Utility knives can be a daunting purchase. There are so many choices and so many things to consider. What size? What material? What is the best way to carry it? How do you keep it sharp? Do you have to buy a sheath? What do you want the knife for? Can you do it all with one knife?
What Is A Utility knife?
A utility knife is any type of knife used for general manual work purposes.
Such knives were originally fixed-blade knives with a durable cutting edge suitable for rough works such as cutting cordage, cutting/scraping hides, butchering animals, cleaning fish scales, reshaping timber, and other tasks.
Craft knives are small utility knives used as precision-oriented tools for finer, more delicate tasks such as carving and papercutting.
Today, the term “utility knife” also includes small folding-, retractable- and/or replaceable-razor blade knives suited for use in the general workplace or in the construction industry.
The latter type is sometimes generically called a Stanley knife, after a prominent brand.
There is also a utility knife for kitchen use, which is sized between a chef’s knife and a paring knife.
The fixed-blade utility knife was developed some 5,000 years ago when human ancestors began to make stone knives.
These knives were general-purpose tools, designed for cutting and shaping wooden implements, scraping hides, preparing food, and for other utilitarian purposes.
By the 19th century, the fixed-blade utility knife had evolved into a steel-bladed outdoors field knife capable of butchering game, cutting wood, and preparing campfires and meals.
With the invention of the back spring, pocket-size utility knives were introduced with folding blades and other folding tools designed to increase the utility of the overall design.
The folding pocketknife and utility tool are typified by the Camper or Boy Scout pocketknife, the U.S. folding utility knife, the Swiss Army Knife, and multi-tools fitted with knife blades.
The development of stronger locking blade mechanisms for folding knives—as with the Spanish navaja, the Opinel, and the Buck 110 Folding Hunter—significantly increased the utility of such knives when employed for heavy-duty tasks such as preparing game or cutting through dense or tough materials.
Utility Knife Names
- In British, Australian, and New Zealand English, along with Dutch and Austrian German, a utility knife frequently used in the construction industry is known as a Stanley knife. This name is a generic trademark named after Stanley Works, a manufacturer of such knives.
- In Israel and Switzerland, these knives are known as Japanese knives.
- In Brazil, they are known as estiletes or cortadores Olfa (the latter, being another genericized trademark).
- In Portugal and Canada, they are also known as X-Acto (yet another genericized trademark).
- In India, the Philippines, France, Iraq, Italy, Egypt, and Germany, they are simply called cutter.
- In the Flemish region of Belgium, it is called cuttermes(je) (cutter knife).
- In general Spanish, they are known as cortaplumas (penknife, when it comes to folding blades).
- In Spain, Mexico, and Costa Rica, they are colloquially known as cutters.
- In Argentina and Uruguay the segmented fixed-blade knives are known as “Trinchetas”.
- In Turkey, they are known as market bıçağı (which literally translates as a model knife).
Other names for the tool are box cutter or boxcutter, razor blade knife, razor knife, carpet knife, penknife, stationery knife, sheetrock knife, or drywall knife.
4 Designs Of Utility Knife
Utility knives may use fixed, folding, or retractable or replaceable blades, and come in a wide variety of lengths and styles suited to the particular set of tasks they are designed to perform.
Thus, an outdoors utility knife suited for camping or hunting might use a broad 75 to 130 millimeters (3–5 in) fixed blade, while a utility knife designed for the construction industry might feature a replaceable utility or razor blade for cutting packaging, cutting shingles, marking cut lines, or scraping paint.
Fixed blade utility knife
Large fixed-blade utility knives are most often employed in an outdoors context, such as fishing, camping, or hunting. Outdoor utility knives typically feature sturdy blades from 100 to 150 millimeters (4–6 in) in length, with edge geometry designed to resist chipping and breakage.
The term “utility knife” may also refer to small fixed-blade knives used for crafts, model-making, and other artisanal projects.
These small knives feature light-duty blades best suited for cutting thin, lightweight materials. The small, thin blade and specialized handle permit cut requiring a high degree of precision and control.
Workplace utility knives
A modern safety cutter at the top, with blunted tip blade and cutting guide/tape hook. At the bottom, an older style simple plastic box cutter using standard straight-edged blades.
The largest construction or workplace utility knives typically feature retractable and replaceable blades, made of either die-cast metal or molded plastic. Some use standard razor blades, others specialized double-ended utility blades.
The user can adjust how far the blade extends from the handle, so that, for example, the knife can be used to cut the tape sealing a package without damaging the contents of the package. When the blade becomes dull, it can be quickly reversed or switched for a new one. Spare or used blades are stored in the hollow handle of some models and can be accessed by removing a screw and opening the handle. Other models feature a quick-change mechanism that allows replacing the blade without tools, as well as a flip-out blade storage tray.
The blades for this type of utility knife come in both double- and single-ended versions and are interchangeable with many, but not all, of the later copies.
Specialized blades also exist for cutting string, linoleum, and other materials.
Segmented blade or “snap-off blade” utility knife
Another style is a snap-off utility knife that contains a long, segmented blade that slides out from it. As the endmost edge becomes dull, it can be broken off the remaining blade, exposing the next section, which is sharp and ready for use.
The snapping is best accomplished with a blade snapper that is often built-in, or a pair of pliers, and the break occurs at the score lines, where the metal is thinnest.
When all of the individual segments are used, the knife may be thrown away, or, more often, refilled with a replacement blade.
This design was introduced by Japanese manufacturer Olfa Corporation in 1956 as the world’s first snap-off blade and was inspired by analyzing the sharp cutting edge produced when glass is broken and how pieces of a chocolate bar break into segments.
The sharp cutting edge on these knives is not on the edge where the blade is snapped off; rather one long edge of the whole blade is sharpened, and there are scored diagonal breakoff lines at intervals down the blade.
Thus each snapped-off piece is roughly a parallelogram, with each long edge being a breaking edge, and one or both of the short ends being a sharpened edge.
Inexpensive stamped steel and aluminum box cutter with a disposable razor blade.
Another utility knife often used for cutting open boxes consists of a simple sleeve around a rectangular handle into which single-edge utility blades can be inserted.
The sleeve slides up and down on the handle, holding the blade in place during use and covering the blade when not in use.
The blade holder may either retract or fold into the handle, much like a folding-blade pocketknife. The blade holder is designed to expose just enough edge to cut through one layer of corrugated fibreboard, to minimize chances of damaging the contents of cardboard boxes.
What Is a Utility Knife Used for?
The role and definition of a kitchen utility knife can vary widely, depending on the source. But most people would describe it as an all-purpose knife used for cutting fruits and vegetables, and carving poultry. Sometimes referred to as the “sandwich knife”, its rigid 6 to the 8-inch long blade is shaped like a chef’s knife but narrower, and can be either plain or serrated.
The utility knife sometimes gets derided for not filling a specific role, or even being redundant. For detail and delicate tasks, the very nimble paring knife is a natural choice and the chef’s knife, with its full-size blade and length, can take care of most of the other general tasks. So what good is a utility knife for?
More compact than the chef’s knife, yet with comparable capability, the utility knife is often the knife of choice for waiters who have to perform tasks such as carving roasts on the go around the restaurant floor, hunters who field-dress their game in the field, or outdoor food services that do not require the use of a full-size blade.
The utility knife is therefore an ideal substitute for the cumbersome chef’s knife when portability is desired.
The utility knife can be made very sharp because of its typically thinner blade. The blade’s thinner steel allows for steeper bevels that lead to a sharper edge.
The sharp edge slices more freely into the food while a narrow blade reduces drag and promotes greater precision as you cut. This makes the utility knife perfect for slicing vegetables and meats.
There are inevitable situations in the kitchen where you realize that the chef’s knife is just too big and unwieldy for the job, and the paring knife too small and weak.
Imagine a whole roasted chicken that has been almost halved and space to that crucial cut in a space that is just not wide enough to fit your chef’s knife, and the paring knife does not have the oomph to get it done.
With a utility knife, you can maneuver through narrow food cavities that a chef’s knife cannot.
While being lighter than a chef’s knife, it can still cut common cooking ingredients that a paring knife cannot cut effectively (potatoes, cucumbers, onions, melons, etc.).
Another advantage of the utility knife is its ability to fill two roles. City-living often means limited space in the kitchen. For people who do not cook much and feel that a minimalistic kitchen is all they need, a single 7-inch utility knife might be the answer.
Compared to the chef’s knife, the utility knife is clearly a space-saver. With it, you can comfortably take care of the small-volume cutting of vegetables and meats that a simple meal requires.
The blade is also narrow and short enough to substitute for a paring knife for cutting fruits.
Things to Look for
If you decide that a utility knife is what you need, here are some things to look for when shopping for one.
Since you want the hybrid features offered by both a paring knife and a chef’s knife, make sure the length is between 5 and 7 inches. Anything shorter or longer you’re stepping into their territory.
Look for a handle that does not feature too many bumps or protrusions, and is neither too loose or tight when gripped. Ideally, the widest point should be no more than 3 inches around.
18 Uses Of The Utility Knife
1. Cut Drywall
If you use a utility knife only to cut drywall, then you’re getting your money’s worth out of the tool.
The knife’s blade, which is super-sharp and very rigid, is perfectly engineered for slicing through drywall’s thick paper face and into its abrasive gypsum core.
Tip: When cutting drywall, be sure to guide the knife’s blade along a T-square or other straightedge. Cut into the front of the sheet–1/8 to 1/4 in. is deep enough–then bend the sheet to snap it along the cut line.
Separate the two pieces by using the knife to slice though the paper on the backside of the sheet. Now use the knife to quickly shave the rough-cut edges until they’re relatively smooth.
2. Trim Roof Shingles
There’s no easy way to cut asphalt roof shingles. The top surface is covered with rock-hard mineral granules, and the asphalt-saturated core is thick and fibrous.
Nothing dulls a knife, a saw or snips quicker than asphalt shingles. However, a utility knife slices asphalt shingles with relative ease, if you know how to use it.
Tip: Flip the shingle over and cut along its back surface, which is smooth and free of abrasive granules. Don’t try to slice all the way through the shingle; it’s too tough and you’ll dull the blade.
Instead, score the surface, then bend the shingle, and it’ll snap cleanly along the scored line.
3. Slice Fiberglass Insulation
The sharp blade of a utility knife will easily slice through fiberglass insulation and its Kraft paper or foil-faced vapor barrier.
Tip: You may find the blade is too short to cut completely through the thick fiberglass batt.
To solve this problem, lay a straight-edged board across the batt, and then kneel on the board to compress the fiberglass. Now slice through the squashed batt by guiding the knife’s blade along the edge of the board.
By the way, for the straight-edged board, you can use a 1 x 4 or 1 x 6, a rip of plywood, or even a 2 x 4 or 2 x 6. Just be sure the board is at least 8 in. longer than the width of the fiberglass batts.
4. Cut Vinyl Flooring
The installation of vinyl resilient sheet flooring has always been a popular do-it-yourself project. And thanks to today’s new floating-floor vinyl sheets, which aren’t glued down, that DIY trend is likely to continue.
The only tricky part of installing vinyl sheet flooring is accurately cutting it to fit the room. One wrong slice can ruin the whole sheet.
Tip: The easiest way to cut vinyl flooring is with a utility knife, but only after making one small modification: replace the standard straight blade with a hooked blade. To cut the sheet, simply hook the blade over the edge of the flooring and pull.
The sharpened hook will easily slice through vinyl without cutting into the subfloor below.
5. Expose popped nail heads
If the interior of your home is finished with drywall, chances are you’ve got a few popped nails or screws visible on walls and ceilings.
The best way to fix this problem is to first use a utility knife to expose the head of the popped fastener. Use the pointed tip of the knife blade to carve away the joint compound from around the popped head. Once the head of the fastener is exposed, you’ll be able to tell if it’s a nail or a screw.
Tip: For popped nails, use a hammer and nail set to drive the head deep into the wall stud or ceiling joist. (Trying to yank the nail might damage the surrounding surface.) Next, drive a 1-5/8-in. drywall screw into the stud or joist a couple of inches above and below the old nail.
Patch the repair with joint compound. If the popped fastener is a drywall screw, use a drill/driver to remove it. Then, drive a 1-5/8-in. drywall screw a couple of inches above and below the old screw hole, and into a stud or joist. Patch the repair with joint compound.
6. Slit door in plastic sheeting
It’s smart to seal off doorways when remodeling a room, especially if the work will create a lot of dust or smelly odors. However, you still need an easy way to get in and out of the room.
Here’s one trick: Tape clear polyethylene sheeting over all doorways, then use a utility knife to slit a “door” through one of the sealed doorways.
Tip: Slit the plastic along the two vertical edges and the bottom horizontal end to create a hanging flap. Then, for an extra measure of dust protection, cut another piece of plastic sheeting slightly larger than the just-cut doorway, and tape it over the flap.
7. Split shims
The easiest way to trim wood shims to size is with a utility knife.
Tip: Stand the shim vertically on the floor or other stable surface, with its thick butt edge down and the thin edge facing up. Set the knife blade onto the thin edge at the desired width, and press down.
The beveled edge of the sharp blade will split the shim in two, usually before the blade reaches the butt edge.
8. Whittle a plug for a stripped hinge screw
When a hinge screw becomes so badly stripped that you can no longer tighten it, reach for your utility knife.
Tip: Take a scrap of wood or length of dowel rod and use the knife to whittle down a long, tapering wood plug. Cut the plug about 3 or 4 in. long; it should look somewhat like a long, thick golf tee. Smear glue onto the plug, and tap it into the stripped hole with a hammer.
Then use the utility knife to score all around the plug. Tap down on the protruding end of the plug to break it off flush with the hinge leaf. Allow the glue to dry for an hour or so, then drill a small pilot hole and replace the hinge screw.
9. Slice veneer before cutting
Before using a circular saw to cut a sheet of hardwood-veneer plywood or a veneered door, use your utility knife as a guide.
Tip: Take your knife and score a line along the outer edge of the cut line. Apply just enough pressure on the knife to slice through the top veneer layer. Now, when the saw blade passes through, the veneer will break off cleanly at the scored line, leaving behind a splinter-free edge.
10. Scribe hinge mortises
The sharp, pointed tip of the utility knife blade produces layout lines that are much finer and crisper than any pencil. And that’s why a utility knife is often used to lay out hinge mortises.
Tip: Hold the hinge leaf in place against the door’s edge, then lightly score a line around all three edges of the leaf. Repeat, applying slightly more pressure on the knife, cutting the hinge leaf outline into the door. Remove the hinge leaf.
The scored lines not only show precisely where you need to chisel or rout, but they also prevent the wood from splintering, so you’ll end up with a clean, tight-fitting mortise.
11. Freeing painted baseboards
When removing painted baseboard trim from a room, don’t make the common mistake of starting with a pry bar. Instead, take a utility knife and cut along the top edge of the baseboard, slicing through the paint layer at the junction where the trim meets the wall.
If you skip this step, the dried paint will act as glue and peel away portions of the wall when you pry off the baseboard.
Tip: Slicing through the paint layer first allows the baseboard to pop free without damaging the wall. You can use this technique when removing any painted trim, including chair rail, and door and window casings.
12. Scratch out old grout
There are specialty tools available for removing old grout from between tiles, but if it’s a small enough repair, say less than 4 sq ft of tile, you can get by nicely with a utility knife.
Tip: Place the pointed tip of the knife blade into the joint between two tiles and lightly scratch away at the hardened grout. Once you’ve created a deep groove, apply slightly more pressure and continue to scratch away at the grout a little at a time. Be careful not to chip the surrounding tiles.
By the way, this is one of the few times that it’s okay to use an old, dull blade in a utility knife.
13. Slice through dried caulk
Removing dried caulk from around bathtubs, windows and doors is no easy feat. Many of today’s high-performance caulks and sealants are incredibly resilient.
Tip: To make the job a bit easier, start by using a utility knife with a fresh blade to slice through the caulk along both sides of the bead, not down the middle.
The idea is to try to separate the bead of caulk from the surrounding surface. Once you’ve cut along both edges of the bead, use a stiff-blade putty knife to scrape the caulk free.
14. Cut up old carpeting
If you’ve ever removed old wall-to-wall carpeting from a room, you know how heavy and unwieldy the floor covering can be. Next time, save yourself some trouble by using a utility knife to cut the carpeting into large squares.
Tip: The trick is to cut the carpeting from the back side, which is flat and relatively stiff. Roll up a short section of carpeting, say about 4 ft or so, then slice it from the rest of the carpet. Cut the long slice into squares, again making sure to cut from the back.
Stack up the squares, then carry them out of the room. Roll up another section of carpeting and repeat. This process takes a bit longer than rolling up the whole carpet, but the small squares are much easier to carry and to dispose of.
15. Cut rigid foam board
Rigid polystyrene foam-insulation boards have many uses in and around the home, but cutting the large sheets down to size is always challenging.
You can use a circular saw or jigsaw, which slice through the lightweight foam with ease, but both tools produce quite a bit of statically charged dust that will stick to everything.
Save the mess–and noise–and use a utility knife to cut rigid foam.
Tip: Most utility knives only cut about an inch deep, but they’re effective at cutting foam insulation up to about 2 in. thick. Simply make the full-depth cut, then bend the panel and it’ll snap cleanly along the cut line.
16. Back cut moldings for tight joints
When installing interior trim, you’ll occasionally have to fine-tune a miter cut in order to produce a tight-fitting joint. Sometime you can fix an ill-fitting joint without returning to the miter saw.
Tip: Take your utility knife and carefully carve away wood from the face of the miter, a technique known as back cutting or back beveling. Be sure to stay away from the edge of each miter; remove wood only from surfaces that won’t be seen when the two pieces are joined together.
17. Slit cable insulation
There are wire strippers specifically designed for removing the tough outer sheathing from nonmetallic electrical cable (Romex), but I’ve never seen an electrician use one.
Most use a utility knife to strip away the outer sheathing.
Tip: Take the end of the cable and pull 8 to 10 in. of it straight and flat. Lay it against a hard surface, then use the utility knife to slice through the outer sheathing.
Be careful not to cut into the insulated wires inside the cable. Grab the sheathing with lineman’s pliers and strip it away from the insulated wires.
Now use the cutting jaws on the pliers to cut the stripped sheathing from the cable.
18. Rescue paint-coated screws
Removing old slotted hinge screws is tough enough, but it’s virtually impossible when the screw slots are filled with dried paint.
Before attempting to back out paint-plugged screws, use a utility knife to carefully scratch the paint from the screw slots. (Be sure to wear eye goggles as protection from flying paint chips.)
Tip: It may take a few minutes to clear each slot, but it’s the only way to ensure the tip of the screwdriver will fit snugly into the screw head.