The Sharpest Business on the D.C. Block

If there’s one place in the country it’s harder to cut through the doublespeak than any other, it’s Washington, D.C. But one small business is up to the task, so to speak.

DC Sharp!, owned by Derek Swanson, excels in sharpening knives so keen even the sharpest D.C. operator would be impressed. But it’s their technique of using Japanese waterstones to do so that truly makes them unique.

“My research told me the best way to sharpen was using Japanese waterstones,” Swanson said, who began looking into the knife sharpening business after becoming frustrated with finding a quality sharpener for his own knives.

Japanese waterstones are sedimentary blocks of stone, often rectangular, that contain fine silicate particles. Wetting the stones allows the sharpener to glide a knife’s edge across it, sharpening or “stoning” the blade. Japanese waterstones are softer than others, allowing for greater sharpening and polishing.

“I found many businesses using the traditional technique in other major cities, but the only options for sharpening in D.C. were the small hardware stores using a machine to grind the edge,” which experts agree don’t get the kind of results that hand sharpening gets.Derek Swanson sharpening a blade using a Japanese waterstone

Swanson got his lucky break when he met an executive responsible for choosing vendors for D.C.’s Union Market, Richie Bradenburg. After talking with Bradenburg at the market’s grand opening, Bradenburg invited Swanson back the following weekend as a “pop-up” vendor.

“I showed up that Friday with a rubber mat and three sharpening stones, and worked practically non-stop the whole weekend,” Swanson said. “By close of business on Sunday night, I had so many knives to sharpen and return the next weekend I called my brother and begged him to drive down from Boston and help me sharpen knives for a week.”

His brother did, and never turned back.

Following the massive success of his “pop-up” venture, the Swanson brothers became more invested in the art of sharpening.  “Sharpening a knife by hand compels one to use the senses of touch, hearing, sight and balance in very different ways,” he said.

So just how did Swanson come to master the art of sharpening knives with Japanese waterstones? Practice, practice, practice. Oh, and watching YouTube, of course.

Discovering the training videos of Murray Carter was the best training Swanson could have found, he said. “Anyone can make a knife razor sharp using waterstones, but achieving consistently outstanding results and working fast takes a lot of practice.”

Since opening up shop in September of 2012, Swanson estimates DC Sharp! has hand sharpened more than 14,000 knives in their first 15 months of business. Hence the lots of practice.Owner Derek Swanson (right) and his brother Ryan Swanson

With such fine-tuned, hands-on experience, Swanson is an expert when it comes to selecting quality knives to sell in his shop, most of which are either American or Japanese in origin due to the high quality-to-price ratio. If you’re looking for a good knife, Swanson highlights three qualities: performance, comfort and ease of maintenance.

That last point, which he colloquializes as “sharpenability,” is key, he says. “The best knives hold their edge longer than others and also sharpen very quickly on waterstones. Investing in the best steel you can afford will pay dividends in the form of performance.”

Swanson definitely isn’t one to cut short the rewards of owning his own business and having it operate around something he’s passionate about.“The practice of sharpening is very relaxing, and allows you to focus your senses. You get to see your results immediately, so you get a lot of little victories every day.”

Because of this instant gratification, Swanson notes how easy it is to become obsessive-compulsive about the results, striving to make the knives he sharpens have the most stinging edges. His customers can certainly attest to his success.

“Some customers have come back and bragged about how badly they cut their finger, which is one of our more bizarre performance metrics,” he said.

What more could a knife sharpening business pride itself on than a little bloodshed?

Small Business Profile