The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The knife life at DC Sharp in Union Market

Placeholder while article actions load

A model from the July/August issue of Playboy is on display in one of the stalls at D.C.’s Union Market — and talk about some dangerous curves. The chef’s knife is part of a $2,500 set handcrafted by Cut Brooklyn’s Joel Bukiewicz. It’s just one of 300 pieces of cutlery on offer at DC Sharp.

“It will be the largest kitchen cutlery shop in the country,” vows Derek Swanson, who started the blade emporium when Union Market opened in September 2012. At the time, he knew almost nothing about knives other than that he wanted to have his sharpened. Turns out other people did, too: Within days of opening, he had so much business that he had to summon his brother, Ryan, from Boston to join him.

Why so much demand for sharpening? “A sharp knife will go where you want it to,” Swanson says. A dull knife, on the other hand, might go into your finger.

The other benefit of a sharp blade is that it slices cleanly, he adds. This is helpful not only for preparing crisp salads, but also in the event of an accident. One DC Sharp customer had a mishap that involved 43 stitches and surgery. “But on the bright side, the surgeon said, ‘It’s the cleanest cut I’ve ever seen, so it’ll heal faster,’ ” Swanson says.

For their sharpening services, which start at $10 per knife, the Swansons use manufactured Japanese whetstones, which are renowned for their ability to hone a blade. “They take off far less steel than any machine,” Swanson says. The stones are submerged in water, which acts as a lubricant and keep the knife free of debris as it gets swiped repeatedly. The process usually takes between five and 10 minutes, but knives in spectacularly bad shape can require an hour of work.

How well a knife holds up depends on the steel, Swanson explains. He recommends a sharpening every three to six months. But the better the knife, the sharper it’ll stay, which is why it can be cost-effective to spend a bit more when you buy.

Sharp shoppers should look for quality over quantity, Swanson says. “You can do most meals with two or three knives, so there’s no point in spending $500 on a 10-piece set and not getting the best tools,” Swanson says. He argues for investing in three knives — which will probably cost at least $30 each — based on what you like to cook. Do you make a lot of seafood? Buy a filet knife. Vegetarians might want a vegetable cleaver to make food prep go faster, he says.

DC Sharp carries a wide range of blades from German, American and Japanese manufacturers. Expect to see quite a bit of the latter, since the Swansons just returned from a buying trip to Asia in October. Besides, with Japanese blades, Swanson says, “you get more bang for your buck right now.”

When customers buy pieces from the likes of master Japanese bladesmith Kenichi Shiraki, Swanson says, “They will know they’re getting something made by hand by a person who’s the best on the planet. It’s like a Bentley or Rolls-Royce.”

And like a car dealership, DC Sharp invites customers to take test drives. Swanson recommends that customers get a feel for several knives, testing them out with tomatoes on the cutting board.

“A knife should last your entire life,” Swanson says. “Choose the right one, and it’s your trusty companion for a long time.”

Three Ways to Test Sharpness

Tomatoes. Chopping other vegetables, such as cucumbers, onions and carrots, gives you a sense of how hard you have to push to slice. But with a tomato, “the blade should go through under its own weight,” Swanson says. There should be no noticeable resistance as you cut and there should be no juice left on the cutting board when you’re done.

Paper. Get your revenge for all of those paper cuts by taking your knife to a sheet or two. “A sharp knife goes through paper like it’s butter,” Swanson says.

Skin. A sharp knife can also give you a dry shave, says Swanson, while demonstrating the test by stripping his forearm bald with a few deliberate strokes.

Get Sharp: No appointments are necessary to bring your knives to the DC Sharp stall in the northwest corner of Union Market (1309 Fifth St. NE, Tue.-Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-7 p.m.). Knives can usually be sharpened while you shop. DC Sharp also has drop-off locations at Annie’s Ace Hardware (1240 Upshur St. NW) and, on the first Tuesday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m., at Weygandt Wines (3519 Connecticut. Ave. NW). For more information, visit

This story appeared in Express Sunday, a new weekend publication from Washington Post Express. To get Express Sunday delivered to your home for free, sign up here: