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Econ 919 — Staying sharp

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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About half of Grey Wilson’s clients are first-timers — those who have never had their knives professionally sharpened before

But then there are the clients who bring in blades they treasure and have kept in use for decades. Some have stories. Wilson loves a story.

“There are knives like Old Hickorys, an old brand that you see older fishermen use," he said. And they’re high-carbon steel, you used to get them out at Kachemak Gear Shed for like $6 a piece. And they generally come to me pretty rusted. But they're great steel and they sharpen up good. And I like seeing anything older with a little bit of a story to it.”

Wilson is a professional knife sharpener. He lives in Ninilchik and owns Wilson’s Proper Edge, a mobile knife sharpening business.

Kitchen knives are just the tip of the iceberg. 

He also sharpens scissors, food processor blades, “beauty and grooming shears, axes and chisels, fabric shears, rotary blades, pizza cutters and small paper cutters,” he said. 

Wilson, 25, knows he might not look like what you’d expect from your local knife sharpener.

“I get a lot of people asking how I got into this," he said. "Because you don’t picture, I guess, a younger guy doing this. It’s more of an old guy on a grinding stone, in his grungy shop.”

Before the pandemic, Wilson, who was raised in Kenai and Juneau, did a lot of cooking. 

For a long time, he sharpened his knives himself, on stones. But he reached a point of no return when he took them to a professional for the first time. 

“As soon as I started prepping I just thought I’d been missing out for all these years," he said. "There’s something to be said for a professionally sharpened knife."

When he got laid off at the start of the pandemic, he bought a trailer and jumped into doing business full time.

He said a trailer makes more sense for his business than a brick and mortar store, since he can attract business from the larger cities on the peninsula. 

And he can also go to the doorsteps of restaurants. He said that’s key, since restaurants often don’t want their knives to leave the property. Wilson was contracted to work with about 12 restaurants in Homer and a handful of others on the central peninsula this summer.

While some of his clientele have never had their knives professionally sharpened, there are others who have been cherishing theirs for generations.

“I love seeing knives come across my table where I know that they didn’t buy it, and their parents probably didn’t buy it," he said. "It was probably their grandparents’ at the very least.”

Wilson charges a dollar an inch for a standard sharpening. He turned to Facebook for guidance, where he’s in groups with other sharpeners. He said it’s a helpful online community to tap into when he needs advice. Sometimes when he’s working, he listens to “Knife Talk,” a podcast for knife enthusiasts.

Wilson also has formal sharpening training.

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Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL
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Wilson took his business on the road this summer, like at this June 15 food bank event.

“I spent probably a good 80 hours just reading about edge geometry and equipment people use," he said.

All that niche knife know-how makes him a better cook. But “it’s almost a curse," he said, laughing.

"I feel bad for my wife," he said. "Knives don’t go just in the bottom of the sink, or the dishwasher, anything like that. It’s hand washed and hand dried and put back in the block.”

This winter, he transitioned from driving the trailer to picking up knives at drop boxes.

You may have seen one at Lucy’s Market in Soldotna, or Echo Lake Meats before that. There’s also one at the Save U More in Homer.

Customers will bring their knives to the drop boxes and shoot him a text to let him know. He picks up knives at the boxes twice weekly and drops them off a few days later — sharpened and wrapped in white butcher paper.

He's still fine-tuning that system. He wants to make sure it’s accessible to people who aren’t savvy on their phones. Plus, he values the face-to-face interaction of the truck.

He thinks his customers do, too. After all, he said, some people put a lot of love and care into their knives. He wants to make sure people know and trust their neighborhood knife guy.

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