If you’re interested in a high-performance knife with an almost uniquely good profile, great handle, wonderfully retro look, and more than its share of history let me whisper one word into your ear. Thiers-Issard Elephant Quatre Etoile Nogent. Was that more than one word?
I would have just called them Nogents but there is at least one other line (inexpensive, stainless) by one other manufacturer running around with the same name. Which, by the way, is also the name of several towns scattered around France. Which Nogent is the Nogent? Nogent-Bassigny, perhaps. Merde. Je ne sais pas.
Presumably whichever Nogent it is, it’s not too far from Bellevue and Thiers.
With that out of the way, I will not only call them Nogents (one word), but also dispense with the italics when doing so.
So much for setting the table.
I. (More) Introduction:
The Nogent blanks were forged sometime from the late twenties through the mid thirties by one or another or even several of the Sabatiers. According to Thiers-Issard, there were several – none of which were T-I. They appear to be martinet forgings (not that it matters); are made with full finger guards but no other integral bolster; and have “rat-tail” instead of full or partial tangs.
II. Tangs and Handles:
Post war marketing has devalued rat tail tangs unjustly. The tangs are strong enough to resist bending and otherwise last forever and a day as long as you do not use them to pry open metal doors. “Resist bending” means they still bend a lot more easily than a full tang. But if you do bend one you can fix it with nothing more than a padded vise and a little brute force.
I’m not exactly sure why full tangs replaced rat tails, unless it was because rivets work better to keep a poorly fitting handle attached to a knife, or had something to do with changes in forging made during the war. Otherwise, it seems like a solution to something which wasn’t much of a problem. Certainly, not much of a problem with the Nogents.
At any rate, it was THE handle style back in the day. Everyone used them, no one complained. The top line knife handles were ebony.
The old Nogent blanks T-I discovered were just that (blanks, not ebony). They were fully forged and ground, but did not have handles nor were they sharpened.
Thiers-Issard chose to use handles which look like ebony, and might actually be ebony. They are stained but not stamina wood or impregnated with resin. They do not seem to be sealed in any other way. Like other old-fashioned, real wood handles they need an occasional oiling with mineral oil to keep them stable and feeling new. If you oil them two or three times a year, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last for decades.
The handles look blocky, but they are incredibly comfortable for damn near any hand size and damn near any grip.
An outstanding feature of Nogents is the full sized handles on the small knives. Whatever possessed knife makers to put small handles on short knives anyway? It’s not like they need to be balanced, the blades are too small to weigh anything. They’re great handles throughout the line, but put them on a small knife and the grade jumps to outstanding and better than MAC.
III. Blade Profiles:
All of the Nogent blades are very traditionally shaped – which only makes sense because these knives are NOS (new old stock) refugees from Tradition-Land.
Profile matters most with chef’s knives of course. The Nogent chef’s are perfect. Their tends not to be much variation in Sabatier chef’s profiles from one manufacturer to another. Nearly all of them are pretty close to perfect. Nogents are perfect. As perfect as K-Sabatier and as perfect as Masamoto KS. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.
The slicers? Fantastic. Streamlined, with just the right amount of flex at any given length. The longer ones are more flexible than the shorter.
What can you say about a paring shape? Couteau office is couteau office. That said, I use the 6″ slicer which has the same profile as my “petty.” It’s great.
All of the profiles are thin. Thin as carbon Sabatiers and thin but not terribly thin by Japanese standards. Stupid thin, wonderfully thin, deliciously thin in comparison to German knives.
I’m struggling to find a negative, but not getting very far.
IV. Edge Characteristics:
A. Edge Taking
Like the other “very good” carbon Sabatiers, the Nogents sharpen very easily to extremely sharp.
B. Best Sharpening Techniques:
The final stone in my oilstone set, a Hall’s ProEdge Surgical Black Arkansas , produces outstanding results and takes the knife as sharp as is practically necessary. The Arkansas edge is very durable and holds up better than can be reasonably expected to maintenance with my HandAmerican Borosilicate Rod.
However, I can definitely push farther with waterstones than oilstones. Until fairly recently, I would have told you that a Naniwa SS 8K was the limit for any French carbon, not so much in terms of the alloy’s absolute ability to take a fine edge, but more in terms of its ability to hold it and resist scratching.
Lately though, my experiments with the HandAmerican Stropping Kit have me reassessing. Following the 8K (nominally 1.2u) with boron oxide “liquid” on a balsa strop makes a definite difference, in sharpness as well as in lowering friction. It also has the side benefit of being so bright, that it functions as a sort of Magic Marker trick and will reveal any sharpening errors you’d deluded yourself into believing you’d outgrown.
But Wait. There’s More!!! Chasing the boron oxide with chromium dioxide liquid – also on a balsa strop – resulted in greater sharpness still, at least according to the Murray Carter “3 Finger Test.” The knife also felt slicker to a thumb drag. While the extra edge from the Cr02 didn’t seem to make much difference in chopping the usual suspect, slicing old mushrooms, or tomatoes, thumb-dragging did lead to a meditation on why Murray only has three fingers.
1. The Factory Edge
No Nogent that I’ve ever seen, came sharp OOTB (out of the box). I don’t mean “dull” by BDL’s near mythic standards either. How bad? We’re talking 30 seconds max on a belt sander by someone who got the job because he’s a nephew. In other words, Japanese OOTB standard.
Like a lot of Japanese knives, it will come with what I call a “Christmas Morning edge.” That is, good enough to use the day you get it, but something you’ll want to re-sharpen from zero as soon as possible. I don’t know what T-I is thinking, other European knives — including other T-Is come with much better edges. But, c’est la vie say the old folks. [Gallic shrug]
2. Best Sharpening Angles and Geometry
A 15* V edge with flat bevels is probably the most practical, although I’m now sharpening mine more acutely. Because the knife will need a lot of steeling, don’t let your geometry get too asymmetric. 60/40 seems about right.
3. A Rare Carbide Issue, Don’t Panic
It sometimes happens with “new” (which is to say previously unused and no more than rudimentarily sharpened) carbon knives that a carbide crystal will be lodged in the edge. This, I believe, results from molecular migration over time; although I sure don’t know for sure.
You do not need to expect it when buying a carbon knife or an NOS carbon knife or a Nogent in particular. But it does happen. However rare, it certainly happened with one of my Nogents.
A carbide can often detect it by thumb-dragging the edge, or it might manifest itself the first time you try and sharpen and hit a spot that simply will not grind. If you have a crystal stuck in the edge, the knife will require a fair bit of grinding to knock the carbide out – before you can begin sharpening a new profile.
C. Edge Holding
It’s soft, French carbon. To use it is to take it out of true. As a practical matter, the knife acts far harder than you’d expect from a knife with mediocre RCH (an appropriately disrespectful acronym for Rockwell “C” Hardness) numbers like 53-55ish. But it’s still French carbon, and still going to either need plenty of steeling or plenty of “touch ups” on a fine stone.
Since a honing rod is so much more convenient than prepping a stone, use a rod. Use one fine enough not to destroy your polish.
Otherwise, as long as you don’t get too asymmetric, the Nogent will hold its edge for quite some time, and is slightly superior to newer Sabatiers in that respect.
The knife’s thin cross section and resistance to wedging helps it seem to stay sharp longer as well.
V. The Real (Maybe) Story
You’ve got to love the retro-chic of these knives. Just holding them makes you feel like your sharing the kitchen with Evelyn and Henri-Paul. They also come with actual history.
Here’s the official version: During the late twenties and early thirties, a lot of French knife companies were in difficulty. Thiers-Issard was not. They seized the opportunity and bought up a lot of NOS as well as a few of the companies. Somehow the knives were misplaced. In the early nineties, T-I emptied an old warehouse in order to tear it down and make room for new construction. In crates at the back of the warehouse, were tens of thousands of old knives. And, voila!
That T-I bought tens of thousands of knives, hid them behind a wall of other crates “accidentally,” and forgot for no good reason, doesn’t make much sense. At minimum, in the middle of the depression, someone must have been held responsible for accounting for hundreds of thousands of francs spent on purchasing other companies’ NOS.
My story – and it’s only a story – NOT an accusation, innuendo, libel or calumny – is that during the ramp-up to WWII, T-I hid a lot of production to keep it from French government steel drives. They kept it hidden during the German occupation. After the war it was either too embarrassing to “find” the knives right away or the person or people who knew where the knives were stashed, had left Thiers-Issard for whatever reasons.
Whether during, immediately after or at some nebulous later point but at any rate AFTER THE DAMN WAR, the secret of their location was truly forgotten.
Then they tear down the warehouse. Again, voila!
I could certainly be wrong. But since I’m not French, I don’t have to be embarrassed about keeping necessary war materials from the French Army, and I like a little greed and cupidity in my war stories.
Biensur, The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
VI. Special Considerations Before Buying
It may be that all, many or some of the knives were stored without straightening after they were hardened by heat treating. It may also be that many of the knives were bent into a very mild arc (tip and handle down) during storage. In any case many Nogents are slightly bent.
If you decide you want one (you really should) enough to order one (again you really should), like the bogus edge this is something you’re going to have to deal with.
A. Ask TBT For Help
Start by calling The Best Things and ask them if they have a straight knife in stock. Don’t expect a guarantee, or even a terribly responsive answer. They are a very good knife e-tailer in every way, but they just don’t see this issue the way we do. Ask them to at least go through whatever they do have and send you whatever they think is the best.
B. It Came and It’s Not Perfect; Whatever Shall I do?
If you receive a bent knife, and the bend bothers you in any way, it can easily be repaired by clamping it into a padded vice and muscling the knife straight.
Any good knife shop should be able to handle this. Anyone fairly handy should be able to as well.
Speaking of knife shops, you’ve already been fairly warned about what to expect from a Nogent edge. If you’re not at the point where you trust yourself to do a good first sharpening, get someone who can. Many knife shops and knife services can not. Tell them what you want. If they can sharpen 15* edges and know what 60/40 asymmetry means well enough to explain it to you, you’ve probably found someone who can do it.
Yes I’ve bought knives from TBT in the past. On one occasion something went wrong which was absolutely not their fault or a problem with their stock. Even so, they went way out of their way to make it right I expect that if there’s any problem with a knife you purchase from them they will take care of it quickly and professionally.
If you can’t live with the idea that your new knife might come bent where the handle joins the blade (not side to side, the blade might be bent down a little) a Nogent might not be a good choice.
C. Act Now. Operators Are Standing By. Limited Time Offer.
Even if the knives need a little extra work, they are great knives, are beautiful, have history, are well worth the money and then some, etc., etc., etc. There is a finite number of them, and there will never, ever be any more knives made.
D. Special Bonus
No nagging about learning to sharpen in this post.
VI. Ratings For the Numerically Inclined
• Blade Profiles – Range from, “the best” through “practical perfection,” to “Platonic ideal.” Stupid good. 10/10
• Edge Taking – Excellent for European Carbons. 8.5/10
• Handles – Excellent, especially considering how primitive they look; but not quite as good as some of the Germans, some other Sabs, or MACs – at least for the big knives; Can’t beat the handles on the small blades. 9/10
• Maintenance – Lots of steeling, as usual with European made knives. Patina or baking soda, just like any carbon. You’re either the type who can either live with carbon’s neediness or you’re not. 7/10
• F&F and QC – Tu as bu, ou quoi? 4/10
• History – Oodles. Romance, too. Talk about a bonus. 9/10.
• Price – Reasonable. Damn reasonable. Almost too damn reasonable. What the hell am I saying? 9/10
Great knife with history yet.