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Feb/March 2012

Recommending a multitool

Do you know your way around all the different multitool models on the market? Would you know what to recommend to a customer for a specific activity? MARK JOHNSTON gives some tips

The Guinness world record holder for the most functions on a penknife is the appropriately-named Wenger Giant Knife. This beast of a tool boasts 85 unique implements that serve up some 141 different applications, from fish scaler to bicycle chain river setter and even a cigar cutter for snipping your Montecristo No 4.

Of course, its practical value is rather limited: very few folk are prepared to walk around with 3.2 kg of Swiss Army knife in their pockets!

This is why most of your customers will require something a bit more streamlined.

Understanding the different types of multitool — specifically what features are best suited to what applications — is essential if you’re going to stock the right models and make that sale.

Compact options

The term multitool refers to any hand tool that combines several functions in one, not just the ubiquitous Leatherman-style units (although these are by far the most popular).

Another option is the traditional penknife, first developed for the Swiss Army and much-loved by generations of Boy Scouts. These tend to be smaller and lighter and are therefore the perfect choice for hikers or anybody else who is counting kilos.

Even more compact are the credit card multitools, which come with the bare necessities — scissors, tweezers, mini screwdriver and small blade — but are thin enough to slide into a wallet or the back pocket of your Levis.

However, the reduced size of these alternatives obviously has limitations, significantly the absence of the classic multitool’s trademark pliers that are so indispensable for tasks such as crimping electrical wires or pulling Kalahari thorns out of tyres. This is why most customers will be better off with one of these big boy multitools.

In principle they all have the same folding design that opens up to reveal a pair of pliers, along with an assortment of smaller tools nestled inside the handles.

What differs from model to model is the selection of smaller tools, along with the quality of the metal used (normally stainless steel) and, of course, the physical size of the unit.

Popular all-rounders

Versatility is the name of the game here, and speaking to the different multitool suppliers it’s clear that most customers want something that offers as many functions as possible without being too heavy or unwieldy.

In the case of Leatherman: that tool is the Wave. “This is traditionally our best seller,” says Bruce Woodroffe of Awesome Tools, the local distributors.

Apart from a beefy pair of pliers, two knife blades, saw, scissors and a bottle opener, it offers some more specialist functions, including a diamond-coated file and compatibility with Leatherman’s X2 interchangeable bit kit (an optional extra that gives you a total of over 20 different screwdriver heads).

This combination of features makes it the perfect all-rounder for everything from changing a plug to an overland holiday through Botswana. It’s also the tool of choice for many electricians and plumbers.

Victorinox SwissTool: Another model that offers a great spread of applications is the Victorinox SwissTool.

Mr Fix-it types will love the DIY-specific tools, including wire cutters, wire strippers, ruler, chisel, metal saw and screwdrivers (both Phillips and flat), while Bear Grylls wannabees can use the wood saw to build an overnight shelter in their back yard.

The SwissTool Spirit, a slightly smaller version, is a popular choice for those who want the same versatility, but in a more lightweight, ergonomic package.

Gerber’s flagship model, the Multiplier 800, is also a popular seller.

Rupert Merl of Lite Optec, the importers, explains that this isn’t just thanks to the fact that it’s got 12 unique tools, but also the quality of those tools. “A big feature here is the Fiskar scissors, which are strong enough to slice through a double layer of seatbelt webbing.”

Another drawcard is Gerber’s tungsten carbide wire cutter. Harder than steel, it allows you to tackle tough jobs like cutting through piano wire and fish hooks.

Specialist tools

While the Wave, SwissTool and Multiplier 800 are consummate all-rounders, specialist tools are also available for those customers with more specific needs.

Gerber, for example, make a dedicated fishing model called — no surprises here — the Fisherman, which comes with such angling-specific features as elongated pliers (for hook extraction) and hook sharpener.

Even more specialised are tools like the Leatherman MUT EOD. Designed for tactical/military application (the MUT stands for Military Utility Tool and the EOD for Explosive Ordnance Disposal), it comes with such Taliban-taming features as fuse wire cutters, cap crimper and a C4 punch for inserting a detonator into plastic explosive. Here in South Africa the market for tools like this is largely aspirational, acknowledges Woodroffe: “The guys that buy them are either collectors, tactical/weapon users, or want something to show their mates at the bar.”

Important features

For some customers, the blade will be one of the biggest considerations when selecting a multitool.

When it comes to those who want to do a lot of cutting, whether it’s for hunting or just a serious biltong habit, bigger is definitely better. “Cutting with a larger blade isn’t just less effort,” explains Merl. “It’s also safer.” Tools such as the Wenger Ranger series are a good choice here.

The quality of metal is also important. For general use a high-carbon stainless steel offers a good balance between durability and stain resistance. Leatherman, for example, use a 420 high-carbon stainless steel on the Wave’s blades.

However, their top-end model, the Charge TTi, uses premium S30V steel, which is even more durable. And remember, there’s a reason stainless steel is called stain-less and not stain proof: no steel is completely resistant to corrosion. Customers who want to use their multitool for fishing, or any other activity involving water (especially sea water) should be educated about cleaning and oiling the blades.

The cost

Finally, price, as always, remains a consideration for many customers.

According to Merl, Gerber’s wallet-friendly offering, the Suspension, has been the top-selling multitool worldwide for five years.

Woodroffe concurs that price is important, pointing out that Leatherman’s two new entry-level models — the Sidekick and Wingman — have been doing phenomenally well since they were launched last year. They retail for around half the price of the Wave.

“The tools are smaller and the blades aren’t made from the same grade of steel as our more expensive models,” explains Woodroffe. “But you still get the same functionality… and Leatherman’s lifetime guarantee.”

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