A Q&A With Tim Leatherman, Inventor of the Original Lifehack

There’s a reason it’s the most ubiquitous tool in America

April 26, 2018 9:00 am

“Surprisingly, I wasn’t a tool person or a fix-it person,” says Tim Leatherman.

His dad was a carpenter. Tim wanted to be an electrical engineer.

But then a budget trip to Europe changed his life dramatically, and the world’s most versatile multi-tool was born.

Now, some 35 years later, a stirring documentary on that tool — Made of Mettle — is set for release. It tells the story of Leatherman tools and its multitude of grateful owners, some of whom literally owe their lives to the everyday carry.

So we caught up with the Oregon native to chat about the multi-tool’s unusual origins, the items every man needs in his toolbox, and why his personal Leatherman has the most painful backstory ever.

IH: What was the Leatherman’s inspiration?

TL: My wife and I took a budget trip in Europe with a $300 used car — at some point, we needed to repair the car, and we needed to fix the bad plumbing at our cheap hotel. My idea was to add pliers to a pocket knife. Nobody had really done that before.

IH: You spent a lot of time coming up with the concept in your garage (eight years, actually). What do you keep in there now?

TL: I have lot of elaborate machinery left over from the “basement years” 35 years ago, like a milling machine — I don’t think a lot of people have those. I use it now as a drill press.  But I’ve also got a nice toolbox that I can roll, and a pretty decent, classic red toolbox that I can put into a car.

IH: What do you keep in that toolbox?

TL: Just some ordinary screwdrivers, electrical tape, electrical testers, a small electric drill, ball peen hammer, a hacksaw, some socket drivers.

IH: What about power tools?

TL: I have some power saws, but it’s surprising how much you can get along with just a carpenter’s hand saw on wood and an old fashioned hack saw on metal. I used to have a band saw, but it got moved into my shop when we started and I never moved it back. I also have drill presses, belt sanders, grinders with various kinds of grinder wheels on ‘em.

IH: What’s your Leatherman of choice?

TL: Being the owner, I give myself the privilege of carrying the deluxe version of our most popular tool (laughs). It’s the Charge. It has more accessories and a premium steel knife blade. I probably still use the pliers the most, though the serrated knife blade and scissors come in really handy.

IH: You’re also wearing the Tempo watch/multi-tool. What do you use that for?

TL: It has a pick to take out a phone’s SIM card, which I used to have to do indirectly with my Leatherman. And you can open a beer bottle a lot faster with this. Oh, and I can carry it on an airplane. If you witness an accident, you can also use this to break glass and cut the seatbelt.

IH: What’s one thing you want on a Leatherman that no one else does?

TL: From the beginning, almost everything we’ve added has been a customer suggestion: corkscrew, file, saw. I always wanted an adjustable wrench, but no one’s asked for it! But you can use a vice grip from a Leatherman as pliers or a wrench, so I guess that’s the substitute.

IH: Your documentary has a lot of people who literally had their lives saved because they were carrying a Leatherman. Do you have your own story?

TL: My uncle, dad and I were on a small boat once and we were sport crabbing. 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 Leatherman to access the spark plug, unscrew it, use the file to clean the points, put back on and start the motor. We made it back and had a crab dinner.

IH: What’s the most interesting story you’ve heard about the Leatherman?

TL: Not sure if your readers want to hear this, but I heard this when I was in Paris. I was signing tools and this customer came in, and he told me he and his son were camping one time, and his son’s zipper got stuck in his scrotum! They took him to the hospital, the doctor couldn’t get zipper undone, so the father used his Leatherman to fix the zipper. This man was actually a jeweler, so he later put a tiny diamond on my Leatherman.

Note: Made of Mettle will be released to the public in July 2018. Want a more personal viewing? Below are places where you might be able to catch the documentary and meet Tim (sadly, some of the screenings aren’t for the public, so check Leatherman’s site first.)

Toronto: May 9
London: May 22
Paris: May 24
Berlin: June 12
Barcelona: June 14
Amsterdam: June 21
Korea: October 11-13
New Zealand: Nov 5-9
Australia: Nov 10-20

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