SUDBURY — See if you can pick out the common thread in Will Mack’s life: For a couple of decades, he operated Kitchen Arts on Newbury Street, which devoted 41 feet of wall space in its small footprint to knives, was often cited by Best of Boston for them, and sold so many that Wusthof, one of his suppliers, “asked if we were giving them away.”
Even now, in retirement 11 years, he maintains an inventory of Wusthofs in his basement, reconditioning them for sales through a couple of shops and his personal network. And his business card — a must for every retiree — touts not only his sales and sharpening services, but also his custom field-mowing service, which he operates at his family’s summer home in New Hampshire.
He’s drawn to, if not obsessed by, a well-honed edge of metal, right?
“People have said that, but it’s not true. I’ve always been interested in tools, and a knife is a tool,” says Mack, 73.
Certainly, his modest, rustic basement helps tell that story, where the plot may be knives, but the themes are determination, Yankee enterprise, and the right tools. On one workbench, he has combined an old Doerr half-horsepower motor made for grinding chisels with a sturdy wooden housing and an exhaust system, both self-designed and -built. Next to that is a Tru Hone honing machine that he says is the only weapon of most sharpening services, though it’s just one part of his.
On another bench is a jig for sharpening scissors, a set-up for serrated knives, and even a couple of gizmos he rarely uses. In a garage workshop out back is a wood lathe he’s adapted for polishing.
At its peak, Mack’s basement inventory was well upward of 3,000 gouged, punctured, and otherwise substandard knives that he purchased cheaply by the pound from a Wusthof plant outside New York City. When he’d learned from his supplier that rejects were sent to the landfill, he’d asked if he could buy them, and his reconditioning days began.
While he operated Kitchen Arts, which he sold to his son (the shop went out of business in 2010), Mack sold the knives alongside new stock for about half the price. Though he made his last buying trip in 1999, he still has perhaps 400 knives in the basement, about half of which still belong to his son.
It’s startling to see Mack go to work on a blade, some of which come out substantially different than they came in. To illustrate, he grabs an 8-inch cook’s knife whose blade snapped a quarter of the way down, applying the thinner top edge to the grinding belt. In just a few passes and a hail of sparks that fly away from Mack toward an exhaust outlet, he has remade it with the blunt point of a Japanese Santoku style blade.
Even such relatively drastic makeovers require only a few minutes, slightly longer if he has to douse the knife in water, when the steel becomes too hot. Even then, the ratio of time and money invested, compared to revenue realized, suggests Mack has made a killing with reworked knives. “I’m not sure I should be telling my customers how little time it takes,” he says conspiratorially, before continuing to spill the details, almost as if he can’t help himself, or better yet, doesn’t want to.
That tendency is ingrained. Back in his 20s, fresh from a stint as an administrator in the Air Force, he went to work with his father in a gift shop and wholesale business on Newbury Street, unsure of what he would do with his life. Through inheritance and family transactions, he ended up with the retail portion, and, he says, “I felt I had finally found my groove. I went from my namby-pamby stage, so to speak, into being a cocky [person] telling everyone how to run their business, and that hasn’t stopped.” He bursts affably into a staccato tenor laugh.
Mack has worked this groove with steel and determination. “I dig my heels in. Nobody’s going to beat me at this. When I was in my store, I’m pretty sure I sold more knives per square foot than anyone in the states.”
Will Mack’s reconditioned Wusthof knives, which sell for up to $80, are sold at Duck Soup, 365 Boston Post Road, Sudbury, 978-443-3825, and at Kitchen Outfitters, 341 Great Road, Acton, 978-263-1955. Call Mack directly at 978-857-8281.
Michael Prager can be reached at email@example.com.