After long and careful thought I have decided not to attempt to write the definitive article on razor knives. If I could make my own precision knives, things might be different – but I haven’t learned to do that yet, so I don’t feel totally qualified. There’s plenty of info on the net about knife safety. I do, however, have decades of experience using X-Acto and utility knives and I have seen a lot of people do things that have the potential for danger. So here are three ideas that I hope will keep your fingers firmly attached to your hands:
• Always be conscious of where a naked blade is.
If you enter into a vocation where utility or precision knives are used, it’s almost a rite of passage that you’re going to cut yourself. Badly. At least once.
Thankfully this isn’t true of guns. I think it’s because we are taught, first and foremost, how dangerous guns are before we are ever taught how to hit a target. But I have watched experienced, professional designers (who’ve attended some of the best art schools) do some very absent-minded things with precision cutting instruments. For instance, they might attempt to drive home a point of conversation by talking with their hands, all the while holding an X-Acto knife — often less than 8 inches from their own eyes.
I’d like to think that I am practiced enough with these tools never to have to go through the ordeal of nursing a finger wound of my own again, but I know it’s still a possibility. One of the first things I learned starting out (when we did all our work on slanted drafting tables) was not to try to catch a knife if it fell off the table. This means being aware in a split second which tool has suddenly given itself over to gravity. Then, if it is indeed a knife, it means getting one’s feet out of the way too, before the knife falls that far. If a blade is exposed, try to maintain awareness of it’s position at all times. Treat it like a saber. It may make you look a little paranoid, but it’s less embarrassing to do that than to go to the emergency ward.
• Hold the straight edge tightly and the knife loosely.
Don’t try to cut the line in one go — draw the line several times letting the blade do the work. Foam core should take at least four cuts to get through. Any more than eight or so and your blade needs changing. If the foam starts pilling, the blade should have been changed long ago. A sturdy museum or presentation board should take around a dozen or so cuts. More than twenty — change the blade.
A dull knife is your worst enemy. The duller a blade is, the more one tends to compensate by applying pressure. The more pressure you apply to the knife, the less control you have over it. If you slip, all that pressure is still applied to whatever is in the way of the knife. Keep ample blades on hand, as you never know when you’re likely to need a new one. If you’re using scalpels, be a little extra careful. These things were designed to cut human flesh. They are sharper than a standard hobby or utility knife.
Holding the knife loosely also helps keep the blade straight up and down rather than angling beyond or under the straight edge. Cut with the straight edge over the work you want to keep. Rotate the work so that the part you are trying to remove is sticking out. That way any errors cut into the scrap rather than into the work.
• Dispose of spent blades properly.
Do not keep spent blades in a glass container. This is a weird phenomenon I have seen way too often. Collections of dulled but dangerous blades discarded in glass bottles seem to hide in the majority of studios I have worked in, waiting to be deposited in some ideal recycling environment.
There is, unfortunately, as yet no cost effective system of recycling this perfectly good steel (I’ve tried). Plus, in the event that the bottle is dropped, one now has to deal with not only shattered glass, but hundreds of razors all over the floor, and no safe container to put them back into.
Two good, safe ways of throwing blades out are practiced however. The immediate way is to tape them up with a good strong adhesive tape like artist’s tape or duct tape.
Start about six to eight inches of tape at the spine of the blade and wrap it tightly, winding down until the entire blade is mummified. The corners of the non-business end of most blades are sharp enough to cut the unfortunate person who empties the trash. Again, wrap tightly. A loose wrap still has enough give in the layers of tape to push the tip of the blade out and into a hand.
If you don’t feel comfortable taping each blade, a strong metal can is more than adequate to stockpile used blades in for bulk disposal (and, personally, I think this method is a bit safer). Don’t use an aluminum can or plastic bottle as the weight of the blades building up over time can work the tips through that kind of container. Use a thick-walled beverage can (again, NOT aluminum but something like the cans Goya fruit drinks come in — good heavy tin). A tea tin, or a heavy plastic container such as the kind that are made for medical sharps will work.
I use Altoids tins. I cut a slot wide enough for my largest utility blades in one end and tape the box shut, leaving the slot end exposed. When I can no longer push blades into the slot, I wrap the tin with an extra layer of tape to close up the slot and then safely toss it out.
It may help to give your knives a little home. If you have an isolated place that you do most of your cutting, you can make a knife station by lashing your disposal can to a few layers of foam core laminated together, or a thick chunk of cork that you can safely jab your knifes into and ignore them when not in use. It’s convenient, tidy and keeps you aware of the knife’s whereabouts when not in use.