In San Francisco's Mission District, One Man Makes Art of a Good, Sharp Knife

Bernal Knives, in San Francisco's Mission District. (Isaac Silk/KQED)

As it gets closer to Thanksgiving, Josh Donald has quite a few knives to sharpen for the big day. Then again, there’s always plenty to be done at Bernal Cutlery, a Japanese whetstone sharpening shop in San Francisco.

“We generally don’t run out of sharpening. I think our sharpening-to-do pile has run dry once for 15 minutes," he says.

Donald first got interested in knives when he found a pocket knife in his parents' couch at a young age. But his passion for sharpening Japanese tools grew from his practice as a sculptor.

“It was mostly wood carving, that’s where I discovered Japanese tools. I was attempting to sharpen gouges, these big scoop-shaped chisels, and I didn’t get great results to start, but I kept at it.”

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Bernal Cutlery began as a pick-up and drop-off sharpening service. Next it moved into a storefront at a small business incubator in the Bernal Heights neighborhood. Now the store is located on Guerrero Street in the Mission District.

Josh Donald, owner of Bernal Knives, behind the counter. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
Josh Donald, owner of Bernal Knives, behind the counter. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The practice of sharpening knives with a whetstone goes back hundreds of years. One rubs the knife against whetstones of varying “grits,” from rough to smooth. The sharpener works to “get the right geometry and also the right finish for the type of knife and the type of steel,” says Donald.

According to Donald, the best way to keep your knives sharp is to use each for its intended purpose, to wash and dry them immediately after use, and to use wooden cutting boards exclusively. A good knife should hold its blade for three to six months.

And like any good knife sharpener and salesman, Donald has some tips for carving your turkey. If you want to get narrow breast meat strips, “use a slicer, a long narrow knife. Make sure it’s longer than the breast meat that you’re going to be carving. And don’t assault the bones or the joints with that same knife.”

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