Recently we heard from a friend that at a local ‘green fair’ an ironmonger had set up a sharpening stall, giving masterclasses in sharpening. What had astonished our friend though was the fact that the course was massively oversubscribed and the sharpening expert was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of people wanting to learn how to sharpen various tools.
It is a lost art. I have a terrific Swiss Army lock knife (the Soldier). It’s a marvelous tool much beloved of the Explorer Scout Unit I assist with, they refer to it as ‘Big Tony’. When new I would pass it to people who had asked for a blade with the warning that the blade was insanely sharp. This invariably caused whoever was borrowing the knife to run their thumb or finger over the edge, the net result was a sudden expletive and quick search for the first aid kit while the unlucky borrower sucked at the remains of their digits in an effort to stem the flow of blood.
When helping out one Cub camp I had a few idle hours of sitting in a chair enjoying the sun and carving in owl from a well-seasoned piece of crab apple branch. As I cut into the wood, the blade gradually dulled, there were a couple of sharpening stones around, but I just couldn’t get the blade to return to its terrifyingly sharp edge.
In fact, I remember from my own time as a Scout (gaining my ‘Knife and Axe’ award badge) that a blunt knife is often more dangerous than a sharp one, simply because the extra effort needed to cut will make the knife more likely to slip under the increased pressure and end up somewhere sticking somewhere about your person.
The fact is, we’re just not that used to really sharp blades, putting up as we do with blunt vegetable knives, dull carving knives, and almost useless pocket knives. Aside from professional chefs, no casual lay person really gets down and keeps their knives at a good edge.
So I was delighted to hear that Sargeant’s Ironmongers in Frome were going to be holding a sharpening session over a couple of hours one Saturday with donations for the service going to the famine relief fund for Somalia. I and my two children wheezed our way up the ridiculously steep cobbled slope of St Catherine’s Hill to find Peter Macfadyen hard at work on his workmate outside the ironmongers. Dressed in turned-up dark jeans, red DMs, a pink shirt and a dark tank-top, Peter looked the sort of a man who carries arcane knowledge around with him as a matter of course. Well known throughout Frome, Peter has a hand in most sustainability projects that go on in the small Somerset town, as well as being prominent on the local political scene where he is an independent Town Counciller. As we arrived, Peter was hard at work on a kitchen knife, honing it to a fine edge on an oil soaked sharpening stone.
I was not at all surprised to find that there were a pile of items waiting to be sharpened, but as I just had my pocket knife, Peter very kindly offered to sharpen it while I waited. He asked if I had sharpened it myself and I said I’d had a go on a sharpening stone. He examined the blade and said the stone by itself would not have got it to a fine edge as the metal blade was very hard. He had a hand-cranked grinding wheel set up on the workmate, and he press-ganged my sons into cranking it up to a cracking speed while he moved the blade up and down the spinning edge, pushing quite hard against it. After about four minutes, he moved onto the whet-stone. This was a well worn, very old stone, set in a wooden box. Peter explained that modern stones tended to be made of a composite material and weren’t as good as the older ones; he often bid on large job lots of tools just to get his hands on some old sharpening stones. The knowledge that the stone has been well-used carries a particular resonance for Peter as he enjoys thinking of the people who have used the stone to sharpen the same tools again and again over the years. Holding the blade at a near flat angle he moved it in a light circular motion on the stone which was lubricated with a mixture of paraffin and engine oil. As the blade became sharper, he began drawing it back over his arm hairs to see if it was sharp enough to cut them. Finally he flipped the stone over to its finest side which appeared nearly totally smooth, and moving the blade round, he gradually brought it to a very sharp edge. The whole process took less than seven minutes.
How much more satisfying to have a well made blade that can be resharpened back to new again and again over the years? Much better than a cheap, hastily assembled tool that will dull into uselessness and be condemned to the recesses of an overcrowded kitchen drawer, or thrown away. But how many good, solid blades are languishing in cupboards and drawers, or sitting in toolboxes unused because they have lost their edge? A little effort and a modicum of skill could see them renewed and revitalised.
And if you borrow my knife and I tell you to be careful because it’s extremely sharp, please just take my word for it.