The Best Utility Knife
If you’re looking for a utility knife for general around-the-house use, we recommend the Milwaukee Fastback II ($15). After 26 hours of research and hands-on testing of 21 different knives, we found that, simply put, this knife has it all. It can be easily (and quickly) opened and closed with one hand. It has a comfortable grip with all the right contours and finger notches. Changing blades is easy and it has a nice, springy belt hook. For increased safety, the knife locks in both the open and closed position. And finally, despite its thin profile, it still has room to store one additional blade.
If you’re heading down the path of an aggressive DIY lifestyle and feel that the ability to store multiple blades on a knife is essential, we recommend that you go with the Olympia Turbopro ($16). Even with its extremely compact body (thinner than the Fastback II), it still has the capability to house five additional blades. It also has an auto-load feature to make blade changes freakishly easy. It’s a nice durable knife and the butt end has a small carabiner clip so it can be hooked on a belt loop.
For those of you who aren’t comfortable handling a utility knife and will only use it for really basic tasks, we recommend the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife ($12). This knife has a spring-loaded blade that withdraws into the handle as soon as the thumb slide is released. While this feature makes it a very safe knife to use, it also limits the ways you can hold it, making it difficult for anything more than very basic cutting.
Why a utility knife?
The more DIY your lifestyle, the more useful a utility knife can be. Building paper, sheet plastic, drywall, tarps, rope, and even roofing shingles can all be cut with utility knives.
Why you should trust me
I have an extensive knowledge of utility knives garnered from a ten-year career in construction. Most of that time was spent as a carpenter, foreman, and job supervisor at Thoughtforms, a high-end custom builder in the Boston area where I worked on houses like this one. For the past 12 years I’ve carried a utility knife daily, preferring it over traditional bladed knives because of the disposable blades (no sharpening needed). In that time, I’ve probably gone through about 20 different knives, most of which were discarded due to poor features, bad ergonomics, or sub-par durability.
I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools for seven years, with articles appearing in This Old House, Popular Mechanics, and Tools of the Trade, as well as at my own site, Toolsnob.com.
How we picked
There are a lot of utility knives in the world and only a few credible group tests. This piece in Truckin Magazine and Cop Tool’s Utility Knife Showdown were the most comprehensive and thorough. So to narrow the field down to a single knife, I read what I could and relied on my own experience as well as a number of conversations that I had with Marc Lyman, editor of HomeFixated, a website devoted to tools and home improvement. In addition to being a very credible and honest tool expert and reviewer, Lyman is also a self-confessed knife snob.
Because utility knives are equipped with razor blades, it makes sense to pay a little extra for a nice one with a full compliment of safety features. Safety Daily Advisor, a newsletter of Business and Legal Reports, reported that up to one-third of all manual tool injuries are attributed to utility knives like box cutters. Over the years, I’ve nicked my knuckles and fingers enough times to have full confidence in that statistic.
So basically, you want a knife that is both safe and easy to use. For that, we recommend a tool that has a very sturdy grip (because you don’t want this thing coming out of your hands); locks both in and out of the tool (so it is less likely to accidentally deploy); can be opened and closed with one hand (for speed and convenience); changes blades quickly and easily (keeping your hands away from the edge of the blade); and has a functional belt clip (for fast storage).
A pro contractor is also going to need a spot for multiple blades, though that’s less of an issue for around-the-house use. But still, room for a single extra blade is certainly an added bonus.
To see what knives are out there, I checked all of the major retailers and tool manufacturers, finally settling on 15 finalists. These were knives that were either highly regarded in individual reviews or were representative of a certain style of blade change or folding mechanism. Others were chosen based on my own positive experiences with them. I also looked at five retractable models, each with unique features, to see what they had to offer.
In selecting models, I stayed away from anything less than $10 or so. My experience is that those cheaper tools are simply marred by poor manufacturing. As Lyman said, “given how frequently a utility knife gets used, I think getting a quality knife is a no-brainer. $20 or less probably isn’t going to break the tool budget either.” The cheap ones, like this $3.99 Stanley aren’t going to cost much, but they offer nothing more than the most rudimentary functionality and safety features.
How we tested
Once I had all the candidates in hand, I put identical blades in all of them and proceeded to break down and slice up about 50 cardboard boxes. I also used the tools to cut out some old caulking and dice up a sheet of drywall.
Because the blades are disposable, sharpness wasn’t a criteria, so I was looking at overall ergonomics, ease of blade change, leverage on tougher cuts, and ease of folding mechanism. For the drywall cuts, I really sunk the blade in the material and tried to work it around to check if the blade would disengage from the knife.
I also carried each one around for a couple days and used them for all of the small knife tasks that I encounter in a 48-hour period. I generally use a knife somewhere between eight and 10 times each day for everything from sharpening pencils to trimming an unraveling thread on a shirt to opening a box of cat litter.
The knife is designed so that it can be opened and closed very quickly with one hand and lock in either position. The grip, particularly the large forefinger notch, ensures that the knife won’t slip out of your hands, and the tool has a nice, easy blade change and a flexible belt hook. The Fastback II also has an added gut hook, so you can cut string or open a bag of bird seed without ever unfolding the knife and exposing the blade. The handle also has room to store an additional blade. None of the other knives had such a complete set of features.
Unlike other folding utility knives, this one can be opened and closed with a flick of the wrist once a safety release button is pressed with the thumb. As Lyman put it, the Fastback is “the fastest blade you’ll deploy short of using a switchblade.” But it’s not so much the speed that’s important here as it is the one-handed ease of use. It’s just much simpler than working the thumb slide on a retractable knife or trying to work a normal folding blade open with your thumb or both hands.
In his review of the Fastback II, Clint DeBoer of Pro Tool Reviews wrote, “the knife opens easily with just one hand. And I do mean easily.”
The handle is another high point of the tool. The Fastback II has a very deep finger groove that allows for an extremely secure grip. This is useful when you have to bear down on the knife, like if you’re cutting a thick cardboard box or scoring a piece of sheetrock to patch a hole in the wall. Just by lightly pinching the tool with your thumb and forefinger with your forefinger in the groove, you make it nearly impossible to pull the knife out of the hand.
But the finger notch is only one portion of the handle’s overall goodness. The back of the grip area contours exactly to the hand and the top edge of the tool is flat, giving the thumb a solid face to sit against during cuts, particularly tougher ones. None of the other knives had grips that were even close to the comfort of the hand-hugging Fastback II.
To change blades, the Fastback II has a simple spring-loaded, push-button release. When it is pressed, the blade pulls out, and when a new blade is put in, the button releases and locks it in place. This procedure can be easily done with your hands coming at the tool from above the blade, increasing the safety level. Remember, these are razor blades, so even a light brush against the edge can do some significant damage. Pro Tool Reviews’ DeBoer said that the Fastback’s blade change, “beats the lever mechanisms on most Gerber, Bessey, and Irwin Quick-Change knives.”
The Fastback II has a wire belt hook as opposed to a solid metal clip. This holds tightly, but at the same time, the wire has a lot of spring which leaves room for some give so you don’t have to force it down over a belt. This, combined with the pronounced bend at the leading edge of the hook, means that it’s almost effortless to clip onto a belt or the rim of a pocket.
The Fastback II also offers a storage area for one additional blade (two, if you really pack them in there). Along the inside edge of the blade pocket is a plastic clip that swings out to reveal a storage spot. The blade inside is held in place by a magnet. It’s the only part of the tool that isn’t metal. It’s also the only thing that separates this tool from the original Fastback, which has no onboard storage.
There are also a few additional features on the Fastback II. Along the underside of the blade holder is a small cut-away designed for stripping wires. To use it, just hold a wire in the notch with your thumb and spin it. The exposed portion of the blade will cut the insulation off the wire. Milwaukee is a pro brand geared toward plumbers, HVAC guys, and electricians, so this feature is cool for them, but it’s sort of a “whatever” feature for the homeowner unless you’re planning on working on your electrical system (in which case it’s a nice added bonus).
Basically, the Fastback II is the only knife that combines the fast, one-handed operation of the retractable knives with the safety of the flip style. Added to that is a host of other features—the massive finger hook, the overall ergonomics, the gut hook, blade storage, and the easy blade change—that make this the tool to beat.
If you don’t need blade storage
Who else likes them?
The Fastback and Fastback II have garnered a number of very positive reviews from credible sources. Reviewing the original Fastback (remember, they’re the same tool other than the blade storage), Rob Robillard of A Concord Carpenter wrote, “If you carry a folding utility knife, I highly recommend the Milwaukee Fastback flip knife. Once you’ve tried this knife you’ll know what I mean by ‘it feels like quality.’”
Timothy Dahl of Charles & Hudson, also reviewing the original model, “absolutely love[d] this knife. The look and feel is great and the design is unique.”
Lyman’s HomeFixated review of the original Fastback said that it, “is our new favorite accessory. In fact, I use this thing constantly around the house and the shop. It’s utility knife meets pocket knife meets butterfly knife.” He added, “It’s solid, heavy and extremely ergonomic. It’s also very quick to open.” Three years later, he also reviewed the Fastback II and said that by adding the blade storage, “Milwaukee took something great, and made it greater.”
Jay Amstutz, writing at Cop Tool, compared the Fastback to seven popular retractable knives1 and concluded that the best knife “and the blade we will continue to use most often is the Milwaukee Fastback. The clip allows it to easily slide into the pocket; its slim profile is barely noticeable when wearing and we really like the flip action for quickly opening and closing of the blade.”
Jeff Williams, writing about the Fastback II at Tool Box Buzz, said, “I think this knife is perfect now that it has blade storage. Seriously, it’s that good.” He also noticed the ergonomics: “The curve of the back fits perfectly in the palm and the index finger cutout gives great control.” When discussing what can be improved about the knife, he said, “nothing.”
While the Fastback II is easily opened with one hand, it really takes two hands to open the FK150. It technically can be done with one hand, but it’s difficult and takes a good amount of finger strength. The hinge is very tight, which makes it hard to gain any leverage on the folding portion. The knife would definitely benefit from some sort of thumb stud to make this process easier. But other than that, it’s hard to complain.
The FK150 is almost an inch shorter than the Fastback II, but if you have smaller hands, don’t think that’s going to make it the better tool. My wife tested out both knives and far preferred the larger Fastback because of the way it fit into the curves of her hand.
The FK150 has an additional safety feature that keeps the blade from being removed unless the folding portion is oriented 45 degrees to the handle. Otherwise the blade is completely locked in the tool and it won’t come out, even accidentally.
Irwin also sells an FK250 ($16) which is the step up from the FK150. This knife has both blade storage and a small flip-out screwdriver at the butt end. The blade storage compartment also has a little place to hold an additional bit. Even with all of this going on, the tool maintains a small footprint. If you think the little screwdriver is something that you would use, for a few extra dollars, it’s an option.
For pros who need mucho blade storage
Once I decided that the main pick would be a folding knife, I stopped digging into retractables, but still, with all of my construction experience, I’ve never seen anything quite like this one. Despite its comfortably compact size (the entire thing is almost smaller than the folded-up Fastback), the Turbopro has the ability to store five additional blades.
Rounding out the Turbopro are a comfortable handle and a small carabiner clip at the rear of the tool.
An extremely safe knife, just not as useful as the others
When the blade is initially loaded into the tool, you can choose between two slots to dictate how much of the blade is exposed when the thumb slide is pushed forward. If you’re only going to use the knife to break down the recycling, you can set it so that only half an inch is showing, rather than three quarters of an inch.
To open the body of the tool and get at the blade storage, the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife has a little screw that you can easily operate by hand. Many knives, like the Great Neck, Stanley, and Sheffield require a screwdriver for this task. The knife also has a wire-stripper, like the Fastbacks, and even as basic as the tool is, Milwaukee has put some thought into the ergonomics of the handle.
The Irwin FK100 ($12) is very similar to the FK150 except that it doesn’t have any on-board blade storage. It’s much like the relationship between the Fastback and Fastback II: In all other regards the knives are identical. The FK100 is a nice tool, but doesn’t match up to the Fastback, the same way the FK150 doesn’t match the Fastback II.
In addition to the Turbopro, I also tested out two folding knives from Olympia. The 33-200 Turbofold ($11) and the 33-057 Turbofold ($14) are nearly identical except for the fact that the 33-200 has an aluminum shell and the 33-057 has a stainless steel construction. Of the two, I preferred the 33-057 for its heavier weight and nicer overall look.
The good is that the Turbofolds had the easiest blade change mechanism of all the knives. The not-so-good is that they lock in the open and closed position, so two hands are required to fold and unfold the blade. The handles are also not as grabby as the Fastbacks’ and the Irwins’.
The Gerber Superknife SK Edge ($10) looks and acts like a traditional pocket knife. I liked that it took one hand to both open and close, but the handle is on the small side with very little grab to it. There’s nothing too exciting about this knife, but there’s also not a whole lot that detracts from it either. Because of its low-key presentation and light-duty feel, it could be a nice option for an EDC knife.3
The Gerber E. A. B. Lite Pocket Knife ($13) is so small that when it’s folded up it can sit on a credit card with plenty of room to spare. But with this small size come poor ergonomics. With any medium-duty or aggressive cutting, the metal edges started to dig into my hands. Also, the blade changes out with a flathead screw, so it’s not something that can be done quickly or easily. The screw is extremely tiny and could be lost on a rug if it accidentally gets dropped; it took me ten minutes to find after my cat knocked it off the counter.
DeWalt’s Folding Retractable Knife ($20) is an interesting knife in that it is both folding and retractable. To operate it you need to first flip the body open, then a traditional thumb slide exposes the blade. When it’s unfolded, it’s as big as the Fastback with a nice, large gripping area, which gave me good control over the cuts that I made. There’s no question that it’s a solidly built tool, but when compared to the speed of the Fastback’s blade deployment, the extra step of the thumb slide seems unnecessary. Also the comfort of the handle is nowhere near that of the Fastback.
Greenlee’s Heavy-Duty Folding Utility Knife ($18) is a large knife that can store five additional blades. The storage area makes for a sizable grip that is comfortable in the hands. Unfortunately there is no belt hook and this knife is too big for any standard pocket, so storage is an issue. Because of the very stiff hinge and locking mechanism, the Greenlee has a two-handed open and close.
The REVO Folding Utility Knife ($10) was the most interesting design that we looked at. The hinge on this one is a large circular cutout about an inch in diameter. When using the tool, you can hook your finger through the hole and really lock in your grip. It’s effective, but unfortunately the odd handle makes it difficult to hold the tool in any other way. There are plenty of instances, like when cutting out the caulking on a tub surround, when you’re going to be constantly shifting the tool around in your hands and the central bulge on this one makes that difficult.
The Bessey BKWH ($17) is an attractive knife. The handle has wood accents and the tool presents itself as being very well-made. It has the lockback style of fold, which requires two hands to close the knife, so it’s not as efficient as some of the others. But on top of that, it also has the fussiest blade change. To lock in a new blade you have to press against a piece, basically pushing your thumb up towards the underside of the blade while the top piece is being pressed downwards. If it slips…
The Wiss WKF1 ($11) has a fairly grippy handle and is not really a bad knife in any way. It just doesn’t have any features that stand out against the rest.
The Sheffield Lock-Back ($9) is very much like the Bessey, enough so that I suspect that they both came from the same manufacturer (Sheffield also sells this knife, which looks to be identical to the Bessey that we tested). So like the Bessey, the Sheffield was hindered by the blade change and two-handed close.
The knife comparison in Truckin Magazine put a Sheffield knife, very similar to this one, in the top spot. Based on the trouble I had with the blade change, they must not have felt that was an important criteria. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to have your thumb so close to the blade and actually pressing towards it. Even with all of my experience with utility knives (or maybe because of it), I could hardly bring myself to perform this operation.
The Kobalt ($9) is a good example of what I was getting at earlier about inexpensive knives. It works okay, but none of the features have any smoothness to them. It’s a lockback knife, so it takes two hands to close, but in addition, the “fit and finish” of the tool isn’t that great when compared with most of the others. The hinge feels grainy, the fold is stiff, and the blade needs an extra wiggle to lock in. It’s all unfortunate because this was actually one of the more comfortable knives to hold.
There are quite a few knives that we didn’t test. We discounted models with the two-part blade change found on the Bessey and Sheffield. This Craftsman is a good example of that (it’s also a good example of how many tool companies co-brand the same tool–it looks identical to the Sheffield and Bessey).
Gerber’s Transit ($14), much like their E. A. B., uses a screw to change the blade.
Other knives, like this Seber ($29), were priced out of range. There are enough great options under $20 that unless you’re a knife aficionado there’s really no point in spending more than that.
So really, all of the other knives we came across in our research either were missing a feature or just simply didn’t match up to the Fastback II for speed.
Other styles (non-folding)
We tested out a few other styles of knives to see what they offered. They were all retractables and we chose them based on the representative nature of their design. Because I knew from the start that a folding knife was more appropriate for general use, I didn’t delve into retractables too deeply, but based on my own experience (I’ve used many, many retractables over the years), these ones are all worth knowing about.
Of the knives, the Milwaukee Side Open Utility Knife ($13) is the closest to the basic construction-level utility knife. But there are a few features that set it apart from other retractables. The thumb slide is on the side of the knife rather than the top, so it’s unlikely that you’re going to accidentally move it while making a cut. Also, when the blade is retracted, the thumb slide is recessed into the side of the knife, making it less likely to deploy while in a pocket. The Milwaukee Side Open has plenty of room for extra blades in a fold-out compartment. This is a nice knife, but the Fastback offers a better grip, a faster blade, and a belt hook.
Other than the Olympia Turbopro, another, much larger auto-loading knife is the Alltrade Squeeze Utility Knife ($12). Despite its large size and massive ten-blade storage compartment, it is very comfortable to hold. A squeeze of the handle exposes the blade and a small toggle button retracts it. Once a dull blade is removed out the front, a fresh blade appears the next time the handle is squeezed.
Because of the number of stored blades and the comfortable rubber padding on the grip area, this is going to be a winner for someone who literally has a knife in their hands all day long.
The Olfa XH-1 ($17) uses a segmented snap blade. These are long blades that can be extended almost their full length if need be (in this case, just over four inches), giving them the ability to cut thicker items like foam insulation. When the edge dulls, take a pair of pliers and break off the end segment to expose a new edge. This eliminates the need for a blade storage area.
The main drawback is that an additional tool is needed to break off the blade segments. Also, to extend a blade you have to deal with a little wheel lock that isn’t exactly fast. For these reasons, it’s not the first choice for around-the-house use, but still, if you feel that you would want to be able to extend a longer blade, the Olfa XH-1 is definitely the most comfortable snap knife that I’ve held. Milwaukee recently released a line as well that also looks to place some emphasis on ergonomics.
What makes a good utility knife
To get the full range of use out of the knife and as much safety and portability as possible, we recommend going with the folding style over the retractable. They’re smaller to store, tend to come with belt hooks, and because of the way the folded blade nests in the body, there is a lower chance of their accidentally deploying in your pocket. Retractable knives are nice, but their feature set is more geared toward the professional tradesman.
Folding knives are more compact than retractables. The traditional retractable knife is about seven inches long, so they’re a little much for the pants pocket and don’t come with belt clips. But because a folding knife is hinged at the center, when they’re in storage-mode, they’re only about three to five inches long; when unfolded, they offer a similar handle length to the retractables.
The folding knives also generally come with belt hooks, which are a nice feature to have if you’re cutting bags of mulch out in the garden or if you’re using the knife up on a ladder to cut out and re-do some caulking around a window. Even breaking down cardboard boxes it can be helpful. It’s much easier to grab a tool off your belt than it is to have to dig into your pocket.
Retractable knives are longer and more tubular in shape, like a submarine. The blade moves in and out of the tool via a thumb slide, usually situated along the top edge just above the nose. Retractable knives tend to offer a bigger handle, which is better for all-day use, as well as more significant blade storage (five extra blades is typical). Both of these characteristics make them ideal for professionals but are unnecessary for an around-the-house tool.
Because the slide needs to be pressed in order to move the blade, there is a level of safety involved, but it’s usually not a particularly strong locking mechanism. On too many occasions, I’ve had a blade work itself open while in my pocket, probably through some pattern of bending down or climbing a ladder. As Lyman put it, “I’ve never been a fan of carrying something in my pocket that could easily accidentally deploy.”
Also, the slide mechanism itself can cause problems. According to Lyman, “I’ve never used a retractable with a mechanism that doesn’t eventually get really crud-filled and clunky. I definitely favor folding.” My experience echoes this. It seems that no matter how high the quality, over time the blade slide becomes gunked up,
Some retractable knives, like this Snap-on, have a safety switch that needs to be flipped before putting the knife in your pocket, but why bother dealing with a two-step process when the double-locking folding style guarantees that there won’t be any in-pocket mishaps just by closing the knife?
Also, as I mentioned, Jay Amstutz at Cop Tool did an eight-knife showdown and chose the one true folding knife (Fastback) as the winner over a group of leading retractables.
No matter what you’re doing, from opening a bag of ice melt to cutting an asphalt roof shingle, you want to make sure that you have a good grip on this dangerous tool. Some knives do this with a textured area and others with curved handles or finger ridges at the grip. The best ones are the knives with some kind of finger groove because it’s an actual physical impediment to slippage and has less to do with hand strength. This isn’t to say that you want a light grip, but with your fingers even slightly “hooked” into the tool, it’s far less likely that they’ll slide off.
Not surprisingly, there is also some variety in the blade change mechanisms from tool to tool. The best ones are those that are simple and keep your hands away from the underside of the blade.
Many knives use a push-button design. A small spring-loaded button or lever on the knife is pressed to push a locking piece out of the way so a new blade can slide in. When the blade is installed, the button is released and the locking mechanism engages with the blade, holding it in place. Not all buttons are created equal though. I’ve had problems with them gumming up on cheaper knives, but I’ve yet to see any failure from the ones on knives built by respected manufacturers.
Other knives have a two-part system, or a variation on it, where a top piece is pressure-fit over a side piece that holds the blade in place. The tested Bessey and Sheffield have this. It requires you to press up on the side piece while you press down on the top piece. This action puts your thumb very close to the blade edge, actually pressing in its direction.
With so many moving parts, there is more opportunity for a piece to get gummed up over time. I tested two knives with this system (Bessey and Sheffield) because I was curious if the mechanism had been improved upon over the past few years. It hasn’t.
On-board blade storage is a must in a construction or industrial setting where blades are as disposable as tissues, but for around-the-house usage, it’s less of an issue. Lyman explained, “my garage/shop really isn’t that far away. It is nice to have a blade or two on board, but it’s not super vital.” Keep in mind that because of the way the blades fit in a utility knife, you actually get two uses out of each one. Once the blade is worn down, it can be flipped and reinstalled and you can use the other side.
The large retractable knives can usually hold up to five extra blades, but most of the flip style don’t have any additional storage, and if they do, it’s usually for only one or two blades, like the Milwaukee Fastback II or the Irwin. But the trade-off here is a slightly fatter handle. Because multiple blade storage isn’t a crucial feature for around-the-house use, you can go for a thinner knife, one that will fit a little better in the pocket. It’s still a good idea to have a healthy supply of blades in the toolbox. They won’t break the bank either; a 100-blade kit, which is basically a lifetime supply, can be had for less than $10.
There are also a number of two-blade models available, like the Bostitch Twin Blade and the CH Hanson FlipKnife ($13), but these are overkill for general around-the-house use. What sets them apart is the ability to extend two different blades out of the same knife (though not at the same time) in case you need to use a hooked blade and a straight blade for the same project. As one would imagine, these tools are larger than normal to accommodate the added mechanisms and are geared towards professionals.
Know the laws
Finally, it’s of paramount importance that you understand your state and local knife laws before purchasing a knife, especially one that you intend to carry in your pocket or hooked to your belt. Some cities and states have extremely strict laws concerning the ownership and open carry of knives. As the Amazon product page of one Snap-on utility knife put it, “Sales of knives is prohibited or restricted in the following states: AL, FL, ID, KS, MA, MD, ME, MS, NC, NY, OH, OK, RI, TX, VI, WA, WI, WV.”
New York and New York City have very tight knife regulations, to the point that Home Depot will not ship a Fastback to the state. It’s a little unclear what the specifics of the law are regarding folding knives, but keep in mind that many knife enthusiasts feel that carrying a knife in NYC is something to be very cautious of and probably not worth it.
The Milwaukee Fastback II is the ideal utility knife. Its ergonomic handle provides a high level of control which translates into safety. The blade change is easy, and so is the one-handed open and close. The blade storage is nice too. But if blade storage isn’t something that you’re concerned about, the original Fastback is a little cheaper.
Originally published: March 3, 2014