Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Harper Keehn’s traveling sharpening van. (Photo: Barbra Revill)

Harper Keehn, owner of Sharper Harper, swears it’s pure coincidence her first name rhymes with her chosen profession. “No, my parents didn’t know that I would end up doing this for a living,” she said, referring to her knife-sharpening business. For that, she credits her grandmother, who gave her a penknife when she was 4. “The salesperson almost didn’t sell it to her when she found out who it was for,” Keehn added. But grandma prevailed and the young carver was soon whittling away.

As a participant at this summer’s farmers market in Cambridge’s Central Square (visits are slated for Sept. 11 and 18) and Somerville’s Davis Square (Aug. 30 and Sept. 6), Keehn stands out for other reasons as well. Her offerings aren’t so much products as product improvements: In about the same amount of time it takes to tour the market tables, she expertly sharpens a small collection of kitchen knives, sending even the most exacting of cooks off to enjoy more efficient food preparation. 

Keehn didn’t really take up sharpening until an extended leave from college. “I worked on a ranch in Colorado when I was in my early 30s” that raised and butchered livestock, and Keehn said she made herself useful by learning how to work and repair some of the equipment. When she returned to the East Coast – to complete her degree at Yale after stints at Hunter College and Deep Springs in California – a friend managing a farmers market in New York suggested she make some extra money by selling her newly honed sharpening skills there. “Everybody has knives, and there’s not many sharpeners, so there was a fair amount of demand,” Keehn said.

“Anyone can learn to sharpen a knife,” she said. “The thing that becomes hard is knowing how to repair knives that are different shapes. A cleaver is sharpened at a very wide angle, so it has a ton of metal supporting the cutting edge. And other knives, like a sushi knife, are sharpened at a very fine angle. So there are all these sorts of specialty cases where it’s actually possible to do a lot of damage. Anybody can learn if they have the patience.”

Keehn uses a low-speed Tormek T8 grinder with custom wheels to sharpen knives. (Photo: Sharper Harper)

For those looking to do the work themselves, Keehn said home sharpeners – the standard wands or the countertop pull-throughs – are acceptable methods for maintaining pieces. To a point. Ideally people should have their knives sharpened professionally once or twice a year, she said, though she has given first-time sharpening to knives given as wedding presents decades ago. Keehn is more adamant about the damage that can come from dishwashers (“all that clattering around dulls them”) or tossing them around in the sink. “Even a glass cutting board will dull the knife … even if it’s a good shape, the blade is still so thin it can be damaged easily.”

Keehn

In addition to her presence in Central and Davis squares, Harper the Sharper can be found farther afield at farmers markets around Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. She tends to visit each market according to a seasonal pattern: twice in the spring and twice in the fall, every six months. “People don’t need their knife sharpened more often, you know?” she said. And interest often peaks before carving-centric holidays such as Thanksgiving and Easter.

Local cooks and others in need of top-notch sharpening should take note that looking ahead, Keehn would like to limit her time on the road and allow herself some space to pursue another interest: painting. “I would like to drive less,” she said, “so I’m moving the center of gravity towards Providence, toward a weekly drop-off service that I do there.” 

“There are markets that I’ve been going to for 10 years and thousands of customers that have known me for that amount of time, and I feel very feel attached to those people, so I keep on making the trip. It’s a little scary to be working alone and not have many safety nets,” she said. “But I like the work. And I really like interacting with people.”