The oldest tool is still our most important tool. In our lives, our businesses, and our families, we all use knives of different designs for the cutting tasks we encounter every day. In this Golden Age of cutlery, we have blades of every design for general and specific tasks. The problem remains though… how do we keep them sharp? A sharp knife is a pleasure to use and a dull knife is an abomination which will soon have you tearing your hair out.
My experience in this area goes back to my childhood in the Lower East Side of New York working in my father’s fur shop. He made fur coats in the traditional European style. Every morning we started the day by sharpening the fur knives so the day’s work could proceed. It was my first trade and the honing of the blades was a critical ritual. That’s what started me off on a lifelong pursuit of attaining the perfect edge.
My first work out of college was living the life of an 1830 homesteader on the frontier. It was an experiment started by SUNY New Paltz to help figure out how people lived day to day before electricity, computers, cars, and all of the modern conveniences. We lived by our edges. We had to chop wood (axes and saws), butcher animals (knives of all types), prepare food (kitchen knives), shear sheep (shears), manage bee hives (cut honeycomb), process the grain harvest (scythes and other cutting implements), and a thousand other jobs all requiring a sharp blade.
Twenty years ago I got involved with the straight razor shaving community. Straight razors, when properly honed, are the most extreme form of sharpening and honing. This required techniques and sharpening stones enabling a very precision form of shaving. I found a family quarry in the southeast of Belgium which has a unique deposit of stones which have been the standard for barbers for several hundred years. The quarry is so old, it was visited by the Romans when they marched through the Ardennes Forest on their way to capture London for the tin mines. Pliny the Younger wrote about these stones!
Today, my sharpening work has broadened to commercial and industrial accounts as well as to the many home chefs who have lately realized that cooking is much easier when the knives are sharp! I sharpen with whetstones – an old fashioned way to do it but the edges last longer than when machines are used to sharpen. Stones don’t heat up the edge and take out the temper like machines do. It’s all part of achieving… the perfect edge!