leather is the best side to use when stropping. The grain side is much smoother and is typically denser. With the grain being denser, the side will feel firmer when compared to the flesh.
When passing a blade over any stropping leather, consistency is key. Soft or squishy leather can cause a blade to make more contact in one area than the other, making pressure hard to keep consistent and potentially affecting the final finish of the edge.
How To Use Leather for Stropping
- Pick leather with an even thickness and no blemishes
- If desired, rub the polishing compound into the leather to prepare the surface
- Make controlled passes along the surface, keeping the blade angle the same throughout
- Repeat passes for each side of the blade until the desired polish is achieved.
In this helpful video by Knife Center, David C Anderson details various leather strops, including how to sharpen a knife.
How To Maintain Leather for Stropping
Cleaning/Conditioning Leather for Stropping
Just like any other leather, stropping leather needs to be maintained. A horse hair brush is great for removing any debris that could affect stropping. Over time, both vegetable and oil tanned leather may dry. To prevent this, a leather conditioner should routinely hydrate the leather. A dry stop can become cracked, ruining the even surface of the leather.
Storing Leather for Stropping
All leather strops must be stored in a controlled environment, away from moisture, direct sunlight, and extreme heat, which can cause damage, ranging from dryness to the leather becoming deformed. To take extra precaution, a leather strop may be placed in a dust cover. This will help keep the strop clean from debris and provide a slightly protective layer from moisture and sunlight.
Pros of Leather for Stropping
Leather is a great material for making strops. The surface is smooth enough to polish metal while providing enough abrasion to catch and remove a burr. The flesh side of leather is slightly rougher and fibrous. These fibers are great for applying polishing compounds, which can stick while pressing down to create a smoother surface.
Where leather truly stands out, however, is in its longevity. Leather wears much slower than other materials while being thicker than them, providing a durable surface that will not develop holes. Its thickness provides a sturdy surface that can be used alone and adds firmness preventing the strop from becoming misshapen.
These qualities create a highly durable tool that can be used for a lifetime when well maintained. John D. Verhoeven, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa, researched the various methods for sharpening knives. When it came to stropping, he found it works best as a finishing tool, creating a razor edge on knives that had already been sharpened to a high crit.
Pros of leather for stropping include:
- Smooth surface
- Great for applying polishing compounds
Cons of Leather for Stropping
While leather is one of the best materials for stropping, it also has some downsides. The initial one is the price. Other materials for stropping include denim, cardboard, wood, and even newspaper. Many of these items are household staples, making leather feel like a luxury choice for a strop.
Leather is also the only stropping material that requires maintenance. While it will last much longer than other materials, the leather will dry out, crack, and possibly deform if not well kept. This additional upkeep can turn some away from leather as a stropping choice.
Lastly, leather is not the easiest to travel with. While oil tanned and suede leather has some flexibility, the former can still develop wrinkles when bent for too long. The same can be said for vegetable tanned leather with even less flexibility.
Tips for Leather Stropping
When deciding on what leather to use, look for a thicker, firm piece that is even throughout — providing a stable surface when using the strop while also being long-lasting. When possible, find a blemish-free piece of leather, avoiding large defects such as holes, bumps, or branding marks.
When setting up the strop, the flesh side works best for applying the polishing compound, though both sides can be used. Ideally, the strop should be kept clean and the leather hydrated. Proper maintenance is required to prevent the leather from drying out and potentially cracking. If the leather has too much resistance when drawing the blade, rub the leather with a clean cotton cloth to help bring out the natural oils making it smoother.
Alternatives To Using Leather for Stropping
Various alternative materials for stropping can be found in everyday homes. Materials such as cardboard, newsprint, and wood, may all provide a stropping surface. They will, however, require a polishing compound for the best results.
Denim or synthetic leathers are popular choices for materials that do not require a compound. Both have comparable roughness to leather and can catch the burr of the blade to realign the edge.
My Personal Research Into Leather for Stropping
To research leather used for stropping, I decided to test the most popular strop leathers myself. I did not use stropping compound and focused on how the motion felt and the blade’s relative sharpness.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
My choice of vegetable tanned leather was a thick 8oz piece that was completely natural. I typically use this to strop, so the action was very familiar to me. The draw is fast and smooth, making the blade glide across. The natural color of the leather allows me to see if any loose material is being removed during the polishing. As for sharpness, the strop has improved the blade’s edge, making it feel similar to a freshly sharpened one.
Oil Tanned Leather
For oil tanned leather, I had various choices and decided to go for a similar thickness, 7oz, in a dark brown. This leather wasn’t as oily as cheaper leather hides but did have plenty of pull up, highlighting the amount of waxes used. Using the oil tanned leather for stropping was surprisingly nice.
The surface finish pulled my blade into it and held it throughout the pass. While the draw increased, that magnetic feeling helped me maintain control. However, when using different pressures, I could feel the leather start to dip.
While I don’t think it is a problem for light stropping, a heavier touch might make a difference. Comparing the sharpness of the two types of leather, they were almost identical. The oil tanned strop had a slightly sharper edge, but I feel like this was due to the magnetic feeling with the strop.
I did not have a suede as thick as the other pieces I tested, only finding one 4oz piece. I chose cow suede with a tighter fiber and shorter hairs to give it the best shot. Stropping on the suede felt as if I was using the flesh side of other leathers. The blade passed over the top, with some fibers slicking down with each pass.
Since none of the pieces were mounted, the suede felt very spongy. As I held the strop and passed the blade over it, I felt slightly stretching. When finished, the blade was not as sharp as the others. It was improved but lacked the buttery feeling when attempting to use it.
All of the leathers used for the test were an improvement to the blade, but vegetable tanned, and oil tanned were the standouts. The suede did a fine job but lacked the same polish the other leathers provided. Both types of leather were very similar in their final finish.
I recommend trying each strop if possible, as the main change was the feel of the strop. Vegetable tanned leather was quick as the blade guided across, while the oil tanned provided a more magnetic feeling.
Each leather will perform similarly but may have a different draw performance and hold the polishing compound better.
Helpful Leather for Stropping Insights
What leather is best for stropping?
Both oil and vegetable tanned leather are ideal for stropping. They perform similarly, with vegetable tanned leather being firmer and less resistant when passing the blade across it. With both of these leathers, the flesh side can also be utilized to add a polishing compound, offering the best of both worlds when stropping.
Can any piece of leather be used for stropping?
Yes, almost any piece of leather can be used for stropping as long as it has been well-maintained and does not have large defects in the stropping area. Each leather will have its own characteristics, providing a different feeling when passing a blade over them. Dyed and waxed leather can still be used, with the only downside being how hard it may be to see where a polishing compound is applied.
Can you use an old leather belt for stropping?
Yes, most leather belts can be a great option when looking for a material to strop with. However, make sure the leather is not dry or cracking when using a belt. Choosing the best location on the belt is also key. Find a suitable area with less wear for the best experience. The only downside of stropping with a leather belt is the width is much smaller than most stropping boards.
- Leather strops are a great tool for polishing and honing the edge of a blade.
- Vegetable tanned, oil tanned, and suede leather are all good leathers to use for stropping.
- Leather’s longevity and durability provide a tool that can last a lifetime when properly maintained.
Maintaining a sharp blade is always important when leather crafting. It is not only safer but makes any work we do much easier. Luckily the same leather we work with is also the best stropping material available. Leather strops are a great way to maintain the edges of blades or polish a freshly sharpened one, providing smooth, clean cuts during every task for any project.
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