Soooooo, you wanna be a Skate Sharpener huh?

Skate sharpening is respectable and can be very satisfying. It's quite a thrill when a young client returns to your shop and proudly announces that he / she scored the winning goal. Or how about the once frustrated skater who while beaming unashamedly tells you that since you worked on her skates she's landing every Axel? Yes, you can make money at skate sharpening and there are those who even live off the income, but for me the real reward is when the youngsters share their triumphs with you and then give you credit for making it possible. But it's not all roses, and getting a skate sharpening operation into the black can be a long and stressful process. A skate sharpening business is very easy to get into and because there are no industry standards nor accreditation everybody (and their idiot brother) can get into it whether or not it's for the right reason. For every competent skate sharpener there are many incompetent ones. There is a need for more competent skate sharpeners. The purpose of this missive is not necessarily to discourage you, but to give you the opportunity to look at some realities and reflect on your motives for becoming a skate sharpener.

From someone who has been there...

There seems to be an endless supply of starry-eyed hockey dads who think they can sharpen better and cheaper on their own. Perhaps in some cases this is true, but most of them are more show than go. Of the ones who actually make the plunge very few stick with it, and almost none get serious and "go public". OK, OK, it's easy to be a cynic, but since I want to be helpful, let's do a "what-if".

What-If:

  • You have 3 kids in organized hockey (kids were your own idea, remember?)
  • Your hockey season is 30 weeks long (doesn't include summer hockey or hockey schools)
  • You sharpen each pair once a week at $4 per pair (that's a lotta skate sharpening)
  • Your kids play organized hockey for 6 years (by the time they reach 13 yrs, they discover girls)
  • The sharpening price remains a constant $4 per pair

Some basic math reveals:

  • Your annual sharpening cost per kid is $120
  • Your total annual sharpening tab is $360
  • Your career sharpening cost per kid is $720
  • By the time your kids are thru with hockey your sharpening will total $2160

Soooooo, $2160 is your magic number, and anything you invest over that amount to sharpen your own skates is a total loss. But I'm gonna throw in a little wrinkle. Just suppose your oldest kid has been in the game 4 years already, the middle kid is a 2-year veteran, and your youngest started last fall, so he's got a year behind him too. Because you've already spent $$ on skate sharpening, your magic number has changed to $1320 which is not as impressive as $2160 is it?

Your own skate sharpening operation

You'll need a skate grinder, and a "portable" will do the job for you as long as your volume stays minimal. "New" portables run between $2000 and $3500, so because those amounts are way over your magic number, we should look for a used unit. The biggest problem with a used portable is finding one that's available. Assuming you do find an available portable skate grinder, it's a sure bet that it won't be dirt cheap. Expect to pay at least $1000.

Your other piece of equipment will be a dust-disposal system. That's right dude, grinding creates huge clouds of dust, and breathing it is somewhat un-cool. Besides the dust is abrasive and gets into everything. Even a high-powered dust disposal system won't get it all, but anything is better than nothing. Speaking of nothing, I've heard of guys that use Shop-Vacs as dust collection systems. A Shop-vac will keep your costs down, but it's effectiveness will be minimal. If you're handy, you can build an effective blower/disposal system with a big enough motor and fan, or you can go nuts and get a custom made unit specifically tailored for your portable grinder. (There goes another $1000).

You'll need a place to sharpen those skates, and unless the little woman is VERY understanding, it'll be outside the house. Your garage is a good choice, that is until the outside temperature becomes uncomfortably cold. Uncomfortably cold for you means that it's unbearable to your machinery, so you will need an insulated work space with a heat source. Let's say it costs you $1000 to set up an insulated work space in your garage, or build an insulated workshop in your yard, but I'll bet that a stand-alone workshop is gonna be closer to $4000 especially if you have to run in electricity. You can pick your own heat source (gas, wood, electricity etc.) but each will have a cost as well as the cost of operating it, so just for the helluvit let's add another $1000.

Re-capping:

  • Portable Skate Grinder $1000 (you're a helluva haggler)
  • Dust Disposal System $250 (and you're handy too)
  • Insulated Work Space $2500 (snagged a deal huh?)
  • Heat Source $1000 (we'll leave out the fuel cost for simplicity)

So far our total is $4750 which is 3.6 times your magic number, and even if I take out my "wrinkle" it's still twice what you'd spend on your kids' skate sharpening. Wouldn't you rather invest that money in a GIC or RRSP?

You're still determined huh?

I guess you haven't been paying attention. Oh ... you are going to make a business out of it ... I see. When you "go public" some other factors cut in. The other factors include additional expense, but there are some very important intangibles.

Tangibles:

  • Equipment: Once your volume starts to climb, your "portable" skate grinder is gonna become more of a liability than an asset. You are not only gonna need a higher capacity grinder, but you will need a real dust disposal system too. A new multi-station skate grinder will set you back about $10,000 to $13,000. The good news is that over $10,000 the dust disposal system is included as part of the skate grinder. A used multi-station skate grinder might run you between $5000 and $7500. There are older (and cheaper) units but they are rare, and since some of the older stuff is only good for scrap metal, you really have to be up on your equipment knowledge.
  • Location: You will likely require a proper location, since having traffic coming and going at your home may not sit well with your neighbors. Some guys do all right with an "at-home" operation, but I have trouble with people hammering on my door at 10PM with skates to sharpen. Moving away from home means paying rent to a landlord. Figure on a few hun a month.
  • Insurance: You are gonna need liability insurance at the very least, and you are gonna spend several hun a year in premiums.
  • Bureaucratic entanglements: For every guy looking to be in biz for himself there is a regiment of bureaucrats to regulate, emasculate, legislate and suffocate, his enterprise. Expect business licenses, sales tax licenses, permits, and (if you vent your dust straight outside) environmental issues. If you start to get successful and have to hire staff, then the fun really begins.
  • Supplies: As your volume increases you are gonna use up shop supplies at a greater rate. Where you once sharpened for a couple of years at home, without changing a grinding wheel, you may find your grinding wheel usage in the 1 or 2 a week range. Diamonds may be forever, but they wear and they have to be changed. A rule of thumb is one diamond is good for about 3 grinding wheels. I know there are guys who are gonna say I'm wrong, and you are just gonna have to find out for yourself.
  • Other stuff: You will likely prefer having a telephone in your shop. You can get away with your personal cell-phone, but you'll have to make sure that your "plan" gives you adequate minutes for customer calls, otherwise you'll be paying big-time for minutes used outside your "plan". A cash register is a good idea, especially since the tax people like to see a paper trail. Speaking of taxes (income I mean), your basic tax return that you and the missus fill out on the kitchen table isn't gonna be good enough any more, and the additional required documentation may necessitate hiring a tax professional or an accountant.

Intangibles:

  • Know-how: Equipment ownership does not make you a skate sharpener. It's possible for you to squeak by with minimal knowledge as long as you only do your own skates, but when you do it for money, you have to deliver. You may be able to teach yourself, and even improve with time (most active skate sharpeners are self-taught). There are skate sharpening courses available, and like everything else, there are good ones and bad ones. If you're gonna take a skate sharpening course it's up to you to determine if it's gonna be worth your money before you part with the said money.
  • However...Bullshit can take you all the way to the top in a hurry. My example here is a local outfit that acquired a prestigious contouring system and all the shiny toys to go with it. Then they spent bags (better make that truckloads) of money promoting their new system. The system was fine but they neglected their own skills and instead relied on the system to carry them. Nevertheless people bought into the hype in droves and they soon enjoyed a respectable business volume (deserved or not) which would give one cause to reflect on famous quotes by A. Lincoln and P.T Barnum. Soooooo, the moral here is that if you throw enough manure (in this case money) against a wall, some of it will surely stick.
  • Your Health: You can figure out for yourself that it's uncool to breath the dust that's a by-product of skate sharpening, and we talked about dust disposal in the "what-if" above. But there's something far more insidious stalking unsuspecting skate sharpeners, and it's the skates themselves. Each season I contract a flu-like bug and sometimes it takes me down for days. I always blamed the kids in the hallway with their croupie coughing, but those kids don't come into my shop. After I read a couple of articles about what's growing in and on hockey equipment, it dawned on me that I was being poisoned by the very skates I work on. To check out one such article, see: There be Monsters. Today I'm a lot more meticulous about sanitation when I'm working on skates. I keep hand sanitizer available in my shop (I use Purell) and I use it whenever there's a lull in the workload and especially when I'm about to eat, except that I also scrub with soap and water at meal or snack time.
  • Liability: In this day and age it's easier and more fashionable to lay blame and sue the socks off someone rather than work out differences in a calm and civilized manner. So how is your liability insurance situation anyway? Blame and/or a lawsuit can result from several things, from your own carelessness to someone simply disliking you. Some common possibilities are:
    • Customer's goods: There is a real possibilty (given the fact that people don't label their belongings) that you could lose or hand off skates to the wrong person. What's in a Name? Laugh if you will, but it does happen and you won't be laughing when you have to replace the skates.
    • Too much sharpening: Since we're all trying to make money here, it's hard to believe that there's ever too much sharpening, but there is, and it's mostly a case of the client sharpening too often. Since you have sharpened for them at least once, it can become your fault that the runners are prematurely used up. It won't matter that you are not the only sharpener who has worked on the said skates, but you are the one of choice for blame laying. This one is very tricky and you will be expected to replace the blades. The correct response is to roll over and make the replacement, but depending how you handle the situation could have a serious and negative impact on your business.
    • Destroyed blade(s): This is simply your own stupid carelessness, and like the previous situation is also tricky especially if the client's loyalty is questionable. Either way on this one you've lost the client's business and maybe that of their friends and/or team mates too. The best advice here is not to get that careless.
    • Injury: I'm talking about bodily injury to your client. If your client cuts himself/herself on your freshly sharpened edges, a judge may rule that they're too stupid to have sharp skates and throw the case out, but don't count on it. A simple warning posted in your shop may work as a charm against such claims but according to my lawyer it's not a sure thing. What if your client is injured while skating on your freshly sharpened edges? When suing, it's a routine tactic to name everyone within reach as a plaintiff, and you could easily wind up on the list. The latter scenario may only effect you adversely if you routinely provide extra deep hollows and their associated aggressive edges, and in that case you deserve what you get.
  • Time investment: When you hang out a shingle, you have to make yourself available. Oh you can take days off, and work restricted hours, but both have a negative impact on your business. Once you develop a clientele, you have a responsibility to your clients, and that means maintaining a consistent operating schedule. You also have a responsibility to your family, and you are gonna find that your skate sharpening business will make huge demands on your time. You are gonna have to decide which is more important, your skate sharpening business, or your family.

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