The New Rules for Buying a Multitool

How to find the best tool for your pocket and wallet

Nov 4, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
The New Rules for Buying a Multitool

People fetishize these things like they're art. They're not; multitools are meant to be functional first.    Photo: Jim Pennucci

Way back in 1980, a young engineer named Tim Leatherman came up with the idea for a pair of pliers you could easily carry in your pocket. Three years later, his Pocket Survival Tool hit the market. Priced at $25, it carried a dozen tools, including the now-definitive needle-nose pliers. You could use the tool to tackle emergency roadside repairs, small chores around the house, and the infinite variety of little problems life throws at you every day.

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Today, Leatherman sells more than $100 million each year of what are now called multitools, and the market is exploding with all manner of exciting new designs from new companies. But can today’s complicated, intricate, and often expensive tools really do much more for you than the original? Let’s cut through the marketing speak, inflated claims, and overly cheap knife blades to help you find the tool that’s right for you.

multitools-tim
Tim, working in a friend's dad's machine shop in the early '80s. His is one of the great American inventor success stories of our time.   Photo: Leatherman

Rule #1: All That Matters Is How You Carry It

The first rule of multitool buying: the best tool in an emergency is the one you have with you. When in doubt about any other facet of multitool use, refer to this rule.

I used to work as a carpenter, painter, and handyman. I fixed up the house I live in. I’m the guy everyone I know calls when they have any sort of mechanical problem, and I drive a notoriously unreliable old Land Rover that I maintain myself. I like tools, and I know how to use them. You know which multitool I use nine times out of ten? A dinky little Leatherman Style PS. That’s because it rides on my keychain, so it’s with me if I’m on my bicycle or motorcycle, in board shorts, at the climbing gym, and walking my dog. It’s TSA compliant, so I even take it on airplanes. Because it’s so easy to carry, it enables me to respond to problems immediately. Something broke? There, I fixed it.

Are there bigger, better tools out there? Of course. But having to go get it defeats the entire mission of a multitool: capability, conveniently carried. If I have to put down what I’m doing and go get something, I may as well just go out to my garage or truck and bring back my real tool kit.

Are you really going to wear a little sheath on your belt with a full-size multitool everywhere you go? If so, I salute your preparedness, but you’re also probably a practical enough person to realize the hardcore EDC lifestyle isn’t for everyone.

Rule #2: Multitools Are No Substitute for Real Tools

Yes, you can fix a few things on your car with a multitool. You can tighten a loose screw, trim a zip tie, or even pull a fuse. But if your work gets more serious, you’ll need a socket set, T-handles, wire crimpers, a breaker bar, and all manner of proprietary widgets and gizmos.

You know this already, so why am I telling you? Because it should help simplify your multitool needs. You don’t need to carry one with an array of metric, imperial, and Torx bits. If a job requires those things, you’ll need to get out your real tools anyway.

Instead of trying to find a multitool capable of solving any repair need you can possibly imagine, focus on finding one that can deal with common, day-to-day problems and is small and slim enough to carry easily.

Need a specific tool for a specific job? Often, you can just carry it separately and more easily than you would if it was included in a multitool. For example, I need a 12-millimeter Allen wrench to pull the wheels off my bicycle. Instead of trying to lug around a big multitool with a bit driver and a selection of easily lost bits, I just throw a 12-millimeter Allen wrench into a pocket. Job done. That little wrench weighs nothing, works better, and is way stronger than a multitool’s folding bit driver could ever hope to be.

multitools-keychain
My take on the perfect keychain toolkit. All this stuff together rides easily in my pocket yet grants me a formidable ability to fix stuff, impress girls, and strike up conversations with always-fascinating TSA agents.   Photo: Wes Siler

Rule #3: Ditch the Knife Blade

Are you a handy person? Do you like to be prepared? Heck, are you the kind of person who carries a multitool? Then you should also understand that a knife is one of the most essential tools any person can carry. We humans have all manner of appendages capable of gripping and tearing and twisting and pulling, but we do not have any that are capable of cutting. Well, at least with anything approaching delicacy and without sticking stuff in your mouth. So you will need a knife.

Why not rely on a knife mounted in a multitool? Well, it turns out that a big clump of tools does not make a good handle. And the way you grip and interact with your knife is arguably more important than any aspect of its blade. But while we’re talking about blades, it’s worth stating that every knife blade ever mounted in a multitool has just sucked. They’re made from cheap steel, include pointless serrations, and are weakly mounted, and the shape of the handle and the way the knife is attached limit your ability to use the blade’s entire length.

Save yourself a ton of frustration and swearing and just carry a quality single-blade locking pocketknife. It’ll be the most-used tool in your pocket.

leatherman-pst
Leatherman's original Pocket Survival Tool aced the multitool formula. It's simple and functional. You don't need anything more.   Photo: Leatherman

Rule #4: Simple Is Best

Leatherman’s latest tool is the Signal. Targeted at outdoorsy types and people who read a bunch of B.S. about survival, it includes a useless ferro rod, a functionless knife sharpener, and a terrible little whistle on its handle. Not only are these parts so small that they’re worthless, but you’ll also lose them the first time you go car camping.

You want a multitool that is simple, useful, and robust—and one you can easily carry with you. The Signal is otherwise a decent outdoors-oriented multitool, complete with useful stuff like a can opener and little wood saw. But the Leatherman Rebar packs all those functions and more in a more durable tool—for $40 less.

Rule #5: Anything Designed to Fit in Your Wallet Is Trash

Take it from someone who likes carrying tools with him so much that it’s borderline OCD: every tool designed to fit in your wallet is totally worthless. I’ve tried carrying the foldable knives, the one-piece metal survival cards, and even the Swiss Card. None of them work, and none of them last, all while giving you a bad case of Constanza Wallet.

If you want an array of genuinely useful stuff—like a little flashlight, pry bar, and whatnot—put it on your keychain.

Don’t even get me started on the Leatherman Tread.

What Should You Buy?

It’s totally overwhelming to look at the vast array of multitools now available. But if you apply these six rules, you’ll find that most are poorly constructed, overly complicated attempts to sell you something you don’t need.

If you want a keychain tool, I can’t recommend the $20 Leatherman Style PS highly enough. That you can take it on an airplane without any hassle from security is a life changer if you like to travel carry-on only.

If you want a slightly larger multitool that’s still pocket friendly, Leatherman’s much-loved Juice range is a good place to start. It has more tools and a more comfortable handle that allows you to apply more force.

Do you really want to wear a multitool holster? I stopped carrying full-size tools a long time ago, but if you insist, then look at full-size options from Leatherman, SOG, Victorinox, and Gerber. All Leatherman multitools are made in the United States and are of great quality. They’re also backed with a 25-year guarantee. I’ve always loved SOG’s compound leverage system, which doubles the force you apply to the pliers, but the design of the company’s tools can be frustrating. Some of Gerber’s larger, more expensive multitools are made in the United States and are well regarded, but after one snapped in half on me a few years ago, I now avoid the brand. Victorinox’s Swiss-made tools are extremely well made, but their price reflects that. If I were shopping for a large multitool right now, it’d be the knifeless Leatherman Rebar. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, in a tool that won’t fail you.

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