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Ode to the X-Acto Knife

December 10, 2007

Jack Ganssle-December 10, 2007

My desk - not the lab bench, mind you - has the usual office tools scattered about. A stapler. Scissors (which, no matter how often I buy her her own set, my wife absconds with constantly). Tape dispenser, a handful of paper clips, and an old coffee cup that holds pencils, pens, and a couple of small screwdrivers.

Plus an X-Acto knife. It's the most useful tool in the office, and pretty much holds that same exalted place on the lab bench.

The X-Acto knife. With the usual dollop of blood on the blade.

Is there anything an X-Acto knife can't do?

- Slice tracks on a PCB.
- Cut a pin free.
- Sharpen pencils
- Trim one's fingernails.
- Clean 'em, too!
- Precisely cut out shapes from paper.
- Scrape crud off of anything.
- Perform minor surgery.
- And a lot more

Apparently the X-Acto was invented as a sort of scalpel but never had much success in that market. Yet I frequently use it to remove splinters and cut out bits of metal embedded in the flesh from some careless tool use. One night (there were a few beers involved) I even did some minor surgery on a friend's toe to dig out a big, deeply-buried piece of wood.

She survived.

Homo Sapiens are tool-users. Engineers take that to an extreme. A few weeks ago the chuck on my lathe jammed. My wife was very solicitous; me, I figured it was a wonderful chance to buy a hefty new Craftsman 1.5" wrench! That five pound monster lives near the lathe now, will probably be rarely used, but will put a big grin on my face every time it's needed.

Too many cheap tools that have failed at the wrong time have taught me to buy only ones of high quality. Tools that will last and never disappoint.

But the lowly X-Acto knife, which costs nothing, weighs less, and occupies just the space of a pencil, performs brilliantly for years. A set of replacement blades, always near at hand, keeps an edge that's both dangerous and somehow satisfying. Needing neither batteries nor an outlet, devoid of both a big injection-molded case and user's manual, the simplicity and elegance of the knife impresses and performs.

I like having a cleanish desk and toss any implement that doesn't get regular use. The X-Acto knife will always have a place of honor there, and at least two are close at hand on the lab bench.

What about you? What tool can't you live without at your desk?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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