This is One Tool Every Designer Should Own

Image of swann morton scalpel with surgical blades

Do you use a Mac or PC? I bet you have a printer, scanner or camera too─but do you also use the ‘ol Scalpel and cutting mat? Despite all the modern advancements in technology, a Swann-Morton Scalpel* has always been in my toolbox, and here’s why…

✔ Even when I design CD Sleeves and leaflets, for example, I print the designs out and need to trim them down using trim marks. Using a scalpel instead of scissors gives an accurate cut with perfect straight lines. I use a metal ruler and cutting mat, too.

✔ When I need pencils sharpening, using a sharp instrument like this enables me to create custom-shaped tips. These tips are useful for different colouring techniques when drawing visuals, for example.

✔ If I ever need to print off a few pages of flyers (normally for my families’ business or limited self promotion), using a scalpel gives the design prints a professional finish.

✔ When I design large-format prints and other works using materials such as Foamex® or foam board, I use scalpel to trim and cut in various situations.

✔ ….heck, using a scalpel separates the designer from every scissor-wielding granny on the planet (if you’re reading this Gran, no offence!).

Advice on Swann-Morton Scalpels and Surgical Blades:

1. Firstly, make sure you order the style and type of blades that suit the job. Circled above (1) is where you can find the blade number.

2. There are different size scalpels around. The size of the blade handle can be found at the end. See above circles: (2) shows knife number 4, and circle (3) shows size 3. There are different brands, but the Swann-Morton Scalpel is the best and most well-know available.

3. Blades for general use are non-sterile. Remember this is you ever cut yourself (I’m no medical expert, so I won’t offer any other info on this).

4. When using a scalpel, make sure you use a metal ruler for cutting straight lines. Using a plastic one is not recommended, as the knife blade can cut into it. A cutting mat is also advisable (see top image). You can also use cut-resistant gloves for projects that require a lot of cutting!

*There are affiliate links in this post.

So, should every designer own one of these? I reckon so─I mean, even web designers often draw visuals, hehe…

Do You use a scalpel and metal ruler? Do you find them useful? Leave your comments below…

9 thoughts on “This is One Tool Every Designer Should Own”

  1. Rosa

    I have always used a slim style silver x-acto knife with snap off blades. Never been without one. I also use various sized cutting mats and always have various cork backed stainless steel rulers. The cork keeps the ruler from slipping which in turn allows you to keep all your fingers intact. I would love to try out a scalpel. I just may order one. Thanks Andrew!

  2. Rob

    One of the first tools I used, along with a Rotring rapidograph. Had a few mishaps, the odd slicing of skin, but touch wood, haven’t cut the top of my finger off yet, although have seen a couple of work colleagues do it.

  3. Carmia Cronjé

    We had to buy a Stanley knife (actually used to cut carpet) and steel ruler in college, because we had to put our printed designs on mounting board. But it was a nightmare to cut the mounting board. Mine always had ragged edges. But I still use the carpet knife to cut paper, hehe. It works perfectly. I’ve never tried a scalpel though.

  4. fjpoblam

    We’ve always had an Exacto kit (a case of tools about 10″ by 8″ by 2″), with a plethora of handles, blades, and blade types: probably serves a similar purpose insofar as your description is concerned, and serves well in other artistic pursuits also.

  5. Andrew Kelsall

    Rosa → I’ve never used a cork-back metal ruler, but I once had a rubber-backed one, which I suppose does to same job in regards to reducing slipping…although the rubber has now worn off!

    Rob → Ouch! I think I first used one to cut bolster wood back in school when I was 7. I cut the end of my finger to the bone, but I learned from it and never cut myself since. Well, with a scalpel anyway!

    Carmia → Well, you can’t get much sharper than a scalpel. The ones I have shown are actually used in operations (I think), although different blades may be used. I’d say the scalpel blades are nearly as sharp as razor blades, and make Stanley knives seem blunt by comparison. Okay, that was a hyperbole…

    fjpoblam → I’ve never heard of those before, but I just looked them up. Having a case sure would be good, as at the moment I just store mine on a high shelf in an old mug away from the kids.

    Thanks everyone for commenting 🙂

  6. Phil

    Never had a proper cutting mat, or a scalpel. But what I do have is a variety of cutting surfaces including dollar store clipboards, canvas covered plywood, and even bare desktops. My cutting tools range from disposable box knives to special occasion knives such as a paring knife I got from my grandmother which I always keep sharp enough to shave with. I’ve chunked-up plenty of plastic straight edges and I’ve also got some steel rules. It usually comes down to what I can find first. I’ve even used the glass out of an old picture frame as a straight edge, but that’s too wide & thick to be really useful. I never had a problem with the steel rules I have. I use scissors for precision cuts when I don’t feel like clearing out the work area for a cutting board. It takes a bit of finesse to keep the cut straight, but it’s not hard – just a little slower to actually finish the cut. I usually keep the upper blade down flat along the guide marks and try to keep it from moving up & down with the cutting motion. Only the lower blade is in motion.

  7. oz loya
     ·, I love my scalpel, I mean, x-actos are OK when using for large pieces but if I want to precise cut tiny little piece I definitely rely on my scalpel.

    My mom’s a Doctor so scalpels have been around the house since I was a kid, I learned to use it (accident proof).

  8. Andrew Keir

    I always found cutting with the round blades to be a bit “nail on the chalkboard”.

    Number 3 blades are the ones for me.

  9. Kris

    Exacto’s here and even though we’ve got a pencil cup full of them, I always know my favorite by touch. Self-healing mats and nice heavy metal rulers. We do a lot of envelope samples and a good blade is essential for cutting out those pesky address windows 🙂 Great blog, Andrew, I really enjoy what you have to say.