Once a common sight, the knife-sharpening man is now a rare treat


Knife-sharpener John Vecchiarelli poses outside of his truck in Silver Spring, Md., on April 6. Vecchiarelli, 75, uses a knife-sharpening truck that his father, Tony Vecchiarelli, used to operate throughout the Washington area. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist April 15, 2013

The old green truck rocks gently, like a living thing, swaying in time with the grinding wheel that spins inside. A short, gray-haired man leans over the spinning stone, pressing a knife against the wheel and creating a shower of sparks.

On a residential street in a Silver Spring neighborhood, on one of the first perfect Saturdays of spring, John Vecchiarelli is putting an edge on a blade.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“My father did this for 70 years. He was doing it when he was 87,” says John, who gives his own age as “senior citizen.”

It’s his father’s old green truck, and it’s his father’s name on the side of the truck, crookedly spelled out in adhesive letters: TONY. More letters get the message across in understandable, if somewhat idiosyncratic, English: CUTLERY — TOOL — GRINDER — SHARPEN — KNIVES.

John’s father, Domenico Antonio Vecchiarelli, was one of about eight men who came to Washington from Guardiaregia, Italy, in the 1920s to make their fortunes — or at least a living — sharpening steel.

John himself didn’t arrive till he was 9, after a storm-tossed 21-day Atlantic crossing with his mother in 1947.

“I didn’t know any of my male relatives till I came here,” John says. The men of his family used to go back and forth between Italy and America, but when World War II broke out, they were all stuck on the U.S. side.

Tony Vecchiarelli was known for the paper hat he wore while he worked. It wasn’t really a hat but a paper lunch bag, rolled up just so. “My father insisted on that paper hat,” John says.

As a boy, John used to go out with Tony when he worked, learning by observing: what angle to hold the blade, how much pressure to apply. John preferred playing baseball to sharpening knives, and eventually he stopped accompanying his dad. When he got older, John went into commercial real estate, bird-dogging properties for area developers.

After Tony Vecchiarelli had a stroke in 1998, his truck sat in his son’s driveway in College Park. John would drive it to the nursing home parking lot so his father could look out the window and see it. He isn’t sure Tony recognized it, but he hopes he did.

Tony died nine months after his stroke. It was around then that John told his wife: “I’m going out somewhere. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

He drove the truck to a street off Military Road NW. In the old days, his father would work six days a week. There were so many knife sharpeners — and so many from Guardiaregia — that some days Tony would drive all the way to Richmond to be free from competition.

But now, who knew? Knife sharpeners were rare. People seemed not to mind dull blades, John figured. He didn’t know whether he’d attract a single customer.

He ended up sharpening knives for nine straight hours.

“After that, I kind of got to like it,” John says. “I got the bug for it.”

On the Silver Spring street, light streams through the windshield of the old truck. Inside it’s a jumble of screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, cans of spray lubricant, and knives, pruners and loppers just sharpened or about to be sharpened. A thin layer of metal dust coats everything. Five big six-volt batteries are wired together, a cable running to a grinding wheel and a buffing wheel. There’s also an 80-year-old machine specially designed to sharpen the curving blades of push lawn mowers: an obsolete tool for an obsolete tool.

John’s presence has gone out on the neighborhood e-mail message group, and all morning residents have been bringing him their knives, scissors and tools. He runs blade after blade along his wheel, then runs a roughened thumb over the edge, testing its sharpness.

Do you ever cut yourself, I ask.

“Sometimes,” John says, “when I get a little rambunctious.”

He charges $2 to $3 per blade. As he hands them over he admonishes us not to use anything but wooden cutting boards.

“How much longer I’m going to do this, I don’t know,” John says. None of his three grown daughters — a teacher, a nurse, a businesswoman — have worked with him. A grandson went out once to earn money for his prom, but John thinks he worked him too hard.

“I’m the last of the breed,” says John Vecchiarelli, the last knife-sharpener from Guardiaregia.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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