The Story of Knives
January 2, 2020 5:44 AM   Subscribe

The story of Bernal Cutlery started many years ago in a small kitchen. Josh Donald had recently been laid off. Kelly Kozak was adding up the bills. They didn’t have enough for groceries. Josh was sharpening a knife at the table. Why not offer a sharpening service in the neighborhood to make ends meet? “The Story of Knives” is an illustrated tale about love, overcoming addiction and the resilience it takes to stay together. From San Franciso's Mission Local news site.
posted by Bella Donna (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds good. Just a question: is there text other than the little framing bit or is it just a video? I assumed “illustrated” implied text, but maybe I’m just a poor web navigator. In any event, thanks for the post.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:01 AM on January 2

It's all video. Great story too.
posted by nevercalm at 7:10 AM on January 2

Oh my god, that's him! That's the mad artist who sharpened my pocket knife!! This solves a mystery I've had for over ten years, and I just told this story on MeFi somewhere recently, I think in the thread about Leatherman or multitools or something.

This would have been like 2007 or 2008 or so, and this must have been back when he/they were just starting out and they just had the sharpening service and mobile truck, which when I found it was at the Alemany Farmer's Market at the base of Bernal Hill.

It was a total impulse buy. I saw his truck advertising knife sharpening services. My rather unremarkable hardware store utility pocket knife was in my pocket. I handed him my pocket knife and he went right to work and sharpened it up with really quick work on powered belts, then handed it back to me in under a minute and looked me up and down and shrugged and said "Eh, how about three bucks?" and I said sure and paid him.

And I was dubious at first, then looked at the blade and see that he had ground out the factory bevel, reshaped the profile of the cheap serrated blade entirely and grew even more dubious because "what the hell did you just do to my knife, man?" until I flipped up the knife and looked at the edge.

Or tried to, anyway. I couldn't see it at all. It just vanished into invisibility like a well sharpened knife should. He handed me a piece of paper to test the edge on and I'll be damned if I couldn't gently push the knife into the edge of the paper and carve pretty little curls into it like I was sculpting warm, soft butter.

I remember saying something like "Holy shit how the hell did you do that!?" and walking away satisfied.

Well, that knife held that edge for... years. Somehow he turned that stubby cheap little pocket knife into something that I kept reaching for to cook with because it'd dice onions faster than a RoboChef. I'd pull that crappy little knife out to loan to people and it would blow people's minds at how sharp it was and how easily it cut anything from food to bits of string to carving or whittling wood.

My only regret is I didn't have a better knife to have him reshape and sharpen. I still have that cheap little pocket knife somewhere and don't have the heart to give it away specifically because of the custom work on the blade, even though I don't carry it any more.

I think I've been to a dozen cutlery shops since then and I have been disappointed by the work every time ever since then.

It is not at all surprising to me that they're now running a high end cutlery shop. I can't even begin to imagine what he could do with good Japanese steel on a chef's knife or something.
The way he treated my crappy little utility pocket knife and the amount of care and art he put into it was just out of this world remarkable levels of artisanship and craft.
posted by loquacious at 8:05 AM on January 2 [49 favorites]

That's an awesome story, loquacious! Now I'll have to find time to watch the video at some point.
posted by tavella at 8:19 AM on January 2

I apologize to people for whom video is difficult to access. I should’ve made it clear that it is an illustrated video. Also, there is a soundtrack but I am not convinced it is otherwise particularly accessible. I subscribed to the mission local newsletter and saw this referenced and clicked. Now, I am not a person particularly into animation. Those who are will not be blown away necessarily by this short story. But I thought it was wonderful and unexpectedly so. I particularly appreciated the good things that the story highlighted about San Francisco when it is so often in the news for sad and/or shitty things.

I will also note that this tiny local news outlet has broken some major stories about San Francisco. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the sorts of news outlets that are sorely needed. So feel free to go and kick a few bucks its way.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:55 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]

Very nice, if a bit short (I only say this because I got hooked and wanted to know so much more).
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:06 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]

I wish I had the same experience as loquacious. Unfortunately one of the staff there ruined a superb, expensive Shun chef's knife that was a treasured gift from my father.
posted by PhineasGage at 11:17 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]

Wow, PhineasGage, that sounds painful. Sorry to hear it.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:35 AM on January 2

On their website they sell "Left-handed knives".

When I was a little kid taking little jobs at corner stores to do simple errands and deliveries, there was a running gag they'd play on the gullible. "Go over to the hardware store and buy a left-handed hammer. Hurry back!" And you'd go and the guy at the shop would be in on it and tell you, "Oh, I just sold the last one. I think Tom's shop a few blocks over has some." And you'd to Tom's and he'd be in on it and send you to another shop... repeat all day!

I was always told that 25% of newbies would come back empty-handed and exasperated; 25% empty-handed and furious; 25% wouldn't come back at all; and 25% would come back, having figured out the gag, with a regular hammer saying, "Found one. Here you go!" The last group kept the job.

When I was 13, I started working at Burger King and the first day the dude tried to get me to count the pickles in a huge tub. I looked at him and said, "Is this like the left-handed hammer?" and he just started laughing.

So wtf is a left-handed knife?
posted by dobbs at 11:43 AM on January 2

One of the skills I'm happiest about acquiring is learning how to sharpen knives. A properly sharp knife is a joy to work with, even for a home cook. It's not a terribly esoteric or convoluted process, the trickiest part is learning to keep the blade at a consistent angle to the abrading surface - and keeping the correct angle(s) for both sides of the blade. You've seen those videos of people slicing tomatoes without holding them down? Only semi-impressive! All it takes is decent sharpening skills, if the knife is a decently made one to begin with...cheapo $5 stamped-stainless-steel knives from the kitchen tools section of the grocery store may not ever get that sharp.

The biggest tip I can give home cooks, whether you sharpen your own knives or have them sharpened professionally, is to maintain the blade between sharpenings with a smooth honing steel such as this one. This is because the fine edge of a newly-sharpened blade tends to get curled over with use; a hone isn't used to sharpen a blade but to re-align the curved-over edge back to it's original V form. A few quick swipes on each side of the blade with a hone after every (-ish, nobody's perfect) use will keep the blade feeling sharp for far longer than you might think before the metal finally wears down to a U shape and needs resharpening to get back to a V edge. I use my knives several times a week, but I only pull out the sharpening stones every 9-12 months when I can tell they're less sharp even after honing.

By honing between sharpenings my knives will last much longer, since sharpening is literally removing metal from the blade and the more often a knife is sharpened the sooner it will end up looking like this. I'll end up passing my knives down to my son, maybe even grandchildren, in pretty close to original shape.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:07 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

I would kindly suggest if a staffmember at Bernal Cutlery "ruined" a knife, you should ask for satisfaction.

I've had several knives sharpened at Bernal Cutler, and received quality service.
posted by blob at 2:46 PM on January 2

...Unfortunately one of the staff there ruined a superb, expensive Shun chef's knife...

FWIW, Shun offers free sharpening for life ( . You can send it into the factory and pay only shipping and some nominal processing fee.
posted by scottatdrake at 6:08 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

Seconding Greg_Ace - learning the basics of how to sharpen knives isn't terribly difficult, but it is a skill that requires some physical dexterity and a bit of theory understanding.

Knowing how to shape a blade/ bevel is a big step up - but it requires knowing what the purpose of the knife is to decide how to shape it optimally. Different tasks, different tools.

Interestingly - being able to cut through an overripe tomato's skin (picked unripe; thick skin, squishy insides) benefits more from a "rough" sharpening that leaves micro-serrations than from a perfect mirror-surfaced sharpening. Slicing through tomatoes is a parlour trick.

Slicing a few chunks off of a manila rope then trying to slice an onion is a better test. Slicing an onion with a dull blade versus with a razor sharp one is readily reflected in the tears associated with the slicing - the dull blade bursts rips open a lot more cells to release more syn-ropanethial-S-oxide.

It's not only the material that the blade is made from, it's also what kind of heat treatment (temper) the edge gets, that determines whether a blade will hold an edge. There are some alloys that will take an incredible edge but can't hold it, and others that will hold a serviceable edge forever but never take a good one on.

There are so many knives out there made with premium materials (with commensurate cost) that aren't properly heat treated. The 'factory edge' might be impressive, but it ends up difficult to put that edge on again and the knife loses that edge in an eyeblink.

Different tools benefit from different materials. Something like the first might be good for cornea surgery and something like the second would be good for an axe.

Knife metallurgy is a very well developed field and constantly making advances (crucible particle steels!) - but an appropriate heat treatment and topography is required to bring out the best of any given alloy, and any given alloy may be suited for different tasks.

Because "pocket knives"/ "everyday carries" are generalists, I'm fascinated with the different design iterations/ materials that goes into making generalist (or multi-functional) cutlery.


fwiw, I don't have a Shun knife, but I have a Shun stone. It was overpriced, but damn, it's a consistent chunk of stone.

For most people at home for their kitchen knives, a good steel (or ceramic "steel") is good enough especially if you have your knives sharpened once a year or two.

Me/ my sister have house-sat in our youths over holidays, and never been impressed with any of those "rich familys'" fancy kitchen knives/ cutlery because they've never taken care of them, and in the cases where they tried, ended up in abuse.

I'd highly recommend against "disc" sharpeners, but a decent 300/1000 grit (wet) whetstone can be had for not very much and learning how to use it isn't terribly difficult. Go to the a thrift store and buy a bunch of kitchen knifes to practice on if you want to learn how before trying on your expensive knives.

Angle "stick" sharpeners like the Spyderco (sigh, I know, but it's a decent sharpener at a decent price) "Sharpmaker" can be decent.

The diamond grit type sharpeners are fast - but if you don't know how to do it right, you end up with "rounded edges" that get dull very quickly and takes a lot of effort to remediate. They also wear out as fast as they sharpen.

But if you have a good knife that has been neglected/ abused, a diamond grit sharper in the right hands will save you a lot of time remediating those.
posted by porpoise at 8:18 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this lovely video. As it happens I went to Bernal yesterday, for my first time!

I was given an excellent small Japanese chef's knife for Christmas, but it was too similar in size and profile to another knife I own for me to justify keeping it. I'm trying to get one good knife of each style I use regularly before doubling up.

So I brought it in, no receipt, and they exchanged it happily for store credit, most of which I spent on a German paring knife with a thin blade and a gorgeous plumwood handle. The two guys working there were informative, answered my questions, and seemed glad to shoot the shit about blade geometry and steel types with this reasonably-informed layman. They talked shop with me about blade lamination, use cases, care and upkeep, etc. for about 15 minutes and I get the sense they'd have been glad to go on if I'd asked.

Drag about your experience, PhineasGage. I suppose I'll see if I have the same thing happen to me when I bring my knife in for its complimentary sharpening -- I suspect you got an apprentice or something, because the way the two employees I talked to were working progressively higher grits on good Japanese waterstones, I'd be shocked if they didn't put on a factory-or-better edge on any blade you brought in for service. Not to discount your experience, but these guys really seemed to take care with the knives I saw them working on.

One cool thing is that in addition to their massive collection of Japanese (and some European) cooking knives, they have a smaller case of bushcraft and woodwoorking knives ranging from fine pukkos with reindeer handles to your bog standard basic Mora with a polycarbonate handle for $11. That was the camping knife that got me interested in blades and how to sharpen and maintain them years ago, so it was nice to see this very simple (but very sharp and handy) knife for sale alongside the elite Japanese chef's knives.

Anyway. thanks again for the post.
posted by andromache at 10:33 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]

« Older “It is love, not reason, that is stronger than...   |   (we should almost hire a 12-year-old to help us... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments