X is for X-ACTO knife

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X is for X-ACTO knife 

You have no idea how excited I was when I remembered about the X-ACTO knife. Any time you write one of the alphabetized lists, some letters are a real pain in the ass. X, Q, J... basically any letter that gets 8 or more points in Scrabble will be a struggle to work with as a prompt.

What can I say about the X-ACTO knife that could engage you as a reader? First of all, it's not a knife... it's better described as a knife system (1).

A knife has a blade (the sharp and/or pointy part), a tang (the dull, sticking-out (2) metal part that connects the blade to the handle), and a handle (the part you hold on to). The tang might run the entire length of the handle - a "full-metal" or "full-length" tang - or it might run only a short distance into the handle. At the lower end of the knife market, the longer and stronger the tang, the better the knife. Really crappy knives will hide their flimsy half-tangs by embedding them in the handle. The best knives all have full tangs.

So why is the X-ACTO knife actually a knife system and not a true knife? Because it has a handle that accepts removable, interchangeable blades (3). The blades are super-sharp, dangerously so. Anybody who says he or she has never sliced open a fingertip working with an X-ACTO knife has never used an X-ACTO knife all that much. To change a blade, you unscrew the knurl at the working end of the handle. This releases some internal cams that unpinch the base of the blade. Pop out the old, pop in the new, retighten and you're good to go.

The pointy blade is use for cutting paper and thin woodstock. The curved blade is used for cutting plastics, leather and thicker woodstock. I'm not sure what the other blades are for. They're probably just traps for the unwary, bloodthirsty little bits of vampiric steel eager to bathe in the blood of foolish woodworkers who experiment too much.

Why does a woodworker need to cut leather? Some of the small boxes and children's toys I've made need to open and close or otherwise flex, but the piece is so small that there's no room to attach a regular hinge. A standard trick is to shape several small pieces of leather so they bridge the gap, glue them in place, then trim off the excess. During trimming, you can cut the leather into fancy shapes, or do cutwork to remove center bits. The X-ACTO knife is great for this.

Confession: for 97% of the cutting I do, I use a utility knife (see footnote 3), not an X-ACTO knife. The downside to X-ACTO blades is how thin they are. It doesn't take much lateral force to make them snap and shatter. Doing very fine wisp trimming is fine; easing off the corner of a rough cut is not.

In contrast, I've used a utility knife to score concreteboard. Since the utility knife blade can be swapped out when it gets dull, it stays sharp. The X-ACTO knife is great, but it is definitely a specialty-use item.

1. You could also call this a cutting system, a cutting device, a cutting tool, etc. Is the technical distinction between a knife and a "knife system" all that important? Probably not. However, it does give me the opportunity to write extensive footnotes. I love footnotes. They make me look so smart.

2. I could have said "protuberant" instead of "sticking-out", but I'll reserve such polysyllabisms for when I return to writing about writing.

3. The humble and ubiquitous utility knife? Totally NOT a true knife, for the exact same reason.

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  1. Yup, when you started your "tools" AtoZ, one of my first thoughts was "well, I know Tony has 'X' sorted."

    Anyone playing with model rocketry, like I did in high school, has an X-acto knife (set) handy. Perfect for cutting tail fins out of a sheet of balsa wood, or for trimming the cardboard tubes used as a body. And you're right, I pricked, sliced, and gouged a few fingertips.

    1. Model makers, paper artists... anybody who works with fine cuts in delicate material uses X-ACTO knives a lot. And they all have bled for it. ;-)

  2. If anything it's a micro-knife. I used to imagine it'd be perfect for David the Gnome, but it's very handy for specific jobs. Savages like myself substitute loose razor blades.

    1. Yeah, the loose razor blade thing... convenient and cheap, but dangerous. I cut & injury myself enough that I'm usually on the lookout for ways to avoid more.


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