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What is a Scalpel?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A scalpel is a thin, small, very sharp knife. These knives are famously used in surgery, but there are also versions for crafts. Medical supply companies sell surgical scalpels, although some restrict their sale to physicians only, while craft scalpels can be obtained in any good craft store. This icon of the surgical trade is a tremendously useful tool inside and outside the operating room, and a basic craft knife can be a very handy thing to keep around the house for various projects.

There are two parts to the scalpel: a handle and a blade. The handle is reusable, and in the case of a surgical blade, designed to undergo sterilization. The blade, which can be removed, is disposable. With a surgical knife, the blade is changed between patients, both to reduce the risk of transmitting disease, and to ensure that the blade is as sharp as possible for each new patient. With craft scalpels, the blade is replaced when it starts to dull and become less effective.

Some companies make blades which can be resharpened and used again. Sharpening a blade is tricky, because it is thin, very fine, and delicate, and it is easy to damage the blade and create a burr which cannot be removed. In the case of surgical scalpels, sharpening can also create hairline cracks and gouges in the surface which may become home to disease-carrying organisms, which is undesirable.

It is also possible to purchase an entire scalpel as a disposable unit. In this case, the handle is often made from plastic, and the blade may be designed to retract into the blade, staying covered until needed and then being retracted back into the blade for disposal.

Blades should be disposed of safely, craft or otherwise. The blades are very sharp, and could hurt someone if they were disposed of uncovered. In hospitals, a sharps container is used to hold use the knives. Craft blades should be wrapped or secured before being thrown away so that waste management personnel don't cut themselves handling the garbage. Some replacement blade sets come in a small box which allows people to insert used blades into the bottom and take fresh blades from the top, using the whole box as a sharps container for disposal once it has filled with dulled blades.

In medicine, lasers are also used for cutting in some procedures. A laser may be referred to as a “laser scalpel” even though it doesn't cut in the way that a traditional knife does. The energy of the light from the laser actually vaporizes the tissue it targets. While this sounds rather brutal, it can actually be less invasive than a traditional knife, and using lasers cuts down healing time, reduces patient discomfort after surgery, and reduces the risk of some surgical complications.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Apr 26, 2014

@umbra21 - There is just something more elegant about using a scalpel too. I actually quite liked my dissection class, although I know that sounds weird. I loved having a little folder full of different kinds of blades and being able to use them to discover things about the natural world.

I preferred using them on plants, but it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be to dissect different kinds of animals. It's not something I would ever do again, but I still like having my dissection kit around. I don't think there is any real substitute for a proper scalpel.

By umbra21 — On Apr 25, 2014

@KoiwiGal - I actually find it the opposite. A proper disposable scalpel blade is easy to change, while box cutters always seem to take a lot of effort to snap off and I'm usually worried I'll slip while doing it and take off a finger or something.

Besides, a scalpel is made for precision work which is what most crafts people will care about. If all you are doing is cutting down big chunks of cardboard then a box cutter is certainly going to be more cost effective. But if you are engaging in any kind of real paper craft, you really need a much finer blade with decent control, so that you can cut tiny shapes. There's a reason surgeons don't use instruments shaped like box cutters.

By KoiwiGal — On Apr 25, 2014

I'd rather use a box cutter blade for craft, which is similar to a scalpel but has blades that snap off, revealing a new edge whenever you need one.

You can get them in various sizes and they tend to be fairly cheap. They just seem like they are a lot less fuss than a scalpel, especially since they come with the extra blades already equipped and you don't have to worry about replacement.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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