A Manual for the Utilization, Perception, and Understanding of the Multi-Tool

Modernity, Miniaturized Utility, Multi-Functionality, Modularity, and Mastery


I. An Introduction

The Multi-Function hand tool, or the multitool/multi-tool, is, according to Wikipedia, “a hand tool that combines several individual functions into a single unit.”[1]

Visual of Readyman Wilderness Survival Card 2.0
Wilderness Survival Card 2.0


Visual of Leatherman Wave+ Multi-Tool
The WAVE+ by Leatherman

“Multi-tool” is a hypernym, the term used in the describing and labeling of a variety of tools ranging from credit-card sized “Survival Card” tools, to the fold-out Leatherman “Pocket Survival Tool”, to the infamous Victorinox “Swiss Army Knife”, and beyond. Some iterations of the multi-tool are meant for storage in one’s wallet, some are meant to be kept on a keyring, others are meant to be pocketed or belt-mounted; all are intended to be, by design, stored on one’s person with ease.

Visual of Swiss Army Knife
The Executive 81 by Victorinox

Multi-tools can be, and have been, comprised of, but are not limited to: knife blades, bottle openers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, reamers, can openers, nail files, tweezers, magnifying glasses, scissors, tooth picks, wrenches, bicycle spoke keys, bicycle chain-breakers, pliers of the needle-nose and non-needle-nose varieties, hammers, levels, camera tripods, LED flashlights, lighters, tape measures, crimping tools, saws, fishing hooks, arrowheads, micro drills, needles, and magnets. Our focus, however, will be on a very few things mentioned in the above hyperbolic overkill of a laundry list: the components of the “standard” or “common” multi-tool, by which I mean the field non-specialized big-name units, such as the Leatherman.

My canine companion (no multi-tool here, sorry) and me, in Vermont (c. 2017)

Coming of age in Vermont consisted of a great deal of time spent exploring and coming to knowthafforested hills which comprised my neighbor-less neighborhood. Accompanying me on the many excursions, jaunts both near and far, was my very own multi-function foldout Leatherman tool, a gift unearthed from the underbelly of the Christmas tree when I was 13 years of age. I wander through the many memories of my youth and feel a warmth where my Leatherman once sat; my front right pocket, the compact metallic unit pressing into my thigh. I whittled sticks; shaping them into functional pieces for the building of shelters, scraped and analyzed mushrooms with my metal file and magnifying glass respectively, learning the details of foraging and mushroom identification; snipped herbs and wild edible plants with my fold out scissors…this process of coming to know the flora, fauna, and biota of my environs proved the Leatherman to be my own perfect non-human companion.

II. How to Use a Multi-Tool

The question still stands, perhaps, in the reader’s mind, as they wispily wander alongside me through the vague and glittery haze of the possibly fabricated memories of my youth: but how do I use a multi-tool? Well, contemplate no longer, dear reader—now we will learn to use a multi-tool, together.

The Leatherman Wave®+, “an international best-seller” that “has all the essential tools”[2], is our multi-tool of choice in the context of this manual. This model is comprised of 18 tools: needlenose pliers, regular pliers, wire cutters, hard-wire cutters, an electrical crimper, a wire stripper, a 420HC (a high-carbon grade of stainless steel) knife, a 420HC serrated knife, a saw, a set of spring action scissors, an 8-inch ruler, a can opener, a bottle opener, a wood/metal file (for the precise smoothing of wooden and metal edges), a diamond-coated file for the sharpening of blades, and a large, medium, and small bit screwdriver set.[3] Beyond the tools that make up the tool, there are three important features: “all locking” mechanisms (every tool in the multi-tool locks into place, in both the open and closed positions), selective outside-accessibility (some tools can be used while the multi-tool is folded and closed), and one-hand operability (every tool can be opened and operated with one hand).[4]

I could attempt to, diagrammatically, explain to you how exactly one accesses and makes use of the multi-tool’s multiple tools, but the good and leathery men at the Leatherman company have already done so, in the form of a 2 minute 20 second long informational video. The soundtrack is smooth, yet folksy, yet uptempo; featuring an electric bass with a sliding, simple root note structure, the same sequence repeated many times over on guitar, and accompanying high arpeggiations on synth—to my ears, the most defining characteristics of royalty free sound: an unorthodox and just-slightly-forced synthesis of generic sound. The music and the scene around the borders of the video’s frame serve a similar function; a setting that pronounces the coolness and modernness of the product, but a company that cannot forget its dirt-road-mountain-pass rustic roots. The upbeatness of the music is something that excites and invites the viewer, in the hopes of engendering in them an understanding of the joy and ease with which one can purchase, own, and use a Leatherman WAVE multi-tool.

The deft, multi-tool modeling set of hands succeeds in demonstrating the way one accesses each tool, and what one can do with each of them: pulling out a nail with the pliers, measuring with the ruler, sawing a wooden dowel with the saw, cutting rope with the serrated knife, whittling away a pencil tip with the knife, sharpening a blade with the diamond-coated file, cutting mesh with the set of scissors, tightening a screw with the screwdrivers, opening a paint can with the can opener. An effective, no-nonsense, royalty free-sound tracked video manual for the Leatherman WAVE.

But wait! There were so many things performed by the bodyless set of Leatherman hands in the video demonstration which, in and of themselves, demand a manual…no? Therein lies the curious problem with the “how to” and utility of the multi-tool—the assumption of a user’s familiarity with and command over a vast set of bodily, tool-like functions. In multi-tool “how-to” videos aplently,—“How to Use a Swiss Army Knife” by AskMen, “Swiss knife full functions explained and put to test!!” by TechnoBonds, “$1 Credit Card Tool 11 in 1 Survival Card Multi Tool” by StatUpBox, to name a few—one finds the reproduction of the assumption that the user is familiar with the functions of the tools, and therefore, that they need not be explained or demonstrated in action. Just as one finds in the Leatherman WAVE video manual, in the videos by AskMen, TechnoBonds, and StatUpBox, one finds a demonstration of the location of each tool within the multi-tool, and a subjective rating or review of the unit’s design, durability, and functionality.   


To supplement, in light of this massively myopic, normative assumption about the potential user, I found a playlist of videos entitled “Kinesiology” by Interactive Biology, the contents of which demonstrate over two dozen kinesiological mechanics, body movements, that happen to be the building blocks for the development of one’s own bodily toolkit which would, inevitably, allow for the full comprehension and application of the actions and procedures demonstrated in the multi-tool “how-to” videos above.

III. How to Use the Physiological and Biomechanical Mechanisms of the Human Body for the Use of the Multi-Tool

Now, we can return to the Leatherman how-to demonstration, with the truly necessary manual(s) that were initially so mindlessly unprovided. To grip any of the tools in the Leatherman multi-tool, one must first perform an abduction of the thumbs and an extension of the fingers.

Once one has settled upon the tool they wish to use, locate the hand, still thumb-abducted and finger-extended, around the tool’s grip, and perform a flexion of the thumb and two-part finger adduction and flexion until the tool’s grip is seated firmly within the hand.



Now, to attend to a few of the Leatherman demonstrated-tasks. Pulling out a nail with the pair of pliers, for example, would require concentric finger flexion against resistance coupled with a back and forth “wiggling” generated by way of a switching off between forearm pronation and supination and, once the nail is loose, a simple radial deviation of the wrist to pull it free.


To cut a section of rope with the serrated knife, maintain first the position one entered with the flexion of the thumb and adduction and flexion of the fingers; grip the tool firmly.


With concentric finger flexion against resistance, that resistance being the tool’s grip, perform a flexion of the wrist and elbow simultaneously.


To make the rope taut, do not forget the necessary flexion of the thumb and fingers of the opposite hand around the rope end.

IV. Why Are You Wasting My Time?

Perhaps I have been wasting your time. Perhaps you were already aware of, and familiar with, the bodily mechanisms needed to perform the actions prescribed by the design of the tools contained within the multi-tool. In reality, my persnickety overscrupulousness, was intended to point to the simple and essential fact that inscribed into an object such as the multi-tool is a vast, intricate body of assumptions—about the user, about the society at large, about what matters enough to be miniaturized and compacted into a sleek pocket-bound soft-edged rectangle. This has served as an introduction to a framework, through the lens of which one can begin to perceive the multi-tool in essence, the conceptual, ontological, sociocultural beinghood of the multi-tool as an object whose characteristics, applications, and figurative invocations highlight its essential value as an embodiment or portrayal of, in some capacity, the normative ideals of the project of modernity.

V. How to Perceive the Multi-Tool: A History and its Productions

The compact multi-function tool began to emerge sporadically, and mostly consequentially, in the mid-19th century.[5] Most “Multi-Tool Historians” argue that the multi-tool found its beginnings in the 1880s, with a production contract by the Swiss Army for folding pocket knives that could also open canned food rations and effectively disassemble the Swiss service rifle (the “Schmidt-Rubin”) which required a screwdriver for assembly and disassembly. The first official designation of this knife for the Swiss Army was the Modell 1890,

Victoria Modell 1890
The Modell 1890, the original Swiss Army Knife

released in 1891, and comprised of “a blade, reamer, can-opener, screwdriver, and grips made out of dark oak wood.”[6] Soonthereafter, one Karl Elsener began producing the Modell 1890, forming a company that would later be known as Victorinox. Nearly a century later, the first Leatherman found its way into the world; a folding, lightweight, stainless steel multi-tool, abound with new features and mechanisms.[7] Tim Leatherman’s “Pocket Survival Tool” marked a new chapter in multi-tool history; from its introduction into the market onward, the belt-stored, too-large-for-pocket size/structure became more or less the norm, unless one wished to mimic or copy a system and product of the past, that being the Swiss Army Knife. The intrigue here lies in the fact that, over the course of a century, the multi-tool did not really evolve that much. A few commonplace “essential” tools were added, a few modifications were made to the design on planes functional and aesthetic, but neither radical revolution in approach nor radical redesign can—to the best of my knowledge—be located in this particular history.

It is the character of the design that makes a multi-tool a multi-tool, those characteristics being the obvious multi-functionality and compactness of form factor. Were one to explore the web, leading with a search along the lines of “best multi-tool” or “why should I get a multi-tool?”, one would find—as I have—a very systematized analytic rubric for this specific sort of object…those considered “best” have the essential tools, the right weight and size, and material durability and longevity.

A post by the blog “pocketmultitools” entitled Why Multi-Tools beat Individual Tools carved out an argument that illustrated the value of the multi-tool in essence, as not an aspect of a toolkit, but a multi-function unit capable of rendering the toolkit obsolete altogether: Said blog post illustrated effectively that the multi-tool saves space, weighs less, serves multiple purposes, and, as a whole, makes life easier.[8]

The characteristics of the multi-tool as well as the character of its utility speak to these “normative ideals” I made note of so ambiguously. The multi-tool is multi-purpose, modular, and configurable; three ideals I feel are ever-present in the conversation on, and the orientation of, modern systems of design. It is an “all in one”; a “one size fits all”. The multi-tool, in “making life easier”, is in reality allowing for an increase in progress, efficiency, and more broadly, one’s production value (be that “production” a very literal turnout rate in the workspace, or production as a guiding ideal in one’s everyday existence).

VI. How to Understand the Multi-Tool: Modularity, Configurability, and Mastery

The multi-tool maintains utility as an object, as well as in concept. There is not, perhaps, a fixation on the concept of the multi-tool, the jack of all trades, the swiss army knife, etc., but instead a comfort and confidence in the invocation of the multi-tool as concept symbolically or figuratively. In other words, I have found many instances—both scholarly, and not—wherein the multi-tool or swiss army knife as a symbol is used to explain or describe or encapsulate some other thing in society, and in nearly every case, the multi-tool is invoked as a positive symbol; a marker of success, accomplishment, or relative mastery.

Consider the work of Cognitive Neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher and her team at Harvard University, resulting in the development and proclamation of a modular theory of the brain, which posits that the brain is not “a general-purpose processor, but a collection of specialized components, ‘collectively building up who we are as human beings and thinkers.’”[9] The initial body of work published by Kanwisher et al, The Fusiform Face Area: A Module in Human Extrastriate Cortex Specialized for Face Perception, illustrates the team’s use of fMRI imaging to investigate, and ratify, the claim that there is a region of the brain that “is selectively involved in the perception of faces.”[10] The conclusion of this biomedical language and image heavy publication speaks to the threefold import of the study: the results indicate that a singular region of the brain selectively activates in the process of facial recognition, that “evidence for cortical specialization” can be found by way of repeated testing with varying stimuli, and finally, that general and overarching theories of visual recognition pale in comparison to “a theory that proposes qualitatively different kinds of computations for the recognition of faces.”[11] Said article, published in 1997, has only gained more traction in the decades that followed; Kanwisher gave a TED talk in 2014 entitled A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind, wherein she expanded upon the technical content of the 1997 publication in a digestible, accessible manner, inevitably resulting in the indirect, post factum coining of the aforementioned “Swiss Army Knife Theory” of the brain. In other words, Kanwisher’s work was processed by others—journalists, content writers, armchair scholars—and given the Swiss Army Knife title. In this instance, the Multi-tool is invoked as a figurative framework; a comfortably near-universal encapsulation of this modular conception of mind and its fundamental mechanisms.

Ron Sun’s Desiderata for Cognitive Architectures, published in the Philosophical Psychology journal in 2004, evaluates a number of cognitive architectures—one of which is modularity—and the need for their development in the hopes of understanding cognition. “Instead of having one general-purpose machinery (or a small number of them) that is universally applicable, there may be a large number of specialized pieces of machinery each of which deals with a particular aspect or a particular functionality.”[12] He continues, stating that in this model the mind is more of a swiss army knife, as opposed to a “general-purpose blade”.[13] Sun explores three notions of modularity: functional modules, which are functionally encapsulated (inaccessible to other modules on account of domain specificity); anatomical modules, which are anatomically encapsulated (inaccessible to other modules on account of their regional isolation and relative independence); and domain-specific modules, which are or are not informationally encapsulated (the knowledge and skills developed in the module’s domain do not easily translate into the domain of others).[14] More importantly, Sun illustrates the advantages of modularity from both the stance of a user and the stance of a designer. From the user stance, Sun claims that modularity reduces demands through the use of separate processes, automatic decomposition, and innate encoding, and that it increases the accuracy and overall performance of said user or agent.[15] From the design stance, Sun claims that modularity increases the reliability, “debuggability”, and understandability of a design, thereby improving the repairability and overall quality of said design.[16]

Paul Walker and his team at the Centre of Oncology in the Geneva University Hospitals in Switzerland published a piece in 2015 entitled Cell-penetrating peptides—the Swiss Army knife of cancer vaccines, wherein Walker et al highlight the benefits of “an ‘all in one’ CPP [Cell Penetrating Peptide] protein based platform” for the transportation of “cargoes” across biological membranes in the treatment of cancers in patients.[17] In essence, Walker and his team came to the conclusion that Cell Penetrating Peptides should be conceived of as a standard platform in cancer treatment, on account of their efficiency and rapidity in delivering cargo to its destination (“antigen delivery does not necessarily equate with in vitro utility,” as in, a vaccine may not, once it has made its way to the site of malignancy, be sufficient enough in magnitude and functionality to effectuate its intended purpose on account of the damage attained over the course of its anatomically complex journey).[18] It is not modularity but configurability—In Walker et al’s words the “flexibility” of the CPP as a platform—that allows for its figurative description through the conceptual Swiss Army Knife.

Beyond these (and other) direct figurative invocations of the multi-tool—by which I mean to say, actual instances where the term(s) multi-tool or swiss army knife are used by the author—the instances in which an individual could apply, first-hand, the multi-tool as an analytical framework are many. Be it Talcott Parsons’ Theory of Social Action, Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory of Social Interaction, or any other Structuralist/Structural Functionalist theories of social order, John Dewey’s Pragmatism, or Michel Callon and Bruno Latour’s Actor-network theory, the multi-tool as a typology can be effectively utilized, implying the effective versatility, consistency and ubiquity in the application of a concept or theory.

VII. Conclusion

Perhaps this manual has not effectively demonstrated, in a straightforward manner, how to use a multi-tool; instead, perhaps this manual has been a more complex conceptual demonstration of how the multi-tool is used. The multi-tool, both as a physical object-made-tool and as a concept—and thus in its utilization and imagining, in its veneration—is underpinned by a vast set of normatively imposed assumptions of principle, ideology, and concern. The positive framing of the multi-tool speaks to its embodiment of and compatibility with some principle elements of the ethos of this “project of modernity”: a narrative of progress, a capitalist-production-value-oriented measure of value or worth (most especially in the conception of the individual self and the necessity of its autonomy and self-sufficiency), and an understanding of scientific technologism as being vital to humankind. The multi-tool boasts multi-functionality and compact form factor, thus offering more efficient usage of time, space, and materials. The multi-tool is framed as an “all in one” tool; implying its import as an ideal companion. This status is afforded by the perceived freedom and flexibility of the object as a modular, configurable, adaptable composite—domain-specificity refracted unto multiplicity; a compacted, comprehensive mastery. The multi-tool has merit insofar as it boosts human potential for the assertion and enactment of some sense of mastery or dominion, but without the burdens—either conceptually or physically—of heft or magnitude.

  1. “Multi-Tool.” In Wikipedia, November 8, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Multi-tool&oldid=925179875.
  2. “Wave+ Multi-Tool | Leatherman.” Accessed December 10, 2019. https://www.leatherman.com/wave-10.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. In 1851 in “Moby Dick” (chapter 107), Melville references the “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.”
  6. “Swiss Army Knife.” In Wikipedia, September 24, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Swiss_Army_knife&oldid=917596436.
  7. “Multi-Tool.” In Wikipedia, November 8, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Multi-tool&oldid=925179875.
  8. Pocket Multi Tools. “Why Multi-Tools Beat Individual Tools,” June 6, 2018. https://pocketmultitools.com/multi-tools-vs-individual-tools-why-is-one-better-than-the-other/.
  9. TED Blog. “The Brain Is a Swiss Army Knife: Nancy Kanwisher at TED2014,” March 19, 2014. https://blog.ted.com/the-brain-is-a-swiss-army-knife-nancy-kanwisher-at-ted2014/.
  10. Nancy Kanwisher, Josh McDermott, and Marvin M. Chun. “The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception.” Journal of neuroscience 17, no. 11 (1997): 4302-4311.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ron Sun, “Desiderata for Cognitive Architectures,” Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 3 (September 2004).
  13. L. Cosmides & J. Tooby (1994). Beyond intuition and instinct blindness: toward an evolutionarilyrigorous cognitive science. Cognition, 50, 41–77.
  14. Ron Sun, “Desiderata for Cognitive Architectures,” Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 3 (September 2004)., 352-353.
  15. Ibid, 353-354.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Paul R. Walker et al., “Cell-Penetrating Peptides—the Swiss Army Knife of Cancer Vaccines,” OncoImmunology 5, no. 3 (March 3, 2016): e1095435, https://doi.org/10/ggd9cc, 2.
  18. Ibid.


“A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind,” YouTube Video, 17:40, posted by “TED,” Oct 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yj3nGv0kn8.

Berker, Thomas. ”Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy book review,” Minerva 49, no. 4 (2011): 509-11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43548633.

COSMIDES, L. & TOOBY, J. (1994). Beyond intuition and instinct blindness: toward an evolutionarily rigorous cognitive science. Cognition, 50, 41–77.

Hickman, Larry A., and John R. Shook. “Pragmatism as Post-modernism: Lessons from John Dewey.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 45, no. 1 (2009): 109-14. doi:10.2979/tra.2009.45.1.109.

Kanwisher, Nancy, Josh McDermott, and Marvin M. Chun. “The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception.” Journal of neuroscience 17, no. 11 (1997): 4302-4311.

“Multi-Tool.” In Wikipedia, November 8, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Multi-tool&oldid=925179875.

“Our History.” Swissarmy.com. https://www.swissarmy.com/us/en/Victorinox/Company/House-of-Victorinox/History/cms/history.

Pocket Multi Tools. “Why Multi-Tools Beat Individual Tools,” June 6, 2018. https://pocketmultitools.com/multi-tools-vs-individual-tools-why-is-one-better-than-the-other/.

Ron Sun, “Desiderata for Cognitive Architectures,” Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 3 (September 2004): 341–73, https://doi.org/10/dgrfhs.

“Swiss Army Knife.” In Wikipedia, September 24, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Swiss_Army_knife&oldid=917596436.

TED Blog. “The Brain Is a Swiss Army Knife: Nancy Kanwisher at TED2014,” March 19, 2014. https://blog.ted.com/the-brain-is-a-swiss-army-knife-nancy-kanwisher-at-ted2014/.

Walker, Paul R., Elodie Belnoue, Pierre-Yves Dietrich & Madiha Derouazi. “Cell-penetrating peptides—the Swiss Army knife of cancer vaccines.” OncoImmunology Vol. 5, Issue 3 (2016): https://doi.org/10.1080/2162402X.2015.1095435.

“Wave+ Multi-Tool | Leatherman.” Accessed December 10, 2019. https://www.leatherman.com/wave-10.html.

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