I took a walk today down West 25th Street and stumbled back into what has to be one of the last holdouts of the Industrial Revolution in Manhattan. A giant pair of scissors gleaming over the street pulled me in to Henry Westpfal’s, a company that has been sharpening and selling cutlery since 1874. They began on Houston Street and until this summer had a shop on 30th Street, but a massive retail/condo complex is going in, so they had to move.
I found them at 115 West 25th in an odd little space shared with two other anachronistic businesses, Continental Die, Inc., and Lamp 25. The lamp repair shop is moving soon and Westpfal will expand from its current cubby, a counter jam-packed with scissors, nippers, and other sharp things, including Wusthof knives and C.S. Osborne leatherworking tools, objects with ancient names like awl, haft, and stippler.
Carmela and her red-handled bestselling shears
Carmela Wiegmann has been working at Westpfal for over 50 years. “We sharpen the old-fashioned way,” she told me, “using the wet method, with water running over big wheels just like in the 1800s. We’re the last ones to do it that way.” Dry sharpening is no good because you can burn the blade, take the temper out, and then it’s too soft to cut properly. When sharpening scissors, they don’t just open the scissor and run it over the wheel, they do it right, they take out the screw.
Their customers are often chefs who come in with rolls of knives for sharpening, manicurists with dulled cuticle nippers, guys who like to use straight razors, and fashion people who work with fabric and leather. Their bestselling scissor is the Mundial 8” pair of dressmaker shears. Carmela had me use them to cut first through a hunk of leather, then a wad of fabric two inches thick. It went through just like butter. Said Carmela, “This is a wonderful, wonderful scissor.” It sells for $32, but Carmela will let you have it for $28.50.
Continental Die, Inc., (“manufacturers of labor saving devices”) occupies the bulk of 115 West 25th, just behind Westpfal’s. It’s been run for the past 23 years by a Korean man named Mr. Yi. Carmela Wiegmann introduced me and sang the praises of her neighbor’s tool and die. “Mr. Yi has a very fine reputation,” she told me, “He’s known as an honest and reliable man.” Mr. Yi smiled and showed me around his clanking shop, a crowded place with a tin ceiling and big machines that seem to have come straight out of an older New York.
Customers bring Mr. Yi rough, hand-drawn sketches of the dies they want and he creates them. He just finished a job for a menu manufacturer. You know those little filigreed metal corners that come on plastic menus? They’re the sort of thing you rarely notice. Mr. Yi makes the die that stamps those corners into existence. He also makes dies for stamping leather belts and handbags, ornamental doorknobs, novelties, and the tiny rivets on denim jeans.
Mr. Yi with his menu-corner stamping die
While Westpfal's and Continental seem to be doing alright, I can't say the same for Lamp 25. As Carmela told me, "It's a real gem. I mean, where do you find a lamp repair shop like this one anymore? You don't. Now everything's Duane Reades and banks. But there's not enough business. The lamp man will be gone by the end of the month."