Good Knives and a Good Handle Company

opinel knife and russian axe

Hmm. How to fit the wrong handle to a Russian army axe, using a French camp knife? Easy peasy if the knife is Opinel.

I’ve been carrying stainless steel knives for years, but lately I got tired of using a work knife that saws instead of cuts and won’t hold an edge.That’s a good description of nearly any stainless steel knife today, unless you get one with a plain edge. Then it won’t even saw. Combo-serrated edges are the modern knife manufacturer’s answer to the problem of cutting things. If it won’t cut, you can still saw with it. If you’re old enough to remember carbon steel knives, you won’t remember any carbon steel knives with serrated edges. Carbon steel didn’t require that.

Work knives tend to get battered and broken and lost, so I didn’t want to spend much for a new one, but I did want carbon steel of good quality. If you want something like that today, you have to know in advance what you’re looking for and who makes it. For a carbon steel knife from a well-known American brand, you’ll pay premium price for a limited edition product. If you buy Opinel or Mora knives, you’ll get the cutting edge you want for much less money. These knives are cheap, and that might scare off a lot of potential buyers, who would think of cheap knives as not being very good. Both Mora and Opinel have a very good reputation, and if you buy either type you’ll get a knife that isn’t fancy but works extremely well.

whittling axe handle to fit

You can’t whittle hickory with a dull knife or a bad knife. The Opinel Number 12 never faltered.

Mora makes fixed blades, but I needed a folder for work so I went with Opinel. Opinel uses a patented locking ring that fixes the blade either in closed or open position, securely. It’s not a one-hand opener, so you don’t have a thumb loop or a thumb stub, neither of which I would want on a knife anyway. The thumb loop weakens the blade and the thumb stud just gets in the way when you cut something. This applies to all knives of that type.


Best Opinel for pocket
carry in civilized areas.

Opinel knives open the old-fashioned way, with a thumbnail notch. Unlike American pocket knives, there’s no spring tension involved so the knives open easily. Turning the steel locking ring at the base of the blade transforms the folder into a fixed blade. Opinel knives don’t weigh much because the handles don’t have a lot of steel in them, just beechwood or olive wood with a slot cut to shield the blade when closed. Construction is tough and the knives are very comfortable to use, with no sharp handle corners or clips to grind your hands to bloody pulp if you actually want to use them for extended periods. I own many tools with similar handle builds and they’ve lasted not just for years but for decades. If you want a prybar, buy a prybar or maybe a Kabar. Opinel knives are cutters.


Get the full-sized
No.12 for camp
and the farm

I like Opinel knives, one of the most popular camping knives of European manufacture, so much that I bought two from the Harry J. Epstein Company of Kansas City, Missouri. I chose the Number 8, 4 3/8 inches when closed, because it’s a comfortable and practical (not to mention legal) size for work; and the Number 12, the largest Opinel makes, for the other things I do. The Number 12 measures 6 3/8 inches closed and the blade is large enough for camp work and for field dressing game.

Neither has a pocket clip, thankfully. If you want to use a knife, you don’t want a pocket clip, it just wrecks your hands. Ask any carpenter if they want a pocket clip on the side of their hammer’s handle and you’ll get a strange look. Hey, why not just put spikes on it? That’ll rip your hands up even faster! The Number 8 Opinel I ordered came with a leather sheath, and there’s some good in it. This keeps the knife upright in my pocket and that’s good enough for me. The Number 12 will ride upright anyway.

trimming the wedge

Cutting the handle back after fitting the wooden wedge

As for cutting quality, I tested the Number 12 on a kiln-dried hickory axe handle that came with the axe I couldn’t resist buying when I looked at the Epstein surplus page. This Russian axe won’t take an American axe handle, so Epstein shipped it with a maul handle manufactured by the House Handle Company of Houston, Missouri, a town I know rather well from the days when I peddled my own woodworking products from store to store in the Ozarks. Epstein’s warns that the handle needs some adjustment to fit the axe, and that’s so. About three-eighths of an inch needed paring from the tapered edge, and a little from the poll side as well. It’s not the right handle for the axe, too stiff and too straight, but it works and one of these days I’ll get out the spokeshaves and put it right.

steel wedge in place

A ball peen hammer works well for setting the steel wedge. Two or three taps drives the wedge just below the end of the handle.

I was pleased both with the Number 12 Opinel knife, which accomplished the handle reworking in around half an hour without losing edge sharpness; and with the axe handle. I’ve mentioned my dislike of lacquered handles already. House Handle Company uses only a light coat of clear lacquer, not the dark varnish most companies slather on, so I could identify the wood as hickory and determine that the heartwood was in the least critical section, not a bad deal at all. You can barely feel the lacquer as the handle slides through your hands and I expect it will wear off quickly. That’s a good thing. House Handle manufactures dozens of different types of handles, including handles for broad hatchets and broad axes, so if you need something special you’ll probably find it there. I did not see snaths in their catalog, but the true snath is a very tricky thing to make and has a very limited market. I don’t blame them for it’s absence.

finished axe

Of course, you always clean up your mess.


The Number 8 Opinel, I’ve used it at work and the edge outlasts the Schrade stainless steel folder I’d been using by ten to one at least, and that’s probably conservative. I still carry both, but I use the Schrade folder for things that ruin a knife. Stainless steel comes already ruined. I’m taking better care of the Opinel and won’t use it for digging weeds out of the parking lot.

Links:

Harry J. Epstein

Opinel Superstore

House Handle Company


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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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