The best utility knife for general around-the-house use is the Milwaukee 48-22-1903 Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade Storage. After putting in 40 hours researching and hands-on testing 23 different knives over three years, we found that this knife has it all.
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The advantages to this knife over the competitors come down to ergonomics and safety. In use, the contoured handle and deep finger notch make for a grip that is both comfortable and secure. The Fastback can be easily (and quickly) opened and closed with one hand, and it locks in both the open and closed positions or at a 45-degree angle for ease of making strong, downward cuts, like on a carpet. Changing blades is very easy, a nice, springy belt hook helps keep it portable, and, despite a thin profile, you can store four additional blades onboard the Fastback Flip (which, by the way, is known colloquially as the Fastback III).
This knife replaces our previous pick, the Milwaukee Fastback II, which has been discontinued with this new release. While priced the same, the older version has a longer body and can only hold two extra blades. It’s still a nice knife, but as soon as current supplies run out, it’s gone, and the new version is an improvement.
I have an extensive knowledge of utility knives garnered from a 10-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 15 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 25 different knives, most discarded due to poor features, bad ergonomics, or subpar durability.
For further research, I had conversations 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.
A utility knife is a fantastic tool to have in the home tool box or junk drawer. It cuts with a removable razor blade, so the edge is both incredibly sharp and very disposable, making it ideal for all of the grunt-work cutting that’s too difficult for scissors and too dulling and damaging for a nice pocket knife. It’s good for jobs like breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling, cutting carpeting, or slicing the painted seam on a stuck window. Other tasks can include sizing a small patch for a linoleum floor, trimming a rug pad, or even opening a toy trapped in a blister-pack nightmare. Building paper, sheet plastic, drywall, tarps, rope, and even roofing shingles can all be cut with utility knives.
With razor blades involved, we emphasized safety features in our search. Safety Daily Advisor, a newsletter of Business and Legal Reports, says up to one-third of all manual tool injuries come from utility knives like box cutters—and I’ve nicked my own knuckles and fingers enough times over the years to have full confidence in that statistic.
To get the full range of use out of the knife and as much safety and portability as possible, we chose a folding style over a retractable. They’re smaller to store, tend to come with convenient belt hooks, and because of the way the folded blade nests in the body, there is a lower chance of them accidentally deploying in your pocket (or getting accidentally stowed with a bit of blade still poking out). When closed, folding knives are typically two to four inches shorter than retractables, making them a better fit for a pants pocket. But when unfolded, the two are about the same length, so there is no loss of grip area with the folded versions.
Other experts prefer folding knives as well. For one thing, the slide mechanism on a retractable can get gummed up, a problem folding knives avoid. 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.” 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.
When looking specifically at folding knives, we recommend paying special attention to the grip, the blade changing process, the folding mechanism, and blade storage.
No matter what you’re doing, whether opening a bag of ice melt to cutting an asphalt roof shingle, you want to make sure that you have a good grip on any 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.
There is also a wide range of folding and locking mechanisms. The best knives are ones that can be folded and unfolded with one hand. Chances are you’re already holding on to what you want to cut before you even pick up the knife, so one-handed operation makes work more efficient.
As for blade changing, the best knives are those that are simple and keep your hands away from the underside of the blade. In general, the fewer moving parts, the better. We tested some with a nice and simple push-button blade release, but others had a much more complicated (and frustrating) two-part system.
Storage for additional blades is also a plus. It’s a feature crucial to a pro contractor, but the benefits are there for a homeowner as well. It doesn’t take a lot to dull the edge of a razor, so constant trips to the toolbox for new ones can get to be a hassle. It’s possible to go through three or four blades on an aggressive job, and the ability to have a few extras on hand saves time and energy. It’s also nice to have a fresh blade for a specific tasks that might come up. If the blade at the tip of the knife is getting dulled and gunked up, a fresh one will be better to scrape a small paint blob off a window. There are also enough nice knives at an affordable price with the additional storage that it makes sense to get that feature as long as it doesn’t add considerable bulk to the body.
In the three years of working on this guide, we’ve tested 23 different utility knives. They were all either highly regarded in individual reviews or representative of a certain style of blade change or folding mechanism. Some were chosen based on my own positive experiences with them and some were retractable models. For comparison purposes, we tested out a wide variety of retractable models in addition to the folding ones.
In selecting knives to test, we generally 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 the classic Stanley 10-099, aren’t going to cost much, but they offer nothing more than the most rudimentary functionality and safety features.
Once the candidates were in hand, we put identical blades in all of them and proceeded to break down and slice up a pile of about 50 cardboard boxes of varying sizes. We also used the tools to cut out some old caulking and dice up a sheet of drywall.
I also carried each one around for a couple days, using 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.
Because the blades are disposable, sharpness wasn’t a criteria, so we were looking at overall ergonomics, ease of blade change, leverage on tougher cuts, and ease of folding mechanism. For the drywall cuts, we really sunk the blade in the material and tried to work it around to see if the blade would disengage from the knife—a constant annoyance during longer projects. Like I said, I’ve been using utility knives on a daily basis for about 15 years, so I have a solid sense of what makes one good.
This is a new pick for 2016 and replaces the Milwaukee Fastback II, which was discontinued after the release of this newer version. The two knives cost the same, but the older version is larger, can only hold two extra blades, and cannot lock into the 45-degree position.
The high point of the Fastback is the opening mechanism. Unlike other folding utility knives, the Fastback can be opened and closed with a flick of the wrist once a safety release button is pressed with the thumb. Lyman referred to the Fastback series of knives as “the fastest blade you’ll deploy short of using a switchblade.” But it’s not so much the speed that’s important here as 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, which has the same mechanism, Clint DeBoer of Pro Tool Reviews wrote, “the knife opens easily with just one hand. And I do mean easily.”
The blade end of the Fastback locks in both the open and closed positions, so there is less of a chance that the blade will accidentally become exposed. Lyman said, “[The Fastback knives are] super easy to deploy and stow, but when stowed [aren’t] likely to accidentally deploy. It’s just ridiculously user-friendly.” Unique to this third-generation Fastback is that the blade can also lock in at a 45-degree angle to the handle. This makes it much easier to hold during tough downward cuts like carpet or linoleum.
The handle is another high point of the tool. The Fastback 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, it’s nearly impossible to pull the knife out of the hand.
But the finger notch is only one portion of the handle’s overall superiority. 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 and press against during cuts, particularly tougher ones. None of the other knives have grips that were even close to the comfort of the hand-hugging Fastback.
To change blades, the Fastback 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 brush against the edge can do some significant damage. DeBoer of Pro Tool Reviews, writing about the original Fastback, said that the blade change “beats the lever mechanisms on most Gerber, Bessey, and Irwin Quick-Change knives.”
The Fastback 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 or struggle to get it free. This, combined with the pronounced bend at the leading edge of the hook, means that it’s almost effortless to clip it onto a belt or the rim of a pocket.
The Fastback also offers a storage area for four additional blades, which is unique to this newest version. Along the inside edge of the blade pocket is a plastic clip that swings out to reveal a storage spot. The blades inside are held in place by a magnet. These are the only parts of the tool that aren’t metal. The original Fastback has no blade storage and the Fastback II can only hold two additional blades, so this is a significant improvement over the older versions.
Like the older Fastbacks, this one has a small cutaway under the blade holder that is designed to strip electrical wire. To use it, hold a wire in the notch with your thumb and spin it. Milwaukee is a pro brand geared toward plumbers, HVAC guys, and electricians, so this feature is useful 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.
A more useful feature for the casual user is the “gut hook,” which lets you cut string and other thin objects without opening the blade. This is a deep cutaway at the back of the handle that exposes a small portion of the blade when the knife is in the closed position (don’t worry, it’s nearly impossible to cut yourself on it). This lets you cut a length of twine or open a bag of pet kibble while keeping the blade safely tucked into the tool.
Basically, the Fastback is the only knife that combines the fast, one-handed operation of a retractable knife with the safety of the flip style. Added to that are a host of other features—the massive finger hook, the overall ergonomics, the gut hook, the blade storage, and the easy blade change—that make this the tool to beat.
The Fastback series of knives have garnered a number of very positive reviews from credible sources. Reviewing the original Fastback, which is really the same tool minus 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.” Lyman has not yet reviewed this newest version.
Jay Amstutz, writing at Cop Tool, compared the original Fastback with seven popular retractable knives 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.”
All of these comments can be directly applied to the newest version of the Fastback, which also ups the ante with more blade storage.
One slight gripe that we have with the Fastback is that the belt clip is not reversible. Looking down at the top of the knife, the clip is to the right of the body, connected up at the hinge point. Someone using this as an EDC knife may already have strong opinions on how the knife should be oriented while clipped on a belt, and the Fastback may not fit into those parameters. The knife is large for a pocket, so it’s likely to be clipped on a belt, making this a potential issue for some.
We liked the Irwin for its combination of comfort and low cost. At under $10, it’s among the least expensive of the self-retracting knives, yet it’s the only one in this affordable price range that really takes ergonomics into account. The others, such as the Stanley Interlock Safety Utility Knife and the Sheffield Tools 12233 Self Retracting Utility Knife, have simple tubular bodies. The Irwin, on the other hand, has deep texturing on the grip area, and the front of the knife is slightly curved downward, putting the blade at a much better angle for cutting.
It’s also easy to change blades on the Irwin. To open the tool, simply twist the small knob on the side to loosen the screw that holds the halves together. Many knives, particularly those in the lower price bracket, require a screwdriver to access the storage area.
While loading a blade, 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 going to use the knife only to cut up a cardboard box, you can set it so that only half an inch is showing, rather than three-quarters of an inch.
We tested the Irwin against the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife, which usually retails for twice the price. The Milwaukee is a nice knife, but the only thing it has that the Irwin doesn’t is a gut hook. That lone feature isn’t enough to justify the added cost.
The Irwin FK Series (FK100, FK150, and FK250) shares some similarities with the Milwaukee Fastbacks, but they’re far less refined. They have an awkward thumb open that usually needs two hands and they’re nowhere near as comfortable to hold. They’re priced in the same range as the Milwaukees, so we see no reason to choose them over the Fastbacks.
Previously, we had the Olympia Tools 33-187 Turbopro Autoload Knife as a recommendation for a knife with more blade storage, but now that the newest Fastback can hold four extra blades, we no longer feel it’s necessary. Still, the Olympia is a nice retractable knife with the traditional thumb slide, and it fits well in the hands. It also has an auto-loading feature which automatically inserts a new blade into an empty cartridge. The downside is that it’s simply not as comfortable or “grippy” as the Fastback, which we feel is a better option.
In addition to the Turbopro, we also tested out two folding knives from Olympia. The 33-200 Turbofold and the 33-057 Turbofold are nearly identical except for the fact that the 33-200 has an aluminum shell and the 33-057 has a stainless steel construction. These knives have the easiest blade change mechanism of all the tested models but two hands are required to fold and unfold the blade. The handles also don’t have the nice contoured grip of the Fastbacks.
The Gerber Superknife SK Edge looks and acts like a traditional pocket knife, but the handle is on the small side with very little grab to it. While there’s also not a whole lot that detracts from this knife, there’s nothing too exciting about it either. Because of its low-key presentation and light-duty feel, it could be a nice option for an EDC knife.1
The Gerber EAB Lite Pocket Knife is so small that when it’s folded up that it can sit on a credit card with room to spare. But with this small size comes poor ergonomics. With any medium-duty or aggressive cutting, the metal edges dig into the hands. Also, changing the blade out requires undoing a flathead screw and cannot be done quickly or easily.
DeWalt’s Folding Retractable Knife 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. There’s no question that it’s a solidly built tool, but when compared with 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 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 was the most interesting design that we looked at. The hinge 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 it’s 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 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. And 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 toward the underside of the blade while the top piece is being pressed downward. If it slips…
The Wiss WKF1 has a nice 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 is nearly identical to the Bessey, so it’s also 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 we 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 “fit and finish” of the Kobalt 559059 is not good 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.
For safety knives, we also looked at the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife. As with other Milwaukee knives, the overall quality is apparent, but when compared with the Irwin, the cost is simply too high. The Irwin offers everything the Milwaukee does minus the gut hook and is consistently listed at half the price.
The Wiss WKAR1 has an unusual self-retraction mechanism. Once the blade is engaged in a cut, some kind of trigger is tripped so that as soon as there is no longer any tension on the blade, it snaps back into the body of the tool. Theoretically, this happens as soon as the cut is completed, but there are a couple Amazon reviews saying that you need to apply constant pressure for the entire cut or the blade retracts before you’re finished. So if you pause to adjust your hand mid-cut, the blade retracts. It also has no blade storage.
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, much like the company’s EAB, uses a screw to change the blade.
Other knives, like this Seber, 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.
So really, all of the other folding knives we came across in our research either were missing a feature or just simply didn’t match up to the Fastbacks for speed.
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 we knew from the start that a folding knife was more appropriate for general use, we 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 is the closest to the basic construction-level utility knife. But a few features 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 Alltrade Squeeze Utility Knife is another auto-loading knife. Despite its large size and massive ten-blade storage compartment, it’s 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 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 4 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 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.
There are also a number of two-blade retractable models available, like the Bostitch Twin Blade and the CH Hanson FlipKnife, 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.
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 product page of a Craftsman knife puts 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, in particular, 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.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: December 13, 2016
I need a cup of coffee.