We live in the golden age of pocket gadgets. Years ago, Grandpa had to make do with a knife that could open a wine bottle, but since then, computer-aided design (CAD) software, precision machining, and crowdfunding has led to an explosion of different tools. And as somebody who deeply loves these things, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about what you’ll really use and what’s destined for the junk drawer.
Don’t buy what you already have
Multi-tools can stimulate a desire to own really cool things that cost a lot of money, but you’re going to waste your hard-earned cash if you start browsing Amazon without a plan. Before you buy anything, consider what you already have. If you always carry your phone, you don’t need a flashlight on your keychain, too. If you prefer jotting things down by hand rather than using a note-taking app, buy notes you can stick to the back of your phone. Wear a watch? Consider a multi-tool strap, such as the Leatherman Tread.
If a useful item on your key ring still makes sense, ask yourself if your keychain is comfortable enough to hold and to maneuver. Keys bunched up in your fist isn’t exactly ergonomic, and a weight hanging off the end of a tool you’re trying to use can easily turn a simple fix frustrating. Look into quick-release keychains that’ll let you pop tools on and off as needed, so you can fix a problem and get on with your life. Key organizers work, too—they’ll let you fold tools in and out for a comfortable grip.
Think about what you really need
There are some tools you’ll frequently find a use for, such as screwdrivers and cutting edges. And no matter what you buy, it’ll probably have a bottle opener, since all you need is a notch in something stiff enough to serve as a lever.
For other features, think about where you go and what you do. Cyclists will need hex wrenches, golfers should keep a divot tool on hand, and runners can use a belt hook for those days you grab the gym shorts without the pockets. Also consider what else will be around you that may need repairs, like eyeglasses, office furniture, cars, or your grill. Even if a tool’s only job is to take the squeak out of a chair you use often, it’s worth it.
Skip the blade if you fly
If you don’t need to cut things on a daily basis, and you fly even occasionally, leaving a blade off your keychain will save you a lot of aggravation both in and out of the airport. Multi-tools without blades pass through security without a problem, but those with blades of any length need to go into your checked baggage, or they’ll be confiscated. And no, you won’t get them back.
There are also practical considerations. Quite a few of these doodads have some form of cutting edge, which isn’t quite a blade, but will still open packages just fine. And if you need a sharp edge for more intense tasks, you’re probably better off with a dedicated pocket knife with a longer blade and a mechanism that’s easier to care for.
Look for simple designs
Simpler is almost always better. Keep in mind that over time, any multi-tool you keep on you will come in contact with dirt, sweat, and lint. Similarly, something with a complex mechanism won’t easily endure falling into a river or your morning coffee. A solid piece of steel and titanium will be easier to clean than a device with multiple hinges, locks, and springs.
And something with a lot of moving parts, even a well-crafted Swiss Army knife, will need to be cared for. If you just need to open packages or occasionally tighten the screws on that coffee table you assembled last year, a simpler tool will save you the maintenance.
Try to avoid tools with parts that can easily become detached, like screwdriver bits or tweezers. No matter how well-designed a tool may be, it’s eventually going to loosen up as you carry it around in your pocket, and those parts will fall off, many never to be seen again.
Make sure it actually works
Some tools cram in functions you don’t need, regardless of whether they make sense, or even work in the first place. When considering a tool, consider how you’d have to handle it to use a particular function.
For example, many multitools include a cutout that technically forms a wrench. But fitting over a nut is just the first step; once you’ve got the tool in place, you may not have enough leverage to tighten or loosen your target. Thinking about a tool’s actual function, or watching a video of it in action, will help you figure out if it’s useful or just flashy. After all, if something isn’t well-engineered, it’s not going to do the job.