A Cordovan Shell Strop and my Grandfather's Legacy

Discussion in 'Straight Razors' started by PLANofMAN, Jul 12, 2012.

  1. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Paperboy

    Article Team
    I figured I’d make this a combination show and tell and a basic overview of Cordovan Shell strops in general. In the picture is a vintage U.S.A. made Cordovan Shell and linen strop from the 1940’s or 1950’s. It could be from as early as the 1920’s though. It belonged to my grandfather, Dale B. Foster, and was used by him in his business as a barber. The strop is in perfect vintage condition, and you may never see one in such fine shape again. This is attributed to several factors, my grandfather maintained it carefully during his lifetime, and afterwards, though none of my family wet shaved, most were leather and wood workers at some point and took care to use leather dressing on it frequently. (The razor in the pic is "Man O' War", my current favorite shaver.)

    This is what these strops usually look like today, still serviceable but poorly maintained over the years:
    My strop and a C-MON Special were purchased at the same time, at the same store. The razor was also in perfect shape until I shattered the blade by accident. I’ll include a picture of the razor as well and hopefully I will be able to replace it one of these days. Both razor and strop were sold by Peter J. Michaels, Inc. (the razor shown below belongs to sanners from Straight Razor Place, but is identical to the one I used to own.)


    Cordovan Shell is not leather as we understand it. It refers to both a tanning process and a part of horse hide that is not, technically speaking, hide. On the horse’s rump or hindquarters are thick circular shaped portions of hide called “shell”. The lower layer of this hide is actually a thin, flat, dense layer of muscle. This muscle is what allows a horse to “twitch” it’s skin to shake off flies or other biting insects. One section of this hide is on each side of the horse. One horse provides enough shell to make four to six 3” wide strops and about eight 2” strops.

    Shell leather is unique in that it has virtually no grain and is highly scratch resistant. This makes it virtually impervious to water and a perfect medium to use as a strop. The only treatment a properly maintained shell strop needs is an application of Carnauba wax about once or twice a year. Isn’t Carnauba wax used for car wax? Yep. Now you are starting to see what makes Cordovan shell so special.

    Edit: After careful review of leather treatments, I have decided to use non-petroleum based products on my strops. petroleum based products include the aforementioned Carnauba wax recommended by a strop vendor and mink oil. Old barbershop manuals recommend an application of lathered tallow soap. Many modern shavers only use the oils from their hand rubbed into the strop. I choose to use Dr. Marten's Wonder Balsam. Wonder Balsam is made from a mixture of Coconut Oil, lanolin, and beeswax, all of which are natural oils and waxes.

    When we hear the word cordovan, we usually think of the reddish brown color used to describe gentleman’s dress shoes. While this is correct, Cordovan Shell refers to a tanning process originating from the city of Cordoba, in Spain. Only two tanneries in the world use the Cordovan process of tanning, and the only one that still tans horsehide is located in the United States at Horween Tannery in Chicago, Illinois. Leather tanned in the cordovan style at Horween is vegetable tanned. This tanning process takes up to six months. Vegetable tanned leather is more durable because it is completely tanned. If you look at the edge of chrome or chromium tanned leather, you can see layers; a colored outside layer and an untanned whitish or blue tinted inner layer. This leather is tanned in no more than a day or two. The price difference is huge, which is why most leather goods are manufactured using chrome tanned leather and are painted or covered on the edges to hide the marks of low quality leather. Here is a video showing how Horween Tannery produces Shell Cordovan.

    Were Cordovan Shell strops always so expensive? No. Until the 1950’s, large draft horses were still commonly used on farms and in cities around the world. They provided a steady supply of large, quality horsehide. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that there were more automobiles in New York City than horse drawn conveyances. If it wasn’t for the demand for leather for high quality cordovan dress shoes, it is doubtful that cordovan shell leather would be produced at all. As it is, only one or two manufacturers and a handful of artisan strop makers even produce modern Cordovan Shell Strops and even they are having a hard time sourcing quality cordovan shell in a size big enough to make a single 24” strop. Most currently produced shell strops are only 16-18” long.

    New Cordovan Shell strops are very slick for the first 4-6 months of daily use. It takes a long time for them to fully break in and start having a nice “draw”, but once they are broken in they will reward you with a lifetime of service.

    If anyone is interested in buying shell to make their own strops, this is the retail arm of Horween:

    In April of 2012, from www.bibledesignblog.com:

    "Vincent visited Horween, which sells cordovan in various grades which run anywhere from 1 to 2.75 square feet in size, with price tags ranging from $62.90 all the way up to $255. He bought a square foot of #8 shell and was out the door for about $77."
    NOTE: #8 refers to the color of the shell, which in this case was burgundy, also known as...you guessed it- cordovan.

    I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing this. If you learned something new, it was worth it.
  2. swarden43

    swarden43 "It's your shave. Enjoy it your way."©

    :signs107: Well done.
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  3. oscar11

    oscar11 Well-Known Member

    I did enjoy it and thanks.
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  4. Hanzo

    Hanzo Well-Known Member

    Great write up , very informative.
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  5. burnout961

    burnout961 Well-Known Member

    Very interesting and I did learn something new. Thanks for te write up.
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  6. emmijack

    emmijack Well-Known Member

    Beautiful razor and strop, and very informative story, thanks for sharing!!!!
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  7. jeraldgordon

    jeraldgordon TSD's Mascot

    Very interesting indeed. Thanks for that!
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  8. goshawk

    goshawk Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the article - if I ever see one of these for sale at a flea market, I'll know what to do!

    Best Regards

    PLANofMAN likes this.
  9. Slipperyjoe

    Slipperyjoe Rusty Metal Tetanus

    Seriously great stuff and I enjoyed the story and pics..:2thumbs:
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  10. adam.vorwald

    adam.vorwald Member

    I also have used Dr. Martens wonder balsam on my horsehide strop. I am happy with the results and am looking forward to many years of use from my “Nations Leather”strop[​IMG]

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk Pro
    brit, SevenEighth, Keithmax and 3 others like this.
  11. Heljestrand23

    Heljestrand23 Well-Known Member

    Thank you so much, an excellent read!

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  12. SevenEighth

    SevenEighth Well-Known Member

    Brilliant post and deserves a bump.
    PLANofMAN and Spyder like this.
  13. brit

    brit in a box

    very cool and interesting article...
    Spyder likes this.
  14. Spyder

    Spyder Well-Known Member

    My daily driver is a vintage shell strop. The part about using tallow based shave soap in the op is spot on. In fact this is the only beneficial use I can find for Williams :scared003:
    PLANofMAN, mrchick and Heljestrand23 like this.
  15. MR&S

    MR&S Active Member

    My Horsehide strops. [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]

    Wysłane z mojego SM-G950F przy użyciu Tapatalka
  16. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Paperboy

    Article Team
    Those are lovely.
    Spyder and MR&S like this.
  17. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Paperboy

    Article Team
    One thing I never mentioned in the write-up is that, when I was growing up, that strop was use to paddle my butt more than once. I was terrified of that thing, and the phrase, "Do I need to get out the razor strop?" was often the only thing needed to cause an immediate attitude adjustment. When I got too old for spankings, it was given to my Uncle, where it terrorized a whole new generation of the family.

    When I started wet shaving, I reclaimed it and put it back to it's original purpose. I suspect that if it had never been used to spank us kids, it would have deteriorated, forgotten in a basement or attic, or been sold at a yard sale for a pittance.

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