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, three of the four 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.
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. In our testing, 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.
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 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. But for the quick repairs and "exploratory dismantling", a multi-tool is just the job.
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.
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.
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.