How to Choose the Best Multi-Tool

The rounded handles of the Leatherman Wingman allow the user to crank down on the effective plier jaws.
Article By:
Jediah Porter
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday


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.

Types Available


In the view of our testing team, tools can be lumped into three distinct categories.

Keychain-style tools
Keychain-ready multi-tools are one of the most popular categories. It's a low-commitment entry to the world of carrying a toolbox around every day. Most who try a compact multi-tool will see the value and purchase a larger one  at least for stowing in the
Keychain-ready multi-tools are one of the most popular categories. It's a low-commitment entry to the world of carrying a toolbox around every day. Most who try a compact multi-tool will see the value and purchase a larger one, at least for stowing in the
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. 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.

The 2016 test roster of multi-tools  with each main blade engaged. Left to right: Leatherman Squirt  Gerber Suspension  Gelindo Premium  Gerber MP600  Leatherman Wingman  Leatherman Skeletool  Leatherman Rebar  Victorinox Swisstool  SOG PowerAssist  Leatherman Charge TTI.
The 2016 test roster of multi-tools, with each main blade engaged. Left to right: Leatherman Squirt, Gerber Suspension, Gelindo Premium, Gerber MP600, Leatherman Wingman, Leatherman Skeletool, Leatherman Rebar, Victorinox Swisstool, SOG PowerAssist, Leatherman Charge TTI.

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.

Sheath carry is by far the most efficient and handy way to carry a multi tool. Many circumstances prevent this style of transport  however.
Sheath carry is by far the most efficient and handy way to carry a multi tool. Many circumstances prevent this style of transport, however.
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.

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.

The full-size  tool-steel screwdriver bit of the SOG PowerAssist. This tool  of all those in our test  is most targeted to those that work with their hands regularly.
The full-size, tool-steel screwdriver bit of the SOG PowerAssist. This tool, of all those in our test, is most targeted to those that work with their hands regularly.
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.

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.
You'll be amazed at how many seemingly "destroyed" pieces of equipment can be repaired with an ever-present multi-tool.
You'll be amazed at how many seemingly "destroyed" pieces of equipment can be repaired with an ever-present multi-tool.

Jediah Porter
About the Author
Jediah Porter is a full-time part-timer. He works as a mountain guide and for OutdoorGearLab and as a substitute teacher. Guiding work requires an even mix of rock shoes, approach shoes, ice boots, and ski gear. Off the clock, he climbs and skis. He also engages in binges of mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and trail-running. He goes by Jed and takes pride in using the right tool for the job, unless he doesn't have that tool. In which case he improvises. "If you don't have it, you don't need it". He has lived most of his adult life in the Eastern Sierra and tries to get to Alaska (for big mountains) and the East Coast (for family) once each year. Jed's web site is www.jediahporter.com

 
 

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