X-Acto explains the genesis of its now-ubiquitous precision knives—the source of scars marking a designer’s studio years—as an ironic stroke of luck. Founded in New York in 1917 by Polish immigrant and businessman Sundel Doniger, the company, now based in Westerville, Ohio, first fabricated medical syringes and, later, scalpels with interchangeable blades. In the 1930s, when an in-house designer needed a sharp edge to retouch a print advertisement, Doniger turned out a hobby knife similar in design to his company’s scalpels. Over time, the hobby knives have become easier to hold, custom-designed for specific tasks, and less prone to breaking. Matt Zuby, associate product manager for X-Acto, explains the evolution of the company's blades and handles from the original No. 1 knife to a forthcoming tool meant to limit trips to the first-aid kit by bleary-eyed users.
How has the design of the X-Acto knife evolved?
The core has been maintained. It’s a classic, timeless design. Everyone from an architect to a crafter can relate to a good user experience. We’ve focused development on creating a wider variety of handle options and enhancing the blades’ durability.
In what ways are the blades more resilient?
If you look at the blade market, there are two major characteristics: One is an extremely sharp blade that begins to dull as soon as you start cutting with it. On the other end of the spectrum are blades that aren’t as sharp but are able to maintain that [relative] level of sharpness for a longer period of time. When we created the Z-Series (2011), we were trying to meld those two ends of the spectrum into a durable, long-lasting blade that’s very sharp.
And the handles?
Innovation in the last decade has been around ergonomics and color. Every two years we poll our audience for feedback on what they like and don’t like. One item that comes up often is ergonomic grips. Stage one is understanding that there is a consumer need for more ergonomic grips. The second stage is working with a CAD design or model to develop a starting point of what we think an ergonomic grip would be and then testing a plastic model with various consumer groups to see how it looks and feels.
Who participates in these tests?
We have groups of power users that we have been in contact with over the years who use the knives on a regular basis, including design and architecture firms. We'll also poll a general audience, randomly bringing in focus groups of a certain demographic or certain [practice] area. If we’re creating a new craft tool, for example, we’ll look at a demographic that’s skewed more toward women that use the product on a daily or weekly basis.
We’re working on a knife with an LED light integrated at the point where the handle meets the blade and that would shine light on the area where a user is cutting. The light is activated similar to clicking a pen and uses a No. 11 blade. It is designed to improve visibility for people who are not working in the best light—but not in total darkness. Hopefully, we’ll see it in the back half of 2014, maybe 2015.
Product Development Timeline
X-Acto’s flagship product, known today as the No. 1, had a solid aluminum body and carbon-steel blade, as most of the company’s knives do today.
Responding to customer requests for a softer grip, X-Acto designed a craft knife with soft-barrel technology already used by the writing-instrument industry.
Foam Board Cutter
X-Acto introduced the cutter as a complementary product to a new line of foam board released by its parent company, Hunt Corp.
Sporting an ergonomic grip and sharp tip, this model won a Good Design Award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design.
Each blade in this carbide-steel series receives a proprietary blue-colored coating that is formulated to prevent rust and to keep its edge sharper longer.
Retract-A-Blade No. 1 knife
X-Acto created a fully retractable version of its No. 1 knife for precision cutting with a soft grip and angular, anti-roll handle.
Z-Series blade and knife
To enhance their durability, the blades in this series are ground and honed via atomic sharpening, coated in a zirconium-nitride ceramic, and sharpened again.