Edge Wise

Bill Williams can introduce you to a world of grooves, angles and ice. Sharpening skates is his craft -- and his way of connecting.

March 20, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Choose a job you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.-- Confucius

He doesn't like to talk when he labors. He hates interruption. A hundredth of a second's distraction is enough to leave an imperfection in his work--and leave him looking bad. "This is my creation, you know?" he says. "If a bad pair gets out there, I'm responsible. It's hard to explain, but this is my signature. I want to do it right."

And that's what he usually does. Bill Williams, 58, is a computer network engineer from Carroll County who spends countless hours as the eminence grise of skate sharpeners at the Northwest Family Sports Center in Mount Washington. He loves the work because the rink is like family; he has been around it for more than 20 years. "That's what I like about it," he says. "It's the people you meet, the friends you make."

He says he prefers to sharpen in monk-like solitude, but that's hard to believe of a man who will talk endlessly about the minutiae of his craft -- grooves and edges, nicks and burrs, ice fluidity and temperature -- at the drop of a Jofa helmet. On this day, as playoffs begin in many area hockey leagues, he's transfixed by an unusual request. "I only see 20 or 30 pairs of goalie skates a year," he says, excited at the thought of honing the thick, heavy, low-to-the-ice variety that net-minders favor. "Usually they like their skates flat, without an edge, so they can move side-to-side. This guy wants a half-inch radius. That's a deep hollow for a goalie." He imagines the playing style of such a goalie, the oddball technique it suggests, and his smile conveys admiration.

He shifts his attention back to the spinning stone wheel that keeps figure skaters happy with their jumps and hockey players with their stops. Turns out there's a lot more to sharpening than the public-session novice might imagine. Give Williams -- who calls himself "technically minded" -- a chance to talk you through the details, and you'll feel you've been through an encyclopedia on the craft.

"It's funny. Hockey players in Maryland like their blades with a groove deeper than the national standard," he says. "The average is a half-inch radius. Here, they like it three-eighths. That's much more of an edge."

Because sharpening reveals as much about people as it does about sport, Williams finds it eternally surprising. Just the subject of grooves, for example, spawns a theory on local hockey vs. that played further north. "Skaters from New England or Canada," he says, "start out young, on frozen ponds and rivers. That kind of ice is rougher than the ice on a rink." On a pond, it takes less leaning to turn, he says. "They aren't afraid of leaning. They get used to it. In Maryland, players usually learn later and on artificial ice, so they don't have to lean as much to get a turn. They don't like to lean." They let the sharper skates do it for them.

"That's fine," says Williams, "but the blade can't hold that sharp an edge for long, so they have to get 'em sharpened more often." That can get expensive. In a sport where outfitting a youngster can exceed $500, Williams, like many aficionados, charges as much as $7 per job.

When sharpened by hand, skates are clamped horizontally at the same height as the spinning stone wheel. The curve of the wheel's edge is adjusted by the process of "dressing;" sharpeners pass a diamond across the edge of the spinning wheel, grinding it to the size and shape desired.

To Williams' chagrin, a popular sporting-goods chain uses automatic sharpening machines -- anathema to a man who gives every job individualized attention.

"There's nothing wrong with the machines themselves," he says. "They do what they were made to. But [the sharpener] still has to dress the wheel and still has to know how to use it right." The worst thing the machine does is assume that skates are identical and therefore need identical treatment. But skates -- and skaters -- are unique, Williams says. For example, most hockey skates, in his view, come from the factory with slightly bent blades. "That's one thing you should always check for in a new skate," he says. "And you need a human sharpener to compensate for it."

Williams holds the goalie skate up to the light in his work space, where rumpled papers, fuzzy skate guards, old order tickets and 30 years of accumulated junk is heaped, and "looks down the barrel" of the blade, rubbing it with a "crocus cloth" before returning it to the wheel.

"People don't know this," he says, "but with edges this deep, the metal will actually fold or bend, right when you're sharpening it." The crocus-cloth, while protecting his fingers from the blade, eliminates those bends. "You don't want to let them build up," he says. "You should really use the cloth after every pass." He crouches down to make another in a shower of sparks.

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