So, many people ask me about honing razors and invariably ask about the pyramid honing method popularized by Lynn Abrams. I covered it briefly in my Beginner’s Guide to Honing, but haven’t really tackled the subject since posting the guide. Now, I’ll admit, I have completely ignored sharpening razors on the blog other than the my honing process series. In this article, I will tackle the most talked about honing method to date: pyramid honing/sharpening. I’ll show you why your wasting your time and how you achieve the same results with 1/2 as much effort.
First off, lets start by defining what pyramid honing is. Well, pyramid sharpening of razor blades involves putting your razor inside of a pyramid. Now, it’s obviously important to use the correct pyramid, ie of copper, etc. Okay, now that you’ve got the razor inside the pyramid, all you have to do is leave the razor inside the pyramid for a day or two. The pyramid will use magnetic fields to re-sharpen the razor. So, using the power of pyramids, you can straight razor shave for very cheap.
Okay, on to the debunking: Mythbusters has already debunked this myth, so I won’t go through the trouble.
That is not pyramid honing. Pyramid honing is the honing process popularized by Lynn Abrams and Straight Razor Place. It is called a pyramid because the honing method resembles a pyramid. It resembles a pyramid in that the first level requires a lot of strokes or laps, then the next level reduces the amount of laps, and so forth until you reach the top of the pyramid where you only do a few laps on the stones.
The pyramid honing method requires two grits of sharpening stone. A 4k stone and an 8k stone. This is important for reasons I will elaborate upon further into the article. For now, you’ll have to trust me that it won’t be as effective with a different combination of grits. Now, the goal of the pyramid honing method is to get yourself a shave ready straight razor with a minimum of effort and skill. To give credit where credit is due, the pyramid method does actually achieve a shave ready razor with a minimum of knowledge and skill. However, the pyramid method is highly inefficient. I’ll show you why in a little bit. First, let’s look at what exactly the pyramid method is. The pyramid method requires the straight razor aficionado to do a certain number of strokes or laps on the 4k stone, then a certain number of laps on the 8k stone. The user then repeats the process until he/she ends up at the tip of the pyramid and does 1 4k lap and 10 or 20 8k laps. A lap is two back and forth strokes on the stone. One for each side of the edge. I will use strokes and laps as synonyms in the rest of this article.
So, for example’s sake, let’s look at a typical pyramid honing plan. At the bottom of the pyramid you can see that you do a lot of 4k laps and very few 8k laps. Then they even out in the middle, and finally at the top, the number of 8k laps vastly outnumbers the number of 4k laps. Here is a pyramid honing plan taken from SRP:
|Strokes on 4k||Strokes on 8k|
The truly interesting thing about the pyramid is that you can customize it to fit your needs as well. The above pyramid is highly inefficient. There is absolutely no benefit to doing 25 8k strokes on the base level. Here is my suggested pyramid if your interested in actually pursuing this method of honing.
|Strokes on 4k||Strokes on 8k|
As you can see, I’ve cut out the excess 8k strokes. Why did I cut out those strokes? Because they’re a waste of time!!! Let’s think about this logically, if the point of honing is to remove the prior scratches from the coarser stone, why the heck would you go back to the coarser stone? It is exactly the same principal used in sanding and metal polishing. You remove all the scratch marks from the previous grit and then move on to a higher grit. Sharpening a razor is no different. The end goal of the pyramid is to replace all the 4k scratches with 8k scratches.
Now, am I saying this method does not work? No, absolutely not. It clearly works. Look at the end result. The end of the pyramid has you honing only once on the 4k stone and 5x-10x on the 8k stone. Doesn’t that seem like a little low you might ask. Yet, the answer is surprisingly no. While the 4k stone may require a large amount of laps or strokes, if you are skilled and don’t mess up the edge, the 8k stone only requires a maximum of 20 laps in most cases. Some razors require more, but that is getting into advanced honing topics. This is still Honing 101.
In the rest of the article I will explain first, why the pyramid system works, and then I will explain how it is actually inefficient.
Why Pyramid Honing Works
Pyramid honing works. Don’t ever quote me as saying it doesn’t. It truly works. It is also a very simple formula for beginner’s to follow. Let’s first examine why the SRP wiki pyramid works. Our analysis will also take into account that the 8k strokes are completely voided by five or more 4k strokes. After 5 strokes on a significantly lower grit, all you’ve done is put back the scratch marks of the lower grit. Again, a topic for Honing 200. So, our analysis starts by removing all mention of 8k laps in the first half of the pyramid.
If you remove all the 8k strokes, your left with the following: 25+20+15+10+5 = 75 strokes on a 4k stone. That is 75 strokes just on the 4k stone. Now, the SRP Wiki article would also have you honing the same number of strokes on an 8k stone. So, if we add that in, that is another 75 strokes. Now, don’t think that the 8k strokes don’t do anything. They do. They remove a small amount of metal. However, they’re the functional equivalent of 1:2 or 1:4 4k:8k ratio. Said differently one 4k stroke removes the same amount of metal as 2-4 8k strokes. But I’m getting ahead of myself now. I’ll come back to this in the next part.
So, that is 75 strokes only on the 4k stone. That is a hell of a lot of strokes. Keep in mind your being told to do even more after the midway point. So, that is 75 strokes on the 4k stone. Of course, the razor will be sharp after 75 strokes on a 4k stone. A 4k stone is pretty darn close to shave ready. I call it shave-able if your skilled enough. But let me explain even further why 75 strokes will get that razor damn near shave-ready.
The untold story behind the pyramid plan is that you need to have a bevel set. This means you need to have prepared the razor, or have a razor that has already been prepared. Typically a bevel is set using a 1,000 grit stone. You can’t exactly shave with this grit, but it’s possible. Don’t do it. Just realize it’s possible. A typical progression after the 1k stone is to do X laps on the 4k stone until the razor is ready to move on to the next phase: 8k. Now, I can’t tell you exactly how many laps you need to do because it depends upon your skill at honing and the stone your using. However, I can tell you that 75 laps on a 4k stone is plenty enough. In fact, if you add in the extra 10 or so more 4k laps, it is definite overkill.
But You Just Said that the 4k Stone Undoes the 8k Laps
Yes, I did; and I’ll explain why the pyramid scheme still works. Okay, so the razor is now shave-able half way through the SRP pyramid. So, let’s move on and examine the second half of the pyramid. Actually, let’s just skip to the final two steps. The final two steps are 1 lap on the 4k stone, 3 on the 8k stone; and then 1 4k and 5 8k laps. Keep in mind that just before these final two steps, you were required to do 3 8k laps just before. So, let’s add up the number of 8k laps: 3+3+5 = 11. That is eleven laps just on the 8k stone. Compared with only two 4k laps, the 8k laps clearly win out. Now, while it is certainly true that the 4k undoes the work of the 8k stone, only one lap isn’t that bad. Even if the 4k stone erased all of the 8k stone’s work, your still left with 5 good and uninterrupted strokes on the 8k stone. While not ideal, your razor is still shave-ready.
Now, let’s look at my pyramid scheme: That is a total of 15 8k strokes, to only two 4k strokes. In addition, you finish with 10 strokes on the 8k stone. Now, I’m going to give away a secret. 10 strokes on an 8k stone is all you really need if your truly skilled at honing. So, even if that 4k stroke messes up the 5 strokes in the second to last level, the 10 final strokes makes up for it. So, in the end, you have a shave-ready razor off of the 8k stone. Voila! It works! Yet, it’s incredibly inefficient. I’ll show you why shortly.
First I want to go back to the bevel setting. The #1 problem people have with honing their own razors is not enough prep work. They simply have no idea what they’re supposed to be starting with. The pyramid method works best if you have an already sharpened straight razor that you’ve been using for 12 months and want to re-sharpen it. OR if you have a factory sharpened straight razor from Dovo or TI have shaved with it a number of times, but it has gone dull. In both cases, the bevel is already set and you need do no more.
Contrast with buying an ebay junker and attempting to hone it yourself. The pyramid method is not ideal and probably won’t even work. Also contrast with a razor you’ve breadknifed to erase a frown or chip. The pyramid method WILL NOT work. Period. Well, it can, but you’d be masochistic to even make the attempt. So, now that you know the limitations of the pyramid method, you can see that it actually does and will work.
Pyramid Honing is Inefficient
On to the meat of this article. Pyramid honing is inefficient because you are going backwards every single step of the pyramid. The obvious question you should be asking yourself at this point is: “Why am I even bothering with the 8k stone?” Exactly. Your wasting your time. Yes, the 8k stone removes metal, but think about how much more metal you would be removing if you just stuck to the 4k stone. Instead of doing five 8k laps, you could replace all of those laps with only one 4k stroke. The math is truly that simple.
Let’s face the reality of over-doing the 4k laps as well. 80 laps on the 4k stone is excessive. No razor should require that many laps. 50 is the most I’d say is necessary. So, your doing 30 more laps than required. That said, your bevel might not be perfectly set and the extra 30 laps could ensure a proper cutting edge. That said, even if you do 80 laps on the 4k stone, your not being terribly inefficient. The inefficiencies lie with the 8k laps.
SRP Wiki would have you performing 75 total laps on the 8k stone and then immediately wipe out your hard work on the 8k stone by using the 4k stone. Now that is just pointless. As I’ve said above, any laps done on the 8k stone before the final steps are better spent on the 4k stone removing more metal than the 8k stone.
But you said it works right? Why does it work?
Yes, I did. It is also highly inefficient, making you do extra work for no purpose whatsoever. The pyramid method works because it presents the new straight razor sharpener a plan for getting his/her razor to sharp. If the razor is not shave ready after utilizing the pyramid, the response is to do the pyramid over again. Once again, your wasting your time. If the razor is not sharp enough to shave after 80 laps on the 4k and 80 laps on the 8k, send the thing to a professional. Your bevel was clearly not set properly, or you fucked it up.
The pyramid does not undo what you did with the 8k stone because in the end, you finish on the 8k stone just like a normal progression. While the number of laps on the 8k stone may be pretty small considering you just wiped out a lot of 8k laps by going back to the 4k each time, five good laps is enough to get a shave ready edge. Especially if you consider that it’s really only one 4k stroke in between three laps on the 8k and then five more.
My pyramid is more efficient because it puts all the 4k work on the front end and requires almost no 8k strokes until the end. Then the final 8k laps are limited to ten, the correct amount.
But doesn’t the pyramid prevent over honing?
No. There is no such thing as over-honing. A wire edge is formed because of poor technique, not doing too many laps.
No, the pyramid technique is not going to fix that problem either. A normal honing progression limits the number of strokes on the 8k stone. You shouldn’t be doing more than 20. If you do more than that, you need to work on your technique or buy a better stone. In addition, even if you do more than 20 laps, your not really going to cause any problems unless you use too much pressure in the wrong places.
The idea that the 4k stone will erase the wire edge is true. It will. But to create a wire edge, even when using incorrect pressure, requires many strokes on the 8k stone. This is because the 8k stone removes so little metal.
If you are creating a wire edge off of the 4k stone, the pyramid method will not help you. Honing on a higher grit stone is not going to remove the wire edge effectively. At best it will just break it off and leave you with a dull edge. You still have to go back to the 4k stone and fix the problem.
So what should I do?
You should just learn to hone properly. Use a traditional and time tested progression. Do enough laps on the 4k stone to get it prepared for the 8k stone (remove the scratches from the previous stone or get the radius as close to zero as possible). Then move on to the 8k stone and limit the number of laps. Do 10 then shave. Do 10 again, shave again. If you can’t get it shave ready by then. Go back to the 4k stone. Repeat.
As you can see, while the pyramid system works, it is grossly inefficient. Even my own improved pyramid plan is inefficient. Your time is better spent sticking with the 4k stone until your done, rather than flipping the stone over or bringing over the 8k stone and moving the 4k stone aside. Your just wasting time.
Last word. All that said, it does work.