Multi-tools Are Life

By Jack
I always wanted to have three things that do it all. As a minimalist who enjoys travel, I was always interested in packing light. That philosophy demands that a few things do a lot and I expect exactly that from everything I own.
Of course, for general use multi-tool the best recommendation is the Leatherman Wave +. It’s the most popular option by far for a very good reason, it has the same tools as the Leatherman Charge and covers all the bases. No other tool significantly improves on it, just offers different options for different uses.

I always wanted to have just one motorcycle that could do everything the world asked of it. I dreamed of litre-class performance, off-road weight and mid-range reliability and fuel-economy. Sadly, consumer technology and a century of technological evolution have failed to deliver on my fairly undemanding expectations. This is part of the reason I currently own five motorcycles—down from a peak of over twenty at one time—and the rest of the explanation comes down to an unhealthy obsession. My travel bike, my BMW G650x came pretty close and hasn’t let me down under any circumstances nor in any situation.

My second requirement is a good laptop. I like to be in touch, and as a writer, I like to work wherever I am. My current machine has proven to be exceptional, much closer to the ideal than any bike has come. It’s the size and weight of a small book, has military-spec shock protection, could shrug off a terrorist attack, and processes full HD video while bench-pressing Trump Tower.

If only everything was as reliable as my bike - while being less expensive...

Finally, I like to have a really good multi-tool.

The tool comes closer than any other thing in my life to the philosophy of a little being required to do a lot. It has to replace a small pack of tools and keep me ready and capable of fixing things as they choose to go wrong. The mark of a really good tool is that you should feel slightly lost without it.

Because these things are so important to me, I do a lot of research in advance. At first, way back in the 90s, I realised I needed a set of tools in my pocket and Swiss Army Knives were an obvious choice so I looked to Victorianox. Then, Leatherman came to my attention. The internet was still in its infancy and was only used for very slowly sharing a few small pornographic Jpegs—not much changed in real terms there. So, my research was mostly done by talking to actual, real people.

In the end, I rejected all the other brands and decided Leatherman was the right choice for me. The other options in the market were—and still are—inferior, but they’re cheaper too and are sold according to their strengths. The options weren’t as wide (or confusing) as they are today, and the ‘Super Tool’ seemed to be the obvious choice. It was the largest, strongest and best in their range. I bought it and was quite happy with my selection for many years.

The Supertool was basically like having super-powers that could only be defeated by a small nut lost in a wheel-rim

Eventually the ‘Wave’ hit the market. It reversed the design, giving several distinct advantages. The primary blades were accessible without opening the tool and it was far more comfortable to hold and use.

I regarded it enviously, but reminded myself that mine was bigger, and therefore better.

Then, one day, the pliers snapped, nipping the top of the jaw straight off while I tried to pull a nut out of a wheel, where it had been jammed inside. It was my own fault; I had twisted too hard and was pushing it beyond its design limitations. In fact, the tool had a near lifetime warranty, but I decided that I would rather trade up and handed the tool off to a friend to get it replaced if he chose. I would be upgrading to a newer, better model.

I ended up opting for a ‘Charge,’ the latest, greatest design. It had titanium handles and a blade made from a superior kind of steel. This one served me well until I lost it from a pocket while riding. I replaced it with a similar but cheaper version. Instead of titanium, this had aluminium sides, but otherwise seemed no different—other than being cheaper. The only net benefit was that it was black, against the dirty metallic grey of the old version.

Eventually this one was also lost.

The Charge ALX in aluminium had been my favourite tool: not as expensive, but not significantly different from the previous one. I had it the longest time and it felt light, slim and easy to carry. My mistake had been in putting it into the glovebox compartment of a bike I wasn’t familiar with, and the panel had fallen open on a bump without me realising.

By this time I was in Cambodia, and there were limited options for replacing it. The only way I could get one was from a different country. I ruled out Thailand where the same tools were three times the price. I might have found them for less, but time had been against me. So, a friend brought one over from the United States.

Because of the difficulty in getting one, I did my research very, very carefully. A new option had become available – the Surge. The blades were bigger, the selection of tools seemed better and it was different. If I had to get a new tool, at least it was nice to get one I hadn’t seen before.

Almost perfect, if you threw the Charge ALX, it would generally stick in things.
The Surge is basically a big Wave. Bigger is better - right???

I never liked the Surge.

The quality seemed to have declined. It rusted and the blades pitted quite badly. The metal darkened and the tools eventually jammed up so that nothing would open.

I was also disappointed with the tools it came with. The tiny optician’s screwdriver had been omitted and there was now a replaceable driver as well as two fixed screwdriver blades which felt utterly redundant. It seemed like bad choices had been made both from the designers and myself.

Of course, it got worse. Cleaning it had a very strange effect. The metal discoloured even more and the edges of the blades broke up and fell away. The solvent literally ate the steel and the tool began to fall apart.

I was not impressed.

I contacted Leatherman with a full explanation of what had happened, hoping that they might offer some kind of assistance. The reply was an email where they referred me to a service-centre halfway around the world—they could not have asked me to travel further without sending me to the moon.

But, what have I learned and why even bother blogging about all this?

Leathermans have changed radically since the early days of the Super Tool. On the surface, the designs showed significant improvements but were those improvements really improvements at all? The switch to the ‘Wave’ design where the frames were reversed offered significant upgrades in terms of usability and ergonomics, and even made the tool tougher. Sadly, those changes also ushered in a decline in quality, since the design itself now supports the structural strength of the tool, where they used to rely more heavily on their higher standards of manufacturing. Faults are now more common, you find if you dig into the forums. Pliers are frequently stiff to operate, or fall open limply, where this seldom—if ever—happened before. Overall. they are not as well-built as they used to be, because they no longer have to be.

The plates, alluminium or titanium make about as much difference as your voting choices

The titanium Charge now sits at the top of the pricing options. At face value, this seems ridiculous because it has the exact same tools as the Wave, only at double the price. The principle difference is the titanium sides—the other is constructed of 420 steel.

However, with some investigation, you find that the titanium sides aren’t structural—they’re decoration, and do nothing to improve the rigidity of the tool. You also find that the tools aren’t the same, they just look like they are. The Charge boasts a primary blade made of a superior steel to the one in the Wave. While visually identical, the difference is significant but invisible. It’s even harder to justify the cost, however, when you find that the superior blade is worth about $25 on ebay, less than a quarter of the price difference. The Surge, along with all other tools has the 420 steel in the tools, a metal with a stronger tendency to rust.

When it comes to multi-tools, or people for that matter, first impressions are deceptive and cannot be relied upon. The bigger ones don’t offer any advantages over the smaller ones, and in many cases, the difference is a net negative. This is especially true when the tools it is fitted with (or the capabilities the person has developed) don’t make any sense.

The high quality ones have questionable attributes. Higher-quality materials are great in knife blades, but are they really worth the cost when you find that they’re harder to sharpen and maintain? Is it worth paying more when the external surface veneers offer no function, and instead just add bulk that is of no value to the user?

It seems to me that the only way to get the most out of one of these things is to really take a step back. They can’t be judged on appearance; you have to take the time to investigate thoroughly and really learn how to fully understand what it is that you’re looking at. You have to work out what it is you really want and need.

Likewise with people, they are rarely what you see on the surface, and you will always find that your own criteria for judgement is flawed. You have to look deeper, and learn how to see what’s really there.

The truth is sometimes hard to spot...

At the end of the day, the only way I will get the tool I really want is to build it myself: determine what it is that I uniquely need, and then combine the best of all the parts into something that does just that. There is no off-the-shelf option that fits my needs.

The same is true when it comes to self-development. I have to seek out the real truth of who it is I need to be, and create myself in my own image. To really know yourself, you have to accept and understand that you’re not other people’s labels: white or black, male or female, liberal or conservative. There are no generic, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all people. You are a distinct and unique individual beyond the scope of such vague superficial binaries.

That is the philosophy by which I built my motorcycle and my laptop. Eventually, it’s how I’ll have to construct my carry-tool.

It’s also the philosophy by which I continue to build myself.

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