Meet Terry Beech, my knife man. He’s in his sixties and just loves his work. This year marks his tenth year of owning Sharp Quick, a mobile knife sharpening service in Santa Cruz. When Terry first started his business, I immediately engaged his services. The electric knife sharpener I bought in the 1990s didn’t seem to do much anymore, and I wasn’t about to hone my whetstone sharpening skills. I’d rather leave knife sharpening to a pro because my priority was chopping.
Terry came to my home, parked his vintage VW van in our driveway and sharpened my blades for about several dollars each, depending on the length of the knife. The price was right but more importantly, the knives kept their edge for months. He’d sharpen about a dozen knives for me at a time. I’d give him oddball things like a handmade knife from Vietnam, which he displayed as a novelty for years.
Nowadays, Terry’s too busy for knife sharpening house calls so I go to him. It’s always a pleasure, even to chat on Monday afternoons when he’s in our local Whole Foods parking lot. I’m curious and he’s always has something interesting to show me (his first career was as a high school physics teacher). Yesterday, since I wasn’t in a huge rush to grocery shop, we talked for a good half hour and I thought you’d be interested in our conversation.
People bring all kinds of sharp metal objects to Terry, sometimes to challenge him. “Guess what this is?” he said, opening up a strange box of odd things. A business card from a dentist laid inside so I was afraid to answer.
The dentist has an unusual hobby of working on antique wooden pipes. These are his tools for shaping them and he sort of threw down the gauntlet to see if Terry could sharpen the small round blades. After a little thought, he found a way to do it.
His knife sharpening equipment is basically this machine made by Tormek and originally designed to sharpening wood working tools. Terry was already good at sharpening knives at home but to go to the professional level, he spent about a month and a half reading this book, researching and acquiring equipment (try eBay, he suggests), and practicing.
The nifty thing about the Tormek machine, Terry said, is that it turns slowly at 90 rpms so you can really control the angle. He can adjust the angle of his edge by .5 degrees, which gives him an edge over other kinds of knife sharpening machines and whetstones. For a santoku knife that I bought from him, he applied an 18 degree angle but finished the edge at a 20 degree angle. “You should be able to shave the hair from your arm with that blade,” he said.
Sharp Quick is totally mobile and solar powered. Terry has speakers in the van from which he blasts classic rock and folk music.
Early on Terry taught me a couple of tricks about maintaining and determining knife sharpness: (1) Steel the knife lightly on a regular basis 2 or 3 times to return the edge and you’ll keep the edge for a longer period of time; and (2) when you hold the blade up (see above photo) and you can see your reflection at the very edge, the blade is dull and needs re-sharpening.
When I was very young, I used a dull knife and cut myself so badly that I required stitches. It took years for the sensitivity to return to that index finger. I showed Terry the scar yesterday to convey the value of a sharp knife.
How to buy a knife? I shop first by the feel of the knife. Can I hold it comfortably and confidently? Price isn’t really a big thing, Terry told me. He knows that I often buy knives at Japanese hardware stores and we often marvel at how well they perform for cheapies.
With regard to the blade, there’s a lot of technical stuff to consider. It used to be that forged knives were considered more sturdy than stamped ones, he said. But nowadays, the difference can be negligible.
“Sometimes, stamped blades are made from better steel than forged ones. Some are super strong because they’re stamped from high-grade metal,” Terry said. “It really depends. Ask questions before buying.” I’ve bought $100 knives from Terry as well as $15 ones.
Asian knives which tend to have straight-edge blades are more efficient than most Western-style knives with curved blades. “All that rocking with a curved blade means you have to work harder to do chop and cut ingredients,” he said. Terry does most of the cooking for his wife and daughters.
"German knives used to be heavy with thick, triangular blades," Terry noted. "Now many are lighter and easier to work with." I invested a fair amount of money in Henckels in the 1990s and barely used them now because they quickly lost their sharp edge, even after Terry sharpened them.
Stainless steel knives hold their edge extremely well so you don’t have to get fancy or pricey. Carbon steel is relatively soft so you can get an edge quickly but you can also lose it fast, Terry added.
Name 3 basic knives for a beginner cook. Without hesitation, Terry suggested a Japanese santoku as a great all-around knife. Add to that a good paring knife – better yet a petty (utility) knife like the one below. It has a longer, slightly larger blade than a regular paring knife and can handle more tasks in the kitchen.
Then, have a bread knife and you’re set for a while.
With the banh mi book coming out, I thought I’d treat myself to a new bread knife. Terry showed me three. Flat edge bread knives are inefficient, he said, because your hand easily gets awkward stuck under the handle and you end up exerting all the pressure toward the tip of the blade as you work. What’s better is a bread knife with a curved blade. The best is an offset sandwich knife. “That’s what many pros use,” Terry notes.
I wonder about how the right bread knife could be a banh mi game changer. I ended up taking the offset sandwich knife ($38) home. Buying from Terry means that I get to try the knife for 2 weeks.
“Let me know how you like it and we’ll go from there,” he said. I sure will and look forward to more sharp advice.
Mobile knife sharpening services like Sharp Quick are popping up in lots of places. Keep your eyes open for them. Google “knife sharpening” or “mobile knife sharpening.” Such crafts people often set up shop at farmer’s markets too.
If you have tips or questions on knives, please share them here. I'll get Terry to weigh in.
Related posts: Unusual knifes and blades from Southeast Asia