As soon as grass grows and hedges sprout, legions of mowers and trimmers cart their dull tools to sharpeners, guys who work the grindstones.
According to craftsmen I spoke with last week, the sharpening season has begun. From Harford to Anne Arundel, blunt blades are being fined.
The tradesmen hone hedge trimmers, pruning shears, hatchets, saws and the occasional trowel for prices from $2 to $10 a tool. But power lawn mower blades ($5 for regular, $7 for mulching) account for most of the springtime sharpening. These blades should be worked on at least once a year, the grinders advise; more often if you mow near rocks or fence posts.
A sharp tool is an efficient tool, said John Quincy Adams, who runs a precision sharpening business from his Hampden home and claims to be a descendant of the sixth president. "Dull doesn't get it done," he said.
Winter, when grass is dead and power mowers are idle, would, theoretically, be the best time to sharpen a lawn mower blade.
"A few people bring in their lawn mower blades in January. Those are the type As," said Tom Seibel, who with his brother Will operates the Grinding Co. of America, a second-generation sharpening business that recently moved to Brooklyn. But most mowers, he said, look at their yards in the spring, see their grass growing and suddenly remember they need to sharpen their lawn mower blade.
Removing a dull power mower blade and carrying it to the grinder is the customer's job. Loosening a power mower blade can be a nasty task, the sharpeners told me. They offered a few tips for safe removal.
One was to always disconnect the machine's spark plug. If you don't, spinning the blade could start the engine. "That blade is like an airplane propeller," said Lex Smith, who with his brother Nelson runs Smith Hardware in Jarrettsville.
Another tip was to use snug-fitting tools. Often, the bolts holding the blades are not in perfect shape. "They have a rough life down there under the mower," Smith said. "They can become rounded, so you want to use the proper wrenches to get the right fit."
Covering the blade with tape is also a good idea, Will Seibel said. "If your hand slips, you will hit the tape, not the blade," he said.
Reel mowers, the type you push, also need a springtime sharpening. I was told that honing these rotating blades requires a special machine and costs about $40. The Seibels at the Grinding Co. have such a device; they inherited it from their father.
Frank's Cutlery Service, run by Frank J. Monaldi Sr. in Northeast Baltimore, also sharpens reel mowers. Monaldi teams up with his cousins, Paul and David Vidi of Vidi Cutlery, to tackle the rotating blades. In the 1950s, before power mowers came on the scene, reel mowers reigned in Baltimore, Will Seibel said. "We sharpened 20 or 30 a week," he said. Last week, the business sharpened about 10 reel mowers, he said.
It seems to me that reel mowers have recently enjoyed a resurgence, at least among ecologically inclined grass cutters who have small yards. These mowers don't pollute; they don't make much noise. Moreover, pushing a reel mower is real exercise. Also, landscape experts say, reel mowers give the grass a better cut, snipping the blades the way a barber trims hair. Rotary mowers "tear" the grass, experts say. But as a reel mower owner, I know that even one with sharp blades has trouble taming tall grass or a large yard. Will Seibel told me that when a customer drops off a reel mower at his family's shop, it tries to get the mower back to the customer quickly.
A long wait could spell trouble, he said. "If you get two weeks behind cutting your grass with a reel mower, you're cooked," he said.
I found that the guys who work the grindstones had a lot to say, not just about garden tools, but about living.
Adams is known for his sharpening skills among animal groomers around the globe who send him their shears. He also likes to play poker and told me that the statue of a female figure that dominates his living room was a prize won in a card game. Monaldi plays in a band and likes to spend his spare time presiding over the full-size bocce court in his backyard.
As for the Seibels, they have had a front-row view of the renaissance of downtown Baltimore. Their business has moved twice, first when the Baltimore Convention Center took their Sharp Street location, then when Camden Yards and its swelling pregame crowds appeared across the street from their Washington Boulevard storefront. Now, Will Seibel told me, they are "in a real nice warehouse in Brooklyn."
Life, these craftsmen realize, has an edge.