A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: The Art and Craft of Sharpening a Knife

2018 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness Christopher Nyerges Editions July

I met Julio Toruno recently at the Old L.A. (Highland Park) Farmers Market, where he works on Tuesdays from the back of his truck, sharpening knives on a whetstone. 

Just by watching him, I could tell he epitomizes “old school” craftsmanship. 

I approached him as he was sharpening a large kitchen knife and I could see he was very focused. I learned later that he was counting each stroke of the knife on his whetstone. He evenly stroked the knife back and forth, and occasionally put some water onto the stone. When he finished wiping the knife clean and set it aside, I began to ask questions.

Mr. Toruno got started with knife-sharpening while working as a prep cook and then as a cook at a private school. The basic tools of his knife-sharpening trade are whetstones – also called sharpening stones or honing stones — which he mounts in a vise he made himself. The vise holds the stone atop a large stainless steel rectangular pan filled with water. This makes a very neat system, so that the water he continually adds to the stone drips right into the pan.

I wanted to watch the process from start to finish, so I gave Mr. Toruno one of my carbon steel sheath knives. He told me that he first examines a knife to see how many strokes it needs and if it has any particularly bad spots. He decided to take my knife through five stages of sharpening, starting with the coarsest stone, which had a grit of 120. He mounted the stone onto his vice and laid the knife on it, matching the angle of the cutting edge to the stone. He gave it about 70 even strokes. Then, he proceeded to stroke my knife with a 220-grit stone, then 320, then 1,000, and finally, the finest work was done on an 8,000-grit stone. (The higher the number, the finer the grit of the stone.)

“The number of strokes changes as I move from stone to stone, and depending on the knife,” he explained. “The further along the process, I use less strokes, but on average, it’s about 160 strokes total per side, from the coarse to the fine stone.”

When Mr. Toruno was finished, he looked at my knife’s edge carefully and sliced through a piece of glossy paper to show how sharp he’d made it.

Mr. Toruno has advice for beginners to knife sharpening. He suggests going to a woodworking store and buying a stone with a different grit on each side, say, 500 and 1,000. Then, practice. 

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Julio Toruno works on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Highland Park Farmers Market at Avenue 58 and Figueroa St; on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Altadena Farmers Market at Loma Alta and Altadena Dr; and on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Old Pasadena Farmers Market at Memorial Park at E. Holly and Fair Oaks Ave.

Christopher Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market every Tuesday in Highland Park at Ave. 58 and Figueroa St.  For information about Nyerges’ classes and books on self-reliance, he can be reached at: schoolofself-reliance.com

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