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Conversations With Obie

Conversations With Obie

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Published by Bill Franklin

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Published by: Bill Franklin on May 02, 2012
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05/02/2012

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Conversation with Neil Miller
by
Obie
Published on 12-31-2011 10:00 PMNeilObieThe love affair between the straight razor and the strop is like reading Jane Austen by a warmfire, or savoring port wine with Stilton cheese. For me, aside from tuning the blade as if amusical instrument, stropping paves a link into a state of bliss. I often find myself stroppingfar more than I need to just because of that. No wonder I continue to explore the world of strops and strop makers. One such world belongs to British strop maker Neil Miller, whosevast interests and talents have amounted toa string of successful careers.
Obie:
As a maker of strops, how do you view the relationship between the straight razor andthe strop?
Neil:
Well, let's start by stating the obvious.You can't have one without the other. Seriouslythough, I like your “tuning the blade” analogy. I find that very apt. The relationship betweenthe two is also synergistic in that the raw, freshly honed razor's edge is enhanced bystropping. Stropping also conditions the strop, burnishing its surface. For me the act is deeply symbolic, too. It provides a bridge betweenthe past and the present, and representscontinuity.
Obie:
As a tuning instrument, then, what essential properties does a quality strop possess?
Neil:
As long as the leather is of sufficient quality, has no artificial top layer, is suitably pliablefor the type of strop and possesses suitable draw, then the prime requirements are met.Width and length come next in importance. Handles, hanging gear, swivels, hooks and meansof attachment are all of secondary importance.
Obie:
Going on the assumption of every positive having its parallel negative, what screams of 
 
a low quality strop that one should avoid?
Neil:
Anything that does not meet at least the first four requirements should be regarded witha certain amount of caution. For instance, a hanging strop made with a hard, card-like leatherthat has no draw at all is next to useless. Unless it is designed to undergo a breaking-inregime. That is something rarely seen nowadays, but it was common with older strops. Imean particularly the old Russian-tanned strops — the name persists, but the strops are notthe same these days.The leather is of prime importance, providing it is of good quality — and the strop will be OK.Price is something of a determining factor, too, although a good, serviceable strop can beproduced for quite a small sum. If the price looks too cheap, then it is in all probability notgood for the purpose.
Obie:
A subtle war has always existed between the hand-made and the machine-madeworlds. Clothing, automobile seats, straight razors, strops, just about everything, I suppose —one or the other may win the battle, but who the war?
Neil:
I don't think I would use the words “battle” and “war,” Obie. In a way we arecomparing two different philosophies, both of which have their good points. Which one youchoose, machine-made or hand-made, will most likely have more to do with your ownphilosophy of life than with one being inherently better than the other. As with most things inlife there is no simple answer. One man might choose a megabuck custom made razor,another a more pedestrian model. If they both do the job to the particular individual'srequirements, all is well and good.
Obie:
In our correspondence you’ve made a statement that intrigues me. It’s a profoundstatement, I might add. You’ve said, “I like to see the hand of man in human works.” 
Neil:
That is part of my philosophy of life. I believe that mere mortals can aspire toperfection, but never attain it — that is the province of the gods. When I see somethingimpressive made by a machine, I appreciate its value. But when I see something impressivethat is hand-made by a man, I can see the heart and soul that has gone into it, and I aminfinitely more impressed. The small tell-tale marks that something has been hand-made arelike tracks in time, another link to the past when all things were hand made out of necessity.Sometimes when I restore or repair vintage razors, I find the maker’s initials scratched on theinside of the scales. In recovering old paddle strops I have revealed handwriting on the timberthat was covered with leather. In repairing old camera lenses I have seen the lens grinder'sname signed in India ink on the outer rim of the brass-bound lens. These things have avisceral impact for me that is hard to put into words. It could include nostalgia, tradition, toil,remembrance, continuity, sentimentality, solidity — all these things and more.
Obie:
So then I can only assume you lay open this philosophy before you like a book andproceed to use the recipe to make the Neil Miller strop. How does a strop start in yourhandcrafted world and the process of making it progress?
 
Neil:
Not with a recipe, unfortunately. It starts with the leather, with a half or full hide, acroupon or a small oval shell. I have to feel the nap, if any, the natural grain, the scars andthe marks. Then I can see the strop.
Obie:
What determines what type of a strop you make, what style, and what size?
Neil:
As I said, the leather kind of dictates its end use for the most part. Once that has beenestablished I can see where I want to go. When I worked in design, we were taught to “feelwhat's in the air.” It’s a semi nonsensical phrase that means you are guided more by feelingor intuition than by anything else. Of course, that “intuition” is colored in great degree by whatyou have previously experienced, so it's probably not a blind thing anyway. Don't tell thefashion designers I said that, by the way.
Obie:
Not a peep out of me. Tell me, does each type and size strop offer specific challengesor are they not all that different?
Neil:
Width, thickness and tanning make a huge difference. For a 3-inch strop we ideallywant leather that is not too prone to cup or to curl. Most leathers will exhibit this tendency tosome degree. They were once the coverings of curvilinear animals, after all. So we have tochoose carefully. Something from near the shoulder will not be that appropriate, for example,as the skin of the animal in life was quite bent and stretched in that location. The thicknesswill dictate how the handles and the hardware are applied. Very thick leathers, say around 5millimeters, aren't that easy to sew, so you have to resort to rivets or to skiving it down whereit is to be joined.Hanging strops offer the most challenges. Paddles let you get over things like thickness andthe tendency to cup or curl — the thinnest and thickest leathers may be used with freedom.Shorter lengths of leather are used, too, so something prone to much scarring can be usedmore effectively. For instance, kangaroos tend to be quite battle-scarred.
Obie:
Do you find the need to match a certain type of leather, fabric or linen to a specific typeof a strop? Or is it one for all?
Neil:
Bearing in mind what we discussed, I think that apart from hanging strops, loom-typestrops have a certain requirement that must be complied with. That is the use of a thicker,more compactly tanned leather. I have seen a lot of loom strops where the leather has beendistorted and ended up permanently cupped or curled.
Obie:
What type of leather do you fancy most?
Neil:
I like shell cordovan, really, but I don't use it regularly. I strop so many razors everyday that I could not justify the price. I go through quite a few strops. A good tallow tanleather is almost as good as shell, and the particular type of Latigo I use forms my everydaystrop. It is thinner than normal, much finer grained and less oiled, possessing a medium-lightdraw.
Obie:
What about the second part of the strop? Linen, fabric or felt?

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