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.
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.
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.’
Opinels 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+.
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-.
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+.
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+.
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.
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.
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.
Manufacturer’s link: Opinel USA.