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People

Crest Hill man makes a living sharpening knives

CREST HILL – Rich Mikula said he received a call from a chef about his sharpening services.

Mikula provided information and quotes. And then the chef sent 20 chain saws to him.

“I thought, ‘What’s a chef doing with chain saws?’” Mikula said. “And what’s he grinding to keep them so clean?”

The chef was Michael McGreal, department chairman of the culinary arts program at Joliet Junior College. Mc-
Greal said he uses the chain saws for his ice-carving classes, and brought the chains to Mikula because he offered the best price.

McGreal said a little scratch won’t affect a chain saw’s ability to cut through wood, but it will prevent the saw from gripping the ice. But the angle at which Mikula sharpened the chains produced better-than-new results, he said.

“The students’ jaws just dropped,” McGreal said.

Mikula is the owner of Rich’s Sharpening Service in Crest Hill. Mikula didn’t start the business in 2009 because he liked knives or wanted to be an entrepreneur.

“I did it because I needed the money,” Mikula said.

A cabinet maker for 25 years, Mikula said he was laid off in 2008 because of the recession. While recovering from back surgery, Mikula looked for a nonstrenuous interest to fill the time. So he offered himself as an apprentice to another sharpener in Joliet.

“This went on for a couple of months until he wanted to sell the business,” Mikula said.

Mikula said he couldn’t afford to buy the business. So he bought some equipment and began his own. He joined a Yahoo group for knife sharpeners and learned how to run the business.

He participated in farmers markets, including the one at Joliet Junior College, Mikula said. And he spread word of his business through Will, Kane and Kankakee counties.

“I probably hit four or five hundred beauty salons and dog groomers,” Mikula said.

But advertising wasn’t enough. Mikula learned that pricing perceptions varied by region. People in affluent areas would hire Mikula without even asking the cost (“They’ll drop off 50, 60 knives without even blinking,” Mikula said), while people in economically disadvantaged areas felt Mikula charged too much.

“It was eye opening for me,” he said.

He’s heard horror stories from beauticians about ruined sheers from other sharpeners, no small gripe when some pay $500 to $800 for a pair of sheers, Mikula said. But he also gives the same quality service to a senior citizen’s treasured pair of scissors.

“I make a couple bucks and this lady’s got something she’s had forever and will keep forever and pass down to her kids,” Mikula said. “It’s instant gratification. They say, ‘Thank you’ and smile when they walk away.”

Mikula said he also sharpens yard tools – pruners, gas-powered hedge clippers and lawn mower blades. Woodworkers seek him out to sharpen their planes and chisels. Mikula also sharpens food processor blades.

If it’s serviceable, Mikula will sharpen it.

“Young’uns say, ‘Why sharpen it? Throw it away and get another,” Mikula said. “I get some blades from people not knowing how to dispose of them. So they give them to me and I’ll sharpen them up and give them to the neighbors or take them to a farmers market. Everyone’s always cutting produce.”

People often are stunned that Mikula will give away quality knives. But Mikula has a ready answer.

“I got it for nothing, so I’m giving it away for nothing,” Mikula said. “But I’ll take banana bread or cookies.”

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Know more

Cost of average job: $20.

Most unusual job: “This guy had five blades all connected with little chains and they had one handle. It was a little lost in the translation, but it was some kind of [Middle Eastern] rite of passage they do with these knives.”

Most interesting job: “Sometimes older people have these old stilettos from the ‘40s and ‘50s. You just push a button and the blades come out...they’re kind of unique and fun to see.”

Most expensive job: “I did a bunch of knives for Hinsdale South High School – I think close to 200 or 300 knives for the culinary department. And I had about 100 scissors from a flag-making company up in Chicago.”

Cool moment: “I did have one guy bring me a Buck knife, a pretty standard hunting knife. He was helping a friend clean out the garage and he found this thing under a pile of garbage; it had a half-inch gouge out of it. So he brought it to me.”

For information, call 815-302-5757 or visit www.richssharpeningservice.com.

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