Monday, May 4, 2009

Sharps: So you want simple?

Back when France withdrew from the "coalition of the willing" -- and really, who could blame them? -- omitting the word "French" from the American lexicon was great sport.

Famously, french fries became freedom fries. Ditto french toast, I seem to recall, although I doubt that even the most patriotic lovers ever exchanged freedom kisses.

We're beyond all that silliness now, so I feel safe talking about my favorite French pocketknife -- the Opinel.

If the rudimentary Opinel folding knife looks like it's been around for a while, it has -- the design basically is unchanged since 18-year-old Joseph Opinel produced the first one in 1890. It's nothing but a simple clip blade and a warm handle of solid wood. No springs, no pocket clip, no one-hand opening and no lanyard hole. It's a mainstay, not a marvel.

One notable innovation, the Virobloc safety ring, was added in 1955. Designed by Marcel Opinel, the ring locks the blade open. (It was changed slightly in 2000 to also lock the blade in the closed position.) The classic Opinel benefited from the improvement without sacrificing its simplicity.

Opinel offers its traditional folder in ten sizes, eleven woods and two steels (carbon and "inox" stainless). I have two -- a No6 in stainless with a beechwood handle and a walnut-handled No8 with a polished stainless blade -- both acquired in the late 1980s.

They're the kind of knives that I'm inclined to toss in with picnic fixings to slice bread, cheese or summer sausage, but they're capable of much more. Opinels are sturdy, nimble and comfortable, easily a match for light- and medium-duty chores beyond the camp kitchen. And the fact that they're simple makes them a pleasure to use.

Oh, and they're also ridiculously inexpensive knives -- if you pay more than ten bucks for an Opinel, you're probably getting robbed.

There's one more thing that inspires my fondness: the company still is owned entirely by the descendants of Joseph Opinel. Tradition, like simplicity, is something to be celebrated.

I think I'll put aside my fancy modern pocketknives and carry my old No8 for a week or so. Getting back to basics will be good therapy.

Earlier posts
Sharps: Rite of passage
Sharps, Part I: In the pocket

Opinel Knife & Cutlery
Smoky Mountain Knife Works

"Going to war without the French is like bathing without an accordion."