tinker tailor, soldier sailor

When I was a child growing up in Australia I can remember all sorts of people coming to our door to offer their services or to deliver goods. There was the ice man who hefted solid blocks of ice just the correct size to fit into the top section of our two door ice box. Then there was the baker and the milkman and the man who delivered fruit and vegetables. When I was about 12 or 13 years old I used to help the milko deliver early in the morning and at that time the milk was taken about on a cart pulled by a Clydesdale horse. There was something special about the heat and smell of those horses on a winter’s morning in suburban Melbourne with the steam rising from their backs and coming from their nostrils in the crisp cold air.

I can remember one day there was a knock on our front door and there stood a man who was offering to sharpen our knives and scissors, a Tinker. He was very well spoken with a slightly English accent and his clothes showed that, although they were now fraying and worn out, here was a man who was working beneath his usual station. I was anxious to let him sharpen some knives so I could see how he did it and said as much, but my mother was wary and would not open the screen door for him. I reminded her that we had some blunt knives that he could work on, and he commented on what a clever boy I was, but my mother would not be moved and sent him away. Later she told me never to encourage a man like this again as their sort were not to be trusted and would rob our house if they had the chance. Good advice perhaps, but it did not satisfy the sense of adventure I felt when I watched men like these making their rounds.

Alas, the days of all types of tradespersons such as these coming to the door in Australia is long gone, although there is a burgeoning business in fruit and vegie delivery. But here in Viet Nam many many people pass by my front door singing out a description of their particular service or goods for sale. There is not much that I can’t purchase from these vendors and most maintenance needs are catered for by persons who carry tiny workshops with them, sometimes on bicycle and sometimes on foot.

This morning I spied a Tinker sitting in the alley sharpening knives and scissors for a neighbour and remembered that the knives in my own kitchen were blunt. I asked my house keeper Ms. Tam to give the knives to him and find out a price, 4 knives and 1 pair of scissors sharpened expertly for the princely sum of 12,000 VND. That’s A$0.89 or US$0.74.

But it is the way in which he went about sharpening them that intrigues me. As you will see from the images his tiny workbench is a hand made affair and is the epitome of efficiency. A piece of timber is wedged into place on an angle and here the knife can also be wedged to apply a chisel like blade for the initial sharpening. Then the same timber can accommodate wet stones of differing grit to hone and refine the edge on the blade. As you can see the small grinding wheel is well placed for efficient use and the whole device can quickly and easily be packed and carted on his bicycle.

I enjoy looking at how these tradespeople set up their small enterprises and am always keen to watch how they work. I guess I just never got the chance to do that with the Tinker’s when I was a child and it continues to stir something inside of me.

The Tinker at work in the alley

Ms. Tam negotiates a price

The Tinker’s ingenious and efficient workspace