Marking Knife vs Utility Knife – Which Is Best?

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One of the most annoying things about starting a complex project is finding out you need a tool you do not have. And as a self-taught woodworker, I know that the marking knife can be one of the easiest things to forget when shopping for tools. If you’re like me and in a position, I was in a few years ago, you might be wondering if a utility knife will do the job.

You can use a utility knife as a marking knife only when working with softwood and want to mark a straight line. For fine cuts, detailing, and non-linear (curve) cutting, you need a marking knife to create a prominent and accurate path for your blade to rest on and follow.

In this article, you will learn the specific instances where the marking knife is not required, the kind of projects where using a utility knife is acceptable, and the type of tools that do not work well with utility knife marking.

By the end of this post, you will have the knowledge base to judge whether you need to buy a marking knife at all. But first, let’s look at the conditions under which you use a utility knife as a marking knife.

When the Marking Doesn’t Require High Manoeuvrability

Marking Knife vs utility knife
Marking knife

There are instances in woodworking where the marking has to be very fine. On the surface level, you might think the thinness of a utility knife’s blade makes it better suited for outlining smaller cuts like thin dovetails. But if you were to try it, you would find the utility knife hard to maneuver.

I’ve used my marking knife to slice graph paper for a few woodworking projects, and any cut that wasn’t a straight line was difficult to make with a utility knife.

One can mark dovetails with a utility knife as long as the cuts are thick. But if they’re thin enough to require switching the blade angle in the middle of the marking process, you have to ditch the utility knife and use a marking knife.

Think through your project beyond the first outline. Is every cut linear? If that’s the case, you may be able to use a utility knife as a marking knife.

When the Marking Width Doesn’t Matter

A cut’s nature dictates the width of the marking required. For power tool-driven cutting, you cannot watch the surface closely and need clear marking that is visible from a safe distance. A utility knife outline can work for hand carving, where you can afford to follow a thinner line patiently.

In both cases, the marking knife outline is more convenient. But in one of them, the utility knife outline is downright impractical.

A good way to assess this is to take a throwaway piece of wood (the same type as the project piece) and mark a line on its surface using a utility knife. After that, you must step as far back as you would be when using the power tools required for your project. 

If you can see the line clearly, you can use the utility knife. But if you can’t, you must get yourself a marking knife. I understand that this experiment can be time-consuming, so I conducted the experiment a few times. Here are the results

Project ToolsYour Face Is…You Should Use A…
Hand Saw2.5 feet awaymarking knife or a utility knife
Power Saw3 to 5 feet awayutility knife only
Chain Saw4 to 5 feet awayutility knife only
Router2.5 to 3 feet awaymarking knife or a utility knife
Chisel2 feet awayutility knife only (explained later)
Plane4 feet awaymarking knife or a utility knife
Lathe4 to 6 feet awayutility knife
Distance away from the workpiece and which marking knife to use

Some of these tools are rarely used in a project that requires marking for their use. Still, to make sure I had the bases covered, I conducted these tests on a range of appropriate hardwoods and softwoods. The results did not vary much by wood type, and the distance I had to maintain remained the same. 

You can add a pencil line into your

marking knife line to make it stand out more.

Since the only differentiating factor was the specific tool, you need to ask yourself if any of these will be used in your project. If the said tool follows a knife-carved outline, then you should get the knife recommended in the cell next to it.

When the Marking Surface Is Lighter Stock

While the type of cut being made and the tool being used both play an important role in the usability of a utility knife as a marking knife, the wood stock of the project matters as well. The cut type and the tool have more to do with how well you can see the marking. 

But the wood stock is related to the ease or difficulty of marking. The general rule of thumb is that you should get a marking knife if marking with a utility knife is tougher than ordering a marking knife. But if you want to assess the usability of a utility knife based on the possibility of making a mark on different cuts, the following table can help.

WoodUtility Knife Marking DifficultyUsage Recommendation
PineEasyA utility knife can be used for marking.
CedarSomewhat EasyIt is better to use a marking knife.
Hem-firEasyA utility knife can be used for marking.
Douglas-firEasyA utility knife can be used for marking.
OakExtremely difficultA utility knife must not be used.
BeechSomewhat difficultIt is better to use a marking knife.
MapleDifficultA utility knife must not be used.
MerantiSomewhat difficultIt is better to use a marking knife.
Table showing where utility knife can be used

With the information above, you just need to ask yourself which wood your project uses and check out the difficulty level you will face when marking with a utility knife. If the outline doesn’t need to be complex, you may want to go ahead and use a utility knife even when it is difficult to use.

When You Do Not Have a Marking Knife

One of the most acceptable conditions under which one can use a utility knife as a marking knife is when one does not have access to a utility knife, and getting one is not possible.

Utility knife vs marking knife
Utility knife used to mark lines on wood

Circumstances like projects with deadlines and woodworking in a remote area all make using a utility knife acceptable even when the outline work requires more effort.

Here are the best practices for using a utility knife as a marking knife:

  • Make multiple passes and prioritize visibility – There is no rule that prevents you from running the blade a few times within the marking to make it more prominent.
  • Do not extend the blade too much – The further out a utility knife’s blade is, the weaker it is. Extend it just a little to keep the blade from breaking on the hardwood.
  • Remove blade and change directions – Do not attempt to make deep round marking with a utility knife. Remove the stress on the blade and then change its angle a little before continuing the marking process. 

The Marking Precedes a Cutting Assignment

There are two types of assignments that require knife-marking. The first and the most commonly used is a cutting assignment. This is where the knife mark indicates where you’re going to make a cut with a saw or some other bladed tool.

I have used many different types of marking and utility knives and this is the one all-rounder knife that would suit most woodworkers.

X-Acto No 1 Precision Knife is one of the best-marking knives for DIY projects as it is fine enough for most small-scale and medium-tier projects.

It has over 29,000 reviews and ratings and has a global average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars!

The second type is depth-detailing, where the marking itself is the detail and is broadened using a chisel or a similar detailing tool. For the latter, a utility knife is a must because the project requires:

  • High maneuverability – Too many curving details and the need for getting a prominent mark make it essential for the woodworker to use a durable blade that is specifically made for marking.
  • Marking breadth – Since the tool that is used after marking broadens the knife marking, its blade must be logged into the marking. A utility knife’s marking is not wide enough for a hand router or a chisel, making it impractical for most detailing work.

What Is A Marking Knife Used For?

A marking knife is used to create outlines and cutting guidelines in different woodworking projects. Sometimes it is also used for detailing, but in most cases, it remains a precision-enhancing tool.

Project Boundaries

One of the broadest uses of a marking knife in woodworking is in setting project boundaries. When a large piece of wood needs to be cut into a smaller piece, one must follow certain length and width specifications.

For this, one can use a pencil/pen or an etching tool like a marking knife. The marking knife also gives the blade a line to rest on, which improves the accuracy of the cut.

This X-acto knife is what I have used in the past and it works well.

Guiding Lines

Guiding lines are important for ensuring the accuracy of routing, sawing, and joinery. Marking knife allows you to etch a permanent guiding line that you can return to even after significant time has passed from the project’s inception. While marking pens can be used for short-term projects, a marking knife is crucial for longer projects. 

In some instances, multiple craftsmen work in an assembly line where one outlines the working surface, and the other makes the cuts. A marking knife makes sure the guidelines are not lost in transporting the semi-prepared surface.

I found this video very helpful. It explains different the types of marking knives and where they can be used.

Video about marking knives


Finally, a marking knife can be used to etch out the finishing details. While in most cases, the marking knife precedes the actual detailing tool, in some cases, the knife can be that tool as well. With the first pass, the details are outlined, and the next pass makes them prominent enough.

Do You Need a Marking Knife?

You need a marking knife when working with hardwood, crafting chisel-driven details, or making round cuts. In most other instances, a marker or a utility knife can create acceptable guiding lines. Still, woodworkers are expected to have a marking knife.

You need a marking knife at one point or another as a woodworker. But you can complete specific projects without getting a marking knife. Having studied the relevance of the marking knife to different types of wood and functions, I have arrived at a set of conclusions regarding common woodworking projects.

Please refer to the table below before investing in one.

Project TypeDo You Need A Marking Knife
Making decorative furnitureMarking knife required
Making a plain cabinet or drawersYou can use a utility knife
Making framesA utility knife can work 
Making hardwood furnitureA marking knife is recommended
BirdhouseYou can use a marker
Cup holder / CandleholderMarking knife required
Garden furnitureA marking knife is recommended
Table showing when a marking knife should be used

Why Use a Marking Knife Instead of a Pencil? Pencil vs. Marking Knife

Both pencil and marking knives can be used to create guiding paths for different cuts, carving paths, and detailing foundations. However, the marking knife improves precision by creating a line in which the blade can rest, reducing the chances of slipups.

Use A Pencil For…Use A Marking Knife For…
Thin sheets of woodMedium-depth and thick wood
High-precision toolsLow, medium, and high precision tools
Automated cutting toolsAutomated and manual cutting tools
When you should use a marking knife vs a pencil

Which Marking Knife Should You Buy?

I have used many different types of marking and utility knives and this is the one all-rounder knife that would suit most woodworkers.

X-Acto No 1 Precision Knife is one of the best-marking knives for DIY projects as it is fine enough for most small-scale and medium-tier projects.

It has over 29,000 reviews and ratings and has a global average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars!

Do Marking Knives Need to Be Sharpened?

Marking knives need to be sharpened after they have been used for a while. But, since they’re made with strong material, it is easier to replace them than to get them sharpened from a local tool shop.

Final Thoughts – Marking Knife or Utility Knife

Marking knives are boundary-setting tools that prepare the path for a more practical blade to do the job. They’re used for creating the outlines and guiding paths for sawing, routing, detailing, and joinery, among other things. Most woodworkers get marking knives because of their versatility and importance to different types of projects.


I'm the guy behind Woodwork Hubby! I have been doing woodwork and cabinetmaking for over 30 years so I decided to start this site to help educate others on what I have learned.

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