Black Eagle knife-sharpener ‘never at a loss for learning’

By Traci Rosenbaum Great Falls Tribune
Monday, August 27, 2018

AP PHOTO

In this July 30 photo Sonja Bragstad holds a knife in Great Falls. According to Bragstad, a knife used in the home can hold its edge anywhere from a month to a year depending on the knife.

GREAT FALLS — At Sonja Bragstad's house, the knives aren't the only things that are sharp. If there's something she wants to learn, Bragstad will track down the knowledge.

"My curiosity doesn't end at 'this is how it works,' so I look it up," she said. "I've always liked learning and am always looking to learn more. It's been one of my strengths and one of my downfalls."

About a year ago, her curiosity turned to knife-sharpening, but it was an experience in her past that swung her interest that way. A Montana native, Bragstad spent 10 years in Arizona, where she got her education. "When I was in college, I studied theoretical physics and math," Bragstad said. "We were always trying to figure out how to do things, and I decided one day that I needed to make a first-surface mirror."

A first-surface mirror is a mirror with no glass between your face and the reflective surface. Because the light doesn't have to pass through another medium before it gets to your eye, the image has less distortion. They are used in astronomy, and with the help of a mentor, Bragstad used her expertise to start making mirrors for telescopes.

Many techniques involved in making those mirrors transfer over to knife-sharpening. So, about a year ago, Bragstad started teaching herself using books, online videos and lots of practice.

The Finer Edge by Sonja was born. "I think there used to be more people around Great Falls that sharpened knives," said Bragstad. "I just kind of felt that there was a deficiency of knife-sharpeners in the area. I knew a lot of people with really dull knives, and I thought I could fill those gaps."

On a small table in a sunshiny corner of her living room, the tools of Bragstad's trade sit lined up in neat rows. She uses a fixed-angle sharpening system, and each knife she sharpens has to be honed and then polished to a fine edge. "It seems like a simple thing, but the more you study it, the more there is to know, so you're never at a loss for learning," Bragstad said. "Last week, I did my first straight razor. It took me a while to get it where I wanted it. It's a whole new science."

Bragstad also sharpens dog clippers, dog scissors, pocket knives, household scissors and barber shears. She takes honing the tools of other people's trades very seriously.

A set of shears, for example, can cost a hairdresser hundreds of dollars, so whoever sharpens it needs to know what they're doing. If sharpening removes too much material from the blade, the shears will wear out faster.

Hairdressers' scissors also need a fine edge to avoid fatigue for the user.

"Scissors can't push the hair at all, or it makes more work for the beautician," Bragstad said. "If you have to do two or three times the work to get the end result, that's hard on the body. Their shoulder muscles give out. Their wrists give out."

Bragstad won't sharpen large tools such as hatchets or axes, but she has had some more unusual requests. "A young lady recently asked me to sharpen shears for shearing sheep," she recalled. The job required a lot of study, but in the end, she told the customer, "Instead of sharpening your blades, I would prefer to teach you."

She's also sharpened small weaponry, such as a blade forged in Ireland that was once a viable weapon for defense but is now a piece of art. "They can be a challenge because they're not consistent with their thickness," she said, "and they're such a beautiful piece of art that you don't want to mess them up."

Speaking of messing things up, Bragstad has a few pro tips when it comes to your knives. A well-made professionallysharpened knife can hold an edge for anywhere from a month to a year depending on the knife and the amount of use it gets. Unfortunately, it's the more expensive blades that hold an edge better.

"When you pay $150-$200 for a knife, it's because the steel will hold an edge and will give you the best performance," Bragstad said.

Even really good knives can be wrecked by improper sharpening, though. Bragstad has met a number of people who have either sharpened their own knives or paid someone to do it using a grinder.

This is a big sharpening no-no according to Bragstad, who says a grinder turns too fast, overheating the metal and destroying the temper on the blade. "I've talked to people who that's happened to them and they end up in tears," said Bragstad.

That's why it's important to ask some questions if someone walks into your business or knocks on your door and offers to sharpen your knives. "They come through town, they charge 20 bucks and they sharpen the knife and they're gone. And then people don't have any recourse," Bragstad said. "You might ask them what method they use for sharpening, and if it's a grinder, say no thanks."

Bragstad's other advice is don’t put your knives in the dishwasher, where harsh chemicals and crashing against other items can deteriorate the metal and put chips in the blade. You should also store knives carefully. "It's better not to let them clang against other blades," she said, "and if you've got a good knife, it's best to hand wash it well."

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