Back to top

Exacto Knives: What it is, Types, Uses & 22 Tips And Tricks!

Exacto Knives

Whether you’re in art school or you just love you’re DIY projects, then the Exacto knife is one of the simplest but efficient tools you will need. The Exacto knife is a utility tool you can use for so many activities. In this article, I researched to find out about all there is to know about this wonderful versatile tool and I’m ready to share with you all I found.

What is an Exacto Knife?

An Exacto knife is simply a very small sharp blade mounted on a pen-like handle, used for general craft projects such as paper art, leatherwork, model making (architecture). It may also be called or marketed as a X-acto knife, precision knife, hobby knife, or craft knife.

The original design for the exacto knife was invented in the 1930s to be used as a surgeons scalpel. But after it’s rejection by the medical fraternity due to the fact that it could not be cleaned, the inventor, Sundel Donigera commercialized the tool as a craft tool. The exact knife has since then seen loads of widespread use till this day.

The term X-acto is a brand name for a variety of cutting tools and office products owned by Elmer’s Products, Inc.

The exacto knife has a very simple mechanism. That is a knurled collar loosens and tightens a collet with a slot which holds one replaceable blade at a time.

You will notice that these types of knives are designed quite similar no matter the brand and so the blades are typically interchangeable between different brands. Strategic move? Your guess is as good as mine!

Types of Exacto Knife Handles

The Exacto knife handles have been simplified and categorized into 3 general types of handles to help users quickly and easily identify which ones to use for specific activities. I have however seen packages with more than the 3 highlighted in this post. These 3 represents the basic sets of handles.

Generally, there’s the number one (1), two (2), and number five (5) exacto knife handles. The number 1 & 2 are the same and could be used for the same types of blades for cutting lighter and some heavier materials while the number 5 handle is the strongest and can support a razor saw attachment.

These handles may come properly labeled. Otherwise, you will have to label them as soon as you receive them to avoid mixing them up and using the wrong handle for the wrong blades. And you wouldn’t want this because it will negatively affect the kind of outcome you will have with your cuts.

Types of Exacto Knife Blades and Thier Uses

Just as there are different handles, there are several types of blades that go with the handles. A lot of the exacto blades are almost the same but have been made slightly bigger for different sized handles.

Each specific blade you will mount on a particular handle will have it’s own special use. Here’s a list of the various types of exacto blades and their specific uses.

1. Number #2 Exacto Blade

The number 2 exacto blade can be used with a number 1 handle. It’s your basic blade choice for all of your heavy-weight cutting activities while giving you a bit of precision. It has a very fine point which makes it an extremely versatile cutting tool.

I find the number 2 exacto blade if not the same, very similar to the number 11 blade. It’s the type of blade most people will like think of when referring to exacto blades. The Number 2 exacto Blade will give you the best edges and corners on all heavy-weight materials you will work on.

2. Number #10 Exacto Blade

The number 10 exacto blade is a general-purpose blade similar to the round-edged blade you will have on a Swiss pocket knife. The number 10 exacto blade is also used with the number 1 handle.

The shape of the number 10 exacto blade is a very common drop point blade that makes it perfect for various kinds of cutting activities such as carving, slicing, whittling, etc.

2. Number #11 Exacto Blade

The classic number 11 exacto blades are ideal to be used with the number 1 handle. The number 11 blade is the typical sharp pointy exacto blade you will always find commonly used when there’s the need to make fine elaborate precision cuts or detailed cuts.

3. Number #16 Exacto Blade

You will mount the number 16 exacto blade on the number 1 handle. The number 16 has a small blade length unique design that makes it very flexible to change direction when cutting without causing any damage to your material. It’s the blade you will use if you want to make delicate cuts on lightweight materials.

This blade is ideal for scoring. On fairly light materials, you can easily maneuver curves and cut cleanly.

On thicker materials, the number 16 exacto blade is your ideal blade for tracing cuts such as curve cuts after which you follow through by using the classic number 11 to cut through.

4. Number #17 Exacto Blade

The number 17 exacto blade is a lightweight chiseling knife blades. This blade has a round section that gives it an additional support. You will use the number 17 exacto blade with the number 1 handle.

5. Number #18 Exacto Blade

The Number 18 exacto Blade is a heavyweight blade that you would mount on a number 2 or 5 handle. This type of blade generally looks like a small chisel can actually be used to chip or parts of wood.

In leather it can be used to make tiny little skives on leather. These types of blades are really great for chiseling and perfect for making small cuts on light materials like the balsa wood.

6. Number #22 Exacto Blade

The number 22 exacto blade is just like the number 10 but is mounted on the number 2 or 5 handle. However, it performs the same functions as the number 10 exacto blade. It’s slightly bigger bigger than the number 10 blade.

7. Number #24 Exacto Blade

The number 24 exacto blade is what is commonly called a deburring blade. This blade is super sharp and has an ultra fine point which helps to clear tough corners and all sorts of edges. You will also notice that this blade has a tapered edge which is also great for working those corners and edges.

The characteristics of the number 24 exacto blade earns it the name the deburring blade and you can set up this blade on your number 2 or 5 handle and use it to simply remove burs from the sharp edges of materials.

This also makes it the perfect tool for cutting strips, gaskets cutting many different kinds of materials for your work.

10 Creative Uses of an Exacto Knife

  1. Stenciling
  2. For Creating Highlights in Color Pencil Shading
  3. Perfect for Scoring Boards
  4. Cutting Patterns for Models
  5. Paper Crafts 
  6. Applique Work in Leatherwork
  7. Incisions on Leather
  8. Nail Art
  9. ASMR
  10. Cake decorations

1. Stenciling

The Exacto knife plays a very important role in printing with specific reference to stencil Printing. Stenciling is one of the basic printing techniques of cutting out a design or shape from a suitable material using an exacto knife and then forcing an ink through the hollow part of the cutout design.

The exacto knife does a fantastic job at cutting stencils for printing than any other cutting tool would. It makes the edges or shapes or designs crisp, sharp, and very accurate. The exacto knives makes cutting out intricate designs when stenciling particularly easy.

Mostly, stenciling printing projects will be done by young learners in schools so using the exacto knives must be used under the careful supervision of teachers or parents.

2. For Creating Highlights in Color Pencil Shading

Some may say this might be a high-level skill to master. The idea of using an exacto knife in drawing and color pencil works may be hard to figure out.

What it basically involves is using the exacto knife to create sharp highlights and contrasts by using the blade to create delicate dents on the paper before coloring.

Or applying your color pencils and then using the sharp pointed tip of the exacto knife to bring out awesome highlights on certain portions of the color pencil shading.

Resource Video: How to Use the Exacto Knife On Color Pencil Works

3. Perfect for Scoring Boards

The exacto knife is also good for scoring boards. Scoring is a cutting technique where only a portion or percentage of a board is cut to make folding it easily.

So for example, if someone is required do a partial score on a board, that board is to be cut only halfway through, while for full score, the board is cut all the way through.

Whether its a foam board, a heavy cardboard, plastic or any other material, you will find the exacto knife to be very suitable for scoring.

Related Video: How Scoring is Done

4. Cutting Patterns for Models

When making models like architectural models, the exacto knife plays a valuable roll in the overall work.

You will use your exacto knife to make all forms of cuts. It’s a creative tool to use in the sense that making models requires a lot of tiny details and the exacto knife is able to make such details come into reality.

So whether you have tiny plastic hobby models ready to be placed in your model houses and you find you need to give it a quick reshaping, resizing or remove sharp burrs from it to make it perfect for your work, the exacto knife is your tool!

5. Paper Crafts

This is a fairly common thing you will mostly find the exacto knife being used for. The exacto knife is one of the most important tools for paper crafting. It’s almost like the main tool you would use for the activity of cutting intricate and delicate patterns for your paper craft projects.

6. Making Applique Work in Leatherwork

Applique is one of the oldest techniques in leatherwork. It involves simply cutting a design or shape from a piece of colored leather material and pasting it on a larger colored piece of leather material. This technique to a large extent is made exceptionally possible and accurately when you the exacto knife is used.

7. Incisions

Using the exacto knife to make incisions on leather is one of my personal favorites. This is where you do something similar to scoring, bit this time the purpose is not to fold the material but instead you peel to bring out a design. Here’s an example of an incision work I did a couple of years ago.

incision leather etching leather
Leather Incision Art Using the Exacto Knife

8. Nail Art

Today, the level of creativity expressed in the beauty space is truly awesome. The exacto knife is particular a tool used a lot in various aspects but it’s usage in nail art caught my attention. The exacto knife is used for color blocking acrylic, cutting and shaping wet beads, nail extensions, and so much more.

9. ASMR

I have seen a lot of ASMR sessions but was quite fascinated by the role the exacto knife played in the space to bring people a lot of stimulation and sensation.

The Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a calming, pleasurable feeling that often goes with a tingling sensation. The tingle is said to start from a person’s head and spread to other parts of the body in response to a special stimulant.

This stimulation may particularly include special sounds, whispers, paper tearing, or cutting, stabbing, scratching or chopping a material like a styrofoam with an exacto knife to incites a lot of sensation for people into ASMR.

10. Cake art

Yes! there is an application of the exacto knife for cake art. The exacto knife is particularly useful for cutting out beautiful designs out fondants. It more useful when the fondant to be cut is left for at least 10 minutes before the design cuts are made and the exacto knife is a very great tool for this.

22 Helpful Tips For Using an Exacto Knife

  1. Always make sure your exacto blades are in it’s compression case: the one that has a magnetic holder for the blades. Otherwise buy a case with a magnetic blade holder. This will really help you easily transport your exacto knife set.
  2. When you take out your exacto knife to use, check if the blade is pushed all the way down into the collet and that the collar is tightened.
  3. Always replace the plastic cap of the exacto knife when not in use. Also when in use, place the plastic cap on the table so you don’t lose it.
  4. Hold the knife a half-inch or more above where the blade is. Never hold the exacto knife like you would hold a pencil or pen. If you must hold it close to the blade, make sure you’re holding it on the rough part with the hand you write with.
  5. Make sure the knife is at most at a 45 degrees angle. Never hold the knife vertically.
  6. Always ensure your exacto blade are tightened before using them. They tend to loosen up quite often so always check.
  7. Place your other hand and fingers a very good distance from the line or shape you’re cutting.
  8. All cuts with an exacto knife should be made with light pressure. It’s normal to make 2 to 5 cuts to cut through materials.
  9. Cut slowly and gently.
  10. Never leave an exacto knife on the side of a work table as it can slice your hand or roll off the table and stab you foot.
  11. Always make sure your exacto blades are sharp before use. Generally, you’re likely to cut yourself with a blade that’s dull rather than sharp.
  12. DON’T use an exacto Knife when you’re tired or sleep-deprived to avoid slicing off your fingertips.
  13. Also exacto knives should always be used by minors under their parent’s or teacher’s supervision.
  14. Practice using your exacto knives and get used to it before applying it to your main works.
  15. When making straight cuts, always make sure to use a metal ruler not plastic or wooden.
  16. For beginners, if possible, get a ruler with a cork, foam, or any anti-sliding backing to prevent your ruler from sliding all over.
  17. Also, make sure where you’re sitting isn’t resulting in a shadow cast on your cutting lines.
  18. Always use a clean self-healing cutting mat for your exacto knife cuttings because the smallest bump on your mat can throw off you knife and ruin your cut or possibly hurt you. And NEVER cut directly on a tabletop or a workbench.
  19. Ensure you always have extra blades available to you as exacto knives dull up quite fast especially if you cut materials like leather.
  20. Carefully dispose off dulled blades by wrapping it in a masking tape.
  21. DON’T leave the wrapped blades to be disposed around your work table or anywhere someone could pick it up. The blade could get exposed from the masking tape and stab the person.
  22. Before finally putting the blades into a bin, you could also fix or put them in tin container or some kind of a solid container before disposing the blades finally in a bin. Never think disposing the blade directly into a bin is a great idea.

Related Questions

What Can an Exacto Knife Cut?

The exacto knife allows you more control over what your cutting more than scissors or most other alternatives cutting tools and it’s super sharp to cut various types of materials. So what can an exacto knife cut?

There are various materials the exacto knife can cut and here are some few examples;

  • Paper
  • Leather
  • Foam Block
  • Wood (Like Balsa wood)
  • Fabric
  • Thin Metal
  • Plastic
  • Foam Board
  • Cardboard
  • Strawboard
  • Foam

How Much is An Exacto Knife?

The price of an exacto knife ranges and will depend on several factors such as buying an exacto knife kit as against individual knives, comes with extra blades or multiple handles, brand. Based on this you will find that most exacto knives may have prices from as low as 2$ all the way up to about $60 bucks.

Can You Sharpen An Exacto Blade?

Yes! you can sharpen an exacto knife by honing each side of the exacto knife over a light grit sandpaper 10 to 15 times. This can bring the blade of the exacto knife to it’s super sharpness like it was when you first purchased it.

While the exacto knives are produced to have replaceable blades, it’s an absolute thrill to know you can make use of all the dulled blades you would have otherwise thrown away.

What can I use if I don’t have an exacto knife?

In the absence of an exact knife, you can use a pair of scissors, box knives, or utility knives to cut materials. While in many cases, you may not be able to make the kind of precision cuts and have the control the exacto knife offers, you will still be able to make nice decent cuts with your alternatives to the exacto knife.

Macwilliam K. Appianing

Hi! I’m Macwilliam, the owner and founder of Favored Leather. I’m a huge Leatherwork enthusiast and I’ve been that for almost 13 years now. I'm excited to share my experiences and all the new stuff I learn each day!

Recent Posts