Tired of X-Acto Knives? Try a Scalpel

I’ve seen scalpels recommended by ship modelers before, but never really thought to try one until recently. Yes, a scalpel – that scary knife used by surgeons that want to cut you open. It was recommended to me in particular when dealing with paper modeling because scalpel blades are thinner than X-Acto type blades.

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I don’t know a whole lot about the selection of handles and blades. But, I can tell you that the most common handle type is a Number 3 handle. It’s usually a standard, simple stainless steel handle. There are some variations to it, such as one that is rubber coated for more comfortable grip.

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There are several types of blades available for it, but the two more common blades are the number 10 and number 11. These correspond in rough appearance to X-Acto #10 and #11 blades. I suspect that the similarity of X-Acto blades to scalpel blades is intentional, but I don’t know the history, so don’t trust me on this. But, even the slot in the X-Acto blades mimics the functional slot on the scalpel blades, though the two types are not interchangeable.

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As I mentioned earlier, the scalpel blades are thinner than X-Acto blades, and thinner blades do come with the drawback that you’re more likely to break a blade. In fact, I recall that when I was a kid, my dad tried to get me into building wooden airplanes. He provided me with a scalpel for a cutting knife, and I recall being horrified when the blade broke one day. No injuries, but I felt so bad for breaking the nice knife my dad gave me. Little did I know then that scalpel blades were disposable.

So, the blades will break under heavy use. But, if you need to do some heavy-duty cutting and need to put that much pressure into a cut, it’s either time to swap out blades for a fresh, sharp one, or perhaps it’s time to use a razor saw instead. If that’s the case, I recommend you consider the Japanese super fine-cut saws that I reviewed here a while back. It makes a fast, very clean cut.

But, getting back to scalpels, one of the biggest differences between the X-Acto (or Excel) blades and scalpels can be the price. I bought a package of 100 No. 11 scalpel blades, each one individually sealed in a foil pack, off Amazon for less than $8 shipped, and that included a #3 handle. Certainly you can pay more, but I know I’ve paid a lot more for X-Acto blades.

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Also, I haven’t been too keen on the quality of X-Acto handles lately. I have a lot of problems with them loosening up over time, the blade rotating as I’m trying to use it. I find I have to replace handles periodically.

The one thing that makes me hesitant to fully recommend scalpels is the way in which you have to change blades. The first time I tried to do this, I had a hard time sliding the blade slot over the tab that holds it in place. I finally had to resort to a pair of pliers. The issue might have been the handle, as I had no problems with two other handles and just inserted the blade by finger. Using pliers or forceps is probably a lot safer.

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As for removing blades, I just learned that there are blade removers designed to reduce the possibility of injury. They are various types available. I found a disposable one online for $5 shipped. It holds the removed blades, up to 300 of them, until it fills up, after which you have a safe way of disposing of them.

So, using scalpels is an experiment for me and one you might want to try out too. So far, so good, and I haven’t broken a blade yet. Haven’t felt the need to change blades yet, but I’ve only been using them a week. I may force myself to do it, just to see how much sharper a new blade is. Ω

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