“If you're only going to buy one knife to carry on you when you are working in construction, I would recommend getting a very good box cutter.” - Jordan Smith
The words box cutter and utility knife are sometimes used interchangeably, but utility knives made for building professionals can do much more than slice through packing tape and cardboard.
Standard box cutters are inexpensive and useful in their own right. They’re great for DIYers but aren’t tough enough to handle constant use on a construction site, or to cut though heavier materials like drywall and shingles. A pocket knife can often do the job, but a quality utility knife will do it safer and last longer.
“Make sure that you have a good quality [utility] knife on you because you'll be using it no matter what trade you decide to go into.” - Jordan Smith
Professional builders should have the tools they need to do their specialty work as well as a lean toolkit of multipurpose hand tools that can work through a variety of jobs in a pinch. A heavy duty utility knife is the multipurpose knife in your toolbag. A good one can cut drywall, sheet plastic, linoleum, boxes (of course), roofing shingles, rope, wallpaper, and more. Keeping one on hand will save you time while you work and you’ll work much safer than you would with a pocket knife or box cutter.
If you purchase a box cutter with a strong body, the blades are endlessly replaceable and the tool will last you through many jobs. Those doing drywall or roofing work will need a utility knife on the toolbelt for making many (often hundreds) cuts a day, while those in carpentry can get away with having a utility knife for more occasional use—either way, it is an essential tool to have on hand.
A heavy duty utility knife needs to have the following features. If it’s missing even one, don’t buy it. It’s not worth compromising on safety or durability and if you buy a cheaper version such as plastic or with a snap-off blade, because you’ll end up spending more needing to replace it more frequently.
“I get the most expensive, best performing blades that I can find because I don't like keeping up with blades, and I don't like switching blades. I'd rather have one blade that lasts a long time, versus having something that I'm having to replace and save a few cents on.” - Jordan Smith
There are four main types of utility blade that differ in strength, precision, and price. The tougher materials you are cutting through on a regular basis, the stronger you want your blade to be. All four types are sharpened to a razor blade sharpness, but heated metal blades will keep that sharpness longer.
“The little details when getting a good professional quality tool makes a big difference.” - Jordan Smith
The two main types of utility knives to choose between are a retractable utility knife and a fixed blade utility knife. A fixed blade is the best box cutter for pros, but a retracting box cutter is fine for home DIY use.
Within the fixed-blade style of pro-level utility knives, there are folding or blade-cover knives. Choosing between the two is more about your own preference and how you like to work. A folding utility knife is good if you only use your knife occasionally. They are smaller and portable and because the blade is completely covered when the knife is folded, they are safe to keep in your pocket.
If you are using your utility knife all day, you’ll most likely want one with a one-handed open so that you aren’t opening and closing your knife over and over which can become very tedious over time. These come with a blade lock that snaps a blade cover on and off with the push of a button. Make sure it has a strong locking mechanism so that you are confident the blade is safely covered when not in use.
Optional additional utility knife features
The utility knife is only one of the essential tools that you’ll need on a construction site. Learn more about utility knives and other construction tools—and how to use them safely—in MT Copeland’s online Hand Tools class, taught by professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith.
Benchmade's Mini Griptilian delivers great design and durability in a package that is easy to carry everyday. It's light and small enough to fit in a small pants pocket, yet sturdy enough to take on nearly any cutting task. Benchmade's robust locking design gives Jordan confidence when loading the knife through a difficult cut. It is more expensive than other folding utility knives, but it will last for years.
Having a sturdy blade that won't accidentally retract when under load is important when making precision cuts with a utility knife. The Fiskars Pro Fixed Blade Utility Knife features a fixed blade that is secured with a swinging cover that snaps in place with a satisfying "click." This gives the blade more rigidity and eliminates any unintentional retractions. Two years in, Jordan’s knife shows the wear of cutting everything from Zip Tape to concrete backer board, but the swinging blade cover still works as well as day one.
Get Jordan’s complete class on choosing and using essential construction tools in MT Copeland’s Hand Tools online course.
MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills.
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