While this isn’t my usual genre, I was asked to write an article for Whidbey Life Magazine about Whidbey Island’s only tool sharpeners. It was an interesting assignment and I enjoyed my time with the Richter’s.
The Art of the Edge
There aren’t many people who wax poetic about a sharp edge. Brett Richter is one of them.
Sharpening tools isn’t exactly esoteric; it’s always been a part of the human experience, starting with stones and evolving to knives, saws, chisels, and axes. Fathers bequeathed their tools, including their favorite hand-forged knife or straight razor, to their sons. Handing tools from one generation to another is both rite of passage and legacy. As a kid growing up on a farm, Richter handled, cleaned, and maintained the family’s tools, learning to file and grind a blade sharp enough to trim a tick’s toenail.
Over the years, Richter never lost his passion for sharpening.
Fast forward to 2016. Richter, as the owner of Double R Rentals & Sales at Bayview, got the news from Randy Cordermen, tool sharpener at Double R for over two decades, that he was ready to retire. Confident it would be a sideline that would occupy 15 or so hours of his time a week, Richter bought the sharpening business and moved it into a corner of his tool and equipment rental headquarters. Within a few years, the business had expanded to a 40-hour a week job.
Fortunately, he had someone close at hand willing to take over. In fact, someone right in the family.
Over the years, Richter had found that his male employees lacked the skills needed to become effective sharpeners. “Guys no longer worked on cars or mowers, so they didn’t know what they were doing,” he observed. Consequently, Brett turned to his daughter; he already knew she shared his appreciation for well-made tools and traditional ways of maintaining them.
Two and a half years later, 27-year-old Paige Richter has taken over the sharpening business. While there aren’t many women in the historically-male tool sharpening industry, she has a knack for it. For starters, the younger Richter, who has grown up around tools, is handy in her own right. And as an aspiring artist, she has an eye for detail. Sharpening is, indeed, complicated. Blades can have up to a half dozen cutting angles, and it’s this eye for detail that has turned this craft into her art.
As Whidbey Island’s only professional tool sharpeners, the Richters own nearly two dozen sharpening machines; many are decades old. While there are new, automatic sharpening machines on the market, they tend to be short lived. Brett recalls his purchase of a $25,000 state-of-the-art machine that repeatedly malfunctioned, damaging more blades than it sharpened and costing him more money than it made.
The Richters sharpen everything from chef’s knives to carbide blades, each with its own
requirements. Paige takes pride in her work; it’s a personal reflection of her skill. She also appreciates customers who make the effort to preserve their tools. She loves to talk with folks who buy old tools at thrift stores and yard sales. She knows it’s cheaper to buy a new, poorly made knife than to restore and sharpen a quality, old one. Most tools made today are of such poor quality that they can’t be sharpened, perpetuating not only a disposable blade but a culture based on disposability.
Sharp, functional tools have been necessary to survival, the Richters remind us. An outdoor enthusiast knows the value of a trusty knife and whetstone. A sharp chainsaw will make quick work of a tree downed in a storm. A sharp axe will enable someone to cut firewood should the power go out. Sharp knives make it easier to dress fowl, should a failure in the food system make it necessary.
As young people take an interest in land stewardship, homesteading, and preservation, this father/daughter team is teaching them to appreciate and care for the tools essential to self-sufficiency.
As it turns out, the art of the edge is an art we all can appreciate.