X-Acto knives (or Exacto knives) are a very useful tool when cutting certain types of materials. But this tool has not been around forever and there is a history to its invention and manufacture, which we discuss here.
Who Invented the Exacto Knife?
The X-acto knife was invented in the U.S. in 1930 by Sundel Doniger, an entrepreneur and businessman who supplied medical equipment to hospitals. Like many inventions, the knife’s ultimate best use as a crafts / hobby knife was not planned and he stumbled upon it largely unexpectedly.
Why Was the X-acto Knife Invented?
The X-acto knife was originally intended to be used as a scalpel for surgery and had a very sharp cutting blade. It was designed to be easy to swap blades on its aluminum handle. However, the knife was difficult to clean and was facing stiff competition from other scalpels, even considering that surgeons liked how easy it was to change the blades.
Fortunately, this new knife was great for cutting clippings and photographs and cropping them for advertisements. This convinced Doniger to sell it as a new type of hobby knife and with the help of his brother-in-law, started what became the X-acto company.
Today it is still used by draftspeople, graphic designers, hobbyists, artists, and students around the world.
The X-acto knife has become somewhat famous and today even graphic design software such as Photoshop use the image of an X-acto knife as an icon for one of its cutting tools.
What Did the X-acto Knife Replace?
Originally, the X-acto knife was designed to replace single-purpose fixed blade surgical knives when it was first invented. It was later used to replace other loose blades, scissors, or razor blades attached to the handle of cutting devices used by makers of print media and advertisements. It is a very convenient tool, especially for changing out the blade and making precision cuts.
The X-acto knife replaced other crafts knives of the time for use making precise cuts while also being easy to change the blades.
Today, artists, designers, and craftsman of different stripes use X-acto knives in their practice. Even bakers use it to trim the icing on specially made cakes. Hobbyists, especially model makers using plastic, or balsa wood rely on the X-acto knife to make precision cuts and markings on their finely crafted models.
An X-acto knife can still be used as a surgical tool, but only in one’s home.
What Problem Did the X-acto Knife Solve?
The X-acto knife solved the problem of the difficulty involved with changing out the razor blades used in surgical knives. The aluminum screw-cap that holds the blade in place is easy to twist off to replace the blade, making the knife very convenient to use.
How Did the X-acto Knife Change Over Time?
The X-acto knife did change over time, but only slightly. The original design is largely the same and someone who held the first X-acto knife would recognize one today. The size and handle of the knife has been adjusted for certain types of uses and include enhanced ergonomics.
The X-acto company has also focused on improving the blades’ durability. Today’s X-acto knife blades are made of high-quality carbon metal with a rust-resistant oxidized finish of zirconium nitride.
New handles for X-acto knives are have been recently focused on ergonomic grips and color. There is a process that X-acto uses to bring these new designs to market. They first compile feedback from the user community as to what they like and dislike about the current designs. They then use CAD modeling to shape new ergonomic grips based on these recommendations. The final step is making a functioning plastic model and tests it with actual users to find out if it meets their wants in terms of how it looks and feels.
Today’s X-acto knives are sorted by four different handle types: A, B, C and D. You can find which handle type your X-acto knife uses on the back of the packaging. Each new blade will only fit the handle it is designed for.
The next iteration of X-acto knife designs will likely include some type of LED light attached or integrated at the base of the blade where it connects with the handle. This will make it easier for users to light up the cutting area in dim lighting. Turning on the light will be easy and is expected to resemble clicking a pen.
X-acto Knives of the Past
The X-acto company has expanded the original knife’s application and product line to include 20 different blade shapes and sizes. The original design has largely remained unchanged and still uses the handle with the screw-clamp at the base of the blade.
Here is a brief timeline of past X-acto knife products:
The 1930s – The Original X-acto Knife
The original X-acto knife, known today as No.1. looks very much like today’s basic design. It had a solid aluminum handle and used a carbon steel blade, which are still used today.
1987 – The “Gripster” Knife
The “Gripster” knife was a variation on the original X-acto knife that had a soft, hollow handle. This type of handle was already common with plastic pens and other writing instruments of the time.
1991 – Foam Board Cutter
X-acto’s parent company, Hunt Corp. had released a new type of foam board for sale, and they designed a complimentary X-acto knife for cutting it. The Foam Board Cutter was a wide bodied, angular knife with a retractable blade that allowed for a firm grip when pressing into the foam board. It did not resemble the original X-acto knife at all, except for the X-acto logo on the side and it had a replaceable blade.
1996 – The X2000 Knife
This was a sleek and advanced-looking X-acto knife that had an ergonomic sloping grip with the colors dark red and black near the blade. Its design was well recieved by both users and design critics.
2006 – The X-Life Blade
In 2006, X-acto released a blade that was made of carbide-steel and had a blue-colored coating that helped prevent rust. The blade was also made to keep a sharp edge and last longer than previous blades. The general shape of the blade had not changed, however.
2010 – Retract-A-Blade knife, No. 1
The X-acto No. 1 knife had remained a popular design up until this point, but now X-acto added a fully retractable blade and a soft, angular, and anti-rolling grip to it. The handle was also colored blue and black and included a slider on one side to retract the blade.
2011 – Z-Series Blade and Knife
The Z-Series Blade is given a nice edge due to atomic sharpening and given an extra coating of zirconium-nitride ceramic. They are sharpened multiple times and have enhanced durability
The X-acto knife has an illustrious career serving artists, designers, and craftsmen everywhere and has allowed print advertisers to make their mark on the public. Throughout its history, it has continued to evolve to the needs of users and provides more ergonomic comfort of the handle and extended durability of its blades.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use.