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What is a Utility Knife?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A utility knife is an inexpensive tool made by enclosing a razor blade in a handle which provides a hand-grip. Utility knives are used in a wide variety of industries, from graphic design to construction, and they can be very useful tools to keep around the house or shop. Most hardware stores stock utility knives, and they can also be ordered from manufacturers.

The basic utility knife design consists of two parts: a replaceable blade, and a sturdy handle. The blade is designed to be replaced whenever it starts to dull, while the handle can be used for years. Many utility knives are made with double-ended blades so that the blade can be flipped around and used again. The housing for the blade may also include a storage space for several extra blades for convenience.

In one version of the design, the blade is locked in place with a ratcheting mechanism which allows the user to move the blade back and forth. The blade may be fully retracted for safety and storage, or extended for specific tasks. The ability to control the length of the blade gives the operator more precision; for example, the blade can be kept short for opening a box without damaging the contents, or lengthened to cut through something wide.

In another variation, the blade is made in segments. A snap-off or segmented blade is designed so that the user can simply break off the tip of the blade as it starts to dull. Eventually, all of the segments will be used, and it will be necessary to install a new blade. Segmented blades are also outfitted with ratcheting mechanisms so that the knife can be pushed out of the housing to expose new segments.

A fixed-blade utility knife is made with a razor blade which is anchored in place. Fixed-blade knives are often used for crafts and tasks which require a high level of control, and the blades may be quite small, with varying widths available. The blade can be changed or swapped with another by unscrewing the housing to allow the blade to slide out.

X-Acto and Stanley are two popular brands of utility knives, with some people referring to these useful tools as carpet or mat knives. “Box cutter” is another common term used in reference to utility knives. Like other sharp tools, a utility knife can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and these blades should be stored responsibly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AboutMechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sunnySkys — On Oct 04, 2011

@SZapper - Utility knives are an art students best friend. I was a photography major, and I used utility knives all the time in various classes.

I think I used my utility knife for cutting mat board the most though. It's a lot cheaper to buy plain mat board instead of the pre-cut kind. You know college students are on a budget. Also, sometimes I made photos that weren't a traditional size, so I had no choice but to cut my own mat board!

By SZapper — On Oct 03, 2011

When I took three dimensional design in college, the utility knife was my best friend. I had one with the replaceable blade and I used it pretty much all the time.

We built a lot of sculptures out of foam board. And guess what's pretty much perfect for cutting foam board? If you guess a utility knife, you would be right! I was able to cut straight lines, beveled edges, very small cuts, you name it! The utility knife is just so versatile.

And yes, I did cut myself a few times. I'm fairly clumsy, so it wasn't a big surprise. I never seriously injured myself, luckily.

By titans62 — On Oct 02, 2011

@Emilski - Interesting, we always called them pen knives instead of X-Acto like the brand name. As for a folding knife, I can't say I have ever seen one. If you're wanting something you can keep in your pocket, though, they definitely make retractable pen knives. I have one. It is very handy, and mine even has a locking mechanism, so it wouldn't be able to come out even if the retracting mechanism got pushed up.

Does anyone know if there is any difference in normal utility knife blades? I was at the store looking at them the other day, and there was a pretty big difference in the price per blade depending on the brand. I didn't know if they were all basically the same and brand was the only thing driving up price, or if some blades just aren't made as sharp as others.

I ended up choosing the kind priced in the middle, but am just curious for when I shop for them next time.

By Emilski — On Oct 02, 2011

Does anyone know if they make a utility pocket knife with an X-Acto type blade?

At my job, sometimes I need to shave small pieces of wood and plastic off of different things. Utility knives are okay for the job, but sometimes they can be too big. I would like something that is a little smaller and more precise.

I used to use X-Acto knives all the time when I built model cars and planes and stuff, but I never remember seeing folding knives. X-Acto knives always come with covers, but I'm not sure I would trust it to stay on in my pocket, and that could end badly.

By TreeMan — On Oct 01, 2011

I used to have a retractable utility knife set with the segmented blade, but I ditched them after I about cut my arm open using one of them.

It was always handy to be able to just snap the dull blade off after you had used it a while. If you have a knife like this the trick is to get a hand towel and fold it up, put the blade on a hard surface with the towel over the top (to stop the blade from shooting off and cutting you), and then press down until it separates.

The problem I had was that sometimes you need a longer blade than what the knife can safely handle. I put the blade out a couple extra notches one time, and the blade broke while I was cutting something and put a small cut in my arm. Luckily it was minor, but it could have easily been worse.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 01, 2011

I always think of the types of utility knives mentioned in the article as having different specialty uses.

The X-Acto knife usually has a small, very sharp blade for making precision cuts, hence the name. The one I have can be fitted with a bunch of different blades for different purposes.

Carpet knives use a completely different blade that is straight on both sides and rounded on the edges. I've used one to cut carpet before. I guess the shape makes the blade less likely to snap, since sometimes it can take a lot of pressure to cut carpet.

As for box cutters, I usually think of these as folding knives where the whole razor blade is held outside of the knife handle.

By honeybees — On Oct 01, 2011

I have a folding utility knife that I keep close by in what I call my kitchen junk drawer. This way I always know where it is when I need to use it.

This is the best tool I have found to open boxes and packages that are shipped. I spent too many times fumbling around with a regular knife or looking for a pair of scissors in the past.

A utility knife makes a quick, clean cut so you can open the package without struggling. I also like that this utility knife folds in half so the blade is covered when not in use.

By backdraft — On Sep 30, 2011

I work in a grocery store stocking shelves and I carry a multi tool on my hip at all times. It is absolutely necessary because in any given day I have to open up upwards of one hundred boxes. You can cut through the packing tape that holds them closed with just about any kind of knife, but there is no knife that is as quick and easy as a utility knife. It is mandatory for anyone who has to open boxes all day.

By truman12 — On Sep 29, 2011

I have an awesome utility tool that a friend of mine brought me back from Japan. It has everything you would expect in a normal multi-tool, blades, scissors, screw drivers and a saw, but it also include a retractable razor blade that gives it the function of a utility knife.

This is great because it combines literally all the tool that you might need in any given work day. I wear the multi-tool on my hip and it comes in handy at least a dozen times a day. I have never seen another multi-tool like this one but I hope some intrepid knife makes will introduce a line of them here in the states. They could sell a ton of these if they tried.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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