There's a ton of utility knives out there. To cut through the mess we bought and hands-on tested 12 of the leading models on the 2020 market. Our testing regime was conceived and executed by experts in the trades, non-professional craftsmen as well as those who work in shipping and receiving. With the data derived from on the job usage and function-specific lab testing, we can definitively state which products are best suited to distinct user needs as well as general use.
The Best Utility Knives of 2020
The Milwaukee Flashback 48-22-1502 is a do-it-all knife that conveniently folds and clips to a pocket or belt. The knife easily opens one-handed and provides 5 1/2 inches of gripping real estate. There are several nifty tools built into the unit, including a gut hook, and a cord cutter. Further adding to the usefulness of the Flashback is the magnetized, five-blade storage arm that folds out opposite the blade. The construction is solid and the open and close lock makes it safe, too.
Honestly, there are not too many issues with the Milwaukee. However, if you are doing a lot of work with a utility knife as on a framing project or a remodel, the act of unfolding the tool may become tedious. Additionally, it is a bit bulky for front pocket storage, particularly when squatting. Despite these shortcomings, the tool is built for heavy use, fitting in well in a professional kit or a kitchen drawer.
The LENOX Quick-Change tries to address all of the common complaints about utility knives. The handle is curved to match a natural grip — so it's comfy and efficient. The blades are quick and easy to change, all the buttons big and grippy. Even the internal blade storage clamp helps to eliminate rattling, keeping those blade as sharp as ever.
While the design of the knife is certainly sweet, the manufacturing could be better. For example, there is more play in the moving parts than we would like to see, particularly in the blade carriage. We did not experience any failures during our testing but read some consumer reviews reporting such issues when used for heavy-duty work. That said, this model proved to be a slick knife that left little to complain about, particularly in situations where light, but repetitive work was called for.
If you like simple, inexpensive, and reliable tools, then the Stanley 99E is the knife for you. This tool has a slim handle, but nonetheless ample grip. It has just one moving part and it stores a ton of extra blades. Finally, it has a lot less wobble in the blade carriage when compared to the competition.
Our main complaint about this knife is that its two halves are secured with a screw that has to be undone when you want to swap out a blade. While this screw is easily turned with a coin, it can't be accomplished with one's fingers alone. Further complicating the task is that the loose blades stored in the handle can come spilling out if you're not mindful. Aside from that, we found the 99E to be a very practical tool designed to take a beating and a track record to back it up.
It doesn't matter how good your tools are if they aren't where you need them when you need them. The Outdoor Edge SlideWinder does its best to remedy this conundrum. At just a ¼ inch thick and sporting a pocket clip, there's no reason not to carry this multi-tool. The blade is easy to swap while the philips and flathead drivers built into the frame work well when compared to other multi-tools in the class.
While this knife's stainless steel frame is sufficiently sturdy, the locking mechanism on the blade carriage is less than solid and the action is a bit stiff. Additionally, the tool only allows for a 3 finger grip that makes prolonged use uncomfortable. A final concern, albeit an important one after 5 o'clock, is the onboard bottle opener. This tool works, but its narrow mouth and shape lip leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to bite. Despite these critiques, we found this little tool to be helpful in a pinch and to be happily unimposing when unneeded.
If a sharp blade for quick tasks requiring the control of a four-finger grip is what you need, then the compact, folding Mossy Oak is the ticket. The all-aluminum body of this pocket knife is light and strong. Additionally, the blade release system is simple and effective, requiring no tool to operate.
Some conveniences are sacrificed to keep this tool simple. For one, there is no lock securing the blade in the closed position, although it does lock open. Additionally, there is no onboard blade storage. Finally, the clip on our model was not as tight as we would have liked it to be as it slipped out of our front pocket more than once during field tests. That said, the clip can be removed with a star drive and bent into a more effective position if needed. Despite the shortcomings, the Mossy Oak is a reliable little knife that won't take up too much room in your pocket.
The OLFA LA-X stands apart from the class as it has a long blade (3 ¼") that is scored to break off and expose sharper portions of the cutting edge. The length of the blade offers a real advantage when cutting along a feature such as level or in a slot. Additionally, the rubber on the handle and the tapered shape enhances the grip.
While the LA-X is a practical tool, often one owned in conjunction with a traditional utility knife, this particular model has some shortcomings. For starters, the blade lock is easy to release, and the spring that activates it is a bit flimsy. In the same vein, the blade carriage is constructed of thin plastic. We did not experience any issues with these parts. However, we would not recommend this model for professional use. With that in mind, this remains a great tool when you need the extra reach or a fresh edge in quick order.
The Kobalt is one heck of a deal. This knife boasts sound construction, plenty of grip room, and a smooth blade swapping system. Much like a traditional pocket knife, this tool has a spring lock that is quite secure when its blade is in the open position. This is appreciated because the tool offers leverage comparable to its rigid counterparts. When not in use, the frame has a stiff spring clip to keep the Kobalt in the pocket you put it in.
While we found the Kobalt to be a well-constructed product, it isn't without its inconveniences. The unfolding action is quite hard to manage one-handed and the closing is even more difficult, even dangerous. Despite the ease of removing a blade, there is no blade storage onboard the unit. In light of these difficulties, there remains an argument that requiring two hands to open/ close a knife increases safety. All and all, this utility knife offers great value in a reliable tool.
The EAB Lite is manufactured by the highly reputable Gerber knife company, and boy does this puppy live up to the name. This tool is set-up more like a true pocket knife as opposed to a utility knife. Clean lines and craftsmanship define its fine look, while the finger guard on the cutting edge makes for a practical 4 finger grip.
Despite the utilitarian design of this model, it is in no way cut-out for heavy use. This is not to say that the EAB is poorly constructed. Quite the contrary. It is simply the result of the utter lack of comfort features. That said, the blade is reliable and easily clips to your cash and cards so it will be there when you need it.
The Stanley 10-499 is a souped-up version of the classic 99E. The old warhorse has been made modern with push-button blade release and onboard blade storage. Additionally, a gut hook was added to safely peel tight-fitting plastic wrap and the like. In addition to these add-ons, this tool maintains simplicity and ease of use.
While we like that this model captures much of the simplicity of its older brother, we have some concern about the added plastic components. We always see plastic locks and springs as potential weak points and this tool has two such parts. That said, we witnessed no failures in our testing. So, if you must have no-tool blade changes, this is a good alternative to the 99E.
Why You Should Trust Us
Here at the GearLab, we have been testing tools for nearly a decade. Whether it's cordless lawn mowers, circular saws, or pressure washers, we know tools. Our testers and writers have worked in the trades and continue to fabricate everything from robots to furniture in their home shops. Senior Review Editor Nick Miley headed up this review. For many years he earned his bread swinging a hammer for a custom home outfit and building wooden boats on the side. Seeking out a more challenging work environment, he transferred his skills to industrial rope access and composite repair. These experiences have taught him the value of a sharp and readily available tool.
Researching or even handling a tool is not enough to write an accurate review. That is why we purchase all the products (and more) that you'll find in this article and used them in both specific tests as well as carrying them around when working on job sites. For example, all the knives seen here were brought to a construction site and handed out to the workers for use throughout the day. After work, the merits and shortcomings of each model were discussed. Now that's information you can trust.
Analysis and Test Results
To find the cutting edge utility knives we developed several practical evaluations that highlight the tools that excel in certain tasks as well as those that lean more towards general use. These evaluations inform the metrics or the specific categories that collectively describe a quality utility tool. These categories are grip, sturdiness, convenience, and pocketing. The following is a detailed description of the evaluations and the best performers.
Since we used the Stanley 1992 blade on all the tools (except the OLFA) the grip is the most important feature on these knives. The grip defines the power and leverage you can exert on to the cutting edge. If the grip is short or narrow, the control and power over the blade decreases. Grip was assessed by cutting a variety of materials including cardboard, sheetrock, garden hoses, rubber molding, nylon webbing, wooden dowels, and braided rope.
Of course, the rigid tools offer the optimal grip. The LENOX provides the best grip overall, but it was particularly favored by those with larger hands. This tool's pistol grip allows the fingers to sink into the curvature for added purchase. The OLFA LA-X boasts a similar handle though it's thinner along the spine and cased with rubber to limit slips. Both of the Stanley knives — the E99 and 10-499 — offer a solid, 4-finger grip as well, although they lack articulation.
The folding knives offer a substantially poorer grip than their rigid counterparts. These knives have uneven surfaces and narrow spines that make prolonged cutting tasks uncomfortable. That said, the Milwaukee and the Kobolt offer the most gripping real estate of the folding models and would pass muster on a job site.
Utility knives can be dangerous tools. The quality of the design and the construction can go a long way in mitigating the risk of injury. As such, sturdiness looks at the manufacturing tolerances as seen in the fit of parts as well as the action of moving components. Construction material is also assessed. As even the best equipment wears and requires maintenance, we took apart the knives when possible to see if parts could be tightened or replaced.
The Gerber EAB Lite leads the pack in this metric. In typical Gerber fashion, the manufacturing is nearly flawless. The lock fits precisely and there is zero wobble in the blade. In contrast, the Stanley E99 isn't much of a looker, but the fit of the handle's two halves is tight and even. If we're being nit-picky, the blade carriage has a bit of play. Nonetheless, the model's durability is legendary and the steel components speak to this reputation.
Both the Milwaukee and the Kobalk folding tools are deserving of honorable mentions at their actions are smooth, the lock secure and the moving parts tight fitting. A few of the knives had manufacturing issues. The Mossy Oak has a weak pocket clip, the Outdoor Edge has some problems with its lock and carriage, and the OFLA has some thin plastic parts.
What's the point of having a utility knife if it's not convenient to use? The main features that make a knife convenient are onboard blades storage, blade changing sans tool, and smoothness of operation. This latter point is particularly important with the folding knives where a one-handed opening can be a challenge.
This evaluation revealed three standout models, the Milwaukee Flashback, the LENOX, and the Stanley 10-499. These models check every box with easy access blade storage, push-button blade release, and ease of operation. The Flashback's easy swing blade locks open and closed with the push of a button. Additionally, the blade storage folds out like an arm and the blades are held in place with a magnet. It's all very slick.
Models that we had trouble smoothly operating were the Kobalt, E99, and Gerber. The Kobalt because it requires two hands to operate, the E99 because it requires a screwdriver to swap the blade, and the Gerber because it has both issues.
A good utility knife is one that's close at hand, and what's closer than a pocket. The pocketing metric assesses how well each product fits into the various pockets on work pants. Specifically, the front and the thigh pockets. We also test how well the products stay in the pocket. If the tool has a clip, we look to see if it will fit over heavy denim seams.
For the most part, the models with pocket clips — EAB Lite, Outdoor Edge, and Kobalt — crushed this metric. These tools can essentially be securely fastened to any pocket, belt, or bag. The Milwaukee was an exception as it is substantially wider and longer, and thus more uncomfortable than its peers. A notable difference on the EAB Lite' is the shallow arch of its clip which makes it better suited to pinching credit cards and cash than a pocket. Finally, the Mossy Oak's clip was too loose resulting in multiple incidents of it being pressed out of pockets when testers squatted.
As for the rigid knives, these models best fit into work bags or a side pocket. The lack of a clip on these knives, particularly the Stanley models, certainly makes them prone to slip out of the pocket they are stored in. The OLFA is an exception as its rubber grip helps to keep the knife where you put it, but this means it's hard to get it in and out of the pocket as well.
This review covers the best utility knives on the market. We looked at four criteria that cut through the hype to reveal the most reliable tools for general and specific use. We analyzed grip, sturdiness of construction, convenience of use, as well as how comfortably and securely the knives fit into a pocket. We made countless cuts of common materials from garden hoses to rubber molding, from sheetrock to wooden dowels, from webbing to braided rope. These practical tasks clearly showed the preferred use for each tool and which tools were built for heavy use.
— Nick Miley