How Tim Leatherman Created the Iconic American Multitool


Chances are high you’ve received a Leatherman device someplace. Perhaps it’s in your yard shed or your automobile’s glove field or, maybe extra probably, in that catchall kitchen drawer, subsequent to the triple-A batteries and rubber bands. It’s not only a fixture in the lives of males. It’s additionally a pop-culture mainstay, showing in A Quiet Place, Pace, Battlestar Galactica, even in Tom Cruise’s hand in Oblivion. The Leatherman resonates for 1,000,000 causes but in addition for one: It’s an emblem of Americana, that uncommon, purposeful totem with the sturdiness to be handed down from father to son. Which is a pleasant sentiment but in addition a difficult enterprise proposition for the Portland, Oregon–primarily based firm: How do you get individuals to switch one thing that’s assured for 25 years and principally by no means breaks? Particularly if a person is—gulp—emotionally hooked up to it?

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That’s the query I wish to ask Tim Leatherman, the 70-year-old inventor of the Pocket Survival Device, because it’s formally recognized, as we sit down for dim sum in honor of the device’s first main redesign in practically 20 years. However first I’ve to ask: Is the dude’s final title critically Leatherman? It’s as if LeBron’s final title had been Dunksalot.

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He smiles at the query. 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 individuals assume that Leatherman is a 100-year-old firm that was once in the leather-making enterprise.” It’s not. And the product’s title may have been a complete lot much less iconic: At first, Tim nearly known as the device Mr. Crunch, “due to the clamping characteristic.”

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That was in 1980, when he patented his design and was merely in search of somebody to provide it, by no means imagining that sooner or later it could go to house—in the pocket of NASA astronaut Donald Pettit—and be endorsed by The New York Occasions, final 12 months, as the finest multitool on the market, edging out rivals from firms like Gerber and Victorinox.

Of all the makes use of for the multitool, right here’s one you by no means thought-about: Ben Rivera, the CEO of Leatherman, used the scissors on his to chop his child’s umbilical wire. I largely use mine to open packages from Amazon. However the mission is the identical: The gadget is supposed to avoid wasting you a visit to get the just-right device as a result of this one does a bit of little bit of every little thing.

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The brand new Leatherman design, known as the Free collection, does the identical factor. It’s only a entire lot simpler to make use of. And the innovation isn’t semantic. The unique Leatherman was well-known for its butterfly design. Certain, you’d must open the factor to search out what you wanted—the screwdrivers, the knife, the tiny noticed—however a minimum of it was all there. With the Free, the instruments at the moment are dealing with out, so that you don’t must open it as much as get at one. The instruments are additionally accessible by pushing down on a steel launch together with your thumb. With follow, you may open something you want with one hand with out trying.

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That magic trick comes courtesy of head designer Adam Lazenby, 36, a person who lives on a sailboat and bicycles to work and has run into greater than his fair proportion of moments requiring a multitool. In line with Lazenby, the device’s five-year journey to market started in a convention room in Portland at the course of the product supervisor for the class.

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“He stated that our patents”—on the Leatherman Wave—”are going to expire, and we gained’t be capable to shield it from copies,” Lazenby recollects. “‘We’d like you to make it sooner, cheaper, smaller, lighter.’ Which is not possible.” Nonetheless, he hunkered down and ultimately emerged with the Free collection.

Taking over not possible duties is baked in to the firm’s DNA. Tim Leatherman was an aimless mechanical engineering scholar in 1970 when he met his spouse, Chau, in a Portland State dorm basement, the place he was taking part in ping-pong. In 1975, the newlyweds purchased a run-down Fiat 600 for $300 and set off throughout Europe and the Center East on a 17-country street journey with the hope of answering that everlasting query: What are we going to do with our lives?

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In a probably apocryphal story, destiny intervened. The automobile had wiring points and leaky hoses that wanted restore. Tim, who’s admittedly not useful, additionally encountered plumbing points at the finances accommodations the place they stayed. After checking in to 1 in Tehran, he channeled his frustrations right into a sketch for what he craved: “a Boy Scout knife with pliers.”

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For 3 years he labored on constructing a prototype in a storage in Portland whereas Chau paid the payments by serving to to resettle households fleeing communist Vietnam. Tim ultimately patented his concept and tried to promote it to knife firms (which dismissed it as extra of a device), then to device firms (which believed it was a gadget that wouldn’t promote). After getting the brush-off from potential consumers together with AT&T and the U.S. army, Leatherman realized he’d must manufacture the factor himself.

It took eight years to get the Pocket Survival Device into anybody’s pocket. The PST made its debut in 1983 in a catalog you’ve by no means heard of and, 10 years later, Leatherman, nonetheless a personal firm, was promoting greater than 1,000,000 models a 12 months. A follow-up known as the Wave was launched in 1998 and have become a million-unit vendor nearly in a single day.

Right now, Leatherman employs 500 individuals and its instruments are bought in additional than 80 nations. On a latest journey to Australia—to mark the firm’s 35th anniversary—Tim encountered a lady with dreadlocks who carried out a track she’d written in honor of the device, singing: “If I didn’t have my Leatherman, I’d be a lot deader than I’m.”

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The Free launches in April, and a folding knife model, the Free Ok Sequence—with a three.35-inch stainless-steel blade—will go on sale in August. Lazenby began sketching in 2014, and pretty shortly he got here up with the concept of instruments dealing with outward.

“You want two arms to make use of the Wave,” he says. “However in case you put the instruments on the outdoors, it’s apparent the place every little thing is. I would like the Phillips screwdriver? It’s proper there.”

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The overhaul was apparent sufficient, he says, flipping the Free prototype in his hand the approach an ’80s film villain flings a switchblade. However making it a actuality was a nerd’s errand. Lazenby, who beforehand labored on hydrogen gasoline cells, begins speaking about the course of, going into absurd element about the magnets that maintain the knife, and the way the dimension of the new pliers’ handles makes it just about not possible to pinch your self. And about the “epic haptics,” which is one other approach of claiming the device makes a cool noise when it snaps shut. He catches himself rambling and admits: “To the remainder of the world, it’s a tiny element some geek is worked up about. However I’m that geek. And I used to be excited.”

Tim Leatherman, who’s semiretired—and a brand new grandfather—is fairly excited, too. He walks me via the firm’s 90,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, the place the instruments are manufactured with the best U.S. metal. Tim interacts cheerily with the workers on the line, marveling at the robotics used to chop and polish the metal. For the document, he carries the Cost Ti, which stands for titanium, and whereas the device is costly, he shrugs. “As the proprietor,” he says, “I believe I’ve permission to hold the deluxe model.” Smiling via eyeglasses that double as security goggles, he outlines a problem I hadn’t considered.

“There’s a whole lot of knockoffs coming from China,” he says. “The worth is about one-tenth of ours, however the high quality is about one-twentieth. However, the day goes to come back when the value is 50 p.c of ours however the high quality is 80 p.c. We’re attempting to be proactive.”

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He goals of a day when his crew can squeeze a homing beacon inside the device. He’s pretty sure that may be a success, although he acknowledges that not each innovation has linked with prospects. We stroll previous a photograph gallery of an evolution of the product line, and we quickly come to a device I’d by no means heard of known as 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 could be our prime market. That turned out to not be true. I assume they determined it wasn’t a good suggestion to alter your oil one minute, then picnic the subsequent with the identical device.”

A Transient Historical past of the Leatherman

Since debuting in 1983, the multitool has turn out to be a family title. Right here’s how.

The Unique


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

The Increasing Line


Right now, Leatherman produces greater than 25 objects, together with knives, equipment, a wearable watch that comes with 20 instruments, and shears known as the Raptor, above.

The 2019 Free Sequence


Debuting in April, the machine retains the traditional folding design of the unique however incorporates the instruments on the outdoors of the folded-up unit, that are accessible by a brand new push-open characteristic.

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