Tim Ferron, a butcher turned professional knife sharpener, is literally surrounded by knives in the Bernal Cutlery showroom on Valencia Street.
Hundreds of these European- and Japanese-made blades line the walls as he descends what he calls the “rabbit hole of the rabbit hole of sharpening” to explain the craft to Mission Local.
“There’s two different things when it comes to sharpening,” says Ferron, now Bernal Cutlery’s media and brand manager. “There’s honing and then there’s actual sharpening” with stones.
He compared honing and sharpening to combing your hair and getting a haircut, respectively. Honing with a special rod will “realign” the knife, he says. As in, “it’s going to make it fresh” between professional sharpenings.
But eventually, you’ll need that sharpening, like eventually you’ll need a haircut, he adds, “and that’s where stones come in.”
Professional sharpening (“hitting on stones” in sharpener parlance) “is typically going to be the actual removal of your old edge and should give you a fresh new edge behind it.”
Bernal Cutlery recommends knives be professionally sharpened every six to eight months, but Ferron says it depends on how much the knives are used.
Industrial clients, or those that use knives professionally like chefs, are going to have different sharpening needs than someone cooking for themselves at home, says Ferron.
The type of cutting board is also a big deal. “We try to get people away from, you know, plastic boards,” he says. “Bamboo is actually really bad material … And glass. God forbid it’s still out there.”
Regarding the technical craft of sharpening, Ferron says, “it’s tricky. A lot of it has to do with the person, what they’re using it for.” Professional sharpeners also look for damages that need repaired, like rust or chipping.
He walked about 30 feet to Bernal Cutlery’s sharpening annex, a recent addition to the business after a fire damaged it and neighboring businesses in 2019, including Mission Bicycle.
Professional sharpeners were executing a “whetstone finish” as customers dropped off bundles of knives for sharpening at the annex counter.
This method is typically how they finish knives, Ferron says, especially Japanese knives.
‘What really sets us apart is the use of whetstones,’ he says, adding that they have motorized and water-cooled whetstones, “basically spinning whetstones,” like you’d find in Japan, which is world renowned for its knives.
“Something like that’s really important because you could really de-temper or mess with knives if too much heat is involved,” said Ferron. “We’re also really making sure that we’re respecting the craft of sharpening and the right methods.”
For example, he says, “It is possible to make something too sharp.”
Ferron explains that, after an initially slow period, the pandemic was a boon for business. As more people began to cook at home, he says, more knives needed to be sharpened. They are also offering sharpening and knife skills classes again.
Knives can be sharpened for reasonable prices, he says, ranging from $1 per inch for European knives and $2 per inch for Japanese knives. It can take about two weeks to finish non-industry orders because of demand, but orders can be rushed for about a 50 percent surcharge.
Ferron has been sharpening for a decade, and his first tattoo, two knives on his forearm, is visible as he points around the sharpening annex. It was drawn from two vintage newspaper stamps he found and scaled to size years ago.
He calls sharpening a fun, rewarding job. “In fact, like a lot of us have that kind of personality where it’s like, you know, you have a problem literally in front of you, whether [the knives] be rusty or have chips,” he says. “And then you have this beautiful, shiny, sharp result.”