What is an exacto/X-acto knife?

An X-Acto knife is cheap, small and simple pen-shaped craft knife with a replaceable thin razor sharp blade. It is also called an Exacto knife, craft knife, art knife, utility knife, precision knife or hobby knife. It is available in a variety of sizes and styles, there are also many blade shapes available.

X-acto is the trademark owned by Sanford L.P. and used under Elmer´s brand. Other notable brands that make high-quality exacto-type craft knives are Olfa and Excel. There are also countless cheap Chinese copies of the X-acto craft knife, they are usually of inferior quality and the blades are badly sharpened. By choosing the knife from a known brand you get the well-functioning tool with sharp blades.

X-acto knife components

X-Acto/Exacto knives consist of four basic components: Handle, collar, collet, and blade

Handle

The original X-acto knife has a simple pen shaped aluminum barrel handle.  Handle types are divided into a light, medium, heavy-duty, and woodcarving types.

No.1 and no.2. are a bare basic shape, Gripster, Designer series, X2000 and X3000 offer more ergonomics due to grippy material and ergonomic shaping. The X3000 has also a spare blade compartment in the handle

No.1. and 2 roll easily on a table whereas more advanced handles have anti-roll designs.

Other brands offer similar handle types.

X-acto/exacto blades – a sharp necessity

X-acto blades are made from carbon steel and some varieties from stainless steel.  Blade shapes are named by the numbering system. All the major brands making exacto knives use the same numbering/naming convention to define their blades.  Blades are typically interchangeable between different brands. For example, when you have X-acto No.1 knife the Excel brand blades will work with your knife and vice versa.

It is wise to bulk up with the blades, they are available in 100pcs bulk back. Nothing is more annoying as a craft knife with a dull blade.

Tip: There are lots of low-quality Chinese blades available for a low price but they are not worth it. For best quality blades look for Olfa, Excel and X-acto brands in that order.

WHAT X-ACTO HANDLES WORK WITH EACH X-ACTO BLADE?

X-ACTO NO1 precision knife

X-acto light-duty, type A handle

X-acto light duty, type A handles are:  No.1, X2000, X3000 Gripster, Cut-All, No.3, Designer series, Retract-A-Blade.
The blades that are compatible with these handles are:

For the sharpest and most durable blades, look for Japanese Olfa brand KB4-series blades. American Excel brand blades are also of excellent quality and widely regarded as a great alternative. 
X-acto NO2 medium weight aluminum knife

X-acto medium-duty, type B handle

The only type B handle is No.2 Medium weight classic aluminum handle
Compatible blades for the medium-duty no.2 X-acto handle are:

Xacto No6 heavy duty aluminum handle knifeX-acto heavy-duty, type C handles

Heavy duty type C handles are No.5 HEAVY DUTY PLASTIC HANDLE and No.6 HEAVY DUTY ALUMINUM HANDLE
Heavy-duty handles are compatible with all the medium duty blades as well as router blades and saw blades.

  • All blades from the medium duty, type B category
  • Router blade 3/16” small round
  • Router blade 9/16” large round
  • Router blade v-carving
  • Router blade ½” square carving
  • 235 Medium Saw blade
  • 239 Extra Fine saw blade

X-acto woodcarving handle, Type D

The X-acto woodcarving handle is compatible with all medium and heavy-duty blades as well as woodcarving blades.

Best X-Acto knife alternatives

Since the American X-acto have moved their manufacturing to China, their manufacturing tolerances and quality control have gone down and makers and crafters using the X-acto knives have started to look around for better alternatives. I have collected the best options for quality knives according to my personal experience:

 

Olfa AK-4 knife with bladesOlfa AK-4 – the best exacto/art knife there is!

 

The Japanese Olfa Ak-4 is the best exacto type knife, period. The quality of the collet tightening mechanism, the comfortable grip, and awesome, scary sharp blades make this knife the champion of all craft knives! Olfa makes also other types of knives that are worth to check.

Excel K1 Aluminum knifeExcel – Made in the USA!

The only American exacto/craft-knife manufacturer. The K1 Aluminum Knife is a great option as a simple aluminum barrel exacto copy. Excel makes great blades that are highly praised over the original X-acto for their sharp and durable edges.

NT-Cutter D-1000P precision knifeNt-Cutter

Another innovative Japanese quality craft knife maker although its knives and blades are not compatible with other exacto type knives. I have used their NT D-1000P knife extensively for intarsia/inlay work and can´t praise it enough for its precision and innovative features. Stay tuned for my upcoming review of the knife.

What are the uses of X-acto/exacto/craft/hobby knife?

X-acto/exacto knives are used to cut, pare, carve, trim, and scrape different materials in various crafts and score marks when laying out woodworking joints. It is also used as a precision paint/color eraser/remover.

X-Acto knife and its copies are widely used in many professions and hobbies, 3D-printers, Architects, crafters, woodworkers, luthiers, modelmakers, bookbinders and artists to count few. Whenever you require a fine and precise cutting tool to cut or mark intricate or detailed shapes, the x-acto knife shines.

More mundane uses for the x-acto/exacto knife are sharpening pencils, cleaning and trimming fingernails, scraping the crud out of everything, and countless of other uses that the creative mind can think of.

“A twist, a twirl, and the dull blade´s out, the new, sharp blade´s in. X-acto´s always sharp, always ready with the perfect knife-and-blade combination for every purpose” – a quote from the 1945 X-acto ad.

Alternative blade shapes multiply the usability of the knife and the inexpensive spare blades make sure you have always sharp blade with you.

Papercrafts and scrapbooking

Xacto knife is useful for accurate papercrafts such as Scherenschnitte, Jianchi, Kirigami, Wycinanki, Papel Picado, Washi-crafts, silhouette-art and scrapbooking. Its thin and razor-sharp blade is well-suited to cut small, intricate details and cut-outs out of paper. Remember always to use self-healing cutting mat for best results and prolonged edge life.

Picture framing

Picture framers use the x-acto knife together with box-cutters for cutting the framing mats for picture frames.

Model making/building

Since the X-acto knife has been available it has been used in the construction of miniature models, RC-planes, dioramas, and dollhouses. Its myriad blade options make it a versatile tool for working with small, scale-model parts.

From the old, 1945 X-Acto marketing material: “X-acto gets those hard to reach places, cuts clean, sharp curves and corners. Prevents splitting, shredding, and other common faults.”

The model kit builder needs the sharp exacto knife when removing the pieces from the sprues (The plastic frame that holds the individual pieces) The knife can also be used to smooth away the nubs and other imperfections.

Radio-controlled airplane builders use balsa-wood, various foams sheets, and covering films of which they build their planes. The hobby knife with a stack of spare blades is found on every model enthusiast workbench or toolbox.

Leathercraft

Cutting tools are the most essential tools in the leathercraft. Getting an excellent, clean edge on your leather makes a huge impact on the appearance of the finished item. There are many leather cutting methods available like scissors or shears, rotary cutter, leather, and exacto knives to name few.

Exacto knives are the most versatile leather cutting tool. They are great for straight cuts when used with a ruler and after a bit of practice, you could cut precise curves too! With fresh, sharp blade you can get fuzzy-free edges easily. Remember to use cutting mat though!

Woodworking

Woodworkers around the globe have found the X-acto and other craft knives to be excellent as a cheap marking knife. The precise and accurate incisions are paramount when laying out close-fitting joints. When doing the finest quality furniture the pencil line is too thick whereas the slit made by x-acto knife or similar is perfect. The carefully cut incision helps to start the saw kerf precisely. If there is an incision, the saw blade wants to naturally follow it and not wander off, it also helps to place the chisel edge right on the mark when chopping mortises and dovetails.

My own experience is that with the marking knife you could get a precision of 1/256”/0,1mm when laying out whereas with the sharp pencil the accuracy is at best only about 1/64”/0,5mm

Easily replaceable blade ensures that the x-acto/exacto knife is always ready for hair-splitting accuracy.

Marquetry, inlay, and intarsia

“Marquetry is the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures” -Wikipedia

In marquetry and inlay crafts you need to cut thin wood veneers carefully and precisely. Some veneers are brittle and hard and cutting them requires sharpest possible blade and lots of patience. The Exacto/X-acto knife and its copies are widely used in the craft of marqueterie. Small pieces of veneer are easily marked and cut out with a sharp craft knife.

Veneer cutting tips with X-acto knife

  • When cutting hardwood veneer with any craft knife, score the line first lightly and go over it multiple times. For hardest woods such as ebony, you may go over the incision as much as 10 times before the cut is through.
  • You can support the veneer against disintegration/tear out by taping the surface with transparent tape

Advertising, publishing and sign making

Graphic designer and window decal/sticker industry find a lot of uses for the sharp detail knife such as X-acto. Before the computerized desktop publishing, sharp X-acto knife was defacto tool when masking and cutting photographs and other graphic elements for advertising and magazines layout.

Nowadays graphic designers use x-acto and similar knives when doing package and point-of-sale display mock-ups, and many other designs.

3D printing

3D-printing is the newest craze among the creative makers. 3D-printers use PLA, ABS and other resins as a printing medium. The nature of technology causes slight imperfections on the surfaces of the printed objects. There could also be a necessary support structure, especially in complex objects, that must be removed afterward. X-acto/exacto knives are a popular choice among the 3d-printers as a surface finishing and support structure removal tool due to their various blade types and razor sharp edges.

Stencil making for printing

When making intricate stencils for printing craftspeople rely on the use of the exacto/x-acto knives as a cutting tool. Stencils are usually made from thin adhesive-backed vinyl, mylar, or transparent films which are easily and accurately cut with a sharp x-acto knifes. X-Acto makes also a dedicated stencil knife with specially shaped blades.

PCB board editing

X-Acto/exacto knives work well for cutting traces, scraping ground pours, and guiding hair-like wires into their proper place.

Luthiery

As a luthier, I have come to trust the humble exacto-knife for many jobs when building guitars. Guitars are made with sub-millimeter accuracy and the thin and sharp bladed craft knife is a great aid when aiming for perfection. Marking the cuts precisely before actually cutting them is important and ensures the accuracy of final joint or piece.

There are countless of small trimming task in guitar making where you need to cut a tiny sliver of from some part or other. Take a look for example rosette tiles, decorative purflings, and bindings, when fitting them in place you need to trim here and there.

One task where the x-acto knife excels is lifting masking tape precisely off on the surfaces without damaging the parts

Art

For an artist, the X-acto/exacto knife and other craft/hobby knives are important tools when making art. The knife can be used to scrape or erase color from the paper or canvas and thus create finer details which are otherwise hard or impossible to make. It works similarly well in all type of drawings, pastels, oil and acrylic paintings and so on.

What materials you can cut with an X-acto knife?

The versatile X-acto knife can be used to cut, carve, slice, score, and trim papers, cardboards, foams, rubber, vinyl, plastics, films, clay, woods, veneers and plywood, ivory and other bones, fabric, leather, felt, soap, thin and soft metals like aluminum, PCB boards, and many more materials.

History

The X-Acto company was founded in 1917 in New York by polish immigrant Sundel Doniger. At first, the company fabricated medical syringes and scalpels with interchangeable blades which didn’t sell well until, In the 1930s, the in-house designer asked for a sharp craft knife to retouch print advertisements. At first, the hobby knife resembled the scalpels the company produced but little by little the classic design emerged and the iconic X-Acto No.1 Knife was born.

During the years the no.1. design has remained like the 1930 original. X-Acto have developed other models along with the original. Crafters and other users demanded ergonomic and fancier options so the company listened and served. First came the Gripster knife, with softer colorful grip and anti-roll collar, later the X2000 with ergonomically shaped handle emerged and won the good design award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design. Newest models are the Retract-A-Blade No.1 with fully retractable blade for safety, and the Z-series knife with zirconium-nitride-ceramic coated blades.

Related questions:

How to dispose of exacto blades?

An old can or jar with a cover is a good place to store old exacto blades. Make a tiny slot in the lid like in a piggy bank to drop the used blades through. When full of blades, recycle it to the nearest metal recycling facility.

What is the difference between #1 and #2 handle?

No. 2 handle diameter is larger than No.1 and the blades that you can use with it are thicker. Thinner blade types won´t fasten well in a No.2 collet.

How to replace the dull exacto blade?

  • Start by loosening the knurled collar
  • Remove the dull blade carefully and dispose of it carefully in a storage bin
  • Insert the sharp, new blade into the metal collet and tighten the collar to secure the blade

When should I replace the blade on my exacto knife?

It is hard to give exact recommendations of the blade replacing frequency. It depends largely what materials you have been cutting. Cardboard and foam boards are unforgiving and abrasive materials that dull the blade fast. Whenever you feel that the blade starts to tear out or the cut is taking too many passes then it is time to replace the blade.

I have made a habit to switch the blade always before critical cuts to guarantee the best results. Remember, it takes less time to replace the blade than to start again the ruined piece.

Exacto knife blade falling out – what should I do?

  • Is the blade of the right type? The light duty blades are not compatible with medium and heavy-duty handles and you won’t be able to tighten the blade.
  • According to forums and Amazon reviews, there have been some quality issues with the x-acto collars. The loose manufacturing tolerances could be the main cause. If you have a knife with a collar/collet which doesn’t grip the blade well you could try to thicken the blade with one layer of tape. Another tip is to cover the threads of the collet with one layer of Teflon tape.