By Ashley Naftule, September 2019 issue. All photos by Maria Vassett.
The tell-tale sign that you’re talking to someone with a science background is they cannot resist a pun. Like loose ball bearings to a magnet, the scientific mind (for all its rigor and erudition) is powerless to resist the pull of a groaner. So, when Sharp AZ Knives maestro Kamlynn Thomas answers her phone with a cheery “Sharpen your day,” it should come as no surprise that science is her métier.
A Valley resident since 2011, Thomas has long been immersed in the world of STEM. She studied physics and mathematics in Montana before moving to the Valley. It was while she was in Montana that she discovered a deep and abiding love for science. “It’s very, very precise,” Thomas says over the phone. “And with physics, I liked that there are equations and lots of data. It’s actually one of the things I appreciate about owning my business — yes, there’s the customer service aspect and providing a service, but I also get to do my expenses and crunch my spreadsheets.”
The future Arizonan also discovered something else while studying in Montana: “I learned that I don’t like being cold.” Whereas most Phoenicians lament the suffocating summer heat, Thomas says she doesn’t mind it. The mobile knife sharpening business owner is as resilient as the water stones that make her trade possible.
Before launching Sharp AZ Knives, Thomas worked at the Arizona Science Center for almost eight years. “I loved working there,” Thomas says. “But I just realized it was time for a change.” That change is the business she’s thrown herself full-bore into is a knife-sharpening service that goes directly to the customer’s home.
Thomas spells out the nature of her business clearly on her website. “I’m equipped with a Fingerprint Clearance Card, a sunny disposition, and a vast collection of science puns,” she writes. Customers reach out with a call or text and she sets appointments with them to come to their home to sharpen their knives. Thomas eschews complex equipment for the time-honored practice of using water stones (or whetstones, as they’re commonly known).
“By coming to their location, they don’t have to transport their knives, dull or sharp, to me,” she says. “And I work around their schedules, so it’s convenient and flexible.” Thomas likens the sharpening process (which takes about an hour per household, according to her estimates) to “a day at the spa” for knives. The process returns them to a state of pristine sharpness, able to hack through anything your kitchen throws at them.
But how do you know when your knives need to be sharpened? Thomas says a great way to keep tabs on their sharpness is to employ “the tomato test.” “If you get a tomato and you try cutting it and the skin kind of puckers, you definitely need to send me a message,” she explains. “A sharp knife should just slide right through it without any puckering."
Thomas adds that your household appliances and kitchen equipment can hasten the dulling of your blades.
“Don’t put them in the dishwasher,” she says. “I know it’s much more convenient to just pop them in there, but the machines are really, really tough on them. They’re just rattling around inside. Just take a couple of seconds to give them a nice little rubdown and then dry them immediately … and look at your cutting boards. Some boards, like granite or marble cutting boards, can dull your knife."
On paper, Thomas’s transition from physics major and Science Center employee to knife-sharpening entrepreneur might seem random — but Thomas points out that her scientific background does inform her practice. “It’s fitting with knives because you need to be very accurate with your angles.” Any accident-prone cook will be quick to tell you that precision and knives go together like air and lungs.
Thomas started her business for the most classic of reasons — she saw a problem and decided to offer a solution.
“About three or four years ago my wife got me a really nice cooking knife and I used it so much. I would go to the farmer’s market and always be like, ‘Oh, I need to bring my knife and get it sharpened.’ And then I’d forget. And then next week: ‘Oh, I need to get my knife and get it sharpened.’ And that went on for a while until I thought, ‘why don’t I just do it myself?’"
Seeing an opportunity, Thomas learned her water stones technique from “a family friend up north in Washington … He showed me where to put my hands — the great thing about working with water stones is that the knives are still dull when you’re starting off. So, you’re not going to do as much damage if something happens.”
The process of sharpening metal with stones is an ancient one, with different cultures developing their own twists on the technique. Like in Japan, where they eschewed putting oil on their stones and used water instead.
“I’ve been doing it for about a year, so it’s taken some time to know the right angle and pressure and whatnot,” she said. “Now it’s kind of just muscle memory. I started doing that for family and friends and myself, and the idea just started growing from there.”
By applying the blade to the stone’s surface, the abrasive particles in the block remove small bits of steel off the knife — removing the dull bits that don’t cut properly anymore to give the blade a new, sharper edge. It can be a delicate, Goldilocks-style process: shave too little off and you’ve still got an imprecise, blunt blade. Take off too much and you can risk distorting the knife’s shape. It’s why someone with Thomas’s mind and training can excel at the craft: By understanding the precise amount of pressure to apply to the knife and the correct angles to make sure that it comes out right every time.
While you’d think a knife-sharpening business would mostly be gunning for a restaurant clientele, Thomas says that she’s more interested in cultivating a customer base that can sympathize with her farmer’s market dilemma. By offering them the convenience of house calls and affordable sharpening rates, she’s ensuring that they’ll never have to endure “Oh, I should have brought my knives!” remorse ever again.
“It’s mostly been referrals, but it also helps that my wife works in marketing,” Thomas says about her growing business. She plans to expand the types of services she offers in the future: She’s currently trying to get equipment that will let her sharpen serrated knives, and she’s also looking to add cooking scissors and shears to her repertoire.
She’s also planning on doing holiday promotions for Halloween and Thanksgiving. “Don’t try to carve your pumpkins with dull knives,” she says. “Let me come over for Halloween and get those ready to go.”
Above all else, Thomas credits the existence of Sharp AZ Knives to her spouse.
“My wife was the one who really supported me doing this,” she says. “Her love and support really helped me take this leap of faith and leave a career I was working in for several years to start this new endeavor.”
Like a good knife, Kamlynn Thomas knows how to cut exactly to the heart of things.