The Best Multi-Tool Review
We tested seven of the worlds greatest multi-tools. We cut, pried, sawed, and repaired. We carried them for day-to-day use, as well as into the backcountry. We found a wide range of quality and function. Our list represents both ends of the size spectrum, and everything in between. Read on, and find that reviewed here is a tool for everyone. We tested, at the same time, the best pocket knife. We found that most everyone could use a device from one or both of our pocket tool lists. Consult both our pocket knife buying advice article and multi-tool buying advice to help determine which could be for you.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Update Note: April 2015
We have contacted all of the manufacturers for our award winners and have confirmed that no changes have taken place, unless otherwise noted. A complete review of all products was performed in September 2013.
The concept of combining various tools into a single device is as old as the idea of improving personal efficiency. Throughout human history, people have improvised and commercialized devices with many uses. The modern multi-tool era, however, started in 1984 when Tim Leatherman sold his ground-breaking "Pocket Survival Tool". Leatherman, and other manufacturers, have expanded on the category and continue to offer a variety of options to the discerning multi-tool aficionado. We assessed the products in four categories. We evaluated the functions provided and the ergonomics, portability, and the overall construction quality of each.
The diversity of functions and devices is what absolutely defines the genre. By definition, there are multiple functions in each device. Besides the shear number of tools built into a given product, the design and usability of those individual tools matter a great deal. A product with ten very well designed tools is far more valuable than one with twenty functions crammed in. Additionally, whether those ten well-designed tools are apt to be useful to most users is up for debate. Each user will have his or her own preferences. However, some functions stand out as far more useful. In day to day use, for our testing team, certain functions proved to be far more important. Our testers appreciated a nice blade, tight pliers with wire cutters, scissors, and integrated bit drivers the most. Editors' Choice winner, the Leatherman Charge TTI and the very similar Leatherman Wave are the only tools in our test that completely fulfill this abbreviated, select list of features. Everyone who chooses to carry one will appreciate well-made and general purpose tools like this list. Additionally, users in some environments will have ample opportunity to use more specialized tools. Some will need and use the blasting cap crimper of the SOG PowerAssist S66. Others will regularly use and appreciate the innovative package opener on the Best Buy award winning Leatherman Wingman.
Each of the tools we tested is built on the tried-and-true plier format. Basically, each tool is a set of pliers with other tools built into the handle. In each tested product, the pliers fold into the handles as well. There are different ways of accomplishing this, but the unifying theme is that the pliers are the largest and most functional of all the tools included with any given device. Including other tools into the handles of the pliers will inherently reduce the ergonomic and function of the pliers. However, some multi-tools do this more elegantly than others. In order for the pliers (and wire cutters) to be most functional, the exposed parts of the handles must be rounded and smooth. All of our tested products are serviceable in this regard. Other and older models on the market aren't as comfortable as our tested tools. Just like the pliers, each of the other functions are compromised in usability, simply by virtue of the fact that they are bolted to other tools. A dedicated knife will be more usable than the blade on a multi-tool. Same with a screwdriver, scissors, saw, file, etc. We accept these compromises in the interest of versatility. And we appreciate models with intelligent and convenient integration of the selected functions. We gave high marks to devices that leave the most commonly used functions accessible with a minimal of folding and unfolding moves. We gave high marks to intuitive and effective locking mechanisms. Special mention must be made of the innovative ergonomic features of Top Pick award winner SOG Power Assist. This tool is made for heavy and regular use. The two blades deploy from the "outside" of the stowed pliers. Each locks closed, thumbs open easily and locks for usage. The pliers include a mechanical-advantage gearing system that significantly increases the holding power.
A tool is only as useful as it is available. Will it be there for you when you need it? How is the tool intended to be carried? How big is it? Small tools shuffling around in a glove box or crowded pants pocket will be too time consuming to dig out. Really large and heavy tools are pretty much limited to belt and sheath carry. We liked tools that offered a variety of carry methods. Editors' Choice winner Leatherman Charge TTI, although one of the larger tools in our test, can be configured to carry with a pocket clip, attached to a lanyard or key chain, as well as stowed securely in the included and rugged belt pouch. Additionally the belt pouch with the Charge tool can also hold the included selection of driver bits. At the other end of the size and versatility spectrum, but winning our Top Pick award for its diminutive-yet-tough design, the Leatherman Squirt PS4 virtually disappears on a keychain. This tiny Leatherman is smaller even than many of the far-less versatile tools in our Pocket Knife Review.
In the products we tested, quality of manufacturing varied. Hinges and locking mechanisms reveal the attention paid to detail. Sturdy materials, tight manufacturing tolerances, and intelligent construction really stand out in a tool the end user could handle and use every day. In our testing, high quality construction stood out virtually right away, and only increased in value as time and usage wore on. Our evaluation of these tools' construction quality was initially subjective. Does it "feel" sturdy and confidence inspiring. When this almost-aesthetic assessment came up short for a given contender, it inevitably followed that some aspect of the mechanical function of the knife would act finicky. Plier hinges are the most vulnerable to construction quality. Virtually all of our tested products held up very well through testing. However, it should be noted that, almost immediately upon removing from the package, we broke the handle of the Gerber Bear Grylls Compact Multi-Tool. One tester was cutting a piece of wire clothes hanger for an improvised repair to a tool box. (Ironic, right? Using a tool to repair a device intended to hold many tools). The hinges in the handle of the small Gerber tool couldn't handle the leverage. Other users of this same tool have reported no problems like this. Cutting coat hanger could be considered a heavy task. However, coat hangers are a common source of improvised repair material. And the even smaller and lighter Leatherman Squirt PS4 cuts coat hanger just fine.
Editors' Choice Award: Leatherman Charge TTI
Top Pick Winner for a Heavy-Duty Tool: SOG PowerAssist S66
Top Pick Winner for a Versatile Keychain Tool: Leatherman Squirt PS4
Best Buy Winner: Leatherman Wingman
Leatherman does make a mysterious compromise in leaving out wire cutters. Intuitively anyway, it seems that integrating wire cutters into the pliers would add virtually zero cost. Also, the lone blade is made of mid-grade steel and features a hybrid straight/serrated edge. A blade like this will require regular sharpening. The straight portion is easily reconditioned, but sharpening serrations requires special techniques and tools. Our advice: be careful with use. Use the straight portion whenever possible, saving the serrations for tough tasks like cutting thick rope. Sharpen the straight portion periodically, and once a year employ an inexpensive professional service to resurface the entire blade, serrations and all.
Alternatives to Multi-Tools
We believe that anyone inclined to fix things themselves will find great value and utility in a this tool. The convenience of having an arsenal of functioning tools that fits into your pocket turns a multi-tool carrier into an ever-ready handyman. While we could write page after page covering the uses of a such tool, there are situations where another related product will serve you better. Below, we have summarized a few alternatives to help you find the right product to suit your needs.
Compact tool kit - For handy-man jobs around the house, office, or on the go, a compact tool kit might be a suitable option for you. Because you purchase and assemble this tool kit individually, you can pick and choose exactly what tools you need, and leave out the others. Additionally, these tools are generally larger, sturdier, and tend to perform better than the smaller tools on a multi-tool. Depending on what you put in your compact tool kit, it has the potential to be more versatile, too. The biggest drawback of these kits is that they are much bulkier and heavier and therefore difficult to justify in the backcountry. Also, buying the tools individually can quickly add up to being more expensive than one tool that does it all. For specialized handy-work, this is a great option. However, for everyday, general use, we think a multi-tool will serve you better.
Pocket Knives - A quality pocket knife, like the Benchmade Mini Barrage 585, is a general purpose tool that nearly anyone will find to be handy. Designed with portability in mind, pocket knives are accessible, yet unobtrusive. They are lightweight in comparison and have less bulk. While a pocket knife is primarily a cutting tool, options like the Victorinox SwissChamp Swiss Army Knife possess several other tools built into its design, making them similar to a multi-tool. However, while useful in a variety of settings, pocket knives are still not as versatile. We think it's a good idea to consider having both a pocket knife and a multi-tool amongst your gear, be it around the house or in the backcountry. Check out our Best Pocket Knife Review.
Fixed Blade Knives - If you need a cutting tool for filleting fish or dicing vegetables at a weekend campsite, a fixed blade knife could be a good option for you. Many are designed to have longer blades and meatier handles than such tools with many uses have, giving them more leverage when cutting. Being fixed, they are generally sturdier than multi-tools, as well as pocket knives. They tend to be less expensive, too. Good for their purpose, fixed blade knives are clearly not as versatile; furthermore, they are not practical to carry around daily.
Camping Saws and Hatchets - While the saws on most multi-tools can cut through small branches, to cut through thicker wood requires heavier duty tools. This is where camping saws and hatchets come in handy. They are what you need to cut through thick branches, logs, and trees, which is often necessary when building primitive shelters and cutting firewood in the backcountry. Camping saws come in foldable and chain versions, making them more portable than a regular saw in your garage. Camping hatchets often come with a blunt end for hammering as well. The prices of saws and hatchets are generally less expensive, too. Overall, these tools are great for their intended purpose, yet lack the versatility of a tool of many uses. They also have a larger packed volume and weigh more.
— Jediah Porter
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