Knife Sharpening at Whisk with Margery Cohen
How she got started:
Margery Cohen has been offering a knife sharpening service for 35 years. It all started in 1974 when she was fresh out of college and took a job at a fish market in Red Bank, New Jersey. She had a fine arts degree and learned that sharpening knives at the market helped satisfy her love of working with her hands. An office job was never something she could see herself doing. Knife sharpening was an art form though, and it really resonated with her. She especially enjoys being able to take something dull that doesn’t work, and using her hands to fix it and make it functional again.
Five fish markets and a move across country later, she joined her friend Ray Nitta’s Samurai Sharpening service in Berkley California in 1984, and she’s been doing it ever since. Eventually she moved back to the East Coast to be closer to her mother. That’s when she set up shop in the Chelsea Market in the 1990s.
“That was the mid-90’s and the Chelsea Market was just opening. There were a lot of empty spaces there. They were looking for vendors and I went into the office and I said to them, ‘I’d like to sharpen knives’ and they directed me to the kitchen supply store there… Everything was like a small family friendly market back then… Now it’s a whole different scene there. Still very fun and nice and lots of people, but we do have a plethora of tourists and they don’t generally carry knives. But still there’s plenty of business and it’s a really fun place to work.”
She’s been at Chelsea Market for over 20 years, and you can visit her on Wednesdays and Saturdays if you like. Now she’s also at Whisk at 197 Atlantic Ave on Tuesdays from Noon to 5PM!
Sharpening by Whetstone:
Unlike some other sharpeners that use a mechanical grinder, Margery sharpens knives by hand using a whetstone. This way she has more control and care with delicate blades. She only uses a mechanical grinder for repair work on damaged or chipped knives.
To get started she feels the knife and carefully strums the blade to find the angle it needs to be sharpened at and figure out what needs to be done. Then she works the edge of the blade on her stone in a circular motion. She finishes with small light strokes for a polished edge.
“Basically I’m sculpting the edge of the knife by rubbing it on one side, turning it around and rubbing on the other. That’s the simplified way of explaining it. There’s no set amount of time you have to give to a knife, or even an angle. I have read books and articles that will tell you the exact angle to sharpen a knife at, and that is not true, because a thicker knife is going to have a steeper angle, some knives are only beveled on one side, and some knives have a steeper angle on one side than the other. These are things that I pay attention to so that I can accommodate each knife that comes to me.”
Not just straight blades:
She can sharpen almost anything, including traditional serrated knives. She just uses a small cylindrical file to get between each serration. The only thing she won’t do is sharpen things like swords that are intended to be used as weapons. “I seem to get calls from all over the country ‘Do you sharpen swords’, and what I usually say is, ‘Why do you need a sharp sword?… No I don’t sharpen weapons.'”
She has however sharpened machetes for field work. Twice she’s even been asked to make swords dull for use as props in theater productions!
When it comes to your kitchen knives though, she has some advice.
“The dishwasher can be very damaging to the metal… I don’t recommend a dishwasher ever for a knife. Even a crummy knife. Just don’t do it.”
She also says that with most knives, especially ones made from carbon steel, it’s important to hand wash, dry, and store your knives right away to avoid rust and damage.
Sharpening at home:
If you’re interested in learning to sharpen knives yourself, she sometimes hosts workshops and you can contact her here to arrange that. She also recommends watching youtube videos to learn good techniques.
She says that if you’re just getting started, you should try working with a combination whetstone. They have two different sides with different grits for proper finishing. You would start on the coarser side of the stone to work out kinks in blade. Then you’d flip to finer side to finish and polish the edge.
She says that while knives are sharp and can obviously be dangerous if mishandled, you shouldn’t be afraid of your knife if you want to sharpen it yourself. Just be careful and gently feel the knife’s edge to see where it may require more attention.
She does not recommend pull-through style sharpeners, especially electric ones. They can take much too much metal off your blade, and can even ruin a knife if used incorrectly or too often.
What about honing rods:
You can however use a honing rod, or steel, to keep your knives sharper for longer between sharpening. While honing rods don’t actually sharpen the blade, when used on a knife that feels slightly dull, they effectively knock the burrs on the blade back in place to maintain the blade and help it feel sharp again. If a blade is actually dull though, using the steel isn’t going to fix it. At that point, it will require sharpening.
For that, you can always come see Margery on Tuesdays from Noon to 5PM at Whisk. To learn more about her process and see her in action at Chelsea Market, please watch the video below.
Come by Whisk to have your knives professionally sharpened by Margery Cohen of Samurai Sharpening! We hope to see you soon!
Knife Sharpening at Whisk
197 Atlantic Ave between Clinton & Court
Every Tuesday from Noon to 5PM.