Slice of Life: Keeping an Edge with Sato Sharpening

Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by Katalina Berbari

A lot of people don’t think about the sharpness of a knife blade, that is until they’re crushing their way through a tomato or worse, slicing open a finger. What they don’t realize is how much better and easier working with a sharp knife is. As the co-owner and operator of Portland-based Sato Sharpening, Yohhei Sato travels the country to sharpen chef’s knives at some of the best restaurants around, arriving with tools and whetstones, leaving a path of sharpened blades in his wake.

While his travels take him across the country, you can usually find Yohhei biking around the Rose City with his dog Spiky tucked into a backpack, en route to another restaurant, bar or to spend time in the woods. We had a chance to catch up with Yohhei Sato of Portland-based Sato Sharpening, who joined us back in October at Wayward Bellevue for an in-store sharpening session, to learn more about how he got his start and some tips for knowing when your blade needs a tune-up.


How did you get your start in knife sharpening?

Growing up in the country, I had to do something to earn cash for candy and toys. I did help my family farm each year, and had summer jobs and winter jobs during breaks, but sharpening was one of things I did for cash. The village I grew up in Japan was called Utigmaki, close to Tubame-Sunjo, Ojiya, Nagaoka and Toukamachi. Those towns are known for handcrafts like Kimonos, fabric, fireworks, sake, rice and steel. Blacksmithing is something we are known for as well. Especially in Tubame-Sunjo. Knives from here are as well known as knives from Seki and Sakai.

My grandfather had friends who worked at local forges and at a knife store in Tubame-Sunjo. He used to take me with him when his knives and tools needed to be professionally sharpened or to just hang out with them. They drank so much sake. Anyway, I thought sharpening was very badass and I spent my time watching how they sharpened knives. Over time, they taught me how and gave me some advice. Eventually, my grandfather let me take care of his knives and tools. Also, my uncle who was a professional tuna butcher let me sharpen his knives. Then I started sharpening knives and tools for my family and neighbors.


You travel to sharpen knives for chefs around the country. How did you get started with this?

I always loved going on road trips and exploring new places, and I was also involved with touring theater shows, so I am very used to being on the road. When I’m on the road, I really enjoy going to local bars and partying with them. Because of that, I often end up meeting new people. Conversations I have with people often tend to be about knives, for some reason. I think because people love talking about their own knives, and I also carry knives.

We talk about what we do and I tell them I sharpening knives. People seem to be interested in it, I think because not many places have someone who sharpens knives like I do. Some of the people I happened to meet were chefs or had friends who were chefs in town. I also like researching the food industry in town and email businesses beforehand. Plus, I am a big fan of doing events like we did at Wayward Bellevue. It is a great way to meet people.


Did you ever think your line of work would lead you to so much travel?

Yes, I did. Working and partying at the same time is the best. I love traveling and really wanted to make it happen, so I feel very lucky that it is happening for me.


Why is it important to have a sharp knife?

It has been said that sharp knife is a safe knife, which is very true. You don’t need to push a knife when it is sharp, all you have to do is guide it and let the knife does its job. Keeping it sharp is also healthy for the knife. When a knife is dull, people try to push it, and that’s how they get hurt and damage the knife. Simply, a dull knife is not fun. I really don’t like cooking with dull knives or skinning. It’s much more fun to use a sharp knife.


What’s the difference between sharpening a knife at home vs. what a professional like yourself can do?

I only sharpen knives by hand. The knives I sharpen have deep, thick edges, which creates the sharpness of the knife. When you use a machine, it is not sharpening but grinding. It does not give an edge to the knife and takes off too much steel. You should avoid grinding machines to sharpen knives. I take more time with whetstones to sharpen a knife than people usually do at home, and by using the right whetstones it makes the edge thicker and deeper. Whetstones should be chosen depending on what steel knife is made of, too. My stones are high quality and from Japan. Each knife has a purpose and I give the blade the right edge angle for their specific purpose.


Can you briefly run us through the process of sharpening a knife? Do you start with a higher grit stone then move to a finer grit?

First, I touch the blade to see what kind of condition the knife is in. If it’s really dull, I start with a 220 grit to grind and create the shape. After that, I go to a 1000 grit to make first layer of edge after grinding. Then I go with a 4000 grit, followed by a 6000 grit and finally an 8000 grit. In the end, I give the knife strapping. This is the process of sharpening a knife made of German steel or hard steel with a thicker blade. If I am going to sharpen a Japanese knife or knife made from soft steel with a thinner blade, I use natural whetstones to sharpen—they are smooth and soft on the blade.


What’s the easiest way to tell when a knife needs a sharpening?

The most famous way to test a knife’s sharpness is to cut your arm hair. If the knife has the right angle, thickness and is freshly sharpened, it can do that. But there are other ways to see if knife is sharp. Put the blade sideways on your pointer fingernail and push forward. If it is dull, it will slide. If it is sharp, it will stay. You can also test it by slicing piece of newspaper, too.


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