Although a few holdouts remain, the days of the itinerant knife sharpener who cruises the neighborhood in a little truck are waning. To fill the void, a growing number of mail-order knife-sharpening businesses have popped up, easily accessible on the Web.
A good sharpening that extends the life of a beloved knife is one of the best investments of these recessionary times. Norman Weinstein, knife-skills instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, recommends using a reputable professional instead of trying to sharpen your knives at home "because the learning curve for doing it yourself is so high."
We tried five different services across the country and, in general, were impressed with the results. Sharpening techniques differed among the services, ranging from one cutler (as knife sharpeners are called) who uses a motorized grinding wheel and a series of "water" or whetstones, to a sharpener who uses a two-horsepower belt grinder and up to six sharpening and polishing wheels.
The Knife Guy (www.theknifeguy.com) has come up with a no-hassle method of knife packing and shipping. A simple online order form offered us the choice of a large box that holds up to 15 knives, or a small box that holds up to five knives. We chose the small box, entered our address and paid by credit card. Three days later we received a reusable shipping box snugly fitted with plastic foam inserts to hold our knives, a FedEx shipping label and an instruction sheet with a tracking number for our shipment back to the Knife Guy. Although turnaround is normally three to five days, another insert informed us of a one-week Christmas holiday closure through Dec. 25.
We got our knives back in eight days—good, considering we had shipped our knives off three days before Christmas—along with a shipping label for our next order. Our returned knives were so sharp that we cut our finger on a 10-inch Wüsthof knife. Our utilitarian six-inch Hoffritz knife was completely transformed, performing way above its grade on daikon radish. Galena, Ohio-based Knife Guy Blair McCreary fell in love with the craftsmanship of knives 15 years ago when he bought a hand-forged knife from a local artisan. He credits the knife maker and owner of the now-defunct local knife-making supply company, Koval, for teaching him his trade.
We were pleased to see that Mr. McCreary had repaired the tips of two of our knives, which were misshapen from years of constant use; Mr. McCreary explained that he reshapes bent or broken tips against a more abrasive wheel. Mr. McCreary does his sharpening on a six-foot motorized, air-cooled, belt grinder that he built; he is able to control its speed, and therefore the heat that the belt generates, since too much heat can adversely alter a knife's tempering. The belt raises a metal burr on the opposite site of the blade, which is removed with a separate polishing belt made of felt and leather treated with a buffing compound.
Seattle Knife Sharpening's site (www.seattleknifesharpening.com) instructed us to make sure our knives were well wrapped and to include our credit card information, return address and phone number in our shipment. No order form or box was provided, so we typed out a letter with our contact and payment information, wrapped our knives in newspaper and tape and packed them up in an empty cardboard box. We shipped three knives, saving time by printing postage and scheduling a pickup online via USPS' "Click-N-Ship" service. Four days later, we received an email confirmation of receipt from Seattle Knife's cutler Bob Tate, and 11 days after we sent them, our knives were returned, carefully wrapped in newspaper. The knives were so sharp they had sliced through several layers of newsprint. We were confused by the handwritten receipt in the box, which listed a charge of $14.70 for postage even though the USPS label on the box showed a postage fee of $8.70.
Reached by phone, an apologetic Mr. Tate offered to look into the matter. Later that day, he called back to explain that although he normally ships UPS ground, for reasons he couldn't recall ("I probably wanted to get it there faster"), he sent our shipment by USPS priority mail. The postage difference was the UPS store's service charge for mailing the package. In response to our concerns about the wrapping on the returned knives, Mr. Tate said he's never had a report of accident or injury after somebody opened the sharpened knives, but decided it would be good to affix stickers reading "caution, extremely sharp" to packages.
Despite these concerns, our Seattle-honed knives were marvels of sharpness. Our eight-inch Henckels cut through a grilled, two-inch-thick New York strip steak like butter. Mr. Tate uses more than $3,000 in equipment and a six- to seven-step process that starts with a grinder fitted with a six-foot-long belt that, like Mr. McCreary's, runs at variable speeds. Mr. Tate uses this machine to reestablish the bevel of the knife. Next, he turns to up to six different wheels coated with various abrasive and polishing compounds that he creates himself to make the "thinnest profile" knife he can get without sacrificing blade strength.
We dropped off two knives at Korin Japanese Trading Corp. (www.korin.com) in Manhattan, a Japanese restaurant-supply store that specializes in imported chef's knives. The store will sharpen both Japanese and Western-style knives and accepts either drop-off or mail-in orders.
We were concerned about our Kai Shun hollow-ground knife, which the manufacturer recommends sending back to its Portland, Ore., facility for sharpening in order to maintain the knife's 16-degree angle. Korin's knife master Chiharu Sugai, working freehand, would follow the angle of the blade, the sales clerk reassured us, saying, "it's going to be a sharp knife." Mr. Sugai trained in Japan with knife masters in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, the ancient knife capital of Japan, and in Tokyo. He uses a motorized wheel and then a series of water stones to sharpen knives. We were told sharpened knives are usually ready within a week; in our case they were finished the next day. Our knives were razor sharp and performed flawlessly.
Precision Knife Sharpening's site (www.precisionknifesharpening.com) gave the most detailed ordering, packing and shipping information of the sites we tried, allowing us to pay by credit card and print out a receipt and shipping label. We liked the suggestion to use a wine cork on the tips our knives to protect them and the box, but the turnaround time was longer than other services: exactly two weeks via USPS priority mail both ways. Chef and culinary instructor Dave Arnold sharpens all the knives using a series of aluminum-oxide sanding belts, and for Japanese knives, water stones.
In a slice-and-dice-off we dubbed "The Butternut Squash Bowl," we tested all of our newly sharpened knives against one large and forbidding squash, as well as onion and celery. In most cases, knives sharpened by the Knife Guy, Seattle, and Korin performed about equally. The Precision knives came in a notch below—we had to exert a little more pressure to cleave the vegetables with the Precision-sharpened knives. When we compared our two Sabatier carbon-steel knives, one sharpened by Precision and the other by the Knife Guy, the result was a draw.
The one disappointment among the services tested was Accurate Sharpening and Cutlery (www.accuratesharp.com). The site was easy to navigate, and it featured a printable order form. Its sharpening prices were reasonable, and the nine-day turnaround time via USPS priority mail was competitive. The only problem: The knives we got back belonged to someone in Henderson, Nev., and he got ours. Tim Rafferty, Accurate's owner, was apologetic, calling numerous times to discuss the mix-up and refunding our money. A mailing label printed with the address of the Henderson customer arrived a few days later, and we shipped the mis-delivered package off. But a mistake in the zip code on the mailing label with our address sent our knives off into postal limbo; we are still waiting for our knives to show up. Mr. Rafferty promised to buy us a new set of knives should ours fail to appear.