SHOREWOOD - How sharp are your kitchen knives?
It's a question we don't often ask ourselves but has been asked more and more over the past 14 years due to Whitefish Bay resident Lee Frederick.
Frederick first started sharpening knives as a young boy on his family's farm, where he used Arkansas stones to sharpen pocket knives and axes. In Whitefish Bay, Frederick's knife-sharpening hobby became a neighborhood hit, and he started sharpening knives for his neighbors.When his son Austin was 14, Frederick decided he would teach him the value of a dollar by taking him door to door offering to sharpen knives.
Little did either of them know, their side hustle would soon become a major part of their lives.
One of their first gigs was Whitefish Bay's Sidewalk Sale, where it took them 40 minutes to sharpen a police officer's pocket knife. They managed to fine-tune their operations over the next couple years, though, and they ditched their sharpening stones in favor of a belt sander, leather wheel and cotton buffer. They caught their first big break in 2006, when a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter stopped by an East Side farmers market and wrote a feature story about their business. After that article, they went from making $60 to $400 per day.
Austin Freese is now a master sharpener in San Francisco, and Frederick manages about four part-time sharpeners who travel to block parties and farmers markets all over the Milwaukee area in their three fabricated trucks.
Due to the volume of business they are doing — and Frederick's desire to move sharpening operations out of his basement — The Sharp Brothers are now starting a new chapter of their business with a brick-and-mortar storefront at 1522 E. Capitol Drive.
Unlike other knife-sharpening shops Frederick has visited, The Sharp Brothers' new shop is outfitted with bright colors on the inside. Outside, the mural of an octopus holding several types of knives has already become a local landmark to some passersby. Frederick no longer allows people to drop off their knives in a drop box outside of his Whitefish Bay home, but they have created a bigger drop box — also octopus-themed — outside of their new store in Shorewood.
The store opens March 11. Frederick said he doesn't intend to quit his day job, but he is curious to see where the business goes next.
"We really don't know what to expect," he said. "We're going to see what the demand is."
While kitchen knives make up the bulk of their business, they are also able to sharpen everything from pickaxes to lawnmower blades to the scissors used at Whitefish Bay's ribbon-cutting events.
For The Sharp Brothers, it's a point of pride when a customer tells them they cut their finger. Their knife-sharpening process starts by running one side of the blade against belt sander, causing a small ridge — or burr, as it is called in the business — to form on the other side of the blade. A leather wheel and cotton buffer are then used to remove that burr from the other side of the blade, creating an entirely new point on the knife. It may sound simple in theory, but the ability to perfectly freehand sharpen a knife takes years to perfect.
"It's the angle, it's the delicacy and it's the fluidity of motion," said Tomas Schlenker, who joined Sharp Brothers six years ago after responding to a Craigslist ad. "It's almost like a martial art."