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The Best Utility Knife

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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Last Updated: December 13, 2016
After three months of testing, the Milwaukee Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade storage is our new pick. This replaces a now-discontinued pick, the Fastback II. We also have a new runner-up, the original Fastback Utility Knife.
Expand Most Recent Updates
December 6, 2016: Milwaukee Tools updated our top pick with storage for four extra blades (instead of two). We’ve tested the new model of the Fastback Flip with Blade Storage over the past three months to assure ourselves this version remains otherwise unchanged and will be our top pick. We now link to the new knife throughout this piece instead of the Fastback II, and are in the process of updating the testing notes below with our full thoughts. Our update will also have a new runner-up, the original Fastback Utility Knife, which is a similar design limited by no blade storage.
December 22, 2015: We’ve changed our recommendation for a safety knife to the Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife. We tested it and found that it offers nearly all of the same features as our previous pick, the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife, except that it’s consistently sold at half the price. The one thing that the Milwaukee has that the Irwin doesn’t is the gut hook, and we don’t feel that feature alone is worth the additional investment.
December 1, 2015: We’re changing our recommendation for a safety knife to the Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife. We tested it and found that it offers nearly all of the same features as our previous pick, the Milwaukee Self-Retracting Knife, except that it’s consistently sold at half the price. The one thing that the Milwaukee has that the Irwin doesn’t is the gut hook, and we don’t feel that feature alone is worth the additional investment. Our full thoughts, with more details on the Irwin, will be posted soon.
June 22, 2015: We’ve learned that in early 2016, Milwaukee will be releasing the Fastback III and phasing out our pick, the Fastback II. We got a chance to handle a prototype of the new version and we really like what we saw. The biggest improvement is that the blade storage is much larger without adding to the width of the tool. The Fastback III will be able to hold four additional blades, as opposed to the single blade that the Fastback II can hold. There are also a few small changes to the handle that increase the safety of the knife. According to Milwaukee, the cost will remain the same ($15). As soon as test samples are available, we’ll get one in our hands for further evaluation.
Our pick
Milwaukee Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade Storage
The Fastback can be quickly opened and closed with one hand, and it has a secure grip and a spot to store four extra blades.

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.

If the Fastback is not available, our next choice is the original Milwaukee 48-22-1901 Fastback. This knife shares many characteristics with our pick—it has the fast one-handed open/close, the comfortable and secure grip area, and the springy belt hook. Differences: the body is larger, there is no additional blade storage, and the blade does not lock into the 45-degree angle (it still locks in the open and closed positions). Giving up these features typically saves you $5 or $6, but we’d rather pay for our pick’s added convenience and capability.

Also great
Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife
The blade on this knife retracts automatically when you’re not holding it open. It’s safe and inexpensive but not practical for more serious jobs.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $5.

If you aren’t comfortable handling a utility knife and are only planning to use it for basic tasks like breaking down recycling, we recommend the Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife. 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 simple cutting. The Irwin has a solid feel to it and changing blades is relatively easy (but nowhere near as easy as with the Fastback knives). At around $6, the Irwin is roughly half the price of other quality safety knives.

Table of contents

Why you should trust me

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.

I’ve also been reviewing tools since 2007, writing articles appearing in This Old House, Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, and Tools of the Trade, among others.

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.

I also looked at any existing reviews of knives, focusing mostly on the roundups at Truckin Magazine and Cop Tool.

How we picked

utility knives

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.

How we tested

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.

Our pick

The Milwaukee Fastback III.

The Milwaukee Fastback III.

Our pick
Milwaukee Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade Storage
The Fastback can be quickly opened and closed with one hand, and it has a secure grip and a spot to store four extra blades.
After all of our research and testing, the Milwaukee 48-22-1903 Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade Storage stands at the front of the pack. The knife is designed so that it can be opened and closed very quickly with one hand, locking in both positions. The grip, particularly the large forefinger notch, ensures that the knife won’t slip out of your hands, and the tool has an easy blade change and a flexible belt hook. The Fastback also has a spot for stripping electrical wire and 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 has room to store four additional blades, which is more than most. Last, the blade can also lock in at 45 degrees from the handle, offering more comfort while making aggressive downward cuts, like a carpet or linoleum flooring. None of the other knives had such a complete set of features. Lyman is a “huge fan“ of the Fastback knives: “They’re not the cheapest utility blades out there, but they’re the best in my opinion.”

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 blade end of the Fastback locks in both the open and closed positions, so there is a lower chance that the blade will accidentally become exposed.

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 blade of the Fastback can lock in at 45 degrees to the handle. This is useful for downward, aggressive cutting, like carpet.

The blade of the Fastback can lock in at 45 degrees to the handle. This is useful for downward, aggressive cutting, like carpet.

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.

utility knives

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.

A storage area folds out of the handle and can hold up to four additional blades.

A storage area folds out of the handle and can hold up to four additional blades.

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.

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.

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.

The Fastback’s handle is far more ergonomic than competition like the Irwin FK150.

The Fastback’s handle is far more ergonomic than competition like the Irwin FK150.

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.

The primary difference between the two Fastbacks is blade storage.

The primary difference between the two Fastbacks is blade storage.

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.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

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.

A more basic version of the Fastback

The primary difference between the two Fastbacks is blade storage.

If the Fastback Flip Utility Knife with Blade Storage isn’t available, or if you want to save a few dollars, we recommend the original Milwaukee Fastback. It has the same features as our main pick; it just has a slightly longer handle and no blade storage. The positive side of this is that without the blade storage clip, the knife is one-eighth of an inch thinner. Just know that it’s a trip to the toolbox every time you dull a blade.

If you prefer a retractable blade

The blade of the Irwin is only exposed while the thumb slide is pressed forward.

The blade of the Irwin is only exposed while the thumb slide is pressed forward.

Also great
Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife
The blade on this knife retracts automatically when you’re not holding it open. It’s safe and inexpensive but not practical for more serious jobs.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $5.

For anyone who doesn’t like the idea of a razor knife and will only need this for light work like breaking down the recycling, the Irwin 2088600 Self Retracting Safety Knife is a good option. This retractable knife has a spring-loaded blade tensioned so that it always wants to retract back into the tool. To make a cut, you need to press the thumb slide to the open position and hold it there. As soon as you let go, the blade vanishes. It’s certainly a safe system, but it isn’t practical for any involved projects like cutting out the old caulking at the kitchen sink or trimming a rug pad.

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.

A look at the spring-loaded blade cartridge inside the Irwin Self-Retracting Knife.

A look at the spring-loaded blade cartridge inside the Irwin Self-Retracting Knife.

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 competition

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).

Others, like this Snap-On and the Stanley FatMax, were missing belt hooks. With the quality of knives available with belt hooks, there’s no reason to not have that option for storage.

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.

Top: Olympia Turbopro, Alltrade Squeeze Utility Knife; middle: Milwaukee Self-Retracting, Milwaukee Side Open Utility Knife; bottom: Olfa XH-1.

Top: Olympia Turbopro, Alltrade Squeeze Utility Knife; middle: Milwaukee Self-Retracting, Milwaukee Side Open Utility Knife; bottom: Olfa XH-1.

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.

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 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.)

Footnotes:

1. Many people, Lyman included, prefer to carry a traditional knife as a daily tool, with his preference being the Benchmade Mini-Griptillian (he reviews it here). As he told me, “I’m snooty on the daily carry front … somehow a utility knife isn’t refined enough for me.” But others, like myself, prefer utility knives for their disposable blades. They always have a nice edge, and I never have to think for even a second about blade maintenance. With my construction background, I also live a fairly aggressive DIY lifestyle, so traditional blades don’t last very long in my pocket. Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Marc Lyman, Editor of HomeFixated, Interview
  2. Jay A, Return of the Utility Knife… The Final Showdown, Cop Tool, August 2, 2011
  3. Dan Ward, Folding Utility Knife Test, Truckin, September 1, 2012
  4. ckilbourne, The Cutting Edge of Utility Knife Training, EHS Daily Advisor, August 21, 2008
  5. Clint DeBoer, Milwaukee Fastback II Folding Utility Knife, ProTool Reviews, July 18, 2013
  6. Clint DeBoer, Milwaukee Fastback Folding Utility Knife Review, ProTool Reviews, March 5, 2010
  7. Robert Robillard, Milwaukee 48-22-1901 Fastback, A Concord Carpenter
  8. Timothy Dahl, Milwaukee FastBack Utility Knife Review, Charles & Hudson
  9. Mark Lyman, Milwaukee Utility Knife Reviews, Jab Saw and New Sawzall Blade, HomeFixated, September 20, 2010
  10. Mark Lyman, A Cut Above – Milwaukee Fastback II Utility Knife Review, HomeFixated, March 21, 2013
  11. Jeff Williams, Milwaukee Fastback II Flip Utility Knife Review, Tool Box Buzz

Originally published: December 13, 2016

The alarm code is 1-2-3-4-5.