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Pilot Project: Mobile Sharpening Service (Community + Monies)

 
master pollinator
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Location: Canadian Prairies - Zone 3b
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For the past two years, I have offered a sharpening service through a local charity thrift shop. Covid shut it down temporarily, but I'm preparing to start up again.

You see, I like working with a sharp edge. I like bringing old tools back into good working trim. And it makes me mental to watch people sawing away (and cursing) with horribly dull kitchen knives, or mangling their plants with useless scissors / pruners / loppers. "Somebody ought to do something!" So I did. If not me then who? I have the skills and the gear. I've been sharpening for family and neighbours for years.

The need at the household level is so great, and the old skills have mostly been lost. The knives I see are sometimes so dull that if you were blindfolded you couldn't tell which side the edge is supposed to be on. Commercial operators can only make a go of their business by sharpening high-end blades, clippers, pro-grade haircutting scissors etc., or doing volume contracts with restaurants. They don't want to waste time with Granny and her cheap knives, and she can't pay $1 per finished inch. But Granny is an amazing cook, like many of her generation, and dammit she deserves sharp knives.

As a standard business, it's not viable. But there's an opening for someone to fill the gap, do a good turn for the community, and maybe earn a few extra dollars, or at least make a serious hobby pay its own way. It's a matter of figuring out how to do it with effectively zero overhead, flying under the radar of the entities that inflate costs with licenses and permits etc., in order to keep it affordable. Even table fees at a farmer's market add an onerous overhead.

So, the thrift shop offered me a workspace. I essentially donate my time and skills, and accept donations/tips (not payment) to offset my costs and earn a little beer money. It's a great way to test the waters if I ever want to expand. Suggested tips: $1 for paring knives and cheap scissors, $2 for utility size knives and pruning shears, and $3 for chef/carving knives and loppers/hedge trimmers. (I might suggest a little more for very dull blades of very hard steel.) It seems that people expect to pay more; but it's nice to give Granny a break, and other well-heeled folks always insist on kicking in more than I suggest. So I think it works out nicely.

Some days are pretty quiet, and I hobnob with other volunteers and drink coffee. Other days are insane -- I have done 40 dead-dull knives in under 3 hours, all by hand. I never stopped moving. Thank God for industrial diamond -- it cuts twice as fast. The work is satisfying and enjoyable to me, and lots of happy home chefs and gardeners are the result. I have done the same work in the kitchens of seniors who have been referred to me.

As I said, Covid shut me down temporarily, but it will resurface as "free sharpening / tips appreciated" on the street outside the local farmer's market very soon. This approach will hopefully sidestep the bylaw coppers who have too much time on their hands. I mean, how is this different from busking with a guitar?
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Location: Canadian Prairies - Zone 3b
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I sometimes wonder if I could bump up the earning potential, and still offer a free/voluntary pay service, by convincing a local business to sponsor me. I wonder who to approach, though? Probably not the local hardware that sells overpriced knives and those nasty pull-through carbide sharpeners. Thoughts?
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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For your amusement (or dismay), I pulled out my thrift shop sharpening kit and took a photo. There's a lot of redundancy here -- actually I was wondering where all that stuff went.

Centre:
- hobby work vise with 4-sided diamond abrasive block
West:
- coarse diamond abrasives (like files but harder), sanding block
North-West:
- thin-profile diamond abrasives, various grits, to get into tight corners and repair/sharpen scissors, pruners, loppers
- "speedy sharp" type carbide scraper; solves problems in tight nooks and crannies
North:
- various kitchen/butcher and meat packer steels (different patterns and hardness, to suit the blades that I'm realigning the edge on; meat packer steel is smooth)
North-East:
- round diamond files for serrated blades
East:
- water squirter, bandaids, alcohol sanitizer, cheap magnifier glasses
- strop (for pocket knives, filleting knives, etc.)
- notebook, pen, sticky notes
- assorted screwdrivers and small wrenches

Not shown:
- small spray bottle with isopropyl alcohol (cleans off sap and sterilizes pruners/loppers before starting work)
- GooGone
- rags or paper towel
- tip jar / change bag
- scrap 8x11 paper for demo'ing sharpness
- monkey with fez and concertina who collects tips and gets peanuts

Actually I (or you) could do most of the work with 1/3 of the stuff you see here. But you never know what's going to come in the door.
sharpening-kit-3.png
Thrift Shop Sharpening Kit (many reundancies)
Thrift Shop Sharpening Kit (many redundancies)
 
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Location: East Tennessee
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That is an interesting hobby. Used to be lots of sharpeners, and people that repaired basic things. Not so much anymore, I tend to sharpen all my family and friends edged instruments.

What do you charge? Or is it all on a tip basis?
 
gardener
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I sometimes wonder if I could bump up the earning potential, and still offer a free/voluntary pay service, by convincing a local business to sponsor me. I wonder who to approach, though? Probably not the local hardware that sells overpriced knives and those nasty pull-through carbide sharpeners. Thoughts?


Douglas, when I was still learning how to cook I took a knife skills course at a big box housewares store, and fell down the knife rabbithole. A place that sells knives might go for that, but I would think that any place that sells "gourmet" ingredients or caters to serious cooks might consider some sort of connection. Maybe also any place that gives cooking classes. Targeting the developing cook, someone who understands that sharp is good (it still surprises me that some people do not and do not want to sharpen their knives!) but a step below the pro who sharpens their own knives.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Ben House wrote:That is an interesting hobby. Used to be lots of sharpeners, and people that repaired basic things. Not so much anymore, I tend to sharpen all my family and friends edged instruments.

What do you charge? Or is it all on a tip basis?


Ben, you're right: few people have the skills any more. Fewer still offer this service at the consumer level. It's not viable as a formal business -- the numbers just don't work.

People with cheap knives tend to throw them out and buy new cheap knives. It costs less than paying someone the full rate to sharpen them. Such is our world now. That annoys me.

But people with sharp kitchen knives find it more enjoyable to cook. They eat better. Save tons of money. So I'm trying to beat the system, do good for my community, and make some pocket money. Well received so far -- last week the volunteers were asking when I'd be back to work on their own knives.

If I can eliminate overhead, it teeters on the verge of being worth it. I make the suggestion of $1-2-3 for small-med-large blades. Maybe a little more for hard, super-dull blades. I could charge more, I think, but I also get paid in smiles, coffee, goodwill, and cookies. And word of mouth, if I want to make it a regular thing.

I think anybody who has basic sharpening skills can try this as a volunteer, for tips. My most essential tools cost maybe $50, and it can be done for less. Thrift shops are full of butcher steels, basically new, because nobody knows how to use them.  Try it, folks. The need is enormous.
 
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There is someone in town here who advertises knife sharpening, but only knives and only straight blades. they charge $8 per knife a semi decent knife costs 4x that. I would not pay to have my kitchen knives sharpened, I can do that, but I would pay to have curved blades like the sickle sharpened and also to have hoe and spade blades sharpened as I do not have any grinding wheel and I have better things to do that spend a couple of hours with a file.
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