We’re all gear junkies here at We Are Explorers, so when we heard that the man behind the famous multi-tool was heading to the Land Down Under on tour, we couldn’t resist finding out how it feels to invent something that’s now a must-have for so many dirtbags.
Tim first came up with the idea of a multi-tool in 1975 when he and his wife Chau were road tripping across Europe in a beaten up old Fiat that did more breaking down than moving forward.
His handy Scout knife may have been good for cutting sandwiches, but it wasn’t cutting the mustard when it came to roadside fixes. That’s when he hit upon the idea of a pliers-based multi-tool. That was 35 years ago and after a few false starts, Leatherman now sells millions of tools around the world.
And, from hauling yourself out of frozen lakes to saving the day at a Hawaii wedding, it turns out there are plenty more uses for a Leatherman tool than even we thought possible…
If one of our explorers was planning to get lost in the bush, which Leatherman multi-tool would you tell them to take with them and why?
It would have to be the Leatherman Signal. It has all of the usual tools like pliers, wire cutter, leather punch. But it also has a fire starter, emergency whistle, and a sharpening stick.
We’ve made gradual changes over the years and these usually always come from the customer. We get emails all the time saying ‘It’s 99% perfect if you could just add…”. We love hearing this as it gives us a chance to create something that’s even closer to what people want.
Okay, with that in mind, tell us truthfully…can you ever have too many tools on a multi-tool?
Absolutely! My product philosophy focuses on 4 items. The most functionality, with the highest quality, in the smallest space, with the least weight. By having to consider all four of those design criteria we can never have too many tools as it would impact the other 3 areas.
There are so many stories out there of how Leatherman multi-tools have saved people’s lives. Any standout ones for you? And how does creating a “survival tool” make you feel?
Just recently we received a story of an Englishman who went to Romania alone to climb a mountain there. He ended up being caught in an avalanche and was injured quite severely. He first used his Leatherman to cut off his boot to alleviate the swelling and then used it multiple more times as he crawled with broken bones to get help a few miles away. We have thousands of stories like this and it always feels incredibly gratifying to know that we’ve helped someone when they need it the most.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever used a Leatherman for?
Well, it’s not an outdoors story — but I attended the wedding of our Australian distributor in Hawaii. It was a beautiful setting on a grassy area, but then — during the reception — the sprinklers turned on. Everything was getting wet and no-one could turn them off. I managed to shut them off and fix some of the PA equipment that had got a bit wet.
Tell us something you can use a Leatherman for in the backcountry that we might not know about.
We had this incredible story come to us about a man and a wife who were crossing a frozen lake, which turned out to not be as firm as they thought. The ice gave way and they were desperately trying to grasp the edge of the ice to pull themselves out but just couldn’t get a grip. That’s when the man remembered he had his Leatherman tool on his belt. He opened up the pliers and held it by the handles, jamming the pliers into the ice. This gave him enough grip to get himself out and swing back around to help his wife.
Our customers are very passionate and we often hear these stories from them when they’re returning their tools to be fixed or serviced because they’ve been used beyond their capability. They say “it’s my fault, but please fix it fast”. We offer a 25-year warranty and we’ll just fix it and won’t change anything.
It took 8 years to get the Leatherman multi-tool to market when you originally thought it would take a month for a working prototype. How did you know it was going to be a success and what kept you going?
I never really knew it would be a success but I always set out to create a tool that I could commercialise. That’s what I focussed on. It took me 3 years of working from my garage to create one that I liked enough to show the world. But unfortunately, the world didn’t like it that much! It took another 5 years of modification before I got my first order.
It was originally called “The Pocket Survival Tool” and I wanted to sell 4,000 in the first year to two target groups; first was knife collectors and the second were a group called “The Survivalists”. In the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of people afraid that the Soviet Union would drop a bomb so they built bunkers and stocked them with food and provisions.
We found out pretty quickly though (once it had gone to market) that it was going to work. A mail-order catalogue started with 250 tools. We hadn’t even shipped them and they’d been sold. They wanted another 500 and then 1,000. It kept going.
What we know now is that we had a very different target audience than what we first thought. The largest is what I call the outdoor recreationists, then the professional users — plumbers, electricians, medics, soldiers etc, and then there’s DIY.
Are there any times you’ve been really glad you had your Leatherman with you?
So many times. I remember once when I went crabbing with my dad, uncle, and brother in this little-rented boat. The tide changed and was pulling us back quite rapidly but the motor just wouldn’t start. Rowing was getting us nowhere and we genuinely thought we’d have to spend a cold night at sea. Luckily, using my Leatherman tool I was able to access the spark plugs, take them out, file them down and get them back in to get the boat started again.
Leatherman. That’s a very cool name that suits the product perfectly. What would you have called it if you’d had a really boring surname?
My co-founder and I actually brainstormed a long list of names, but at the time I’d been calling the business “Leatherman Tools Company” for eight years whilst I worked out of my garage. We decided to stick with that but say “Leatherman Tool Group Incorporated” to make ourselves sound more established than we were.
Are you an outdoorsman? What are your worst and best memories of being in the outdoors?
I’m a city boy really but as a kid I spent a lot of time outdoors with my father and brother. We’d go camping and fishing all of the time. One of those trips was a huge deep canyon in my home state of Oregon to catch trout. When my Dad turned 80 I asked him to take me and my son back there. We took our fly rods — it was a very special trip to have 3 generations together.
I’ve had my bad experiences too. Just recently, a friend of mine talked me into going snow camping. I thought I was prepared — I rented show shoes, had all the sleeping bag, tent and food etc. There was 3ft of snow when we got out there but then it turned to rain. With temperatures about half a degree above freezing, the snow started melting and I woke completely soaked. Sleeping bag, clothing, everything. Let’s just say I won’t be rushing back out there in the snow anytime soon!
Meet the man behind the tool…
This year marks 35 years since the original Leatherman multi-tool was developed in 1983. To celebrate, the main man is visiting ‘straya as part of the anniversary global tour. He’ll be heading to Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland in mid-November.
Want the chance to meet him and even get your Leatherman tool personally engraved? Sign up here.
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