The Best Marking Knife Is…

The best marking knife is the one you make for yourself.

Over the past eight years, I’ve used any number of knives to mark lines on wood.  Some of my first dovetails were laid out with a utility knife–and they weren’t half bad dovetails, either.  In a pinch, I have also used my pocketknife to lay out saw cuts and the like.  I’ve also used a couple different X-Acto knives, an old surgical scalpel, and even a repurposed paring knife.

Marking Knives Old 2014

Each one has had its advantages and drawbacks.  From left to right:

  • Regular X-Acto knives (which come standard with the #11 blade) are too delicate for most marking jobs.  They’re fine for very fine cutting jobs, but I prefer something more robust for slicing wood.
  • The larger X-Acto knife, when fitted with a #22 curved blade or a #19 angled blade (shown above), iss significantly better.  For several years this was my go-to knife.  Although the blades are disposable, they can easily be resharpened.  But the cold, cylindrical, aluminum handle left something to be desired.
  • A surgical scalpel takes a very keen edge and slices wood very well, but the flat handle is uncomfortable for any but the lightest of cuts.
  • The paring knife worked fairly well, and it was as comfortable to hold as a plastic handle gets.  I used it for a number of projects, but this particular knife’s steel was too soft, so I eventually abandoned it.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 1What I wanted in a marking knife was (1) a short, curved blade made of good steel, and (2) a comfortable wooden handle.  It really didn’t sound so hard.  So I made one.

I began with a #22 X-Acto blade.  I ground off much of the tang, leaving sharp spurs.  Those will help affix the blade in the handle.

For a ferrule, I happened to have a small brass ring on hand left over from another project, but I could just as easily have gotten one from Lee Valley.

For the handle, I had a scrap of pecan (of course), though I could have used any number of nice hardwoods.  This one just happened to be lying on my workbench.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 2The original scrap was probably 8″ or 10″ long.  After squaring up the stock with a handplane, I cut it down to length, about 6″.  I didn’t measure it, though.  I just cut it to fit my own hand.

Then I cut a round tenon in the top for the blade to sit in.  It’s a lot easier to do this than it probably looks.

I set the ferrule itself on the top and traced around the inside of it with a pencil.  I laid out the tenon shoulders on all four faces with a cutting gauge.  Then I used my dovetail saw to make shallow cuts all the way around, gauging the depth by eye.  With a chisel I split the wood down to the saw cuts, leaving a roughly square tenon.  Then it was a pretty simple affair to file the tenon round and saw a kerf down the tenon for the blade.

The ferrule should fit snugly, but mine ended up being a little loose.  No matter.  Epoxy fills many gaps.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 3

I mixed up some J-B Weld, slathered it on the tenon, on the inside of the ferrule, and on the blade’s tang.  After dropping the ferrule onto the tenon, I drove the blade into the kerf as far as I could.  The best way to do this, I think, is to hold the blade in a small handscrew or some other clamp and tap the handle onto the blade.  Because this ferrule was just a little big for my taste, I squeezed it into an oval in a machinist’s vise.  That will give the knife a slightly thinner profile.

Once the epoxy was firmly set, I went about shaping the handle to my liking with a spokeshave.  I shaved it right down to the ferrule on the bottom of the handle, but thinned the handle out slightly toward the top.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 4

Some scraping, sanding, and paste wax finished the job.  I sharpened the blade with a shallow bevel on the left side (for ease of registering against a ruler) and a steeper bevel on the right side. Not counting the time it took for the glue to set, this project took me about 45 minutes.

The knife is very comfortable to hold, and the curved blade takes a good edge.

It’s the perfect marking knife.

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2 Responses to The Best Marking Knife Is…

  1. Flo Schuler says:

    Do I presume correctly that you will sharpen, and not replace, the blade in this knife?

  2. You’ve got it. The blade is expoxied in, so replacement would be… difficult. But the X-Acto blades are made of good steel, and they resharpen pretty easily.

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