Buyer's Guide: Utility Knives

Buyer's Guide: Utility Knives

It might not be a fancy or complex tool, but the humble utility knife-basically a razor blade tucked into a sturdy handle-is still an MVP in your DIY tool belt, tool box, or kitchen junk drawer. Often referred to as a box knife (indeed, it's great for packages), a utility knife can cut cardboard, carpeting, linoleum, drywall, shingles, and of course those infuriating plastic clamshell packages that are nearly impossible to open otherwise. If you don't already have a utility knife, you probably need one, so keep reading. We'll outline what you should know when shopping for one and offer up three models in the running for the best utility knife, according to homeowners and do-it-yourselfers just like you.

The blade is the most important aspect of a utility knife. It will be attached to the handle in one of three ways: fixed, retractable, or breakaway.

1. Fixed utility knives are the most basic.

The blade is “fixed” in position; you cannot slide it in or out of the handle, or adjust it to a different angle. That means the blade is always exposed, increasing the chance of accidental injury if you forget to recap it after use. However, because the blade is firmly attached, without the potential weakness of a spring or other retraction mechanism, fixed utility knives tend to be very sturdy and strong, with less likelihood of blade “wiggle” during use. This makes a fixed blade especially suited to tough jobs like cutting through linoleum or wooden shingles, as well as tasks requiring precise cutting, such as trimming away excess materials during carpentry or other DIY projects.

Folding utility knives are a subgroup of fixed-blade knives. Like fixed utility knives, the blade cannot be retracted or extended to adjust its position, but the entire blade neatly folds back into the knife handle. This means you can safely carry the knife in your pocket or tool belt without worry that you'll accidentally slice yourself on its exposed blade.

2. Retractable utility knives incorporate a spring or other sliding mechanism to bring the blade back into the handle when not in use.

This is the most popular type of utility knife for the average do-it-yourselfer or homeowner, as it's easy to carry or stash in the toolbox without the bother of a safety cap. Typically, these knives have a button or slider that you manipulate with your thumb to expose or retract the blade. The most basic versions slide all the way out and then lock into place, but others let you decide how much blade to expose before locking for increased versatility. While this extra safety measure is the biggest advantages of retractable utility blades (as long as you remember to retract them), the downside is there's more of a chance of side-to-side wiggle or play during use, due to the spring mechanism.

3. Breakaway blades remove the need to purchase or store extra blades.

Unlike the traditional single blades used in other utility knives, breakaway blades have segments. As the outer blade wears down, you simply snap it off with pliers, exposing a fresh blade underneath. The typical breakaway utility knife has eight to 15 segments in its blade. But because of the danger of a segment accidentally snapping off during vigorous use, these knives are only suited to light-to-medium tasks, such as opening boxes, trimming excess caulk or dried paint, or slicing through insulation or other reasonably soft materials.

To use a utility knife safely and effectively, it must have a handle that suits your tasks and working style.

  • Metal or fiberglass handles are sturdiest. Cheapies from the dollar store are likely to have flimsy plastic handles, which are really only suited to easy tasks like opening boxes.
  • Handle shape makes a difference. Knives with fixed blades generally have fairly straight handles, while retractable knives often have ergonomically shaped handles for comfort and easier control during long work sessions. There should also be some degree of bulge or indentation between the exposed blade and the handle to keep your fingers from sliding forward onto the blade. That doesn't mean you can take safety for granted; it's always wise to further protect your hands by wearing work gloves while wielding your knife.
  • A blade compartment adds convenience. With a storage compartment in the handle for extra blades, when a blade change is due, just pop the compartment to access a new one.
  • A quick-change mechanism makes changing blades easy. Old-school utility knives require you to unscrew and separate the two halves of the handle to change the blade, and many fixed knives still require this. Today you'll find utility knives, especially retractable designs, with a quick-change button that makes swapping out an old blade for a new as easy as pushing the release button, pulling out the worn blade, and sliding the new blade into place. Always check that your new blade is firmly locked into position before continuing your task, however; you'll hear a click and feel it catch when it's secure.
  • Specialty blades? No problem! Some utility knife handles accommodate, along with the basic razorblade, specialty blades for cutting carpet or linoleum and scoring grooves in plastic or wood, as well as hooked blades and even rounded-tip blades for pressing through thick materials with less danger of slippage and injury.

Several other design features elevate a really good utility knife above the rest of the pack.

  • A hanging hole lets you carry the knife on a cord or hang it up for storage.
  • String cutters are small slits on the top of the knife that make quick work of cutting twine or string.
  • A safety shield provides a little more protection between your hand and the blade.
  • A belt clip to keep your utility knife right at hand.
  • Additional functions-such as screwdriver, wire stripper, bottle opener, and twine-cutter attachments-make a utility knife a tool-of-all-trades.

You'll find a wide selection of utility knives at your local home improvement center, but these three get great reviews from happy owners.

BEST EVERYDAY UTILITY KNIFE: Gerber EAB Lite Pocket Knife ($7.97)

For a simple fixed-blade utility knife that you can carry in your pocket and use for small cutting tasks (opening a cardboard box or blister pack, cutting string, crafting, scraping excess paint), it's hard to beat the Gerber EAB Lite Pocket Knife, which wins 4.6 out of five stars on Amazon. Made of sturdy stainless steel, it's nonetheless super-thin, measures just 2.8 inches long when closed, and weighs only 2.5 ounces. It's foldable, with a deep groove for finger safety, and it easily screws apart for blade changes. It even has an attached money clip.

Available on Amazon.

BEST RETRACTABLE-BLADE UTILITY KNIFE: WORKPRO Quick-Open Retractable Utility Knife ($7.99)

If “safety first!” is your motto, the WORKPRO Retractable is your go-to utility knife. Its ergonomic handle has nonslip insets for a comfortable, secure hold, and the blade adjusts to three positions so you can determine just how much exposed blade you need. Once the blade goes dull, you'll be back to work in no time with the knife's quick-change function that makes swapping blades a breeze. Satisfied customers rave about the solid construction, easy-grip rubber on the casing, and quick blade changes, earning the WORKPRO Quick-Open Retractable Utility Knife an average of 4.2 out of five stars on Amazon.

Available at Amazon.

BEST FOLDING UTILITY KNIFE: FC Folding Utility Knife ($13.99)

With heavy-duty carbon steel fixed blades that slice through just about anything, this is the perfect knife for everyday use-no wonder Amazon reviewers give it 4.7 out of five stars. It boasts an anti-slip grip to protect your fingers, a quick-change mechanism for fast and easy blade changes, and it folds at the press of a button when you're ready to store it. One happy owner praised the removable blade guard and push-button lock that keeps the blade securely in either the open or closed position.

Available at Amazon.