Leatherman multi-tools have contributed to the adventure, craftsmanship, and survival of users the world over for almost three decades. Above is the best-selling Wave.
Contrary to what some people might think, the Leatherman wasn’t named after a member of the Village People. Nor does this handy little tool relate to some specific craft, like tanning or trimming hides. No, Leatherman is the last name of the person who invented it. First name: Tim.
Tim is a Northwesterner, with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Oregon State University. In 1975, after college, he and his wife traveled through Europe in a cheap, old Fiat. He had taken a Boy Scout knife with him -- not unlike a Swiss Army knife -- and used it for all the usual purposes and improvisations he had to come up with because he didn’t have a comprehensive toolbox with him but needed to keep a beater car on the road. He always wished he had a pair of pliers to go with it. In a hotel room, he sketched out what such a thing might look like.
Returning home, he put his ideas into motion. His wife worked to keep a roof over their heads and food in the fridge while Tim took the four weeks he assumed it would require to get something up and running. It ended up taking three years. And no one was interested in making it. Knife companies thought it was a tool; tool companies thought it was merely a gadget.
A friend from college, Steve Berliner, came on board. His father had a metalworking shop, so they were able to make the tool themselves. Leatherman and Berliner set up the Leatherman Tool Group in 1983. They found a couple of interested buyers: the Cabela’s catalog and the Early Winters catalog, which suggests something simpler, easier to use, and less expensive. The new prototype got the thumbs-up. After eight years of trying, the Leatherman won its first orders.
The original product, the PST (pocket survival tool) is now discontinued. When closed, it was 4 inches long and weighed just 5 ounces, but it somehow managed to pack in 14 separate tools. And the little leather carrying pouch is as recognizable as what’s inside. It didn’t take long for the PST to carve its own niche. In 1984, almost 30,000 units were sold. The next year brought sales of 69,000.
The 21-function Surge is part of a 40-strong range of current Leatherman products, which appeal to military personnel, first responders, outdoorspeople, and garage tinkerers. Even the CIA includes a mini Leatherman multi-tool in its escape and evasion survival kit. The best-seller is the stainless-steel Wave, which offers 17 tools including a Phillips head and a flat-head screwdriver, a diamond-coated file, and spring-action scissors.
All Leatherman tools are made in the United States. There’s a stipulation from the founder that the Leatherman factory will never leave its Portland, Oregon, location. The facility employs more than 500 full-timers building 15,000 tools a day. Their output is sold in 120 countries. Every multi-tool and knife that goes through the door has a 25-year warranty; 10 percent of the manufacturing process is repairing and replacing parts.
If you visit the company’s website, you can click on a section where grateful owners tell true stories of how their Leatherman has saved their lives, like helping them escape a burning vehicle or claw their way out of a frozen lake.
Leatherman also contributes to society by raising funds for breast cancer research and many other charities, and the company donates products to the American Red Cross and to wildlife restoration projects.
Tim Leatherman is in the Cutlery Hall of Fame. But if he hadn’t been inducted, he could have easily cut his way in.