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A Buyer’s Guide to Multi-Tools

By Brian Gordon, Last updated: 9/14/2016

Over the years multi-tools have become so sophisticated and sturdy that they are often used in lieu of the individual tools boaters carry in their onboard toolbox. In many ways they have outgrown their ancestors, the Swiss Army knife and the Boy Scout knife.

What is important?

The Wave® is Leatherman’s most popular tool with 17 tools and four bits.

Keeping a multi-tool in your onboard toolbox defeats its purpose, which is to put a variety of tools within your immediate reach. So choose a multi-tool with a sheath so you can wear it during your boating day. Your multi-tool should be easy to deploy and use, and it should include components that will prove useful to you and your style of boating.

The comfort of multi-tools sometimes takes a back seat to their purpose, which is to house pliers, blades and a variety of tools without regard for how it actually feels in your hand. As the number of components in a multi-tool increases, so does its weight and bulk, which is something to consider before buying. In addition to gauging a multi-tool’s comfort, consider the usefulness of each tool and blade. Note how easily each component unfolds; and to avoid accidents, make sure that blades when deployed lock securely in place. Comfort varies, but we find the Leatherman Wave® to be a very comfortable tool.

Corrosion resistance

For strength, most multi-tools are made from hard AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute) series 400 stainless steel—but that does not mean they are rustproof. Hard steel has a high iron and carbon content and thus offers rather low resistance to corrosion. Some brands have a titanium nitride coating, which gives the tool a shiny golden appearance and affords better protection against corrosion but at a higher price. It’s always good to rinse multi-tools with fresh water immediately after they are exposed to the ocean environment and to spray them with a light oil or corrosion preventer.

Charge® AL has 17 tools and eight bits.

Magnetic signature

Because of the high iron content in their steel, multi-tools have the potential to upset a magnetic steering compass if kept in close proximity.

Which tools do you need?

This decision depends largely on your type of boating, and what your job on board is. A multi-tool is like a toolbox on your hip with up to a dozen or more miniature versions of full-size tools you already have—but that are inconveniently stored in a drawer, box or bag. Pliers, scissors, wire cutters, standard and Philips screwdrivers, end wrenches and different knife blades are common on many full-sized multi-tools.

For tasks that require power and strength, such as rotating, holding or compressing, we recommend multi-tools with locking, spring-loaded or slip-joint jaws, and an adjustable wrench. Some multi-tool components such as bottle and can openers, tweezers, nail file, small screwdriver (for tightening the hinges of your shades) or mini scissors aren’t found in a regular toolbox, but can be of great value on any size boat.

The Leatherman Charge® AL has aluminum alloy handles, a diamond-coated file, and bronze bushings. The 154CM premium stainless steel clip point knife holds its edge three times longer than typical stainless steel and it includes needlenose and regular pliers, hard-wire cutters, serrated and straight blades, scissors, drivers, saw, files, strippers and eight double-end bits.

Leatherman’s Tread™ puts 29 tools on your wrist.

Something new

A recent arrival to the world of multi-tools is the Leatherman Tread. With a high degree of “cool” and utility to match, the Tread is a wearable 17-4 stainless steel bracelet with usable tools like Allen wrenches, screwdrivers and box wrenches designed into each link. Adjustable for size and customizable with the links you need, the Tread puts style and functionality on your wrist.

Try before you buy

Because of their varied shapes, sizes and features, multi-tools are best personally inspected before purchasing. Play with the locking mechanisms; see if you can easily deploy the tools that are most important to you. But even if you want to go all-out on the purchase of a multi-tool, it is still a good idea to keep a sharp boating knife in a location that is known and easily accessible to all.