Saw Sharpening: Filing Can Be a Non-Clerical Job

Disenchantment with her job and an impulse decision at a construction site led the author to self-employment in an unusal line of work for women: saw sharpening.
By M. Ellen Tinsley
May/June 1980
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Tinsely at the Belsaw applying her saw sharpening skills. 
PHOTO: PHIL BOWIE


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Not long ago I was — as so many other people seem to be — disenchanted with my job. After all, I'd ridden herd on various computers for 12 years, and by the time I hit the "ripe old age" of 30 I'd decided that I had to become self-employed or lose my sanity! But — I wondered — what kind of home business could a woman with only computer experience hope to establish? I was unsure of myself, and self-employment is a scary proposition.

A Challenging Need

Bless my husband's understanding heart! He was finally doing carpentry, fulfilling a lifelong dream of working with wood, and could sympathize with my frustration and crabbiness. So one bright summer Saturday, he invited me to go along and watch him work. I packed a lunch and gladly left thoughts of Monday and computers behind.

We hadn't been at the site long when the power saw began to screech. It was dull, and with a few unkind words Dan tossed the old blade into a nearby trash bin. Then, suddenly, he got a gleam in his eye and offered me a challenge.

It seemed that no one within our three county area knew how to sharpen saws. All the old time filers had retired or passed on, and nobody had taken advantage of a saw sharpening apprenticeship to carry on the work.

Dan retrieved the dull blade, dug out a few others, and dumped the problems — literally — into my lap. He also took a moment to explain that the old-timers had used hand files, both round and flat, to renew tools' edges. As Dan understood it, saw filing was very much a matter of patience, practice, and developing a feeling for the metal.

Being a tad naive, I promptly grabbed a file from my husband's tool box and began to rasp away at the faces of the teeth. Whoa! It was soon obvious that I wasn't keeping the same angles . . . my hands were growing blisters . . . and my wrists were creaking. I knew I needed help, so I hiked off to seek out some answers.

A Teach-Yourself Career

Once at the library, I found little more than an occasional paragraph (not even one whole book) on the craft of sharpening. Worse yet, most sources simply stressed the need for well-honed blades . . . without explaining how to achieve such a result. However, while in pursuit of information on the subject, I began to notice ads for power sharpening equipment . . . and off went my SASE's to a number of the companies producing such tools.

After reading a lot of promotional literature about how easy it was to hone blades with this or that powered sharpener — and how quickly I could earn a fast dollar — I jumped right in . . . and, some months later, came down hard.

I had purchased a "Sharp-All" from the Belsaw Machinery Company. There were two reasons for my choice: First, the tool looked rugged and basic, and my dad had always said that the less complicated a piece of machinery, the less there was to go wrong . . . second, the cost of the "Sharp-All" (about $500 with the minimum number of attachments) fit our budget. It turned out to be a wise decision.

But, as I said, I did come down hard at first. I ordered the equipment and started to count my unhatched eggs. Then, after only a month of practice, I gave up my secure job and put a small ad in the local weekly paper. Not only that, but I somewhat foolishly opened for business in October, just the very time of year that the weather cools and construction slows down. Add the fact that I'm a female, and oh, brother . . . was I in trouble!

Sharp, But a Woman

Just being a woman was, at least in the very beginning, my home business's worst handicap. I kept getting calls for "the guy who sharpens." Contractors brought work in "for your husband to do," and shuddered when I gently informed them I was the filer. Some of my friends even said I should quit telling clients that I did the work! That idea, however, made me angry . . . because my whole business philosophy is founded on quality and honesty,

So my husband and I tightened our belts . . . I persevered . . . and barely managed to earn enough to pay the monthly bill on the equipment.

Slowly, however, word about my work began to get around. A tool user would show up at the shop with one blade. A friend, he would say, had praised my skill . . . but I could see that the thought of turning any prized tools over to a female sharpener was hard for him to swallow. I'd do the job, though . . . and then usually within the next day or two, the fellow would come back with a handful of blades to be sharpened and an apologetic grin on his face.

And one day, I realized that I was happy . . . not rich, but really happy! Furthermore, I got quicker at my work every day and became so self-assured that I'd tackle any sharpening job. If I couldn't get the tool to cut properly, there was simply no charge!

As time went by, I also began to understand how lucky I'd been when I decided to buy a Belsaw. The firm's people were invaluable to me! In fact, I called to ask for assistance so often that they came to recognize my voice. Since I had no mechanical background, communication was sometimes difficult, but the Belsaw folks were patient . . . and I learned.

I went on to try sharpening circular saws, chisels, axes, knives, scissors, and more. I sometimes failed, but I always picked up information and was soon able to interpret the spreading warmth of heating metal and know when to stop filing to avoid ruining a blade's temper.

Business Advice

In the process of getting established, I discovered a few do's and don'ts to pass on to anyone considering a tool-sharpening career.

First, the do's: Smile and be understanding, because tools are very personal possessions. Clean and add a protective finish to every implement you sharpen. Wrap all items in paper or cardboard before returning them, and mark each tool with the owner's name. (One mixup will quickly bring home the need for this rule!) Be willing to work late or early if, for instance, a homesteader needs his or her axe by a given time. And finally, barter . . . I've gotten artwork, fruit, and free advertising in exchange for my labor.

The don'ts are important, too: For one thing, don't turn down requests sight unseen, but ask to look at the blade in question (I've gotten a lot of my business simply because I'll try unusual jobs). Even more important, don't ever let a job leave your shop until you're satisfied with it . . . and don't charge if you can't sharpen a tool properly, even though it may have taken you two hours to recognize your honest failure.

Now that I'm an established tool sharpener, is success worth all the headaches it cost me? You bet it is! Not only do I provide a needed service, but I get to see the smiles of people I satisfy. I must admit that my first season was lean, but one short year later, the demand for quality sharpening has become so great that I'm teaching Dan to help me, and I'm getting ready to order another piece of equipment. At the end of the last fiscal quarter, I was grossing $6.00 an hour and netting $5.00.

So, if you're around Bridgeton, North Carolina, come by and visit my shop. I like to talk! And bring your pocketknife or a paring knife, because I'll do such small jobs free of charge . . . just as a "hello" gift to you from me.


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