Working in Clark County: Eliot Smith, knife-sharpener

By Kay Richardson, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Kay Richardson:kay.richardson@columbian.com; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.

Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Kay Richardson:kay.richardson@columbian.com; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.

Eliot Smith has a unique way of doing business. Clients leave knives and contact information in secure lockers located on his porch in Vancouver’s Minnehaha neighborhood, taking the keys with them. They receive an email when the knives are ready to pick up, return to retrieve their knives, and leave the keys and payment of $3 to $5 per knife. Although Smith rarely meets his customers, he says he often feels quite close to them. “I’m a little like the fairy cobbler in that I do most of my sharpening in the wee hours of the night and my customers don’t usually meet me. But they seem to understand the love and attention I give to their knives.”

Name: Eliot Smith.

Residence city/Neighborhood: West Minnehaha.

Employer: Self-employed knife sharpener (www.patronsaintofknives.com).


Age:
60.

Educational/professional background: I lived in Japan for six years. Did art, wrote for newspapers, did photography, and taught English. Ran an AIDS awareness program as a taxi driver in Santa Cruz, Calif.


How you got started in your career/business:
I have been sharpening knives since I was a sprout and am self-taught. I used to carry a sharpening kit around to do my friends’ knives. Several years ago I started thinking about the liminal edge, the fine razor edge between who you are and what you can become. As I translated that into knife sharpening, I started trying to speed up and improve the process. For a while I was going to Goodwill and buying buckets of knives by the pound to practice on. Finally my wife told me there were too many knives around the house and I started doing friends’ knives again. The next thing I know they are paying me, I have a business license, and am sharpening knives professionally.

When did you receive your first knife?: The most important knife I was ever given was a Swiss Army knife from my father. I was in my early 20s and one day shortly after he gave it to me a man in Santa Cruz opened fire on me and a friend at 20 feet with a 9 mm automatic pistol. The third bullet ricocheted off the knife in my coat pocket and he missed me six more times. My friend was not so lucky and nearly died of two bullets to the small of his back.

Which is more dangerous, a dull knife or a sharp one: It depends on you! If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and are paying attention, a good, sharp knife is the safest to cook with. If you’re messing around or throw them in a drawer or sink full of water, they’re more dangerous.

Personal/business philosophy: You are what you do. The search for physical perfection reflects in both your spirit and your mind.

Most rewarding part of job: Every time I finish a knife, regardless of its quality or monetary worth, I put my thumb against the mirror bright edge and get this little thrill. Many times the knives come from customers with a story — “I inherited it, it was my grandfather’s or my dad’s knife.” The response I get from them is wonderful. I tell them they’ll never look at their knives the same way again. It really is my passion and my primary reason for existence.

Most challenging part of job: In order to strive toward perfection, I have to get into a zone where very small things appear to be very large. Where the smallest movement is important, where posture is crucial, and the outside world is far away. I love it, but the focus can be very tiring.


One thing you’d like people to learn about what you do:
The respect and care I strive to offer them and their knives. That, and the fact that I continue to learn every day and will continue to learn as long as I am able to keep sharpening. Also … they should be careful!


Best feature of my Vancouver/Clark County community
: I am an avid yard saler and a large part of the reason I go out is because of the wide variety of people I meet. Everywhere I go I run into nice, interesting, welcoming people. I love bargaining with them, talking about their gardens, learning about their lives. I get good deals too!

What would make your community a better place: I would like to see more arts and creative spaces. I love the farmers markets, too.

Favorite restaurant/pub/coffee shop/store: Petra, Mediterranean Restaurant, The Grocery, and Lady Bond’s Temple of Tattoo!

Hobbies: I love yard sales, photography, taking the dogs to the park, mask-making, making YouTube videos, computer graphics, growing crazy plants, and of course I love sharpening knives.

Favorite travel destination: I used to love going to Thailand, but haven’t had the chance for many years. It’s always good to go back to Santa Cruz to see family.

Most enjoyable book/play/movie/arts event in past 12 months: I loved “Mad Men,” am hooked on “Game of Thrones” (just finished the books), thought “Guardians of the Galaxy” was one of the best science-fiction movies in many years, and I love world beat music.

Something you’d like to do this year/within five years: Sharpen full time.

One word to describe yourself: Eclectic

Person you’d most like to meet: Alton Brown or the Dalai Lama.