South Portland knife sharpener gives people back their edge

Posted Aug. 22, 2013, at 1:26 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 22, 2013, at 4:48 p.m.

FALMOUTH — They come with carving knives, garden shears and lawn mower blades.

Some drop off bags filled with cutlery, others plunk down mere pocket knives. Food processors are fair game, too.

No matter how antiqued or nicked the tool, David Orbeton sizes up the edge and gets straight to work.

“When you think about it, you can’t cook without a knife, you can’t garden without a knife,” the 62 year old said recently as he examined a blunt chopping blade at the Cumberland Farmer’s Market in Falmouth.

Orbeton is one of a few professional knife sharpeners in the state. His business, Wicked Sharp, has become a mainstay at the Falmouth, Yarmouth and Brunswick’s Crystal Spring farmers markets, where people drop off shears, pizza cutters, weed whackers, you name it, while shopping for corn and tomatoes. In 15 minutes he makes them like new. And often times better.

Because “a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one,” there’s no telling how many fingers he’s saved.

Underneath his tent, the gentle hum of high-carbon steel hitting a wet wheel sharpener keeps the beat as a band belts cover songs across the way. As if on cue, the singer takes a break and gives a shout out “To David Orbeton of Wicked Sharp for making my dinners so much better.”

Such stories have become common for Orbeton, who picked up the trade in 1972 when he was washing dishes at Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany.

He was 19 and went there to ski, but “there was no snow in The Alps that winter so I got a job. One of the chefs taught me how to sharpen knives for all the other chefs,” said the South Portland native.

Returning to Maine, he went on to become a carpenter and cabinet maker.

“I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands. It’s just very satisfying,” said the gray haired gent who’s never met a blade he couldn’t burnish.

Though on the surface, giving someone a sharper edge may seem trivial, in a consumer-crazed society where people don’t hold onto things for very long, he is a conduit to connectivity.

“A lot of the older people seem to understand that you don’t throw something away and get new, you sharpen and renew it,” he said.

He sees what he’s doing as a green practice, making old or neglected knives shiny and reusable.

“It’s an extension of you as a person. When you are working your tools, they start to take a spirit of their own after a while,” he said.

“All tools have history. Having been a carpenter and a cabinet maker I see how important it is to have sharp tools, it really makes a difference in how your day goes working.”

Tom Peterson, of Windham, who used Orbeton for the first time this week started to pick up on that.

“This is the best pocket knife I’ve ever had,” said Peterson, who in eight years had never sharpened it. Exiting the Falmouth Farmer’s Market, he seemed excited with his newly sharpened edge.

When a blunt blade arrives at his tent, it doesn’t take long for him to see what’s needed.

Orbeton grinds down bolsters that are too high and will give a knife back its tip while you shop for mushrooms. He has a belt grinder for the bigger jobs, a whet stone and a German sharpener to smooth out the burrs.

Because sharpeners are rare, the farmers market, where fresh produce abounds, is a natural fit.

When the Falmouth market opens at 1 p.m., “people have stuff ready to be sharpened,” said Scott Jillson, who manages the market and says Wicked Sharp has spurred business.

Some shop while he hones, others return the following week. Either way “they look around or have to come back and get it. So they come twice,” said Jillson.

Angela Fields of Portland dropped off a chopping and paring knife at Orbeton’s tent for the first time on Wednesday.

“I come to the market every week for flowers and it’s just very convenient,” said Fields. “I’ll come back next week.”

And that’s why Orbeton has become farmers market gold.

“A lot of people, the first time around, will bring me one item to sharpen. And they don’t tell me that I’m on trial,” said Orbeton.

Next time they empty the contents of their kitchen drawer.

Many are surprised at just how good he is.

“I get lots of photos sent to me by email of fingers with BandAids on them,” he said. “I haven’t had any letters from lawyers yet.”

By helping people hold on to their keepsakes, Orbeton is preserving memories as he hones edges.

“I get a lot of elderly people that bring carving sets that are very ornamental and date back to the early 40s that they received as wedding presents. It’s fun to hear them talk about how they got the wedding present from so and so,” he said.

Family heirlooms such as “the knife-my father left me that we used to cut watermelons,” which a customer told him once, come to life through his attention and skill.

Orbeton started sharpening knives at the Brunswick winter farmers market five years ago, and was “overwhelmed with work. The enthusiasm was so great that we haven’t looked back,” he said. “We thought at first it was a pent-up demand, but it’s really kept up.”

At his home workshop in South Portland, he gets at least two knives a day dropped off in his mailbox.

“There is a knife drop box on the front porch for your convenience,” according to Oberton’s website. “If I am not home just leave them in it with your name and phone number.”

But when the weather’s nice he prefers to work outside.

“It’s a great community working at the farmers market. We all barter with each other,” said Orbeton, who has eaten better since working the fresh food circuit. He trades his skills for tomatoes, lettuce and locally roasted coffee.

Though it’s not enough to retire on, he expects to continue because, “there’s an endless supply of dull blades.”

In all these years of grinding steel to a fare-thee-well, he has avoided the emergency room, “except for one major gouge.”

Taking apart an old gardening tool and reassembling it one day, he was rushed to the hospital. But when the doctor was sewing up his wound, “the staff at the hospital was more interested in what I could sharpen than my hand,” he said.

He imparts a few tips: Don’t put knives in a dishwasher and always cut on a wooden block.

“It feels good. People are always really happy with the product. I have people calling me up in the middle of cooking their supper,” he said. “They didn’t realize it was such a pleasure to use a sharp knife.”

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