Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dear Professor Prepper,

Are multi-tools worth it?


*They have their place, but that place is small. 

I certainly have more than my share of multi-tools including Leathermans, SOGs, Gerbers, Bucks, and a few other odd ducks where a handful of pocket tool trinkets were stuck together somehow. In fact, I have a weakness for multi-tools and often pick up a good but used one if it only commands a Hamilton or two. 

But multi-tools do nothing well. Nothing. However that is not their purpose. They are not supposed to do anything well. They are a one-size-fits-all solution for every problem. Except perhaps for answering the question of "what should I give as a gift, there is no situation that exactly matches a multi-tools design, Multi-tools can never be more than an imperfect solution even if you can complete the task with the multi-tool. When I want pliers, I want pliers. Not some uncomfortable object that seven out of 10 third graders would identify as pliers. And when I want a knife, I don't want a sharp piece of metal riveted to the handle of something that three out of ten third graders can't tell are pliers.

Sure, multi-tools can be life-savers, and even the crappy Chinese ones will cut your arm free if trapped under a boulder in a Utah canyon, but that’s not the point. Multi-tools are nothing more than a do-it-all-but-not-well object designed to simplify your choices when heading out the door. I have serious concerns about a person's abilities when I see them use a multi-tool indoors when REAL tools are available).

I’ve never met anyone who uses all the features of their multi-tools on a regular basis. Even on an irregular basis for that matter. And what’s with the tweezers? But I digress.

Most people only use two features, the knife the pliers. And the only thing more ridiculous then the pliers (except for the tweezers of course) is the knife. Long ago I relegated my Swiss Army knives to the junk drawer and glove box (with the bottle opener permanently deployed. SA knives are inefficient design except if you want to snap off fingernails.

The evolution of the knife has taken thousands of years. Good blades are natural extension of the index finger, and can be manipulated with the same dexterity. The sharp blade on a multi-tool is a similar to a knife, but not one. It is a sharp blade-like thing attached to a awkward metal brick. It fits in your hand like a rock, and we usually throw rocks, not cut with them. Many multi-tools do not have blade locks meaning the awkward shaped handle now has a better than average chance of “mousetrapping” your fingers; I guess effectively adding yet another useless feature to your tool: A paper cutter that also works great on flesh.

As the Christmas shopping season approaches, the feature set on multi-tools grows. If  you thought the Swiss Army Champion knife was an exercise in futility, check out this one.

The core of a multi-tool is the blade and the pliers. All the rest is marketing. If you need a saw, use a saw. If you need scissors, use scissors. And by all means, if you need a screwdriver, use a screwdriver.

I've had the unfortunate experience on more than one occasion to offer assistance to a friend or hapless citizen with a mechanical problem. Imagine how hard it was for me to remain positive when I’m looking at a dead car (often when it's raining for some reason) and the only “tool” available is a cheap multi-tool likely received free with a $12 magazine subscription.

I got the car running, but I still remember the bad taste of that tool. Just like knives, pliers have been making great advances in design and function ever since they crawled out of the primordial swamp millions of years ago. I already wrote about my knives, but my EDC pliers include the following:

I have others, but the Knipex ride with me in my bag (even on airplanes) and the Snap-ons ride along anytime I’m on the road.

All my vehicles have tool kits, and for longer adventures I supplement or double up on my tools, but for pliers, the Knipex are astoundingly handy clamping down on anything from a sheet of paper to a one inch bolt! Leverage is separate issue, but given their weight is a few hairs over three ounces, it’s a minimal disadvantage.

Recently I picked up a Leatherman Style PS. Ever since the TSA disprepared Americans, I’ve traveled at a disadvantage. I only carry-on luggage (packing no more then I can run with) so often I buy a blade on the other end, then giving it away before flying back (rather give it to someone I know than a TSA agent to sell it on eBay for beer money). But the Style does a fine job as long as your expectations are low. Another handy device is the Swiss+Tech keychain multi-tool. The blade is sharp, serrated, and the bottle opener really does make you earn your drink.

If you are still leaning towards a multi-tool, then I endorse the Leatherman Skeletool.

It still has a few hokey features, but the pliers fit nicely in your hand, both when squeezing and using your little finger to provide reverse pressure for efficiency and precision. The knife is also well thought out. It deploys easily with a thumb hole, and locks in place with a solid snap using a liner lock. It has a combination carabiner-bottle opener that sucks as a carabiner and sucks as bottle opener. Yea, they function, but neither is fun to use. I prefer opening my beer bottles with the pliers because its more fun. The thing intended to be a bottle opener works backwards from tradition and usually takes as many pulls as the pliers.

The bit driver is also a worthwhile tool, and pretty much the only other tool in the Skeletool, with skeleton meaning both full of holes and a lack of tools. Available to this tool is a separate bit kit , and bit extension

I have both and actually use them more than I would have thought. It is still not on the same planet as a quality screwdriver or hex/torx wrench, but  using the Skeletool with the bits and extension is no where near as painful as it it with much other multi-tools.

So in a nutshell, are multi-tools worth it? The reason I say no is because there should be better options available. Multi-tools are a last resort. They are what you grab when you are out of choices. They are an acceptable backup especially if you haven’t planned well.

But then planning is what it’s all about, right?

Asking a question indicates there is a choice. So if you have ask, then the answer is no.

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