Every kitchen needs a good knife. And for every good knife in the Bay Area, there’s Bernal Cutlery. The specialty blade shop recently opened its second storefront location, its first in the East Bay, at 308 40th Street in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. Located next to Clove & Hoof butcher shop and restaurant, the knife shop offers sharpening, blade restoration and an array of new and vintage knives suitable for both the home cook and professional restaurateur.
Bernal Cutlery has a humble origin story. In 2005, Josh Donald started sharpening knives out of his home in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood out of necessity. At the time, his wife (now business partner) Kelly Kozak was working freelance as a photo-stylist assistant, their son Charlie was an infant, and Donald had been laid off from a job working with bronze. According to Donald, the experience was a bit of a hardscrabble scramble for the new family.
“To say we were living paycheck to paycheck implies that there were paychecks,” he joked.
Donald bought a $40 whetstone — “my starting investment for the business,” he said — and began sharpening blades in a back room as a way to earn a few extra dollars while being a stay-at-home dad.
“I’d get a call, go wheel the stroller over, put the knives wrapped up in a towel in the bottom of the stroller, and I’d bring them home,” he said. “Then while Charlie was having a nap I’d sharpen.”
In those early days the work was all by hand, without any machines, and an average knife with an average dullness was costing more than it was bringing in, occasionally to the tune of “six hours of aching wrists for twenty bucks,” said Donald. He started experimenting with ways to work more efficiently by hand and soon expanded, offering a pick-up and drop-off service with the now closed Drewes Meats.
In 2010 Bernal Cutlery opened its first brick-and-mortar at food incubator 331 Cortland, located on Cortland Avenue. Though the business relocated in 2013 to 593 Guerrero Street in the Mission, it kept the name.
Bernal Cutlery succeeded by focusing on blade work, specifically sharpening, and offering customers a quick turnaround. “There was never a time when I was waiting for a customer to come in,” said Donald. “There were always dull knives to work on.”
Donald prefers to service blades on a whetstone that is in fact a wet stone. (“Whet” comes from hwettan, an old English word meaning “to sharpen.”) While whetstones can be lubricated with oil, Donald uses a water technique with Japanese stones. These water stones are “friable,” meaning they have a very fine grit that crumbles just slightly during the sharpening process, creating a thin, abrasive mud as the blade slips along the stone.
Donald does most of the sharpening by hand behind the counter, but also uses a series of rotary stones for blades requiring a bit more work. For those die-hard dull edges, Donald gives blades a run on rotary stones — “basically a sped up version of the hand stone,” he said — before he sharpens with the whetstone. Then, the blades are realigned with a honing steel and finished with a strop (a strip of leather). By which point the blade, dropped edgewise against a sheet of paper, cuts cleanly, slipping with no more effort than gravity can give as it slices from top to bottom.
Sharpening is Bernal Cutlery’s main focus, though the shop also sells fine blades from manufacturers in Europe and Japan. Donald’s book Sharp, a guide to knife skills, care and techniques, was published by Chronicle Books in July. He has also developed a knife specifically for Bay Area cooks.
“We really felt like there was a butcher knife that was missing from people’s kits,” said Donald, “especially for butchers that were doing whole animal butchery.”
According to Donald, a standard professional knife roll has blades that hold an edge well, sharpen easily and are good for precise work, but rarely contain a blade with all three characteristics. The shop responded by adapting a ko-sabaki knife (Japanese boning knife) into a small tough blade that can do the surgical labor of trimming and seaming but withstand the rigor of butchery.
“We sent it around to a whole bunch of butchers in the Bay Area, had them try it out, got their feeling,” said Donald. “Getting multiple perspectives is always important.”
For home cooks looking for a simple way to make a difference for their own blades, Donald does have at least one suggestion: get a softer cutting board.
“Avoid the really hard plastic, avoid the length grain bamboo,” he said. “End grain bamboo would be a better choice, or hinoki wood.”
Donald also recommends reconsidering how many think of sharpening, reframing it from an occasional as-needed chore to an integral part of kitchen practice, one that increases the shelf life and accuracy of a blade. (And for those in need of further convincing, a sharp knife is also a safer one.)
“Sharpening is part of the use of a knife,” said Donald. “And whatever level you are with your cooking, having knives that do what you want them to do can make a big difference.”
Bernal Cutlery is open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday.