Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 | Hairdressers: You can’t hide what happened to your scissors from the man in the black hat and the ponytail.

It’s his job to fix them if your toddler stuck them in an electrical outlet, or if they mysteriously ended up in your fireplace for a couple of years. He sees the bent handles after the skater punk whose hair you styled uses your shears to carve off a piece of his shoe. He reshapes them if they went through the salon’s washer and dryer.

He knows if you dropped them on the floor, or if you bent the handles, or if you used them in a pinch to snip off the top off a plastic baggie of hair dye.

And he can tell if you let anyone else besides him sharpen them.

Nick Cutter is a professional shears sharpener, working only on scissors used to cut hair. The scissors are pricey: $200 to $800 for most pairs, but the edges of the highly specialized scissors grow blunter with every head they groom. Cutter loops through the county each week, visiting as many as 10 salons in a day and sharpening whatever scissors have dulled since his last visit. He walks in, greets stylists who offer up their blunt pairs, and totes them to his gray Chevy Astro van parked outside. He thinks he’s sharpened more than 100,000 pairs of scissors.

“Welcome to my office,” he says one recent morning, opening the back doors of his van. Inside the cluttered space: a sharpening machine with five spinning discs that resemble miniature records and several containers and bins for screwdrivers and a handle-bending tool, and a plastic container full of clumps of hair for testing newly sharpened scissors.


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Cutter gets to work, the whirring of shear edges against sharpeners joining the lawnmowers and traffic sounds filling a Pacific Beach street.

Cutter has about 1,000 clients — more than a quarter of the 3,690 hairdressers and hairstylists and cosmetologists in the county. He sharpens shears for eight of 944 magazine’s 10 best salons. He works by appointment, trusting his stylists will call him when their scissors need sharpening or when they’ve dropped them, usually every three to six months. But sometimes his competitors stop by unannounced at the salon in the meantime, and a desperate stylist yields to the sharpener who’s there. In a troubled economy, loyalty is vital for Cutter, whose living is made in $30 increments.

To Cutter, there’s vast value in this work. He’s helping stylists create art and avoid injury. He’s helping to save resources, both money and steel, by making old scissors feel like new.

“Even when we weren’t in world meltdown mode, it’s a good thing to reuse and reuse and reuse,” he says.

Sharpeners can extend the life of scissors by not removing too much steel. Shears sharpeners like Cutter measure their work in microns — one thousandth of a millimeter. Dust particles are three to five microns. A single hair follicle is 100 microns. In a prescribed sharpening, a sharpener slices just five to 10 microns off of a blade.

At this shop in PB, Cutter’s first stop, one pair of shears doesn’t need much work done — less than five microns shaved. That’s a telltale sign that someone else has sharpened shears, he says: the removal of too much metal, or a blundering sharpen that removes some intended characteristics of the shears.

He pulls the head of a blue desk lamp over the wheels. He scrapes the arms of the scissors against a diamond-coated plate, then clamps the shears into a bendable purple arm and lowers them to the spinning sharpeners, coated in different grits. The machine was invented eight years ago and is free, as long as you attend a $20,000 training session. It’s become like a third arm for Cutter.

He holds the shears up to the sun, then flicks them quickly against his wrist, slicing a couple of hairs. He lifts the shears in the air, holds one side and pushes the other out to see how it swings. Cared for like this, the pair has lasted 17 years.

“Now, butter,” Cutter says, slicing one of the hair lengths in his truck with the stylist’s scissors. “Now I can take it into Joe and he can do his haircut and make money.”

He leaves a Band-Aid with his number printed on the back: his calling card.

Cutter drives to the next salon. On the way, a visitor remarks she can’t be the first to notice the aptness of his name.

“It’s the perfect business name for a sharpener,” he says, launching a well-rehearsed joke. “You get a little nick in the blade and you can’t cut ‘er anymore. It’s really a name hairstylists don’t forget.”

He is one of five people in the country — one of two still working — to be dubbed a Grand Master Sharpener, the highest honor bestowed by the National Shears Sharpeners Guild. Cutter is a devoted guildsman: he teaches at the annual gathering, he touts the credentials.

It’s not a simple achievement.

Sharpeners seeking guild certification, basic or Master (still a notch below Cutter’s Grand Master designation), are given two smashed pairs of scissors, one German pair and one Japanese pair, at the annual guild meeting. The shears have been nicked, dented, bent, scratched, broken or separated. Sharpeners have 90 minutes to restore the shears and get them to work again. Success is measured by more than 20 criteria: no excessive metal removal, highly polished blade with no blemishes, and a cut that is smooth — “like butter” — and does not push or bend hair.

Only a handful of the several dozen attendees are certified each year. One of last year’s designated Master Sharpeners, the first woman to achieve the status, was Cutter’s daughter, Nikki. He proudly calls her the sharpest woman in the country.

The guild hopes that stylists who’ve paid top dollar for their shears will research the quality of the hands in which they place their tools. There are close to 20 of what Cutter calls “street sharpeners” who stop into salons in San Diego County. But only 10 sharpeners in the state have been certified by the guild. Someone who hasn’t studied the intricacies of haircutting shears, as opposed to, say, fabric scissors or kitchen knives, could easily botch the hairstylist’s shears, Cutter says. An imprecise sharpener might carve out an arc that was supposed to be there, or render the tips unable to touch.

“These people spend anywhere from $200 to $800 and they can be destroyed just like that — it’s just criminal, he says. “That’s like taking your car to get the oil changed and getting it back and the doors don’t close. I’m incensed about it because I see such bad work all of the time.”

And he tells the stylists. Holding pairs up to the overhead light, he rattles off the names of the sharpeners who last touched these blades. Some stylists blush, their infidelity illuminated. He recognizes the work of just about every sharpener in San Diego, he says, just from one look at the shears.

Here is Cutter, dressed in jeans and a bamboo-print shirt, rattling off the physics of steel scissors’ vortex force. Here’s a guy who admittedly hasn’t subjected his gray ponytail to a full cut — other than his own trimming to test his sharpening — describing and working to achieve the ultimate finesse on the tiniest of tools.

And it’s a lack of finesse, lost in a variety of missteps and bungles, that characterize most of his competitors in San Diego, he says. Some pay too little attention to the bevels and curves of a scissor’s design, and blunt the edges. Others just chop off the edge instead of shaving it. Each one leaves a fingerprint.

Over the course of the day, Cutter stops in to eight salons and a haircutting school, greeting more than a dozen stylists by name. He shows photos of his grandkids and three dogs. The newest addition, a purebred wolf named Paws, used to belong to a neighbor at Cutter’s house in Vista. Paws fell in love with Cutter’s border collie, Gypsy, and has become part of the family.

The fourth stop of the day is Acme Salon in Hillcrest. The salon’s mustachioed owner, Sal Montagna, greets Cutter warmly; they’ve known each other for nearly two decades. But once Cutter gets out to his van with a handful of shears to sharpen, he clucks his tongue.

“Uh-oh, another sharpener!” Cutter exclaims. Montagna has been unfaithful for the first time in 17 years.

Back inside, Cutter chastises Montagna.

“I thought you didn’t like him!” Cutter says, leaving the offending sharpener anonymous.

“I don’t!” Montagna retorts. “It was just sex! I don’t love him like I love you!”

“Well, that’s dangerous sex, that’s unprotected sex,” Cutter says, laughing. He pauses for a moment before adding: “And besides, I give good edge!”

“You do give good edge!” Montagna yells after Cutter as he walks away.

Cutter’s business is hit by the slumping economy, as are his stylist clients. Salon patrons are extending the time between their visits to save money, or skimping on usual color treatments. “There’s a lot of roots showing out there,” he says.

Cutter grew up the son of a multi-purpose sharpener. After dabbling in logging and electrical work, he assumed the family business in Tucson 30 years ago when glaucoma claimed his father’s sight. He met his wife after he was stung by a jellyfish while windsurfing in Mexico. It was love at first sight, he says. Between them they have three kids and five grandkids. Now Ramona, a bluegrass singer, manages Cutter’s appointments.

They moved to San Diego and bought Edgemaster USA in 1992. He cold-called, took haircutting classes, attempted to understand what a stylist would need in scissors. He’s designed several pairs for big names like Paul Mitchell and Farouk. He developed the curved scissor, an innovation for which he was laughed at by big manufacturers. Later, they all adopted the curved blade as a staple in their shears collection.

He’s befriended Robert Cromeans, a superstar well-known in the world of hair who now charges $400 for a haircut. Cromeans once lectured him for stopping by the salon in shorts. “You know we have a dress code,” Cromeans scolded Cutter. Today, Cutter sports all black.

Cutter thinks about getting off the road. Driving on the freeway is the most dangerous thing he does, he says, but he loves being mobile. Still, driving scares him every day, he says.

He thinks about having a mail-in business, but knows he’ll miss interacting with the stylists. He says he could keep sharpening well into his 80s as long as his eyes hold up.

“I’ve wondered sometimes what I would do if I couldn’t sharpen,” he says, “and I have no idea.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

    This article relates to: People, People at Work

    Written by Voice of San Diego

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