If someone wanted to buy the single best multitool available today, I would tell them that the Leatherman New Wave is the one to get. It has a versatile mix of tools, great ergonomics and solid construction, and the price tag is fantastic for the amount of functionality you get. You can pay almost twice as much for a multitool, but the extra investment doesn’t buy you a tool that’s much more useful or practical than this one.
There are a lot of multitools out there. Between Leatherman, Gerber, Victorinox (the Swiss Army knife company) and a handful of smaller manufacturers, you’re looking at nearly 100 multitools on the market today. And that’s just counting the pliers-and-knives type. You could expand the definition of “multitool” to include a powered oscillating tool, a multi-bit screwdriver, little metal oddballs like Gerber’s Shard—even a basic claw hammer is a multitool. But this story is focused on the kinds of multitools that fold up into a compact handle and then splay out to reveal an array of problem-solving implements.
To find the best choice, we talked to the kinds of people who live and breathe multitools. A big thank you first goes to the inviting international community we found at multitool.org, a group of pros and enthusiasts who have spent years buying, trying and discussing every multitool on the world market. Dozens of that forum’s members were more than happy to weigh in on the best multitool—the unanswerable question—and their insights were invaluable to this research. Other sources of wisdom included Stuart Deutsch, a guy with a strong mechanical engineering background and the editor of toolguyd.com; Doug Mahoney, general contractor by day and tool tester, Sweethome contributor and toolsnob.com editor by night; the reviews and recommendations of the tool buying public on Amazon; and the test results found in the pages of Popular Mechanics.
Like the best basic home tool kit, you don’t need to own a home to need a multitool. Everyone has an occasional need to cut tape or twine, tighten or remove a screw, and get a firm grip on a small object with a pair of needle-nose pliers. This is an investment that ideally costs you as close to $50 as possible; anything near or above $100 is pretty high-priced for the category unless you’re using it everyday. But even then, there are plenty around $50 that will please power users.
After hours of research, backed up by casual testing over several years, it’s clear that the New Wave has everything a multitool needs in a compact arrangement without any superfluous parts. It’s useful in the woods, around the house and on job sites. When using it, you likely won’t miss the individual versions of the pliers, knife, screwdrivers, saw or scissors it’ll often replace.
As Stuart Deutsch, who calls the Wave “my all-time favorite multitool,” puts it in a recent Toolguyd review: “A great multitool, to me, is one that performs tasks nearly as well as standalone tools of good quality … A well designed and engineered multitool blends into the background and helps you get the job done without disruption or discomfort.” The New Wave is just that.
The 4-inch, 8.5-ounce New Wave comes with:
The tools are also well designed so you won’t miss the full-sized counterparts when using them (unless you need a hammer).
“I am actually quite fond of the removable bit holder. I have a complete bit assortment and 2 additional bit cards that came with other Leatherman multi-tools, and they have come in handy over the years. If I need a screwdriver bit style that Leatherman doesn’t offer, I pull out my 1/4″ adapter/extension and use it with standard 1″ insert bits. The extension can also be used with Leatherman’s low-profile bits.”
The New Wave isn’t the company’s latest and greatest, but that’s actually a good thing; the latest and greatest costs $100 or more, but this can do almost everything just as well at roughly half the price.
At the top of a list of criticisms you could have about the New Wave—especially if you handle it alongside a Charge or a Swisstool Spirit, described below—is that the functions can be a little stiff, particularly in the early days of using it. But that improves with time. Other shortcomings are not so much flaws as they are things it’d be nice if the New Wave had—I’ve wished it had good wire strippers built into the pliers to take jackets off the common gauge wires you find in light switches and outlets. (There’s a little notch listed as a stripper, but Deutsch and I both think it’s a last resort.)
I’m not sure how you’d design a wider and longer pry bar onto a multitool, but there are times when that would have come in handy. You can, at least, use the larger fixed-blade screwdriver can to pry open a paint can. Really, though, until you can design a drill into a multitool, there are not a lot of realistic additions I’d suggest for the New Wave. Trying to think of what the tool needs quickly leads me back a Popular Mechanics cover several years ago, 25 Skills Every Man Should Know, which imagined a fantastic Leatherman-style multitool sporting a chainsaw blade and a paint brush.
Leatherman Charge TTi ($122)
The Leatherman Charge AL, ALX, and TTi are all excellent multitools. Unlike the New Wave, the Charge models’ tools open smoothly out of the box. Of the three Charges on the market now, the cheaper ones cost around $90 to $100; the AL has scissors and the ALX has a cutting hook on the back of the knife blade. The TTi combines those different features and clads the whole thing in a sweet titanium shell. If you’re dead-set on having a Leatherman tool and you want to spend more money, you can go for this one—but most people would be thrilled with a New Wave that costs half as much.
Here’s what separates the Charge series from the Swisstool Spirit X, which is roughly the same price. First, the knife locks on the Charge tools are the liner lock types, which pop a little stilt in front of a blade to keep it from closing. The Spirit has sliding locks on the two sides of the tool. Both are secure, and you’ll probably gravitate toward one or the other when you pick each up and open and shut the blades a few times.
The main difference comes down to size and ergonomics. The AL Charge is a beast of a tool that is thicker and weighs 8.4 ounces—over 46% heavier than the Spirit X (the TTi is .2 ounces lighter, but $25 more). You will feel a difference in your pocket and in your hand. That said, it has a matte finish if you’re into that. Overall, though, we think the lighter Spirit X has superior ergonomics and is the better buy in this price range.
Leatherman Juice (4 models; $40 to $60)
Where the Charge is a little like a souped-up version of the New Wave, the Juice models are like the same thing stripped down a bit and a bit smaller. There are four models in production now: the C2, the CS4, the S2, and the XE6. While I can’t claim hands-on experience with all four in the current line, I can say I’ve never been very impressed with the various Juice models that I’ve tested previously. They’re not quite tiny enough to be called a keychain model, and, unlike a Skeletool, they’re not quite small enough to feel comfortable in your pocket. Yet they’re too small to fit in an adult-sized hand when squeezing the pliers with any real force. Furthermore, the knife blades are too short to be useful in many cases. They’re not really all that cheap, either—prices hover in the $40 to $60 range, depending on the model. Given the prices, along with the design limitations, anyone looking for a Juice is almost definitely better off with the New Wave.
Gerber Diesel Multi-Plier ($42)
The difference in quality between basically any Leatherman or Swisstool product when compared to most any Gerber is immediately apparent. This tool has a clever design idea—the plier handles slip down into the the handle, butt-first, rather than folding shut like a Leatherman. But the idea is not very well executed, with stiff, jerky motion that suggests some loose tolerances in the manufacturing process. Accessing the blades is kind of an annoying and unwieldy motion, as you have to pull each out with the plier tips open, and you will usually have the pliers pointed at your belly whenever you’re slicing with the knife or driving with the bits.
SOG S-62-n Power Plier ($50)
SOG tools also have some creative design ideas that are handicapped by poor execution. In this case, the Power Plier has a compound leverage design that is supposed to give you twice the gripping power. It’s a smart notion, but, like the Gerber, the problems start when it’s time to access the rest of the tools. To do that, you have to flip up this little trap door, then flip out the blade, then put the trap door thing back down and then close up the pliers. It’s quite cumbersome, and, compared to the relative ease with which you can snap out the knife blade from the outer face of the New Wave, it’s a total waste of time.
Gerber and SOG make several models beyond the Diesel and S-62, but the designs share a lot of the same design details and so they have a common set of drawbacks. At one time, Gerber had some of the best tools on the market, but its overseas manufacturing really doesn’t hold up in a comparison against Leatherman’s made-in-Oregon commitment to quality. SOG, on the other hand, started out (and remains) a well-regarded Washington-based knife manufacturer, and there’s reason to believe that the company’s multitools could be among the better options available once some of these design kinks get worked out. But until then, there’s no compelling reason to get one instead of a Leatherman or Swisstool.
There are dozens more to choose from. Here’s a quick list of some other names you’re likely to encounter on a hunt for a multitool (and why the New Wave is a better pick):
Leatherman Micra ($16): This tool is tempting at just $15, and its parts are made of the typical Leatherman quality—but centering its main axis around a pair of scissors (instead of pliers) leaves you with a tool not useful enough. Grabbing stuff just comes up so often.
Victorinox Super Tinker ($30): If you want a keychain tool, this is roughly comparable to the Victorinox Manager; it costs a few more dollars and has a few more functions. But lacking strong blade locks and pliers, it has limitations the New Wave easily solves.
Victorinix Climber Swiss Army Knife ($24): A good little pocket knife, but it has the same features and same drawbacks as the Super Tinker and Manager above.
Leatherman Super 300 Multi-Tool ($60): This is a variation on Leatherman’s classic Super Tool, which is without a doubt an excellent piece of hardware. Extremely strong pliers. Tons of functions. It has problems, though—first, the knife blades fold onto the inside of the pliers, like the earliest Leatherman designs. Second, because each tool is so beefy and solid, it really is too big to even briefly slip in a pocket of a pair of jeans. And all that bulk makes it a little heavy and unwieldy to use, especially for delicate tasks like turning screws. The New Wave has most (not all) of the features you’d find on a Super Tool, and it’s much better balanced and comfortable when you’re using it and carrying it around.
Leatherman Wingman ($22): This is a tempting option; it basically looks like a real deal Leatherman and it costs practically nothing. So what’s the catch? It’s too small. The knife, in particular, is just too short to really cut it. It’s 2.6 inches (the New Wave is 2.9), but the issue is not the 0.3-inch difference—it’s that half the blade is serrated, and only an inch or so of the tip is a smooth, sharp cutting tool. That’s not a lot to work with.
Leatherman Sidekick ($29): The Sidekick is a better budget option than the Wingman, but it still doesn’t quite measure up to the New Wave. Size is the shortcoming again here—the knife blade is the shorter, stubbier 2.6-inch design, but at least this one is all smooth and not half-serrated. The overall closed length is 3.8 inches compared to 4.0 with the New Wave, so there’s a little bit less to grip when you’re using the pliers. All that said, if you really want your first Leatherman and can’t part with the extra $20 for a New Wave, I think you’d be very happy using your Sidekick.
Leatherman Surge ($71): The Surge is another good tool that might look a lot like the New Wave at a glance online. But as seen in a thorough Wave/Surge comparison on multitool.org, the Surge is actually quite a bit larger and heavier. Nothing wrong with that if you need a big 3.1-inch knife and saw, but I think it tips the scales a bit, like the Super Tool, and loses the New Wave’s nimble balance of lightness and functionality.
Leatherman MUT ($115): Before you get excited about this cool-looking black and gold tool, you should know the MUT series is specifically designed for military use (and civilian hunters), with a set of tools ideal for cleaning and dismantling a weapon. If your job requires you to carry an M16, check it out!
Victorinox Swiss Army One Hand Trekker NS Pocket Knife ($38): If you’re going to go with a standard Swiss Army Knife geometry, this is a good one to consider. The blade can be opened one-handed, using your thumb, and it locks in place. Again, no pliers means it’s not really in the same league as the New Wave.
Victorinox Swiss Army CyberTool 41 Multi-Tool Knife ($103): This is an interesting biggie with 41 functions designed primarily for work on computer hardware. It’s the most full-featured of the CyberTool line, and it’s big enough that most users seem to carry it in a toolbox or bag, not a pocket. One thing to note (which applies to all pliers-style tools)—a lot of reviewers on this item prefer it to a Leatherman for jobs that require driving a lot of small screws. I can definitely see how this would stay clear of your wrist in those situations.
Leatherman Rebar ($38): The Leatherman site sums up the difference on this one: “Fans will immediately recognize the iconic box-like shape of Tim Leatherman’s original PST design.” Box-like, in this case, means the blades are packed on the inside, and you have to open the pliers to get them. If that’s what you prefer, go for this one, which otherwise has a similar set of features to the New Wave and comes a few bucks cheaper.
Leatherman Crunch ($68): This is a multitool with really not much else on the market quite like it. Its pliers are a set of locking pliers (like Vise-Grips) which fold neatly into the tool handle when closed. There are a fairly nice set of blades tucked into the handle, too. As a multitool.org review of this oddball puts it, “the design of the locking plier head may be ingenious but is unfortunately not as versatile, which makes the Crunch a more specialized tool than the standard type designed multitool. This can be a serious drawback if your definition of a multi-tool includes being ready for anything. However, if you find yourself needing locking pliers often enough, then this is the tool for you.”
Gerber Flik Multi-Plier ($45): Like a lighter version of the Diesel Multi-Plier, this tool’s plier jaws slide down into its handles. It’s a clever design, but the sliding action often sticks—permanently, according to some reviews—and an unremarkable suite of blades doesn’t put it in the New Wave’s league (even though it sells for roughly the same price).
Gerber EVO ($29): It looks like an inexpensive version of a Leatherman—and that’s exactly how a fairly impressed multitool.org user saw it, too. Most reviewers on Amazon went for it when a Leatherman was out of the price range, but one guy tried both—and preferred the ergonomics of his Wave. (At this price, I’d try a Leatherman Sidekick.)
Gerber Dime ($18): A nice little keychain tool that most everyone out of over 100 Amazon reviews compares favorably to the other tools in its size range. A thread on multitool.org concurs, as the Dime attracted attention even from Leatherman devotees. It’s not going to replace a New Wave for heavy-duty work, but it’s a good option to consider to save a few dollars if you’re looking at a Leatherman Juice.
Gerber Bear Grylls Survival Series Ultimate Multi-Tool ($31): This one is a flimsy-feeling set of tiny blades that only a Man vs. Wild superfan could love. If Leatherman and Victorinox weren’t already making so much excellent hardware, this might merit consideration. But it just can’t compare with even the lesser items from those two brands.
There’s more than one multitool out there that can make a person happy. But for the most tools for the money, in a satisfying design that leaves nothing out and doesn’t compromise on manufacturing quality, try the New Wave—you’ll understand the appeal behind Leatherman’s most popular tool of all time.