Why a Multi-Tool?
Mashing multiple tools together into a single package is not a new idea. Craftsmen and odd-jobbers throughout history have streamlined their lives by combining often-used tools in various fashions. However, it was in 1984 that a guy named Tim Leatherman essentially invented the category of commercially-made, general-purpose, pocket tools with his original "Pocket Survival Tool". This first model was a pair of pliers that closed up like a balisong knife. This type of closure served to make the pliers more compact while at the same time protecting the owner's pants pocket from the abrasion of plier points and teeth.
Into the handles of the folding pliers, Leatherman added knife blades and screwdrivers and other useful tools. Designs have evolved and become more streamlined, but the bulk of multi-tools trace their lineage to the original Pocket Survival Tool. In a testimony to Leatherman's original vision, four of the five award winners in our comprehensive Multi-Tool Review are manufactured by the company he started and that still carries his last name. Other companies have come up to speed and offer useful tools, each with its own unique attributes.
In the view of our testing team, tools can be lumped into three distinct categories.
These are significantly downsized to fit unnoticed on a set of keys. Unnoticed, that is, until the user needs one of the features included. When faced with one of many daily tasks, the user will have a ready tool just as handy as his or her keys.
General-purpose, full-size tools
This is the bulk of the category. Most multi-tools on the market fall under this umbrella. Tools are differentiated by construction quality, cost, features, and carry method.
General purpose tools targeted to specific groups
This is a bit confusing to explain. Essentially, some tools offer the typical features (pliers, blades, drivers) and then add in tools that will appeal to a specific user group. Offerings in this category are targeted variously to gun-owners, explosive technicians, electricians, and others. Some tools are just a little burlier and handy than the general purpose tools. For example, the SOG PowerAssist S66 falls into this category. It has no specialized tools but is clearly targeted to the user working in construction or another manual labor field. We reviewed the SOG S66 in the past, but because of the limited appeal of such a specialized tool, we eliminated it for 2017. Those looking for a specialized tool like this, for a given field, will have to look elsewhere for reviews and advice. We are limiting our discussion to all-purpose multi-tools, regardless of size.
How to Choose One
In order to narrow down the field of options for your selection, allow us to walk through some considerations with you. First of all, if you are someone for whom a trade-specific tool is appropriate, we will assume that you have a network from which to draw important information. Our advice below will be best for those that are not using a multi-tool in a professional-level application.
How "handy" would you characterize yourself? Do you run to the repair shop for every blown light bulb on your car? Or do you face a broken dishwasher and dig around a little bit to see if the damage is clear? If you fall into the latter category, you'll first consider a full-size multi-tool. Any of the tools in this category will tackle many auto and household improvised repairs. Larger tasks, no matter how handy you are, will require dedicated tools. Similarly, extended use with any tool is better done with the proper, single-purpose version of that tool. Multi-tools are inherently limited by their "jack of all trades" status. However, for the quick repairs and "exploratory dismantling" of a broken or poorly-functioning piece of equipment, a multi-tool is just the ticket.
If you are comfortable and glad to seek outside assistance for life's inevitable mechanical failures, we still recommend considering a multi-tool. A tiny tool on your keychain like our Top Pick Leatherman PS4 will find almost daily use for even the most clumsy handi-person. If you'll choose a full-size tool, consider how often and where you will carry it. Our lead test author would argue that everyone who is able to carry it will find daily use for a full-size multi-tool. However, for many reasons, this is not desirable to all. Many will choose to leave theirs in a car or backpack or even at home.
If you will carry a full-size one every day, consider how you will carry it. Many folks in the "trades" can carry a tool on their belt. This is by far the most efficient and comfortable way to carry one. However, contemporary fashion and social convention frowns on this style of carry in certain circles. In this case, you will carry the tool in your pants pocket or purse. In the purse, specialized carry features are a moot point. Perhaps having a lanyard ring to attach it in such a way that it can be easily retrieved is worthwhile. In the pants pocket, however, consider pocket-clipped carry. A tool floating around low in a pocket flops while walking. It also gets plugged with spare change and can displace other pocket contents while pulling it out. Nothing negates the self-sufficiency of carrying a multi-tool like losing a $10 bill while pulling the tool out. A pocket clip, again, keeps the tool up off the bottom of the pocket. It keeps it in a secure and handy position where it swings and bounces far less.
For pocket carry, whether clipped or loose, consider the external "roughness" of the tool you choose. A smooth external profile of the closed multi-tool will chafe your pockets less. A full-size multi-tool with rough exterior can readily wear a hole in your pants pocket over just a few weeks. Smooth external profiles are easier on your pants and on your working hands. The above are the big questions. How often will you use it? How will you carry it? Everything else is smaller and far more personal. Certain features, in extended use, prove more valuable. A large blade will be used in food preparation far more than you can imagine. Even in the kitchen of many of our testers, having one in the pocket has proven more handy than a kitchen knife for quickly cutting open a bag of pasta or slicing off a chunk of cheese.
Scissors, same consideration. You'll use these more than you think. Screwdrivers come on every tool, but its ok if they're hidden further away. Our testing team used pliers, blade, and scissors each perhaps ten times more than screwdrivers. Those with certain consumptive habits -you know who you are- will use a bottle opener more than any other tool. Thankfully most tools have one.
With screwdrivers, consider the pros and cons of built-in drivers vs accessory bit holders. Built in drivers never get lost, but the advantages stop there. For maximum versatility and durability, a driver for interchangeable bits is a great addition to your multi-tool. Interchangeable bits are nearly infinitely customizable and can be replaced very readily if one is damaged. There are two main bit driver interfaces available in multi-tools. First, a few tools on the market come ready to receive standardized and widely available 1/4" drive bits. Next, certain Leatherman brand tools come with their proprietary "flattened" bits and bit drivers. The Leatherman system is more compact, but the bits and driver are less strong and the options are more limited. Again, if your avocation or trade requires specialized tools, we must assume that you are in tune with what those are and will seek out a tool that serves you from day-to-day and through the work day, to the home shop, to your vacation.
The OutdoorGearLab Editors Dream Multi-Tool
With decades of experience using multi-tools and years now of reviewing the best on the market, we have yet to see the perfect multi-tool. If we could design the ideal multi-tool, for both everyday carry and car/expedition/bicycle repair kit use, it would look like this:
- External dimensions and form-factor of the Leatherman Wingman. This is slightly more compact than the bulk of "full-size" tools, with a pocket clip and externally accessed scissors and "one-handed" blade.
- Straight, high-quality steel blade, like that on the Leatherman Charge TTI.
- 1/4" bit driver like that on the Baladeo Locker.
- Can and bottle opener.
- Scissors like on the Victorinox SwissTool SpiritX.
- Corkscrew like on the Baladeo Locker.
If, in any universe, this could all be combined with locking pliers, we'd be ecstatic.