Pocket Knives

Knife Review: Opinel No. 8 ‘Carbone’

Image: Chris Dumm

An Opinel knife will never win a ‘World’s Sexiest Knife’ competition, and it has no mall-ninja pretensions whatsoever. It’s not made from fancy steels or polymers, it doesn’t flick open with one hand, and this one will rust in a hurry if you don’t oil it.

But it cuts like crazy, weighs nothing, feels great in your hand, and can last basically forever if you use it right. And it will cost you less than $15. If Mora made a wooden-handled folding knife, it would work just like an Opinel. Think about it: that’s pretty high praise.

History

Not every knife has a history that goes much deeper than “In 2007, Ken Onion designed another flipper opener in collaboration with ______.” Some don’t even go back that far, but the story of the Opinel begins in 1890 when Joseph Opinel ignored his father’s wishes and designed a simple folding pocketknife. In just a few years Opinel was selling them in many sizes, from the tiny .78-inch No. 1 to the 4.7-inch No. 12.

I picked the No. 8 from a bucket of well-oiled Opinels at Hawthorne Cutlery  it fit my hand and slipped into my pocket the most comfortably. The No. 8 is the most popular size of Opinel, so apparently I’m not the only one who prefers it. The No. 1 was a keychain knife with a .78″ blade; it and the and No. 11 models were discontinued in 1932, and the 8.7-inch No. 13 ‘Le Giant’ was added.

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The simple knives were inexpensive to manufacture, and their price and ruggedness made them popular with French farmworkers and railworkers who knew them as ‘penny knives.’

Image courtesy Opinel-USAOpinels have but five parts: handle, blade, pivot pin, clamping band, and collar lock. Original Opinels had only four parts, because they lacked the collar lock. Small Opinels (No. 5 and below) still dispense with the locking mechanism, but they remain pretty safe knives because the clamping band and beechwood handle tend to make them close (and open) slowly, and only with deliberate effort.

Image: Chris Dumm

The patented ‘Virobloc’ collar safety was added to the mid-sized and larger Opinels in 1955. The ingenious collar safety was further refined in 2000, allowing it to lock the blade closed as well as open.

There are many different Opinel models available today. Traditional Opinels are made of carbon steel and beechwood with a nail-nick opener, but modern options include Sandvik stainless steel blades, horn and polymer handles, partially-serrated edges and thumb-hole openers.

…And Here Beginneth The Review

The No. 8 is the most popular size of Opinel, and the ‘Carbone’ version has a 3.25″ blade of X90 carbon steel. (Stainless versions use Sandvik 12C27.) The blade has a slight clip point and a full flat grind with a very fine bevel. The blade is very thin, just .066″ thick at the base of the spine. The blade comes extremely sharp from the factory (more on that later) and the edges of the spine of the blade are very sharp as well. If an Opinel is in your survival kit you won’t have any trouble using the spine to scrape magnesium shavings from your firestarter, or striking generous sparks from your flint.

The overall length is 7.6″ open, and the knife only weighs 1.6 ounces. I’m only guessing, but I think that’s lighter than the blade of a beefy 3″ Benchmade.

Ergonomics

The Opinel is emphatically a two-handed opener. The beechwood handle holds the tang very snugly, and the nail nick is rather small. Despite the primitive appearance of its construction, there’s absolutely no blade play in any direction whether open or closed. The locking collar can be twisted to lock the blade closed as well as open, but I could not perform any kind of maneuver that could ever get the blade or grip to swing open on its own.

The wooden handle actually floats the knife if you drop it in water. The stainless versions might be good knives for fisherman or boaters, but not the rust-prone carbon steel models.

Although it’s a locking knife, an Opinel could never be called a ‘gravity knife’ even in hoplophobic New York City, because the beechwood handle is so lightweight (a small fraction of an ounce) and the pivot is so tight that absolutely nothing can persuade it to swing open by a centripetal flick.

The beechwood handle is nearly circular in cross-section, with a noticeable swell at the palm and a flared pommel. The wood is lightly varnished, which gives a surprisingly good grip texture for such a smooth material.

There is no blade guard, but the shape of the grip and the additional purchase of the locking collar give you a very confident grasp. Your hand might slip forward onto the blade if you stabbed forcefully with it, but this isn’t a fighting knife.

Image: Chris Dumm

The locking collar is very tight and takes a deliberate two-handed effort to rotate. If this American  admirer could offer a single suggestion to Opinel to refine this knife’s handling, it would be to gently knurl the raised ring of the locking collar. It would be nice to twist the collar with your fingertips, instead of having to push it around with your fingernail.

Blade Tests

Image: Chris Dumm

The Opinel’s X90 carbon steel isn’t very well documented on the internet, and I could find no information about its HRC. I did find a page describing its elemental composition (link here) but as a non-metallurgist I don’t understand the nuances of its particular high-carbon recipe.

Regardless of its metallurgical specifications, it cuts like a dermatome.

Paper/Newsprint/Shotgun News
Fresh from the store (this $14 knife didn’t come in a bag, let alone a box) the carbon-steel No. 8 cut paper and ordinary newsprint like a straight razor. It even dominated the delicate crepe-like newsprint of Shotgun News, which only the very sharpest knives can slice cleanly. It’s not quite the sharpest knife I’ve tested (the professionally-sharpened Sebenza takes that prize) but it’s in a tie for second place. Grade: A+.

Manila Rope
Midsized plain-edged folders don’t usually do well when they try to saw through 3/4″ manila, but the Opinel was so sharp and ‘biting’ that it almost swept through looped rope in a single pull. Only moderate effort was needed, and I’m certain it would have cut it in one swipe if the blade were a half-inch longer. Grade: A-.

Box Cardboard
Hold on to your hats, pardner, because this mid-sized blade cut through 131 feet of box cardboard before it lost its edge and started plowing. The thin blade and full flat grind give it extremely efficient cutting geometry, and very little effort was required until the very end. This was a long test, but the hand-filling grip made it a comfortable one.

Comfortable for my right hand, anyway. My left one cramped into a useless claw after holding the cardboard for about 150 cuts through odd lengths of former boxes. Strangely, it didn’t seem to go gradually dull: it cut really well for a long time, and then it just didn’t. Grade: A+.

Image: Chris Dumm

This is how a carbon-steel Opinel cuts cardboard. It may look like a buckskin fringe, but check the scale of the cherry-wood grain in the background. These slivers of box cardboard are between 0.3mm and 1mm thick, with cuts so clean that the cardboard plies curled off each cut with perfect regularity. That, dear readers, is scary sharp. And it’s one of the few knives that your humble correspondent can make that sharp himself.

Ease Of Sharpening
Opinel’s carbon steel is among the easiest to sharpen of any knife steels I’ve used. It has the slightly bitey feel of a stainless like 8Cr15MoV (but more so), and it will take a sharper edge and hold it much longer. Like 8Cr15, it takes relatively few strokes on the ceramics to put a good edge back on it after hard use.

A quick Sharpmaker treatment got this knife shaving newsprint again after the rope and cardboard tests, but I wanted more. For a scary edge, I dusted off the 6000-grit waterstone that I’m really not very good with yet, and I gave it my best shot. A few more minutes of honing brought back the wicked edge that the Opinel had from the factory. Grade: A+.

Corrosion Resistance?

Even Achilles had one vulnerability. Carbon steel will spot overnight, or even in your pocket, if you fold it up wet and unprotected. I didn’t test this one to see how many hours it could sit wet without rusting, but we know that the answer is in the low double digits if we’re lucky.

Carbon steel needs to be protected from moisture, but it doesn’t take spoonfuls of Cosmoline to keep your Opinel shiny and sharp. A tiny dab of vegetable oil, rubbed onto a dry blade, will protect it for days of pocket carry. Wax-based lip balm sticks to the blade better, and in a pinch you can even use the skin oils from your nose or your forehead. (Yes, it sounds disgusting. And yes, it works.) Just don’t forget to do it.

The Stainless Alternative
Every Opinel model is also offered in Sandvik 12C27 stainless. I would normally avoid comparing the performance of carbon steels to stainless steels, but Moras also use Sandvik 12C27 in their stainless blades, which are astoundingly good.

If stainless Opinels perform anything like stainless Moras do, they’ll probably trade away some edge retention in exchange for superb corrosion resistance. I can’t say for sure until I try one, though.

Conclusion

Image: Chris Dumm

There may be nothing fancy or new about it, but the carbon-steel Opinel has a proven simplicity and practicality that have made it popular for more than 120 years. The mid-sized models are exceptionally light and comfortable, with a felicitous combination of handle and blade size that make them a natural for most routine cutting chores.

In its ability to take a ferociously keen edge, the carbon-steel Opinel is second only to expensive (and difficult to sharpen) supersteels. It’s in a dead heat with the ‘Scandinavian Scalpel‘ stainless Moras for second place in cutting performance, and the difference is so slight that one carbon-steel Opinel might be sharper than one particular stainless Mora or vice-versa.

There is a price to be paid, because these carbon-steel blades are very susceptible to corrosion. I suppose a handy owner might Duracoat the blade, but most of us would just try to keep it lightly oiled. Or simply get a stainless Opinel.

I think my final thoughts about the Opinel are the same as my first ones. If Mora made a folding knife, it would be an Opinel.

Ratings (out of five stars)

Styling: * * * *
As rustic and beautiful as a year in Provence.

Blade: * * * * 1/2
The exquisitely sharp, thin blade is *almost* the sharpest blade I’ve ever tested: it cuts like crazy. Subtract half a star for too-sharp spine and tiny nail nick.

Ergonomics: * * * *
The blade is a bit tough to open, and the Virobloc safety can be a bit of a nail-jammer. That being said, it handles like an excellent small belt knife once it’s opened.

Ruggedness/Durability * * * 1/2
If you keep it oiled and don’t use the blade as a pry bar, it should last for decades.

Overall Rating: * * * *
An astounding value for $14, and a wonderful knife in its own right.

Specifications:
Type: Folding knife.
Lock: ‘Virobloc’ locking collar.
Length: 7 5/8″ open, 4 3/8″ closed.
Weight: 1.6 oz.
Blade Type: Plain edge, clip point with full flat grind.
Blade Length: 3.25″
Blade Thickness: .066″
Steel: XC90 carbon steel.
Grip: Varnished beechwood.
Origin: France.

Manufacturer’s link: Opinel USA.

 

 

 

Discussion

38 responses to ‘Knife Review: Opinel No. 8 ‘Carbone’

  1. Good review. I have a few Opinels myself; 8’s, 10’s and one 12, both carbon and stainless. They’re probably the best pure cutting knives you can own. As for the carbon vs. stainless issue, the carbon is fine for almost all situations except a survival situation in a humid environment. An outdoorsman accustomed to caring for his carbon-steel (blued) firearms at the end of the day would treat his carbon knives the same way, but someone who wants a knife for an emergency kit would be better off with the stainless model.

    • I know the Opinel no.8 “carbone” is sacrosanct, but, for my personal use and daily chores, I find the Inox version generally as good as the carbon steel one, and much easier to maintain. Sandvik 12c27 is a great, working steel and and that’s why I’ve chosen Inox when when purchasing my last few Opinels. If I were using the folder to do only wood carving, I would probably go with a carbon blade, but I see no other reason to own one nowadays.

    • You don’t need the nail nick at all.

      The correct way to open an Opinel is to hold it by the collar with the blade facing downwards and tap the handle of the knife on something. This brings the blade out just enough to grab it. It will open without fingernails.

    • I have no trouble opening my No7 Carbon. But then, I clean, then spray the knife with a lanolin based corrosion inhibitor after every use. It makes the pin and timber friction minimal.

  2. I’ve never handled one, but Opinel also sells a modernized Opinel with a partially serrated stainless blade, polymer handle, and a hole for one-handed opening. They’re about $40, which kind of loses the ‘I can’t believe it’s so cheap!’ Opinel vibe.

  3. Ordered a No. 6 for my kid for Xmas. Seemed like a no-brainer for a knife for a kid, since they take and keep an edge, and require a little attention, to teach them to care for their tools. Plus, they’re cheap enough I won’t be mad if they lose it.

  4. i looked at the metallurgy chart and , while not an expert, this example is very simple . so here it goes.
    moderate carbon steel, just shy of 1%, is par for the course. the addition of manganese(o.5%) amongst other things, increases the potential sharpness, which is also used in straight razors. an even smaller amount of of silicon has a similar affect of manganese.

    • Thanks for that info! It would make sense that this steel is similar to that used in razor blades, because it sure takes an edge like one.

  5. I can open my no 9 Opinel with the old fashioned “spydie-drop”. Did you try that or were you mostly going for a flick technique?

    If losing the knife in pocket is a problem for anybody, you can easily make a sheath. I have one suede belt sheath and a kydex neck sheath. Places like Tandy leather and hobby stores sell simple leather craft sheath kits that can fit.

  6. I’ve used the Opinel No. 8 Carbone for years. The blade does discolor quickly, but after developing a dark patina, it seems to do just fine. And it makes a newly honed edge shine all the brighter.

    I can open mine with one hand: Hold the closed, locked knife in your hand. With your thumb and index finger turn the collar lock while you hold onto the handle with your other fingers. With the pad of your thumb, press the blade until it slides open, careful not to let it slip. This might only work because my knife is well-worn and opens easily and smoothly.

    Great, useful, inexpensive, beautiful knife for everyday use and carving.

  7. I enjoyed your review, save the first line, which I found misleading or off putting I should say. You must surely be aware that the Opinel has quite literally come as close to winning a “sexiest knife competition” as you can in this world. (Unless that is a competition now, I’m not about to google it) Rather than attempt to explain, I’ll simply quote from wikipedia, like all smart people do.
    taken from:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinel_knife#History

    “In 1985 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London selected the Opinel as part of an exhibit celebrating the “100 most beautiful products in the world”, featuring the Opinel alongside the Porsche 911 sports car and the Rolex watch. The Opinel was also selected as one of the 999 classic designs in Phaidon Design Classics, and has been exhibited by the New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a design masterpiece.”

    Now they may not have used the word sexy, but I’d say that comes pretty damn close.

  8. just tap the wooden end of the handle on the blade side and the blade will open enough to make it easier to finish readying the knife for use. This is what they do in the Savioe.

  9. Spectacular review and a delight to read. Dad was in town last weekend and marveled at the No. 10 Carbone that I keep in the kitchen, so I just bought him one for camping use. I ran across your wonderful review when searching for a link to send him to show the high esteem in which these Opinels are held by folks who know their knives. Thank you for having taken the time to write this up.

  10. Nice review, nice knife.
    One thing you didn’t mention, mine has a convex grind.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grind
    If you’ve got surgeon’s, not farmer’s fingers, you can feel the curve from the front to back of the blade. Or hold & move it around a point light source, see how the reflection moves across the blade.
    As far as I can tell, that’s about the most difficult (= expensive) way to grind a knife, amazing for such a cheapie.
    Not that I’m any expert, but here’s how I sharpen mine. Cheap plastic EZE-LAP diamond medium, and use a kind of rolling motion, so that I sharpen/ grind/ clean all the blade from the cutting edge right to the back. That keeps it reasonably shiny, and because I’m not perfectly smooth, I get an attractive surface composed of lots of 1-3mm flat surfaces overlapping. Looks a bit damasc-ish, or samurai-ish. Not that the slightly black surface sheen has anything wrong, either.
    After a few unsharpenable $150 hunting knives, this and a box cutter make up most of my kit.

  11. I bought my first opinel when I was about 20. Have not carried any thing else since. I’m 51 now. I always get number 9. Perfect for cutting apples.

    • Hi Eric. I received my first (a No8) back in the late 80’s as a gift. I was also 20 something and the knife became my constant daily carry. That was when it was Carbon steel or nothing, and no safety lock (closed). I’m in my 50s also and have always had an Opinel in my collection. I’ve now got a No7 for fine work as I have other, heavier duty knives for harder work. Having said that, I’m seriously thinking of grabbing a No13 just for the collector value, Plus, I’ve seen one tested and it’s a tough knife.

  12. I was shown how to open an Opinel knife by holding the locking ring end and taping the raised end just beyond the point of the blade on to a hard surface. This makes the knife open enough to open easily without using the nail slot in the back of the blade. This is especially useful with the wooden handled knives that swell slightly if you get them wet, making the blade stiff to open.

  13. I’ve found my Opinel No. 8 pretty easy to open and lock one-handed. With the collar open, I hold the blade with my thumb and forefinger right about on the fingernail notch, and then use my ring and pinky fingers to push the handle away from the blade. This gets the knife most of the way open, and then I can usually use my thumb to push the blade the rest of the way. Then I use my thumb to turn the collar to lock the blade. You can also use the coup de Savoryard to open it one-handed. Closing one-handed is even easier.

  14. After a few years of using faster deploying folders, usually with G10 scales, I was surprised how quickly I took to my first Opinel, an inox no.8. It was one with a blue painted handle and a small lanyard hole with a thin leather tie at the end, which makes it easy to pull out of one’s pocket. The one feature I changed was the blade shape, as I don’t care for the clip point design. I took the knife to the local knife sharpner at the farmers market, and in a matter of seconds he put a drop point on the blade. Love my Opinel – great all around carry.

  15. I owned an Opinel decades ago, back when the Old Timer was the most pocketed pocket knife around. I wasn’t greatly impressed with it at first, in fact it felt and seemed cheap, but the final straw was how ridiculously fast it seemed to rust. I expected that, like any other pocket knife on the market in the 70s, it would require moderate-to-frequent maintenance. But in order to stay ahead of the rust I found that I had to basically rub it down daily with a level of detail that I normally reserve for a frequently used hunting rifle.

    I soured on the Opinel in the late 70’s, and have not felt the need to rethink my opinion since.

  16. A moderately cared for Opinel “Carbone” does not rust, but builds a nice grey patina like all carbon steel knives. A wipe-down or two with pharmacy grade mineral oil keeps mine perfect for years. Even better if you let it sit in a hot car for a bit. Putting a mirror polish on the edge seems to retard oxidation there to the point of, “indefinite”. I can’t see why one would need daily wipe-downs unless one lives by the sea. Or works in an acid production plant.

    I’m not a “knife nut”, but I own a fair number. The only steel I own that will take an edge as sharp as an Opinel is a pair of heirloom Sabatier carbon steel chef’s knives.

  17. First I love this knife. I have owned and given away 8so 9s and a 10 is my everyday carry.
    I have a hot tip that for me has worked for the last 10 years….when you first get it open it up and stick it in a great fruit being careful not to get any juice on any wood. I eave it over night for a dark finish or just a few hours for a little lighter finish. Then youdon’t have to worry about rust. Just keep in dry and sharp and it will be your best knives regardless of how much they cost

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