Tooling Up to Meet Emergencies
Choosing the Perfect Multitool — For You
By Tamia Nelson
June 3, 2014
We humans have never been shy about patting ourselves on the back. Just look at the Linnaean ("scientific") name for our species: Homo sapiens, or "wise man." Clearly, we think we're the sharpest pencils in the box. That's a judgment I've often had reason to question, however, and I favor an alternative Linnaean tag, one suggested by (among others) the philosopher Henri Bergson: Homo faber. The literal translation? "Man the creator" — though the intended meaning is closer to "man the toolmaker."
Of course, many other animals employ tools from time to time. But we naked apes are unique in defining ourselves by our use of (and dependence on) mechanical adjuncts. And while I think that we've ceded far too much power to our tools, allowing them to shape not only our lives, but our selves — not to mention the world we share with other species — I don't look for any change. We are what we are, for better or for worse. Anyway, there's no denying that having the right tool, ready to hand, makes even the smallest job go more smoothly. I was forcibly reminded of this last month when I wrote "What Makes a Perfect Knife?" Readers were quick to point out that knives, though very good for some things, have rather limited utility, and that paddlers are frequently confronted by problems requiring a more comprehensive toolkit.
This poses obvious difficulties. Like climbers, hillwalkers, and cyclists, paddlers have little space in their dunnage for a toolbox. And then there's the question of weight: Less is always more. Which is where the subject of this article comes in, and why most paddlers own one or more multitools.
But what is a multitool? The term is descriptive, to be sure. I'd even call it self‑explanatory. Yet it doesn't do much to narrow the field. Almost any implement that can be put to multiple uses can be called a multitool. Even a pencil with an attached eraser would fit the bill. (These handy implements have all but disappeared today, but they were commonplace items in homes and offices before the development of the smartphone.) Nor is the idea of combining many tools in a single package anything new. At least one museum collection contains an example from Roman times, and the pictured implement bears a striking resemblance to …
The First Multitool I Owned
I saved up for weeks to buy it, and it was worth the wait. Or so I thought. My new possession boasted two drop‑point blades, an awl, a can opener, and a bottle opener, along with both a spoon and a fork. And I thought it was just about the neatest thing I'd ever seen. But after I'd nearly stabbed myself in the eye while eating soup, confronted the difficulty of cutting a steak when my knife and fork were on opposite ends of one handle, and spent fruitless minutes trying to scrub peanut butter out of numberless tiny recesses, I realized that I'd been led astray by false promises. The upshot? My new possession was soon relegated to a drawer, where it remained.
Still, I couldn't resist the siren song of the multitool for long, and a fleeting glimpse of a fellow paddler's shiny new Swiss Army knife soon seduced me into acquiring one of my own, a Victorinox Tinker. I still have it, and here it is:
This model reminds me of a testimonial reprinted on the opening pages of my copy of Darcy Lever's Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor, a 19th century guide to the rigging and sailing of ships. "We can recommend Mr. Lever's Work," so the testimonial runs, "as containing nothing that is superfluous, and all things that are useful." And that's a fair description of the Tinker, as well. To begin with, it boasts two blades, one small and sharp (ideal for excavating splinters and performing other minor surgery) and the other large and sturdy. But the cheery red handle also houses both Phillips and flat screwdrivers (the Phillips driver has a robust single‑cut file on one face), an equally robust awl, can and bottle openers, and a wire stripper. That's it. No spoon. No hook remover. No USB flash drive or laser pointer. Just functioning tools in functional sizes.
I carried this handy gadget in my pocket for a long time, and while it now resides in a ditty bag in my getaway pack, it still sees regular use. Over the years, however, I've concluded that it's a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that it embodies "all things that are useful." Many things, yes. But not all. Which is where the second player in this drama makes his debut on stage:
The Leatherman‑Style Multitool
Sometime late in the last century (Wikipedia suggests that the year was 1983), Tim Leatherman offered the first "Pocket Survival Tool" for sale. The PST added a pair of needle‑nose pliers to the familiar Swiss Army knife toolkit, and all the tools could be folded into the hollow grips that worked the pliers' jaws. The idea took hold — helped by the name, no doubt; we all like to imagine that we're survivors — and it wasn't long before Leathermans (it wouldn't be Leathermen, would it?) were statutory wear for working men and women everywhere. Today, the product line has proliferated, and so many imitators have appeared that the Leatherman trademark bids fair to become genericized, joining the likes of kerosene, thermos, and heroin. (This process works both ways. Many people now think that "multitool" is synonymous with Leatherman.)
I wasn't an early adopter, however. For one thing, I didn't see a compelling need for a device that did little more than add a pair of pliers to the tools I already had on my Victorinox Tinker. (In my experience, pliers are a poor substitute for a wrench, and I seldom needed pliers qua pliers in the field.) For another, the cost was just too high. It seemed that tooling up to survive — survive what, I wondered? — carried a high price tag. But the entry of low‑cost Leatherman‑like knockoffs into the marketplace eventually eased my concerns on that score, and I yielded to temptation. The market had worked its magic. A "want" had become a "need." And now? Farwell and I own no fewer than three Leatherman‑like tools between us. You can see them, along with representatives from several other types, in the photo below:
Want to know what you're looking at? Of course you do. Here's what's what:
- A nameless Chinese faux Leatherman (1a), along with its belt pouch (1b)
- The same thing, though this one bears a Master Mechanic stamp and some sort of blue nonslip finish on the grips (the pouch has gone astray, however)
- A diminutive Gerber clutch (the name, like the multitool itself, is in lowercase)
- A cyclist's multitool (Park Tool 1B‑2), incorporating a set of hex keys (the commonly used name "Allen wrench" is another embattled trademark), a Torx key, and a flat screwdriver
- A Wenger Traveler Swiss Army knife, whose corkscrew is a welcome addition to any thirsty traveler's impedimenta
- My old Victorinox Tinker
- An equally old Victorinox Executive, sporting an orange peeler-cum-screwdriver (a surprisingly useful combination)
- A little Wenger Esquire (8a), the embodiment of what is meant by a "pocket knife," along with its protective sleeve (8b)
- A folding rigging knife, complete with shackle key and handy marlinspike
That's quite a collection, isn't it? Yet every multitool in the picture has a role to play, both on and off the water. So let's take …
A Closer Look
Beginning with the faux Leathermans. While pliers make poor substitutes for a wrench — if you doubt this, I invite you to tackle the job of removing a balky vaporizer on a Svea 123 stove with just a pair of pliers — there are times when they come in mighty handy. Anglers use them to coax treble hooks out of the flesh of hapless fish (or luckless companions), for instance, and amphibious trekkers who marry their loves of paddling and cycling will find that a pair of pliers makes replacing a frayed brake or derailleur cable much easier. Which explains why I, a reluctant convert, now seldom leave home without a faux Leatherman in pocket or pack.
Be that as it may, our two Chinese‑made Leatherman knockoffs are nondescript, utility‑grade tools, indifferently crafted and held together with rivets. They work, but they don't encourage you to think of them as potential heirlooms. The same thing can't be said of the Gerber clutch: It's smaller, lighter, and much more presentable, despite being encumbered with a nearly useless nail file (and a totally useless pair of tweezers). No matter. The odd little flattened Phillips screwdriver blade is surprisingly efficient. You don't think it should work, but it does. I used it just this morning to tighten a wobbly bench, in fact, and it performed admirably, even though the screw heads were badly scarred.
What did I tell you? The clutch is techno‑chic at its best. I particularly like the "sea turtle" incarnation (right‑hand top photo, above). The pliers' jaws are photogenic, too, as well as being entirely functional, if a bit narrow:
And yet… I'm of the opinion that the Swiss Army knife has never been bettered in the multitool department. I've used one or another of ours for a seemingly endless list of tasks: opening tins and bottles (even Farwell concedes that the Victorinox can opener works better than the fabled John Wayne), punching new holes in my belt, extracting splinters and thorns, trimming hangnails, easing shards of glass out of tires on my trekking bikes and trailers, prying seeds and bits of energy bar from the gaps between my teeth, and removing the corks from wine bottles. (I have a proper corkscrew in my cook kit, but I don't always have my cook kit with me on day trips.) Nor does this begin to exhaust the list.
Even so, there are some mechanical chores that our Swiss Army knives can't tackle. Most of these involve hex‑headed (i.e., Allen) bolts, and that's where the Park 1B‑2 tool comes in. Not surprisingly, it always travels in my bike's bar bag.
You won't have much need for Allen keys afloat, however. (Unless the rudder assembly on your kayak makes use of hex‑headed screws, that is.) But there's no end of employment for a rigging knife like the one in the photo below. The shackle key may not be needed very often, but a marlinspike is wonderfully handy whenever you have to loosen a stubborn knot in a sodden line. The serrated sheepsfoot blade earns its keep, too, as does the large flat‑headed screwdriver. And the lanyard ring makes losing the knife overboard just that much harder.
The rigging knife is stainless steel, by the way, as are all the Swiss Army knives and the three faux Leathermans. The Park IB‑2, however, is not. (At least I don't think it is. It appears to be chrome‑plated steel. Still, it hasn't rusted yet.) I'm sure I needn't explain why stainless steel makes the most sense for any tool which will be used (and stored) in the wet. And if the water under you keel happens to be salt, then stainless steel is the only rational choice.
So much for our collection of multitools. I can't pretend that they were purchased according to any well‑thought‑out plan. They've just accumulated over the years. But suppose you want to approach things more sensibly? How should you go about …
Shopping for a Multitool?
The answer, of course, is to do what you do when you consider any consequential purchase. List the things that are most important to you, and then choose accordingly. Here are some factors to weigh in the balance:
- Purpose: What do you want a multitool for?
- Scope: What tools do you need to do the job(s) you'll need to do? Many multitools are larded with add‑ons that will never be needed — or that are clearly more ornament than use.
- Size and weight: Does every ounce count? Some high‑end multitools are surprisingly heavy.
- Materials and workmanship: Is cheap and cheerful good enough, or will nothing but the best do? If so, you'll also need to weigh the …
- Cost: Multitools often go missing. How much can you afford to lose? (Keep in mind that much‑sought‑after brands sometimes carry a price premium unrelated to quality, too.)
- Extras: Do you want a belt pouch? A lanyard ring? A whistle?
Comfort isn't on this list, but perhaps it should be. Cheaper Leatherman‑type multitools often have rough edges that can gall your hands. This doesn't matter when you'll be employing the tool only occasionally, but if you'll be using it every day, you'll end up wishing you'd paid a bit more. And other big problems can manifest themselves in little things. The Gerber clutch is a case in point. It's well made and nicely finished. It's also comfortable in the hand. But the springs are very stiff, and getting at the screwdriver blades can cost you a fingernail. You'll want to discover this sort of thing before you leave for the put‑in. Paddling for days with a nail ripped back deep into the quick is no fun.
Lastly, there's the problem I alluded to at the end of my recent article on knives: the Alice in Wonderland world created by the proliferation of restrictive laws. Victorinox even sells a bladeless Swiss Army knife for folks who want something to put in their pockets when they're flying. Outside the closely guarded precincts of schools, government offices, sports venues, airports, and commercial airliners, however, I'd expect few multitools to fall foul of weapons laws. But new legislation is continually being added to the books. The only thing I can suggest is that you stay alert for changes.
The bottom line? Thanks to the ingenuity of people like Tim Leatherman, tooling up to survive everyday emergencies has never been easier. On the other hand, because of the collective clamor for security at any price, it's probably never been easier for ordinary, well‑intentioned individuals in western democracies to find themselves on the wrong side of the law, simply by having a prohibited tool on their person. (Not since the repeal of Britain's notorious Black Act, at any rate.) Each of us must therefore navigate the rocks and shoals of daily life in our State of inSecurity as best we can, relying on local knowledge and making the most of any favorable slant of wind.
Come to think of it, those are probably the two most valuable tools of all. And they won't add as much as the weight of a feather to anyone's load.
Tools, not clothes, make the man. Or the woman. In fact, it could be said that tools have made (wo)man what (s)he is today, master of all (s)he surveys. Then again, that may be overstating things a bit. It smacks of hubris. Still, it's a rare paddler who hasn't occasionally found herself wishing she had a screwdriver, file, or pair of pliers in her pack. And now she can make sure she always does, without adding more than a few ounces to her burden. All she has to do is choose a multitool to meet her needs.
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