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How to Choose a Multi-Tool

A good multi-tool is an invaluable piece of your everyday carry. They're versatile and easy to carry — it's like having your own little toolbox in your pocket. Not all multi-tools are created equal, though, and finding the right one can take some time and careful consideration.

In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know about choosing the perfect multi-tool to fit your needs. From different types of multi-tools and the materials from which they're made to the many dozens of tools they come with, our experts lay it all out to help you pick the right one.

Types of Multi-Tools

One of the biggest differences between different types of multi-tools is their size, which affects how easy they are to carry around with you. From small, keychain-sized multi-tools to heavy-duty, full-sized multi-tools, the type you decide on depends largely on how much weight you're willing to lug around throughout the day.

Keychain Multi-Tools

As the name implies, a keychain multi-tool is small enough to fit on a keyring without taking up too much space. These types of multi-tools are usually the smallest, meaning they're lightweight and easy to take with you anywhere.

The compact size of a keychain multi-tool comes at the cost of the amount of tools that can fit on them. Whereas a full-sized multi-tool might have a dozen tools or more attached, a keychain multi-tool can typically only fit the bare essentials. The tools themselves are smaller on average, too, meaning they may not be up to handling more intensive tasks. Still, they can be extremely useful in a pinch.

Pocket Multi-Tools

The name is pretty self-explanatory here, too: pocket multi-tools fit comfortably in your pocket for ease of carry and access. These multi-tools ride the line between keychain and full-sized — they're somewhere in the middle and, as a result, they're still relatively easy to carry.

At the same time, they can fit more tools than a keychain multi-tool. Their extra size may allow some additional room for bells and whistles like a screwdriver set or a pair of scissors. Still, the tools themselves may be relatively small, especially compared to a full-sized multi-tool.

Full-Sized Multi-Tools

Full-sized multi-tools are as big as it gets. That means they can fit just about as many tools as you need. Like most multi-tools, they're usually built around a pair of pliers. On top of that, they can contain anything from a screwdriver set, a knife, scissors, a bottle opener, a saw, an awl, a ruler, a file and more.

On the downside, full-sized multi-tools are quite hefty. Unless you find yourself reaching for your multi-tool multiple times a day for a variety of tasks, these kinds of multi-tools can be a bit heavy to carry around with you for an extended period of time. Still, if you can deal with the weight, the versatility of a full-sized multi-tool is hard to beat.

Specialized Multi-Tools

We covered small, medium and large, but in addition to those types of multi-tools, there's a whole other category in and of itself: specialized multi-tools. These are designed for specific needs like adjusting a bow, taking apart and cleaning a gun, fixing a bicycle, etc.

Because specialized multi-tools are meant to take on such specific tasks, the accompanying tools themselves vary quite a bit. Multi-tools for fixing and adjusting bikes may come with any number of Phillips, hex, flathead and Torx screwdriver bits. Gun-specific multi-tools can bear anything from a scope turret tool to a pin punch or a choke tube wrench. If you need a specialized multi-tool, be sure that the tools it comes with fit whichever needs you'd like the multi-tool to fill.

Common Tools

The size and type of multi-tool you choose is important, but the main stars of the show are the tools themselves. We'll cover the most common multi-tool implements here, but keep in mind that this list is far from comprehensive; there are a huge number of tools that can go on a multi-tool. The best piece of advice we can give is to do plenty of research before buying to be sure the tools your multi-tool comes with are useful for the kinds of activities you expect to use them for.

Multi-Tool Materials

Like any tool, materials matter when it comes to multi-tools. You may not think about it much, but different metal alloys are designed to handle different tasks, and for a multi-tool to last for a long time, it needs to be made from the right stuff. Your multi-tool must be able to resist corrosion, impacts and the regular wear and tear that comes with everyday use.

Because multi-tools are, by definition, made of "multiple" tools, they usually consist of a few different metal alloys designed for different purposes. Most commonly, you'll find that multi-tools are engineered from two distinct types of stainless steel: 420 HC and 154 CM.

420 HC Stainless Steel

This stainless steel alloy has a very high tensile strength. It also has one of the highest melting points of any stainless steel alloy — around 2,700 °F. It's often used in cutlery for its durability and impact resistance.

Due to its toughness, 420 HC stainless steel is used to make the majority of a multi-tool's tools — most commonly knives, saws, screwdrivers and files. As a result, the tools themselves are very tough to break and can handle continuous, rigorous use throughout their lifetimes.

154 CM Stainless Steel

While 154 CM stainless steel usually offers a good balance of toughness, hardness and corrosion resistance without leading any of those categories, there is one thing this alloy does very, very well: it retains an edge. In fact, 154 CM stainless steel can hold an edge up to three times longer than 420 HC stainless steel.

Because of its ability to stay sharp, many manufacturers make the wire cutters of their multi-tools out of 154 CM stainless steel. Wire cutters are, after all, built into the pliers and are very hard to reach and sharpen. Since they're made from an alloy that holds its edge well, you won't have to go out of your way to sharpen them all that often, making for a better user experience.

Other Multi-Tool Considerations

Finding the right size, tools and materials are important aspects of choosing a multi-tool. There are a few other key elements to think about, though — elements that may not cross your mind when you're trying to figure out which tool to purchase. We'll cover those points here. Be sure to think them over carefully before making your final decision.

Knife or no Knife?

The answer to this question may seem obvious: of course, why wouldn't you want a knife? It's more complicated than that, though. For one, if you've ever used a multi-tool with a knife, you know that it's awkward. The body of a multi-tool doesn't make for a good knife handle. Cutting things becomes a clunky, cumbersome task, and keeping the bulk of the multi-tool itself out of your way can be difficult.

In a lot of cases, you may be better off just choosing a good tactical knife for all your cutting needs. Nixing the knife on your multi-tool frees up that space for a different tool. Most of the time, though, that's not your choice; manufacturers often include knives on their multi-tools, and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to remove it, let alone swap it out for something else. Still, consider whether or not you need a knife on your multi-tool. If you don't, you may want to look for a style that doesn't include one, and opt instead to carry a dedicated pocket knife.

Liner Locks Are a Must-Have

If your multi-tool does have a knife, it's imperative for that knife to come with a liner lock. A liner lock is a bent or spring-loaded metal edge that slides into place under the base of the knife blade after it opens, keeping it locked open until you're ready to close it.

Liner locks make knives safer to use. They prevent the knife from closing accidentally when you slip or push in the wrong direction, saving your fingers from a nasty cut. It's not just knives, either — can openers, bottle openers, saws and other tools can all benefit from the addition of a liner lock. You can see how a liner lock works in our video on opening and closing tactical knives.

The Problem with Bits

The advantage of a multi-tool with interchangeable screwdriver bits is obvious: it's endlessly versatile. You can swap in just about any bit to deal with just about any screw you come across. The disadvantages may be less obvious, but they're very real nonetheless.

Think about it: bits can be lost pretty easily. They're also another component that you'll need to make room to carry with you. Both of these issues are solvable, at least — bits can be replaced if lost, and some multi-tools come with a case that can carry both the tool itself and the bits. Are the hassles worth the benefits, though? That's for you to decide. Keep them both in mind, at the very least.

Size Matters

In most cases, you're probably going to carry your multi-tool with you everywhere you go. Even if it's not part of your EDC, the size of your multi-tool will still affect the way you use it. A bigger tool can hold a lot more tools, but its large size may also make it unwieldy to use or carry.

When it comes to size, it's particularly advantageous to think about how you're going to be using your multi-tool throughout the day. If you think you'll need it often, it may be worthwhile to opt for something a bit slimmer that you can carry without much effort. If you're going to keep it lying around your home workshop, you might want to choose something a bit bigger that has more tools to take on a variety of functions.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

We've alluded to it a bit, but here's a good piece of general advice about choosing a multi-tool: they're good for a lot of things, but they're not really great at any one thing. What's appealing about them is that they're essentially a portable tool box — having pliers, a knife, a screwdriver, wire cutters, scissors, a ruler, a saw and a file all in one device that fits in your pocket is pretty neat and very handy.

The downside, though, is that a multi-tool's knife can't quite fill the role of a full-sized knife. A multi-tool's saw can't do what a dedicated saw can. A multi-tool's file isn't as big or robust as a typical file — you get the idea. Multi-tools are good at an odd fix here and a quick adjustment there, but its tools can never replace their full-sized equivalents.

Multi-tools are invaluable, though, for taking on a variety of small jobs at any time and any place. When deciding which one to buy, be cognizant of the size of the multi-tool and the tools that come with it. Keep an eye on the materials that make up the tools themselves, and be wary of the other considerations we listed here. Do that, and you'll be well on your way to finding the right multi-tool for you.

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