The Opinel folding knife. It’s simple. It’s iconic. It’s French. And it’s been around since the late 1890s.
Pulling an Opinel out of your pocket is one of those gestures that makes you look like a citizen of the world. It’s the lingua franca of continental cutlery. It also insinuates that you’re somebody who recognizes an outstanding value.
I obtained an Opinel Carbone (carbon steel) No. 9 at Smoky Mountain Knife Works last summer. I believe I paid less than $15 for it. There were only a few of them remaining and the man at the counter said the Opinels were getting hard to come by. There were no stainless models in stock at the time, otherwise I’d have grabbed one of each.
The simple folder with the ingenious ring twist-locking device attached to its beechwood handle doesn’t boast the brawn of a Buck 110 — much less that of the more ultra-rugged folders available at the higher end of today’s price spectrum.
But an Opinel No. 9 — one of the larger models in the line — is a lot less expensive than a Buck 110. At 2 ounces, it’s a lot lighter than a Buck 110. And with it’s much thinner 3.56 inch carbon steel blade, it’s actually more practical than a Buck 110 for slicing tomatoes or potatoes or or carrots or, for that matter, a nice sizzling steak. You can dedicate an Opinel in your pack to mess kit duty (to avoid potential cross-contamination) and pay a very small weight penalty.
Not these knives can’t be used for more than mere food prep. Thanks to the “Virobloc” ring locking mechanism (added in the 1950s) these knives have a pretty decent safety margin for a variety of everyday cutting tasks. After all, this has been a go-to knife for millions of working class Europeans and North Africans for more than 100 years.
Like most mainstream knife manufacturers, Opinel offers more stainless-bladed (Swedish Sandvik) than carbon steel models. Mainstream consumers invariably gravitate to stainless, particularly for food prep. I confess a bias in this area myself. But I also realize that my grandmothers, both of whom were spectacular cooks, used carbon steel knives for all kinds of kitchen work and never gave it a thought.
Knife nerds like good carbon steel because, as a rule, they take and hold a keener edge with less effort. Many actually prefer the aesthetics of an interesting patina to the brighter appearance of the rust-resistent stainless steels (termed inoxidible” or simply “Inox” in France). Detractors argue that the organic compounds in fruits, vegetables and meats that artfully discolor carbon steel invariably attack the edge itself. In such a case, ease of sharpening would be offset by the need to touch up after every use to maintain optimal sharpness.
One thing I can confirm: the spine of an Opinel Carbone blade will throw terrific sparks off a ferro rod. You don’t even have to open the knife. You can leave it safely locked shut and the sliver of spine showing is enough to light up the night.
Because it can be left unlocked while fully open, it is possible to lightly baton an Opinel without destroying it. It’s not something I’ve done personally or would even want to do if I had something more suitable on hand. But it is a last-resort option.
By most accounts, Opinel Carbone and Inox blades are very similar in edge-holding (and taking) qualities. One thing that is true of all Carbone models is that they require more TLC to discourage rust. Whether you force a patina intentionally or let it accrue randomly with routine use, these blades should be regularly oiled.
A dab of olive or other vegetable oil will work in a pinch. Food-grade mineral oil is the best choice for any blade you’re going to use for food prep. Petroleum jelly is another good blade lube for carbon steel and is particularly good for waterproofing the Opinel pivot joint.
Out of the box, the blade of my No. 9 sported a distinctly convexed factory edge. The sharpening instructions provided by Opinel call for standard edge-on honing with a 20 degree bevel. This is obviously what a lot of people do and they seem happy with the results. There is no law that says you can’t get out your sandpaper and mousepad and strop away to your hearts’ content. Some users tout giving them a zero edge (not unlike a scandi, except off the full flat grind) and add a micro bevel. As for me, I'm taking the factory's advice.
The simple beechwood handle of the Opinel is part of this knife’s classic charm. But the wooden handle has its drawbacks. The carbon steel versions have a light coat of dark varnish. The handles on the stainless steel versions are a lighter “natural” finish. In either case, the handles can swell if dunked in water or subjected to extremely humid conditions. This can make them sticky to open. They don’t exactly deploy like lightning under the best of circumstances. Some folks soak the handles in linseed oil to better waterproof the wood.
In addition to being offered in a wide range of sizes (including diminutive pen knives with no locking ring) Opinel offers slight variations for specific tasks, like gardening, pruning, harvesting mushrooms or shucking oysters. Opinel also makes two small folding saws, one of which I am eager to get my hands on.