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Most people stroll into CitySeed’s Indoor Winter Market—a farmers’ market held in the lobby of New Haven’s Metropolitan Business Academy each Saturday—looking for arugula, or heirloom tomatoes, or locally grown butternut squash. Many bring canvas bags or little supermarket-style baskets. In the last 18 months, however, more and more people have been bringing their knives.

That’s because of Harper Keehn ’17, a 24-year-old Eli Whitney student at Yale and the proprietor of Harper Keehn Knife and Tool Sharpening. (Eli Whitney students comprise fewer than two dozen Yale undergraduates from exceptional and non-traditional backgrounds.) For as long as he’s been in New Haven, Keehn has been sharpening knives at farmers’ markets in New Haven: adjusting the angle of his Tormek electric water stone, cutting a new bevel, honing the edge, and polishing the blade.

“I can start nearly spoon-dull and go—not quite razor-sharp, because that’s not necessary—but quite sharp in two minutes,” Keehn says. “The whole process would take half an hour by hand, which is what I learned.”

Keehn, a native of Hudson Valley, New York, received his first knife as a Christmas present from his grandfather when he was four years old. His knife-sharpening know-how came in handy when he attended Deep Springs College, a two-year California college with an attached ranch and farm, and later when he worked at the Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado.

“I was a hired hand, an intern basically being paid in beef,” Keehn says. “We did our own butchering, and we were going through knives quickly, so I learned how to sharpen knives with a machine.”

That machine is the same type that Keehn continues to use today. (His current Tormek is on permanent loan from a woodworker he met at a local farmers’ market.) After he moved back from Colorado, Keehn realized that many people on the East Coast were using pitifully dull knives, and—even more important—they were willing to pay him to sharpen them.

“Whether you’re from Cuba or Brooklyn or Italy, everyone used to have a culture of itinerant knife sharpeners, and people remember these guys,” Keehn says. “I heard 100 variations of this story, but it’s almost disappeared. Stainless steel knives should last 50 or 100 years if they’re sharpened. Most people just don’t do this.”

The most difficult part of beginning a knife-sharpening business was getting a group of customers to all show up at once. That’s why Keehn started taking his machine to farmers’ markets in the Hudson Valley. When he decided to matriculate at Yale, he brought his business with him to New Haven.

These days, he sharpens knives for a few hours at a time, two or three times per month. He charges a dollar per inch: paring knives run $3 or $4, while chef’s knives can cost the owner $6 to $8.

“I make up to $200 per hour,” Keehn says. “I pay my bills with maybe seven hours of knife-sharpening per month.”

Keehn’s business has no website; he relies solely on an e-mail list and word of mouth. He also loves to barter with friends and neighbors.

“I can get vegetables from people at the market for sharpening pocket knives. I did the knives of a friend of mine, and she baked me two loaves of bread,” he says. “Once, the owner of Caseus [a New Haven cheese shop] came in with the big cheese slicer. He gave me a gift certificate for sharpening it.”

A humanities major, Keehn expects to continue sharpening knives for the foreseeable future. He can’t easily think of another job that will allow him to earn a decent wage with a few hours of work per month.

“Anyone can do it. It’s really not that difficult,” Keehn says. “People are just paying me to touch their knives for 60 to 120 seconds. In fact, I give them back a little less than what they had before.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Harper Keehn


  •, 7:12pm February 23 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    It is not an easy market to break in too, but it is fun to fix knives so that people can use them more and appreciate them as a great tool.

  • Dolores Nasenbeny
    Dolores Nasenbeny , 11:09am February 25 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Very resourceful young man. Great idea. Wish you continued success

  • Ty Xander
    Ty Xander, 3:09pm March 30 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I can't seem to find contact info. Mr. Keehn, if you see this, please email me at

    I'd be interested in having you sharpen a few of the knives that I make.

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