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Review: Opinel no. 6 in carbon steel

Design: The 2CV of knives

One of my favorite stories of product development, is the legend of how the Citroën 2CV came to be. Allegedly, Citroën wanted to make the cheapest, most lightweight car that could still handle everything an average French farmer could throw at it. Supposedly, the car should be able to drive across a freshly plowed field with a basket of eggs in the passenger seat, without breaking or spilling any of the eggs.

Now, you might wonder what an old car is doing in a knife review. The answer is, quite simply, that when I bought my first Opinel(s) in a little hardware store near les Halles in Paris, I was struck by how much the design reminded me of that of the 2CV.

The knife, of course, looks nothing like a car. However, even though the original Opinel design predates the 2CV by about 50 years, the two seem to share a couple of design principles. Like the 2CV, the Opinel was meant to be the cheapest and lightest tool in its class that would still be of use to a French farmer. Like Citroën’s engineers and designers, Joseph Opinel used a lot of creativity and sheet metal to achieve his goals. And just like the 2CV, the Opinel has become a design icon and an unmistakable symbol of everything French.

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The Opinels come in many sizes and models. The model I review here is no. 6. It has a blade somewhere between 6 and 7 cm long, a size I think is just about perfect for the Opinel design. The one piece beech wood handle, simple construction and Virobloc locking mechanism all make for a very lightweight – and light duty – EDC folder. I can comfortably carry it in the front pocket of my light linen summer pants without even noticing it’s there. Every other knife I’ve owned would have to be moved to a jacket pocket – or have me changing into shorts.

Handle

The iconic “fishtail” handle shape works surprisingly well on such a small knife, and gives me a firm, secure grip. It also works well for smaller hands, such as those of a four-year old. However, as the knife has no choil or ricasso, and the handle has nothing resembling a finger stop, I wouldn’t really recommend this knife for young children.

Blade

One of the reasons why the knife is so light, is the very thin blade – it can’t be more than a millimeter thick. While this should make for a very effective slicer, the factory edge of both my specimens was definitely sub par. However, a few strokes on an Arkansas stone and a quick stropping got the carbon blades absolutely screaming sharp. Never have I ever gotten anything else even close to that sharp – I even cut myself when I wiped the honing oil from the blade of the first one, right through a thick wad of paper. It doesn’t hold an edge all that well, but that is easily solved with a quick stropping after each use.

bladethickness
Top to bottom: Victorinox Rucksack, Opinel No. 6, Buck 110.

Performance

Once properly sharpened, the Opinel proved itself as an excellent cutter and slicer. Slicing apples and hot dogs, opening mail and boxes, cutting string, twine and tape and removing loose threads from clothing were all child’s play for the little blade.

However, the leaf thin blade was not very good for heavier tasks. Even light whittling was a bit too much for the thin, pliable blade. It felt almost like whittling with a very short filleting knife.

Lock

The aforementioned Virobloc is also most at home when you perform lighter cutting tasks. If you twist the locking ring hard enough, the blade locks up pretty solid, and there is no risk of accidentally releasing the lock.

However, the location of the pivot point, and the very short tang (if the term can be applied to a folder) means that the thin metal bands of the locking mechanism absorb absolutely all the force you put on the blade. Therefore, I would not trust the Virobloc for anything heavier than opening boxes or slicing food.

Conclusion

At 6 Euros, the Opinel no. 6 is not only one of the lightest EDC folders money can buy, but also one of the cheapest. And while you do get a lot for your Euros, it still feels, and, to a certain degree performs like a cheap knife.

With slightly thicker steel and lower tolerances, the Opinel no. 6 could be just about the perfect EDC folder. And at twice the price, it would still be reasonably cheap.

As it is, it is perhaps the perfect backup knife. If you only use it for opening letters and boxes, cutting strings and threads and occasionally slicing food, it is also a pretty decent EDC knife.

However, if you do anything heavier, you would be better off forking over the $20 for a Buck Vantage Select Small.

A long story short

Pros:
– Incredibly cheap
– Very lightweight
– Good, comfortable handle shape
– Relatively long blade for such a compact handle
– The carbon blade is very easy to sharpen
– Thin blade makes an efficient slicer
– No choil means you get an effective cutting edge as long as the entire blade
– The blade can be locked in both open and closed position
– Since the lock is applied manually, you can open and close it without fiddling with the lock for quick, light tasks.

Cons:
– The round handle makes the knife rather thick for its size
– The factory edge is not very good, especially not for such a thin blade
– The blade is a bit too thin and pliable for woodwork, carving, whittling and heavier cutting tasks
– No choil makes it easier to cut yourself
– The lock doesn’t feel all that solid
– The lock doesn’t engage automatically as with a liner lock or lockback. This makes it possible to forget to engage the lock, think that the blade is locked and then cut yourself.

Conclusion: The cheapest, most lightweight folder still suited to light EDC duty.

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