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Sharpening At Farmer's Markets

by Steve Bottorff

This story was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Sharpeners Report.  It has been updated in November 2010.  Material in blue was omitted from the published article

A nearby suburb has a farmer's market on Saturday mornings in the summer and fall.  The market focuses on locally grown and organic produce, and recently it has been expanded to include crafts and other home made products.  Unlike some other markets in the area, it has no building or shelter - a street is blocked off on market day.

A sharpener used to come to a nearby farmer's market twice a month to sharpen knives and tools. Last spring the market manager called to say he was leaving, could I take his place?  She said that the presence of a knife sharpener draws people to the market, who then spend up to an hour shopping while their knives are sharpened.  Because this benefits the market she needed a sharpener and would not charge a table fee.  I gave it some thought, consulted my wife, and we decided to do it.  It has been both interesting and profitable, and I encourage others to check it out as a possibility.

Since the market is outdoors, I had to think about equipment portability.  I bought two 2-ft. x 4-ft. folding tables from Sam's Club.  They can lie on the back seat of my car - I do not have a truck.  Each of my grinders is mounted on a MDF board, and they sit on top of the tables.  I carry a folding workbench in the trunk, along with a plastic milk carton and a GateMouth bag for smaller tools and hones.  And, after just one day in the sun, I bought a market umbrella!  (Note: in the second season I added a third table.)

There were outside outlets for electricity, but since the street could be wet, I decided to add a 4 x 4 outlet box with GFI receptacles to my extension cord.  Since I already had my sharpening equipment I spent less than $200 to get ready, most of it on the umbrella.

My equipment includes a Tormek wet wheel grinder, a paper wheel knife sharpener and a regular bench grinder. The Tormek runs slow and smooth, so I just sit it on one of the tables. The grinders I clamp to the portable bench so they don't vibrate and walk around.  

I use the Tormek for scissors, then finish them with a Wolff pink hone and adjust the screw if needed.  The Tormek also does a great job on pinking shears.  I usually take garden shears and hedge trimmers apart to sharpen them, but sometimes if they are in good condition so I just use a diamond hone to touch them up.  Before sharpening I scrape the garden residue off with a putty knife, and when I am finished a drop of oil makes them work like new.  (I have since added a Twice As Sharp for scissors - it is much faster.)

I also use the Tormek to restore a bevel on badly worn knives, and it grinds chipped blades and broken points without any risk of overheating the steel. The paper wheels are used for knife sharpening and burr removal.  I wipe each blade with paint thinner to remove the wax and polishing compound left from the wheels.  (A dedicated commercial knife sharpener like a TruHone (with 1000 grit stones) or a Chef'sChoice 2000 could take the place of the paper wheels.  I am using an F. Dick RS-150 Duo which comes with both 220 and 1000 grit stones.)  

I just use a file for the shovels and hoes, so few tools actually need the bench grinder.   I don't sharpen lawn mower blades but refer this business to a local mower shop, and in return he refers all his cutlery work to me.

On a typical Saturday morning I will sharpen 50 to 60 kitchen knives, a dozen pair of scissors and a dozen garden tools ranging from pruning shears to shovels. This brings in between $240 and $300.  On a really busy day I can make almost $400.  Since this is an affluent suburb I charge my full prices. I often see full sets of chef''s knifes in leather rolls and even see custom knives made by Dale Walther in nearby Dover, Ohio.

Since this market worked so well I decided to try some others.  Another nearby market operates out of a large pole barn, half of which can be closed off and heated for winter operation.  This market has never had a sharpener and it started slowly as I build up the business.  Since this market is in a poorer neighborhood I charge about 75% of my usual prices.

Other markets I tried were seasonal outdoor markets open on weekday mornings and afternoons.  One of these is working out pretty well and business is growing.  It is the inner city and I use the same lower prices I use at senior centers, etc.  Two others could not arrange for electricity.   (One of these markets has arranged for electricity from a street light and I will have a generator this coming summer.)

For success at a farmer's market you need to build the business through promotion and word of mouth. When people first see you they always ask if you will be back next week, so a regular presence every week or every other week is important.   Once the market understands the traffic that a sharpener can draw they will be happy to include you in their promotions. When the markets put an announcement in the paper that a sharpener will be there I get 20 or 30 more customers.  This is more work than I can handle and I have to take some back to the shop.  People seem willing to pick up their knives later, and often bring me more work when they come.

Sharpening at a farmer's market is not likely to produce a full time income due to the seasonal nature of the markets, but it is an interesting way for a sharpening shop to supplement business or a nice part time job for a retiree. I have seen a wider variety of tools and knives than I knew existed, and each Saturday brings a new challenge. I am also meeting a lot of interesting people.

2010 Update:  Since the article was written I have downsized my car to a Toyota Prius with the plates SHARP EZ.  I eliminated the paper wheels and bench grinder, which allowed me to drop the portable bench.  I tried replacing the paper wheels with a TruHone but after customer complaints went with a F. Dick RS-150.  No complaints since.  A belt sander replaced the bench grinder.  The belt has the added advantages of convex grinding for heavy knives and axes, a long straight platen for correcting blade shape and slack belt that can reach into many garden tools that do not open 90 degrees.  The market umbrella was replaced with a 10' x 10' canopy and now I use up to 4 tables.  I use the adjustable ones so my front table can be at counter height.

My best days are now over 100 knives and over $500, with the help of my wife and/or a student.

Last updated February 8, 2015

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