How Leatherman Became the First Name in Multitools

The Oregon brand created the first-ever pliers-based multitool, and perfected the art with the bestselling Surge

The Leatherman Surge, one of the gear brand's best-selling multitools
There isn't a Leatherman we don't like. The Surge just happens to be a favorite.

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This is part of InsideHook’s list of The 100 Best American-Made Products, a celebration of the gear, clothes and goods that make up our lives, and are the life’s work of our fellow Americans.

First and most importantly, there really is a Tim Leatherman. The Oregon native was inspired to start his namesake company back in 1975 during a trip to Europe. “My wife and I had a $300 used car,” Leatherman explained to me a few years ago, right before the brand’s Made of Mettle  documentary was released. “At some point, we needed to repair the car, and also fix the bad plumbing at our cheap hotel.” 

His solution? A pocket-sized multitool with pliers, which would replace the scout knife he always carried. He saw his new variation as offering “the utility of a toolbox with the portability of a pocketknife.” Nobody had done something like that at the time — which might explain why it took over seven years, several prototypes and many, many rejections before the first Leatherman was officially released (it was called the PST).

Leatherman (the brand) now sells over a million multitools every year in all shapes and sizes, with customizable designs and a 25-year warranty. The $100 million company is pretty much synonymous with multitools and everyday carry (EDC). They employ over 500 people and their wares are available in over 80 countries.

Pretty good for a company that was essentially started in Leatherman’s brother-in-law’s garage. Today, while greatly expanded, the company is still based out of Portland and still makes and tests its products in the Pacific Northwest. (Fun fact: their in-house testing room is called “The Torture Chamber.”)

The detail of the Leatherman Surge pliers
Tim Leatherman created the first-ever pliers-based multitool.

So, why focus on the Surge? Tim Leatherman himself told us he was partial to the Charge (“it has more accessories and a premium steel knife blade”) and the Wave is Leatherman’s bestselling tool of all time (and the bestselling multitool of all time, at that). With over 50 products, it’s difficult to narrow down the Leatherman ethos to just one multitool. 

But the Surge just offers, well, more. Extra-large scissors, full-size knife blades, four outside-opening blades, replaceable wire cutters, etc. With a total of 21 built-in tools, it’s one of the company’s two largest multitools. Originally introduced in 2005 and updated again in 2013, it remains a bestseller and, as one enthusiastic Redditor notes — yes, there is a dedicated Leatherman subreddit — “Lol, my multitool collection would be much smaller if I had started with the surge. #surgeisking.”

But honestly, given the amount of customization and inventory available, there’s an ideal Leatherman for you if you want something lighter, flashier or geared toward a more specific task (such as the Raptor Rescue, which feels ideal for yardwork but was originally designed for special operations medics).

Whatever you choose, the Leatherman’s greatest accomplishment might be all the true-life tales when the multitool saved a person’s life. Tim even has one of his own.

“My uncle, dad and I were on a small boat once and we were sport crabbing,” he told me. “We got done, but the motor wouldn’t start. The tide was going out, and we couldn’t row back. I was able to use a Leatherman to access the spark plug, unscrew it, use the file to clean the points, put it back on and start the motor. We made it back and had a crab dinner.”

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