How Tim Leatherman Created the Iconic American Multitool

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Chances are you’ve got a Leatherman tool somewhere. Maybe it’s in your backyard shed or your car’s glove box or, perhaps more likely, in that catchall kitchen drawer, next to the triple-A batteries and rubber bands. It’s not just a fixture in the lives of men. It’s also a pop-culture mainstay, appearing in A Quiet Place, Speed, Battlestar Galactica, even in Tom Cruise’s hand in Oblivion. The Leatherman resonates for a million reasons but also for one: It’s a symbol of Americana, that rare, functional totem with the durability to be passed down from father to son. Which is a nice sentiment but also a challenging business proposition for the Portland, Oregon–based company: How do you get people to replace something that’s guaranteed for 25 years and basically never breaks? Especially if a man is—gulp—emotionally attached to it?

 

That’s the question I want to ask Tim Leatherman, the 70-year-old inventor of the Pocket Survival Tool, as it’s officially known, as we sit down for dim sum in honor of the tool’s first major redesign in nearly 20 years. But first I have to ask: Is the dude’s last name seriously Leatherman? It’s as if LeBron’s last name were Dunksalot.

Leah Nash

He smiles at the question. Tim is tall and lanky, like a geeky stunt double for Clint Eastwood, and over the sound of a waitress taking our order, he says: “So many people think that Leatherman is a 100-year-old company that used to be in the leather-making business.” It’s not. And the product’s name could have been a whole lot less iconic: At first, Tim almost called the tool Mr. Crunch, “because of the clamping feature.”

That was in 1980, when he patented his design and was simply looking for someone to produce it, never imagining that one day it would go to space—in the pocket of NASA astronaut Donald Pettit—and be endorsed by The New York Times, last year, as the best multitool on the market, edging out competitors from companies like Gerber and Victorinox.

Of all the uses for the multitool, here’s one you never considered: Ben Rivera, the CEO of Leatherman, used the scissors on his to cut his baby’s umbilical cord. I mostly use mine to open packages from Amazon. But the mission is the same: The gadget is meant to save you a trip to get the just-right tool because this one does a little bit of everything.

Leatherman
Leah Nash

The new Leatherman design, called the Free series, does the same thing. It’s just a whole lot easier to use. And the innovation isn’t semantic. The original Leatherman was famous for its butterfly design. Sure, you’d have to open the thing to find what you needed—the screwdrivers, the knife, the tiny saw—but at least it was all there. With the Free, the tools are now facing out, so you don’t need to open it up to get at one. The tools are also accessible by pushing down on a metal release with your thumb. With practice, you can open anything you need with one hand without looking.

That magic trick comes courtesy of head designer Adam Lazenby, 36, a man who lives on a sailboat and bicycles to work and has run into more than his fair share of moments requiring a multitool. According to Lazenby, the tool’s five-year journey to market began in a conference room in Portland at the direction of the product manager for the category.

Leatherman
Leah Nash

“He said that our patents”—on the Leatherman Wave—”are going to run out, and we won’t be able to protect it from copies,” Lazenby recalls. “‘We need you to make it faster, cheaper, smaller, lighter.’ Which is impossible.” Still, he hunkered down and eventually emerged with the Free series.

Taking on impossible tasks is baked in to the company’s DNA. Tim Leatherman was an aimless mechanical engineering student in 1970 when he met his wife, Chau, in a Portland State dorm basement, where he was playing ping-pong. In 1975, the newlyweds bought a run-down Fiat 600 for $300 and set off across Europe and the Middle East on a 17-country road trip with the hope of answering that eternal question: What are we going to do with our lives?

In a possibly apocryphal story, fate intervened. The car had wiring issues and leaky hoses that needed repair. Tim, who is admittedly not handy, also encountered plumbing issues at the budget hotels where they stayed. After checking in to one in Tehran, he channeled his frustrations into a sketch for what he craved: “a Boy Scout knife with pliers.”

Leatherman
Leah Nash

For three years he worked on building a prototype in a garage in Portland while Chau paid the bills by helping to resettle families fleeing communist Vietnam. Tim eventually patented his idea and tried to sell it to knife companies (which dismissed it as more of a tool), then to tool companies (which believed it was a gadget that wouldn’t sell). After getting the brush-off from potential buyers including AT&T and the U.S. military, Leatherman realized he’d need to manufacture the thing himself.

It took eight years to get the Pocket Survival Tool into anyone’s pocket. The PST made its debut in 1983 in a catalog you’ve never heard of and, 10 years later, Leatherman, still a private company, was selling more than a million units a year. A follow-up called the Wave was introduced in 1998 and became a million-unit seller almost overnight.

Today, Leatherman employs 500 people and its tools are sold in more than 80 countries. On a recent trip to Australia—to mark the company’s 35th anniversary—Tim encountered a woman with dreadlocks who performed a song she’d written in honor of the tool, singing: “If I didn’t have my Leatherman, I’d be so much deader than I am.”

Leatherman
Leah Nash

The Free launches in April, and a folding knife version, the Free K Series—with a 3.35-inch stainless steel blade—will go on sale in August. Lazenby started sketching in 2014, and fairly quickly he came up with the idea of tools facing outward.

“You need two hands to use the Wave,” he says. “But if you put the tools on the outside, it’s obvious where everything is. I want the Phillips screwdriver? It’s right there.”

The overhaul was obvious enough, he says, flipping the Free prototype in his hand the way an ’80s movie villain flings a switchblade. But making it a reality was a nerd’s errand. Lazenby, who previously worked on hydrogen fuel cells, starts talking about the process, going into absurd detail about the magnets that hold the knife, and how the size of the new pliers’ handles makes it virtually impossible to pinch yourself. And about the “epic haptics,” which is another way of saying the tool makes a cool noise when it snaps shut. He catches himself rambling and admits: “To the rest of the world, it’s a tiny detail some geek is excited about. But I’m that geek. And I was excited.”

Tim Leatherman, who is semiretired—and a new grandfather—is pretty excited, too. He walks me through the company’s 90,000-square-foot production facility, where the tools are manufactured with the finest U.S. steel. Tim interacts cheerily with the employees on the line, marveling at the robotics used to cut and polish the steel. For the record, he carries the Charge Ti, which stands for titanium, and while the tool is pricey, he shrugs. “As the owner,” he says, “I think I have permission to carry the deluxe version.” Smiling through eyeglasses that double as safety goggles, he outlines a challenge I hadn’t thought of.

“There’s a lot of knockoffs coming from China,” he says. “The price is about one-tenth of ours, but the quality is about one-twentieth. Nevertheless, the day is going to come when the price is 50 percent of ours but the quality is 80 percent. We’re trying to be proactive.”

Leatherman
Leah Nash

He dreams of a day when his team can squeeze a homing beacon inside the tool. He’s fairly certain that would be a hit, though he acknowledges that not every innovation has connected with customers. We walk past a photo gallery of an evolution of the product line, and we soon come to a tool I’d never heard of called the Flare. “It had a fork and a pâté knife,” Tim says. A pâté knife? Like for slicing duck terrine in an emergency?

He laughs. “We thought the European picnicker would be our prime market. That turned out not to be true. I guess they decided it wasn’t a good idea to change your oil one minute, then picnic the next with the same tool.”

A Brief History of the Leatherman

Since debuting in 1983, the multitool has become a household name. Here’s how.

The Original

Leatherman
Leatherman

Tim Leatherman’s invention took eight years to develop and manufacture. It was the first multitool that incorporated a pliers, and it sold 10 million units.

The Expanding Line

Leatherman
Leatherman

Today, Leatherman produces more than 25 items, including knives, accessories, a wearable watch that comes with 20 tools, and shears called the Raptor, above.

The 2019 Free Series

Leatherman
Leatherman

Debuting in April, the device retains the classic folding design of the original but incorporates the tools on the outside of the folded-up unit, which are accessible by a new push-open feature.



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