Features November 1, 2001 Issue

Multi-Tools: Leatherman Wave Covers the Waterfront

In a field of 18, Leatherman leads the way with a quality tool at a good price. The Gerber 800 Legend, the Kershaw, SOG's Powerlock, and the Spyderco SpydeRench also sit at the top of our list.

Following the theme of our knife-test article of June 2000, we decided to look at multi-tools, highly portable gadgets that incorporate up to well over a dozen functions. 

The Leatherman's serrated and plain-edge
knives can be opened and closed with one
hand. The blades aren't mixed with the other
tools, which is why we think it's the safest
of the large tools tested.

Multi-tools can't be evaluated by the same criteria as knives. They offer different sets of functions in varying configurations, and many of these interact with one another, both statically and dynamically. So we've distilled our discussion into short statements about what we believe to be important about each tool, bearing in mind that everyone has different sets of preferences and requirements when it comes to these things. We hope that the feature lists and our thoughts will allow you to select a comfortable number of leads to follow on the way to any purchase.

The great advantage of the modern multi-tool can be expressed in two words: convenience and efficiency. Worn on the belt, it's immediately available for a number of tasks, and the best models can even be deployed with one hand. As you consider the points below keep in mind that we're talking about a tool you carry habitually, not one that first has to be located and fetched.

The modern multi-tool is a clear departure from its ancestors, the century-old Swiss Army knife and the Boy Scout knife: We see the ascending influence of the toolbox these days in features such as heavy-duty pliers, compound leverage jaws, sawblade holders, and hex-bit drivers.

With few exceptions, however, you probably already own the individual tools they offer in a package: pliers, wire cutters, screwdrivers, bottle/can openers, files and saws. Thus, if it's to contend successfully for our money and attention—as well as space on our waists along with phones, pagers and PDAs—a multi-tool must major in efficiency. Otherwise it's just a novelty that will probably be at home when its designed-for need occurs at sea.

What We Tested
One vendor on the Internet lists over 135 items in its "multi-tool" product category. Of course this includes some Swiss Army knives, credit card-style tools, and variations by size, shape and even color. With a few minor exceptions, however, all of the tools selected for evaluation here are variations on the primary configuration of a pair of pliers.

To get a good representation of the current field, we augmented what we already knew by scanning the Internet, examining catalogues, and checking with marine stores.

Not surprisingly, most multi-tools come from companies that make knives, especially folding knives. We can see some of their knife-thinking, both useful and otherwise, in many of these tools. Eighteen models from 10 companies are represented: Bear, Buck, Gerber, Kershaw, Kutmaster, Leatherman, Schrade, SOG, Spyderco and Victorinox.

The Testing
Almost immediately, the tools and their respective uses arranged themselves into two distinct groups—one likely to be of serious help in working on something on a boat, the other likely to be chiefly a personal or grooming aid. Some "personal" features, however, do have potential uses as minor on-board tools:

• Nail file: may be the only one on boat.
• Tweezers: could also be useful in first-aid.
• Extra small screwdriver for tightening eyeglass screws.
• Nail cleaner (might be used as a scraper).
• Scissors: lots of good uses.

For the serious work tools we identified a core set of actions likely to be required. These would be especially important when you're in a hurry and the toolbox isn’t handy. If it's rotating, compressing or holding actions that you need, look for such features as locking, spring-loaded and slip-joint jaws; compound leverage, hex-bit adaptability, or an adjustable wrench. Tweezers and needlenose plier jaws favor extraction of objects from splinters to small nails. For cutting, look first to your knife, although most of the work tools offer a wire-cutter for materials beyond what a knife should be asked to cut.

We evaluated plier and wrenchfunctions by tightening and loosening torqued bolts and nuts, pulling nails from boards, and cutting various thicknesses of wire and cable. These uses brought out the relative comfort of the handles, which are necessarily compromises in that they are also storage areas for individual tools. We removed burrs from metal and tried sharpening knives with the abrasive tools. The highly rated models did well in all these tests.

Although useful in their own right, certain features were designated as value-neutral. Don't confuse value-neutral with valueless: Even if they add little to a work tool, they can be valuable as backup versions of stand-alone tools. Most important on this list are knife blades: In a multi-tool the benefits of a sharp blade are often offset by the awkwardness and consequent danger of extracting and wielding any of the tools, especially in an urgent situation. There should always be a dedicated sheath knife abovedecks, with its location known to all.

A few more value-neutral features: A can/bottle opener is chiefly a galley implement; awls and wood saws are of limited use on a modern boat; fishing-specific features duplicate tools most fishermen have.

The tools are listed first in alphabetical order by company, and by increasing size within the company.

Bear Mini Bear Jaws 153
For those of us who'd rather have pliers than scissors in a small personal tool, here it is. Unfortunately the plier jaws crowd out other potential tools in the handles, so you're left with knife blade, nail file, and two smallish screwdriver blades. All surfaces appear to have been over-polished or tumbled to get a smooth finish. Individual items lock by friction only.

• Bottle opener
• File, particle abrasive, w/nail cleaner
• Knife blade, unprotected
• Keyring
• Pliers, narrow jaw
• Rulers
• Screwdriver combo, fine slotted and modified Phillips
• Stainless steel
• User-adjustable tool tension
• Wire cutter

Bear Jaws 155L/Super Bear Jaws 156L
A lever bar is mounted on each handle as though it were a tool. Its job is to help open, and also to unlock, the individual components. Despite this assist, several of the blades were difficult to open. Only the pliers are accessible with one hand. Innovation level is fairly low.

• Awl (156L)
• Bottle/can opener
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Knife blades, 2 unprotected (1 on 156L
• Lanyard attachment
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, regular and narrow jaw
• Rulers
• Screwdriver, fine (156L)
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel
• User-adjustable tool tension
• Wire cutter
• Wood saw (156L)

Buck Minibuck Tool 2692
A personal tool with pliers and scissors, although neither is especially good (plier jaws are flat; scissor blades are tiny). Open the tool by twisting its handles to the side rather than outward. Handles don't lock in either closed or open position and must be rotated to an intermediate position before folding out their individual tools. The tool requires a plastic sheath to keep closed in your pocket. For small and rather basic personal uses.

• Bottle opener
• File, particle abrasive, w/nail cleaner
• Keyring
• Knife blade, unprotected
• Plastic pocket sheath
• Pliers, narrow jaw
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, modified Phillips, small
• Stainless steel
• Tweezers

Buck Tool 2631
A full-size version of the 2692 above with, unfortunately, most of its drawbacks, centering around the handle design. A nylon belt sheath is provided. Plier jaws have compound surfaces and a wire cutter. Screwdriver blades are stubby to accommodate the plier jaws when closed.

The Buck Tool is big enough to qualify as a work tool but handicapped by an awkward design, in our opinion. Buck touts the twisting-handle design but we think it suffers greatly in the key convenience parameter, as well as being wobbly in the hand during use. Left-handers need not apply.

• Bottle/can opener
• Knife blades, 2 unprotected
• Lanyard attachment
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, narrow jaw
• Positive locking tools
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel
• Wire cutter

Gerber MP600 Fisherman
This is a full-size, nicely finished tool in the Multi-Plier series. Long, tapered jaws feature wire cutters as in the model 800. They collapse part way into the handle and can be shaken open with one hand. There's nothing extraordinary about the variety of individual tools, but each is good-sized and easy to deploy into locked position, requiring two hands to do so, however. Purchasers of the 600 may also use the Gerber "Build Your Own" program to customize their included tools to some extent.

• Awl
• Bottle/can opener
• Chisel function
• File, milled
• File, particle abrasive, w/point sharpener
• Independent tool rotation
• Knife blades, 2 unprotected
• Lanyard attachment
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, needle nose, w/4 fishing sinker crimpers
• Positive locking tools
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel, bead-blasted
• Wire cutter and hard-wire cutter, w/user-replaceable tungsten cobalt steel inserts

Gerber MP800 Legend
The company's current top-of-the-line model is full of features, including serious pliers with spring-loaded jaws, replaceable tungsten/cobalt carbide wire cutter inserts, and an innovative sawblade holder. Die-cast aluminum handles are contoured for fit and feature textured patches to enhance grip. It affords one-hand access to pliers, knife blade and scissors. All tools except the pliers are directly deployable into locked position without opening the handles. This is a robust and capable tool and probably the best in the full-size group.

• Bottle/can opener
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Independent tool rotation
• Knife blade, unprotected, one-handed opening
• Pliers, spring-loaded, heavy-duty w/narrow nose
• Nylon sheath
• Positive locking tools
• Rubber-like grip inserts
• Sawblade holder for standard 2 ¾" blades, w/RemGrit GJ-4 blade
• Scissors, spring-loaded, one-handed opening
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel tools, die-cast aluminum handles
• User-adjustable tool tension, w/included Torx wrench
• Wire cutter and hard-wire cutter, w/user-replaceable tungsten cobalt steel inserts

Kershaw Multi Tool
Locking tapered jaws in the Vise Grip style dominate this tool's list of features. Because the locking mechanism takes up most of one handle, the tool list is a bit light but includes a hacksaw blade and one Phillips and one slotted screwdriver, both with good reach. Admirably, there is only one knife blade and it's on the other handle, safe in its own compartment. However, we think it's unsafe while in operation due to two interacting design flaws: The opening stud is only 1/2" from the blade pivot, and the ball-bearing detent that holds the blade closed provides far too much resistance to opening.

• Bottle/can opener
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Knife blade, protected, one-handed opening (see text for safety note)
• Locking latch holds handles closed
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, narrow nose, locking w/tension adjustment and release bar
• Replaceable hacksaw blade
• Rulers
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel, brush finish
• User-adjustable tool tension
• Wire cutter

Kutmaster Minimaster 3536
This model consists of a very compact linear arrangement of personal tools; all are easy to extend for use. The non-pliers configuration includes a folding cover that locks (with only moderate security) any extended tool(s) and three hex wrenches via holes in the cover. • Bottle opener
• File, milled, double-cut
• Hex-head openings in case top, 3/8", 5/16", 11/32"
• Keyring
• Knife blade, unprotected
• Nail cleaner
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, modified Phillips
• Stainless steel, bead blasted
• Tweezers

Kutmaster Multimaster 3565/3566
Standard and needlenose variants of the same basic multi-tool. One handle is used for inserting hex bits; five hefty tool blades fold out from the other: one saw, two knife blades, one can opener and one file. Closing the pliers locks any tools that are folded out. No fold-out screwdrivers. Tools are stiff and difficult to deploy. Plier jaws have wire cutters and are integral with the handles—no need to fold them out, although this makes for a longer tool.

• Bottle/can opener
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Handle accepts ¼" hex bits, included.
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, Phillips, 2 sizes
• Adapter for standard ¼" square-drive sockets
• Knife blade, 2 unprotected
• Lanyard hole
• Nylon sheath w/holder for hex bits
• Pliers, standard/narrow jaws
• Positive locking tools (closing handle)
• Rulers
• Stainless steel, bead blasted
• User-adjustable tool tension
• Wire cutter
• Wood saw
Leatherman Micra
Well-finished pocket model with serious tools for light work. Open the handles part way to deploy tools (fully open for scissors). Innovative liner spring loads scissor blades and keeps tool closed in pocket; also provides a "soft" lock for tools. The Micra was our choice for best personal tool.

• Bottle/can opener
• File, particle abrasive
• Keyring
• Knife blade, unprotected
• Nail cleaner
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, modified Phillips
• Spring tension keeps handles closed
• Stainless steel
• Tweezers

Leatherman Wave
Clean design and economy of space and weight, rather than blinding flash of innovation, characterize this work tool. Four precision-slotted screwdrivers cover the range from near eyeglass screws to door-hinge size. Combination Phillips head covers #1-#3. Handles on earlier models have been redesigned to improve comfort when squeezed. Either knife blade (one serrated, one plain edge) with liner locks can easily be opened, used, then closed with one hand. In addition, the sharps are not mixed in with the tools; each one has its own dedicated compartment on the opposite side of the handle, making the Wave the safest of all the tools. Plier jaws are hefty enough for serious work and include a wire cutter.

• Can/bottle opener
• File, milled, single-cut, w/liner lock
• File, particle abrasive, w/liner lock
• Knife blades, 2 protected, w/liner locks
• Lanyard attachment
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, narrow jaws
• Scissors
• Screwdriver, extra large
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Wood saw, protected, w/liner lock

Schrade Tough Chip ST2
Good-sized, sharp scissors dominate this small tool. On one handle, four individual components fold out and lock adequately with friction. On the other handle are three removable tools: tweezers and a nail file, both well above average in usefulness, and a plastic toothpick. This tool vies with the Leatherman Micra at the top of the personal tools.

• Bottle opener
• File, particle abrasive, removable
• Keyring
• Nylon sheath
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, modified Phillips, small
• Stainless steel
• Toothpick, plastic, removable
• Tweezers, removable

Schrade Tough Tool ST1N
This medium-size tool has a unique way of extending individual components—all to one side, without the need to open the pliers. None can be deployed with one hand. Plier jaws are long but rather thin without being needlenosed. The sharpened hook-shaped blade would serve as an excellent paper or leather cutter. The friction-type locks were too weak. Overall, not a strong contender.

• Awl
• Bottle/can opener
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Hook disgorger
• Knife blades, 2 unprotected
• Lanyard hole
• Measuring gauge
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers, narrow jaw
• Screwdriver, extra large
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Scribe, hook-shaped
• Stainless steel
• Wire cutter
• Wire stripper
• Wood saw

SOG Powerlock
At 9.5 ounces, the Powerlock doesn't let you forget its weight. Its plier jaws are large and operate very smoothly, but in order to improve grip comfort SOG adopted a somewhat clunky flip-up cover on each handle which, along with the individual tools, lacks the benefit of the titanium nitride coating that's applied to the handles and the jaws. A robust and desirable multi-tool.

• Adapter for standard ¼" drive sockets
• Awl
• Can/bottle opener
• Crimper
• File, milled, single- and double-cut
• Knife blades, 2 unprotected
• Lanyard attachment
• Leather sheath
• Pliers, compound leverage
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, Phillips
• Stainless steel; handle with titanium nitride finish
• Wire cutter, compound leverage
• Wood saw

Spyderco SpydeRench T01
More comprehensive in scope than the others, this two-piece tool comes closer to being a toolbox in itself. It offers slip-joint adjustable pliers (1.25" opening), adjustable crescent-style wrench (9/16" opening) plus hex-bit driver, screwdrivers, diamond sharpener, and a locking knife blade openable with one hand. Integral storage for four widely available hex bits means the tool can be customized for less popular fasteners such as Torx or Allen. The SpydeRench separates into two pieces allowing, for example, a nut to be held by the wrench at one end while the bolt is tightened by the hex bit or screwdriver. Or you can lock the two together in a straight line to double the leverage on the wrench. The innovation level displayed in this tool is high, although it might take a while to learn to operate it effectively.

• Clothing clip, removable for tension adjustment
• File, particle abrasive, w/flat, concave and convex surfaces (will sharpen serrations)
• Integral storage for four standard ¼" hex bits, four bits included:
• Screwdriver, medium
• Screwdriver, large
• Screwdriver, Phillips, 2 sizes
• Knife blade, protected, locking, one-handed opening
• Pliers, slip-joint
• Separates into two pieces, reconfigurable several ways
• Stainless steel
• Wrench, adjustable, parallel jaws

Victorinox Swiss Tool RS
Those of us who love Swiss Army knives will see many of their favorite features here, in a massive multi-tool of gleaming stainless steel, probably the best steel of the bunch. Despite the high polish, however, some of the individual tools are just not easy to fold out. Five of the 12 tools contain cutting instruments, so the danger of being cut is on your mind as you fold them out. The wire cutters are a bit short. At 9.3 ounces, the tool is heavy.

It would be hard to go far wrong with the SwissTool, but perhaps we were expecting more innovation from this fine old company. There's much to admire in the Swiss Tool, but it still seems to be a big, big Swiss Army Knife.

• Awl
• Can/bottle openers
• Chisel
• Knife blade, 2 unprotected, one with seatbelt cutter function
• Lanyard hole
• Nylon sheath
• Pliers
• Positive locking tools
• Rulers
• Scissors, spring-loaded
• Screwdriver, extra large
• Screwdriver, fine
• Screwdriver, large
• Wood saw

Key Evaluation Parameters
Our finalists (listed in the Value Guide chart) include only "work" class tools. To choose from the best of the remaining tools, we performed static evaluation and live testing, with a view to nautical application. Consider also two additional parameters:

Magnetic Signature. All of these tools contain more than enough iron to disturb magnetic compasses. Test the tool on your boat and on your belt.

Corrosion. The term "stainless" doesn’t mean rustproof—far from it. Most of the highly rated multi-tools are made from the AISI 400 series of stainless steels. While these are among the hardest and strongest of the stainless steels, they also are the least corrosion-resistant. If you expect corrosion resistance like the AISI 300 series stainless steels used in your kitchen flatware you will be disappointed.

Conclusions and Recommendations
A good knife remains the sailor's best friend. That said, we realize that many of us are replacing belt and lanyard knives with multi-tools. This is a good idea only if you're willing to wear the tool all the time, and practice with it enough so that you won't be fumbling around with it at an urgent moment. Again, you should always have a dedicated knife on board within easy reach.

As to which multi-tool to buy, consider the five with high overall evaluations: the Gerber 800 Legend, the Kershaw, the Leatherman Wave, the SOG Powerlock and the Spyderco SpydeRench. They offer considerable variation in features along with precision workmanship. Not surprisingly, these are also the most expensive, although we've seen discounts of up to 40%.

If you're a die-hard Victorinox fan, you can assume, as we do, that the quality of materials and workmanship in the SwissTool will stand the test of time. In any case, it comes with a lifetime warranty.

Because its high sales volume and wide availability have helped lower its price, the Leatherman Wave appears to offer the highest quality and safety at the lowest cost. If cost is less important, consider the impressive Gerber 800, also available at a good discount.

Obviously, the most important consideration is whether the functions and fit of a particular tool suit your individual needs. Unless you're assured of return privileges, don't buy a multi-tool without trying it in your hands and on your belt.

Contacts— Bear Cutlery, Inc., 1111 Bear Blvd. SW, Jacksonville, AL 36265; 800/844-3034. Buck Knives, PO Box 1267, El Cajon, CA 92022; 800/735-2825; www.buckknives.com. Gerber, 14200 SW 72nd Ave., Portland, OR 97224; 800/950-6161; www.gerberknives.com/. Kershaw Knives, 25300 SW Parkway Ave., Wilsonville, OR 97070; 800/325-2891; www.kershawknives.com. Kutmaster, Utica Cutlery Co., 820 Noyes St., Utica, NY 13503; 800/888-4223; www.kutmaster.com. Leatherman Tool Group, PO Box 20595, Portland, OR 97294; 800/847-8665; www.leatherman.com. Imperial Schrade Corp., 7 Schrade Court, Ellenville, NY 12428; 845/647-7600. SOG Specialty Knives, Inc., 6521 212th St. SW, Lynnwood, WA 98036; 888/764-2378; www.sogknives.com. Spyderco, Inc., 20011 Golden Gate Canyon Rd., Golden, CO 80403; 800/525-7770; www.spyderco.com. Victorinox, Inc., P.O. Box 874, Shelton, CT 06484; 800/243-4032; www.victorinox.com.

 

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Multi-Tools Specifications.
Click here to view the Multi-Tools Value Guide.

 

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