Multitools

There’s a number of different multitools around – ‘Swiss Army Knives’ vary from cheap knock-offs that you can pick up for very little money up to the real Victorinox knives. Tim Leatherman found they couldn’t cope with what he was trying to do, so he invented the Leatherman tools, which have now been copied by various people – even Victorinox have the Swiss Tool. There are also variations in the form of credit cards, built into oversize adjustable spanners, and other variations.

Which is best for creative types, though? Which can cope with what you might want to do, and which can’t? And which are just too expensive for what you get?

What’s in them? Most contain some sort of knife blade, but after that there are all sorts of variations in the tools you get, and they can come in an assortment of different forms.

Forms and Shapes

Swiss Army Knife

This is the original classic – the standard red-handled knife that everyone recognises. They’re all generally referred to as Swiss Army Knives (often shortened to SAK), but the two official manufacturers were Victorinox and Wenger. Victorinox recently bought Wenger, but for the moment at least they will be continuing as a separate company/brand.

The tools contained in a SAK can vary a lot. The smaller knives often only contain a blade and a couple of extra tools – maybe a screwdriver and a can opener. At the higher end, they can have tens of functions, and can include some quite unexpected ‘tools’. Some of the more common tools include…

  • Knife blades – pretty obvious. The standard blade is usually a pen type blade – a smaller version of a spear tip, with a flat top edge. Most SAKs have two different sized knife blades. The hardness and grade of steel can vary, with cheaper knives often using lower quality steel.
  • Screwdrivers. There is usually at least one flat tipped screwdriver, but a crosshead may be important to you. If you need more than one size of crosshead screwdriver in your knife, you may need to look carefully for the right choice – check the Victorinox CyberTool (described further below).
  • Corkscrew – not usually the best corkscrew, but they can be surprisingly effective.
  • Scissors. There’s a lot of variation in quality – cheaper knives may have trouble even cutting paper cleanly, but better quality ones will do pretty well with most things.
  • Can Opener. Only to be used as such if you’re really stuck, but they can often open cans that are too mangled for a real can opener to work. The can opener can be surprisingly useful – the small, strong ‘blade’ part can be useful for scraping, the tip is often a small-ish screwdriver, and it will usually do a good job of removing staples.
  • Bottle Opener. This usually doubles up as a large screwdriver. Very handy for general prising and poking – getting paint can lids off, and such like.
  • Thing For Getting Boy Scouts Out Of Horses’ Hooves. On cheap knives, this is usually just a fairly shapeless general poking tool, not of much use. On better quality knives, it is often fairly sharply pointed, and is actually designed for poking holes in tough materials – it will make an extra hole in a belt that’s become too small or too large, for example. On some knives, there is also a hole in this tool so it can be used for very rough ‘sewing’ in tough material.

There’s lots of different tools available in some of the more specialist and expensive knives – a few of the more interesting ones are…

  • Pliers. Although owners of Leatherman style tools tend to put them down, the pliers in a SAK can actually be quite useful – they’re somewhere between small pliers and very large, strong tweezers. You probably wouldn’t want to fix a car with them, but they can be very effective for removing splinters, or getting a good grip on small items – jumper connectors on computer equipment, picking up a small screw that’s been dropped, peeling up a tough sticker, etc.
  • Pen. Some Victorinox knives include a tiny pen in the handle, and some even slide the pen out with a little control on the side so the whole knife becomes the body of a makeshift pen. Only really good for emergency use, but they could help if you sometimes find yourself stuck for a pen. I’ve not seen one with a pad of paper too, though.
  • CyberTool. Victorinox have made a series of knives with the ‘CyberTool’ feature, designed specifically for people who work on computers. It includes a socket, and a holder with several double-ended bits, and includes different sizes of flat-head, cross-head and Torx screwdriver bits. If you need to open such things, one of these may save you carrying a set of screwdrivers, but if you don’t, it takes up quite a bit of space in the knife. There now only seem to be two knives available with this – the CyberTool 34 (which I have) and the SwissChamp XLT (which is huge).
  • LED Torch – a few knives now have a tiny LED torch built into them.
  • Lighter – one Victorinox knife even has a butane gas lighter inside.

Leatherman

The story of Leatherman-style tools started when Tim Leatherman was touring Europe in an old car, and found his multitool (a Swiss Army Knife presumably, though they have the class not to specify) wasn’t up to the job. When he returned to America, he set out to design something stronger.

The variety of tools isn’t as great as in a SAK, but people who love their Leatherman tools like them for the toughness of the tools they do include. The key part of these tools is the pliers – they’re really just a folding set of pliers with some extra tools in the handles. If the main thing you need is pliers, though, they could be the best tool for you.

I have a Leatherman Charge Ti – their top of the range at the time I bought it. It’s strong, and very useful. The blade can be opened with one hand, and locks in place when open so it can’t close up on your hand.

The only problem I have with the Leatherman is that it’s just not built to the same precision as a good SAK. The tips of the pliers never quite touch, so you can’t get a grip on a sheet of paper, for example. Whilst it’s a tough mechanical tool, it has never felt as if it’s really well made to me – especially considering it was three times the price of my CyberTool. Having said that, I couldn’t fix my car with my CyberTool. Actually, I couldn’t fix my car with a Leatherman – I’d have to take it to someone who knows what they’re doing, but they could probably fix it with a Leatherman.

Credit Card Tools

Several manufacturers make these – I think Tool Logic was the first, but Victorinox also now make the ‘Swiss Card’, which is a similar thing. They are usually a plastic casing, the shape and size of a credit card, with various tools that pull out of the case. There’s usually a knife, and various other tools like scissors, nail file, tweezers, and in some cases an LED torch.

Other Styles

There are other styles of tool, but they are nothing like as popular as the ones already described. If you really need an adjustable spanner with you most of the time, there are tools built into these. If you play a lot of golf, Victorinox make a Golf Tool, but it’s not a lot of use for other things, so it barely counts as a multitool.

Creative Uses

Multitools are great for most creative types – I’ll just go through the usual PigPog list here, and see what we come up with…

Art

Depending on what your art is, a multitool could help you with carving wood, cutting paper, scraping your brushes clean, removing staples, or any number of other tasks. Maybe it won’t do quite as well as the dedicated tools in your studio, but it could be a good substitute when out and about, or maybe you don’t have a fully equipped studio (yet)?

Craft

Perhaps the most perfect fit – cutting paper and card, string, carving wood, cutting wire, screwing and unscrewing, and just about anything else. With a good multitool and some glue (or gaffer tape 😉 you can craft just about anything from just about anything.

Music

Wire cutters can certainly be useful when changing guitar strings, and a screwdriver is pretty vital equipment for some musicians. And there are those who would say a bottle opener and corkscrew could be pretty important.

Photography

I’m a bit limited for ideas here, but being able to cut and bend things can be handy for the more ‘staged’ shots.

Productivity

Just imaging what you could achieve if you could have all the time back that you’ve spend wandering around looking for scissors 😉

OK, I’m stretching a point here a bit, but I really think having a multi-purpose tool handy all the time could be a productivity boost.

Writing

Hmm. I have to admit that I’m stumped here. Any ideas?

Creative Living

The real difference I find with carrying a multitool is just the situations you don’t expect – it just makes you able to do things you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Geekery

For geeks, what could be better than a small, pocketable toy, which enables you to take all of your other toys apart?

So What’s Best?

That’s a difficult one to answer, because opinions vary. For my money, a Swiss Army Knife is the best to go for generally, and I’d spend the money to get a genuine Victorinox one. The Leatherman tools and similar styles are great for mechanical stuff, but unless you need that size and strength, they’re just a bit over the top, and the extra size and weight is a lot to carry. I have both the Victorinox CyberTool and a Leatherman Charge Ti, and I carry the Victorinox. Considering the Leatherman was three times the price, I really couldn’t recommend it as a general tool to carry.

Have a think about what features you want – if you sometimes work with wood, for example, the wood saw and chisel could be really handy to have around. If you need to open electronic stuff that uses Torx bits, a CyberTool might be best. If you need pretty much everything (apart from those Torx bits), the SwissChamp is the one to go for. If you really need everything, there’s also the SwissChamp XLT, but even Victorinox don’t seem to recommend that for day-to-day use – it’s a collector’s edition.

Once you’ve worked out what features you want, have a look through the options at your chosen supplier, and see what matches. You really want the smallest knife available that has everything you want. A belt pouch can be handy if you don’t mind looking like a geeky Bat Man, but they do add a bit to the cost – unless you’re going for the Leatherman, as they often include the pouch.

Oh, and if you really don’t want to spoil the line of your suit, a credit card sized tool might be all you can neatly carry.

Legal Matters

The legal position of carrying a multitool depends on where you are and what sort of tool. In America, the law depends on your state, and can be further tightened by city ordinances too. In much of Europe, knives aren’t accepted for general carry, though most places are fine with a small pocket knife. A blade that locks open can be enough to put you in trouble, and although I’m not aware of anywhere that specifically outlaws one-handed opening blades, these may be seen as a problem by the police. Apart from fairly specific places (aeroplanes, courtrooms, government buildings, etc) you are usually ok to carry a penknife, or a SAK. A Leatherman or Swiss Tool can be a problem because of the locking blades. If you want to carry your tool in public places, you might want to check into this further before spending money.

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