IndexCool tools: knives


There is no tool as useful as a knife.

Tie a knife to a stick and you get a spear. If you don't have a rope to tie it to the stick, cut a point to the stick. Use the knife to cut and clean an animal's skin to make clothing, or to cut straps of hide to tie it to the stick to make that spear, or even to make a bow and arrows. Use it to cut wood to build a fire or to construct a shelter. Read the excellent SAS Survival Handbook to find out why a knife is the first thing to take and the last thing to throw away.

Personally, I carry a pocket knife because my grandfather, an impressive man who built ocean-going ships and had been a war hero during World War 2 in the Pacific (one of two men who survived from a group of 18 Dutch volunteers that fought alongside the US Marines during a series of amphibious landings on Borneo and other islands), told me 'a real man always carries a good knife'. As a kid I carried a small, cheap pocket knife which my granddad sharpened for me. Then I upgraded to Swiss Army knives , the kind that are actually miniature tool kits. I still think such a knife is a good product for occasional use. But for me it is too much of a compromise.

Today, I carry a French pocket knife: a Laguiole. To be exact: a Laguiole Extra 'Arbalete' (crossbow) made by G. David, generally considered one of the best Laguiole knives. Laguiole is the generic type designation for a certain model of pocket knife, the way only certain producers may use the Champagne name. The real Laguiole knives are always high quality handmade products with certain distinguishing marks: a littly horse fly on the top of the handle, nails in certain patterns decorating the handle, and so on. The Arbalete knives have a crossbow engraved in the blade.
My knife was a gift from my mother in law, cost her an arm and a leg (figuratively), and me almost a fingertip when I opened it for the first time and it snapped shut again. Ouch. This is one really sharp knife, not built from gleaming stainless steel but from high-grade carbon steel. The blade darkens with age but remains sharp much longer than a stainless one. Traditionally, one never washes such a knife: you just wipe it after use.
In France it is quite normal to fish out your own Laguiole in a restaurant, to cut your meat if the knives provided by the restaurant are too blunt. French farmers use a Laguiole 'Extra', which has a corkscrew and punch, for just about any job from repairing fences to cutting bread and from adding holes to their belts to opening wine bottles. Especially for opening wine bottles.
The professional sommelier corkscrew version of the Laguiole is considered by some to be the best corkscrew in the world, provided you practice the proper technique a lot. It has a special curved little knife blade to cut the tin foil around the neck of a wine bottle, and of course a sommelier corkscrew with a leverage system. For the price of one you can buy a few dozen cheap plastic corkscrews in the nearest high street shop. It's a beautiful tool for any wine lover, and one that will be passed on through generations. The same goes for the normal Laguiole pocket knife.

Laguiole knives and corkscrews are built by different knife makers, originally from the Laguiole region but today mostly based in the area around Thiers, itself a town of long-standing steel and knife-making tradition. Unfortunately, there are many cheap copies of Laguioles on the market, some made in France, others even in Asia. Real Laguioles must all be of the same impeccable quality and are all based on the same basic design, but there are differences in the material and finish of the handles, the little fly symbol (some say it's a honeybee) may be a bit different, and so forth.
There is a real knife factory in the town of Laguiole, near Aubrac, the Forge de Laguiole, a reborn enterprise where Laguioles of the original high quality are again being produced. Their knives and corkscrews are very easily recognized by the large 'L' (actually, if you look carefully, the silhouette of a half-opened knife) engraved in the blade.
So if you want to be certain of a top of the range Laguiole pocket knife, either look for the large L or for the crossbow.

On the web site www.laguiole.com you will find both knives and Chateau Laguiole corkscrews, as sold by mail order on the American market (tip: buy one in France, it will be a lot cheaper). www.corkscrew.com offers a series of "Classic" Laguiole corkscrews, culminating in the beautiful Laguiole corkscrew by Forge Laguiole. I happen to be the proud owner of one such Forge Laguiole wine bottle opener, a rare version with an inlaid pattern in its dark wooden handle, depicting a cluster of grapes. I can say from personal experience that it not only looks great, but is a very efficient tool, too.

On this site you will also find links to sites of corkscrew collectors (there is an International Conference of Corskscrew Addicts!)

A Laguiole is something very personal once you have used it for a while. I once accidentally left my trusty Laguiole on the grounds of a French ballooning event during the late-night prize giving. Panicked, I returned the next morning to see if anyone had found it. A local farmer who was involved in the organisation had indeed stumbled onto it while cleaning up the grounds, and had kept it safe for its rightful owner. "When I found that knife, it was clear to me that it must have someone attached to it", he said.

If a French person ever gives you a Laguiole (or other knife for that matter) as a present, give him or her a coin in return. According to tradition, the knife will then never cut your friendship. My mother in law has made it almost a tradition to add to our small collection of Laguioles as a Christmas present. We have them as table knives, bread knife, cake knife, meat knife, butter knife - even the Marqueterie corkscrew. So she got a lot of coins in return and we are still the best of friends.

The Laguiole Extra is in its sheath on my belt every day of the week (except during air travel; one of the more unfortunate results of the post-11/9 paranoia has been that Frenchmen are no longer allowed to carry their Laguioles on Air France flights...). It even serves as an excellent letter-opener. In another, also well-worn, sheath is a Leatherman multitool , the original foldable pliers with its very useful variation of screwdrivers, bottle and can openers, punch, file, wire cutter and yes, even a decent, sharp knife blade that is larger than the blade on a Swiss Army knife. If I were to be marooned on an uninhabited island, I think I would prefer to have the Laguiole if I were only allowed to take a single tool. If the uninhabited island had electrically powered trees with Phillips screws in them, I would be tempted to take the Leatherman. On the other hand, G. David makes an excellent Laguiole Arbalete hunting knife with a 12,5 cm blade, saw, punch, corkscrew, small blade/bottle opener and screwdriver, which which you can probably kill a wild boar as well as build your wooden hut and open any packaged stuff that might drift onto your beach, so...
Oh, and being a tool nut, guess what is dangling from my key ring.


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