Sharpening your knives


When I recently visited my Mom, she mentioned she’d like me to sharpen her kitchen knives while I was with her, and I never ended up doing it (sorry Mom! 😞). Maybe because of that, and the fact that I’ve never really sharpened knives before (despite being a huge fan of a good kitchen knives), this essay from Scope of Work on the technical a philosophical aspects of knife sharpening caught my eye.

wall of knives 1
Image credit: Strata

The ultimate takeaway from the piece, aside from the very interesting aspect of how people treat knife sharpening in vastly different ways, is that sharpening a knife is really about shaping a tool and making it our own. It’s about making the tool work for the individual who needs it in a very personal way.

Knife sharpening, then, is a quiet, entirely private way of actively participating in the creation of the world we inhabit. A knife with good kireaji will both react and reply when you pass it over a whetstone. Such knives are made to be sharpened, to be modified by their users. There’s a sense in which they come to us unfinished, because we have not yet changed them – and they invite us to change our world in ways that only we will really know.

Cal Newport recently wrote about a similar thing (I think), specifically the beauty of a bespoke computer called the Mythic which was made to be a joy to look at and use for three simple writing tasks. Again, the theme being that the tool (the computer) was modified (one could say, sharpened) to fit a very specific task amazingly well.

In Keegan’s construction we find an alternative understanding of work, built now on beauty, craftsmanship, and focus. Replacing everyone’s MacBook with custom-carved hardwood, of course, is not enough on its own to transform how we think about out jobs, as these issues have deeper roots. But the Mythic is a useful reminder that the rhythms of our professional lives are not pre-ordained. We craft the world in which we work, even if we don’t realize it.

This has gotten me thinking about my own (mostly digital) tools that I use everyday. Customizing or modifying the tools we use in our craft is not simply a matter of maintenance (like sharpening a dull blade or installing the latest update).

Our modifications (or lack their of) create our own daily experience.

2 responses

  1. It is a bit expensive, but I highly recommend the Rollschleifer. I have been using it for a couple years now, and it does a great job. The secret is to keep a consistent angle, and this tool does that for you. I usually sharpen my knives once a month or so now, and it only takes a couple minutes. Maybe this would be a good Christmas present?

    1. Oh nice! Definitely a good Christmas gift idea, thank you Robert!

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