Buying the Best Utility Knife or Razor Knife
The utility knife is quite possibly one of the most widely-used tools you’ll ever add to your arsenal, so why not make sure you get the one that’s right for you? From cutting boxes, to scoring drywall, to installing carpet, buying the best utility knife or razor knife ensures that no matter what the task, you’ll have a knife with the quickness and features you need. Along with a hammer, pencil and tape measure, a utility knife is next in line for the coveted “don’t go anywhere without it” spot in my tool pouch. But there are a lot of choices when shopping for (you would think) such a simple tool. Folding? Rugged? Retractable? Ask yourself some of the following questions when searching for the perfect utility or razor knife:
- How do I intend to use it?
- What are the basic kinds of utility knives?
- What is the best blade type for me?
- What kind of safety mechanisms do I need?
- What type of blade changing mechanism do I want?
How Do I Intend to Use the Knife?
My favorite model is the Milwaukee Fastback II folding utility knife, but that’s because I prefer a folding model. If you go through blades like there’s no tomorrow, you’ll want something with more storage—perhaps something like one of the new Irwin utility knives. This sounds like an easy question, but realize that utility knives are made in specific ways for specific tasks. For those laying carpet, you’ll want a knife that is always ready and can handle quick, painless blade changes (which you’ll be doing at a rate of about – oh, I don’t know – once per minute, lol.) If you just want something for general use (opening packages, sharpening pencils, etc) then consider going with a standard knife that has a retractable blade and can easily change blades when needed. For those wanting something a bit different, a folding razor knife might be the ticket. Others will want a smaller-profile hobby knife with breakaway blades – those qualify in this category as well. In either case, it’s important to match the knife to your intended use – or just plan on picking up a couple different variations of the tool.
Basic Types of Utility Knives
There are three essential types of utility knives. If you want the best utility knife for your application, understand each one. I’m sure you can come up with a few more that might deserve their own category, but for sake of simplicity, we’ll contain the descriptions to these three:
- Retractable Knives – These knives are the most common utility variety and feature a sliding blade mechanism with variable depth. Actuation is typically through a button which is depressed with the thumb to expose the knife and control the depth of the blade (some knives are all or nothing). Most retractable knives can accept multiple blade types, but this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Simple versions feature a straight handle and some kind of screw to separate the device and load spare blades, while advanced models may be more ergonomic in shape and offer quick release blade changes
- Fixed-Blade Knives – These knives are perfect for heavy duty use and precision cuts. Since the blade gets locked into a single position, the knife experiences no “blade slop” or side-to-side wiggle which is common in standard retractable knives. Since the blade doesn’t retract, it’s important to carefully store these knives or even remove the blades when not in use. These knives are most commonly found in the carpeting industry and they can typically accept many different types of blades. Apart from the common full-sized knife, certain hobby knives are also fixed-blade in design and can support ultra-sharp blades of various sizes and shapes that are used for precision cuts.
- Breakaway-Blade Knives: These knives feature segmented blades that are broken off in sections to deliver a brand new edge once the old one is too dull to be useful. The idea is that cutting can continue without the need for a blade change and these knives are ideal for many hobby tasks where heavy-duty use is not required. Most blades come with anywhere from 8 to 13 segments.
There are several blade types which will make each type of job much easier. Of the more common styles there exist:
- Standard utility blades – these are the typical razor blades you see on full-size utility knives. They are trapezoidal in shape and have pointed edges for cutting materials of varying degrees of thickness and composition
- Round-point utility blades – These are identical to standard utility blades except for blunted points. This avoids accidental stabbing while still allowing for maximum cutting ability on a variety of materials
- Hook blades – These blades are excellent on linoleum or carpet and allow for rapid cutting of those and similar materials. These blades come in a variety of sizes, and can also include blunt ends or single/dual-sided forms. A variant on this blade is the Linoleum blade which is typically single sided and features a single arched blade hook.
- Carpet blades – These blades are typically rectangular and double-sided and are used with specialty knives that can accept them
- Hobby and craft – This includes standard wedge-type blades for hobby knives, and also the segmented blades that go with the disposable segmented knife systems.
- Scoring – These are almost always sold as a separate system but they are worth mentioning since they are used extensively in construction to cut various materials like cement board.
Choosing the Best Utility Knife Features
Look for the following features in a utility or razor knife to enhance and expand upon the standard features you’d expect to find in a knife. Sure, you can get a straight-up blade with no frills, but some of these nifty features make using a utility knife something much more useful:
- Folding Blade – A new trend is to treat the standard utility knife like a Kershaw folding pocket knife. As far as we can tell, this was pioneered by a company called Superknife and then quickly knocked off by many other manufacturers. Instead of the sharpened steel blade, you have a removable razor blade which is locked into a folding arm. It typically locks away when not in use and makes for a great addition to throw into a tool bag – or your pocket for that matter. There are also utility knives with handles that bend but do not completely fold. This is mainly an issue of ergonomics and these knives otherwise resemble standard, non-folding knives.
- Quick Blade Change Mechanisms – While some people prefer “old school” utility knives that require a flat head screwdriver to separate the body into halves to change the blade, our personal favorite are the models that use a simple button to swap blades. With the simple push of a button you can flip the razor blade around to the fresh side and continue use. Other knives feature a spring-loaded mechanism that can split the knife open and allow razor blade changes.
- Blade Storage – Most utility knives offer internal blade storage, but increasingly, knives are coming up with more convenient ways to access those blades. While older knives had to be disassembled, new knives feature quick-release compartments and deliver much easier access to five or more spare blades.
- String-Cutter – Some knives include a small slit in the body that accesses a small area of the blade just behind the head of the knife. This is perfect for slicing strings and twine without having to adjust the knife. It’s safe and easy to use.
Utility knives come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and form-factors, but all-in-all, the point is to get one that fits – and meets – your needs. In actuality, you may find yourself getting more than one. I’ve got a mini folding utility knife that I carry around with me and another retractable model that has permanent residence in my tool belt. This is a tool worth taking your time to pick out – it’s going to be something you likely get a lot of use out of.