The young couple were on a tour of Europe in 1975, and their vision was to criss-cross the continent on the cheap, hitchhiking and using their feet to get from place to place. It wasn’t working out. Tim, from Oregon, was traveling with Chau, whom he had met in college. Along with sightseeing, the couple were also contemplating living and working abroad in the years ahead. It was to be a fateful trip.
Looking to pick up the pace, they came upon a used Fiat 600 and bought it to continue their travels. Old Fiats being Fiats, it proved to be a reluctant travel companion at times, and Tim collected a small cache of tools along the way to keep the proletariat Italian auto running and moving.
In the end, Tim and Chau returned to Oregon and settled there, but while Tim had labored over the wheezy Fiat, he longed for a tool – a single tool – that combined some of the most needed bits he had carried across Europe to keep the car running. In the garage of his Portland home, he set to work designing this unique tool and eventually came up with something called “Mr. Crunch,” a folding device that had pliers – not a knife – as the primary tool, while the knife and several other useful appendages folded into the handle. The whole tool also folded in on itself to easily fit in a pocket. Tim Leatherman had just invented the first Leatherman multi-tool.
Ultimately, the Mr. Crunch label didn’t work out (at least, not then), and after years of refinement, a product name change and pitching his invention to outdoor enthusiast stores, Tim finally received an order for 500 Leatherman “Pocket Survival Tools” from outdoor outfitter Cabelas. The Leatherman as we know it was born. And decades later, it’s still made in Portland, Oregon.
As with overlanders and off-road drivers in cars and trucks, motorcycle riders like myself who leave the pavement behind to go adventure or “ADV” riding into unpopulated spaces must be highly self-sufficient. Yes, there are technologies now that allow for communication even in the most desolate of locations in case of dire emergencies, but for the most part, if you want to get underway again on your own, you have to bring the needed tools, some spare parts and repair skills with you.
Years ago, I needed to repair a leaking fuel line on my motorcycle out in the literal middle of southeast Oregon’s high desert where, even now, there is no cell service, no farms, no nothing except an occasional dusty, bumpy two-track tracing along below some power line towers. Rolling hills covered in sagebrush and basalt massifs rising hundreds of feet above desert highlands stretch as far as the eye can see, and as I picked my way down the rutted, rocky passage, I noticed precious liquid dinosaur was leaking onto my left boot.
I immediately stopped and shut the gas off at the tank tap. Fortunately, a quick inspection showed the leak was small and a fair bit of fuel remained in the tank, but if I didn’t figure out a fix for the leak, the motorcycle would be unrideable and I would be forced to call for help via high tech means (a Garmin InReach satellite communications device) and then wait for a very expensive ride home, likely at night, or maybe the next day after a frosty night out in the open.
With the sun dipping towards the horizon, I pulled a single tool from my pants pocket: A Leatherman Wave Plus multitool, which goes with me on every ride. I used the pliers to detach a metal retaining clip, then used them to gently pry the snug fuel line off the motorcycle’s carburetor, only to discover that something had cut into the line where it met the carburetor, causing the thankfully small leak.
I used the razor-sharp knife in the handle of the Leatherman to trim the fuel line back past the damaged area, and thankfully there was just enough slack in the line to safely reconnect it to the carb. Fuel flow reactivated, the line proved leak-free and I continued my journey without incident, but with a note on my packing list to bring spare fuel line on all future adventure rides. It was not the first time the Leatherman had helped me solve a problem – or helped out a friend or stranger during my many travels. I carry it with me nearly all of the time.
I’ve been carrying a Leatherman in some form – well, pretty much the same form – since I bought my first model, then called the Super Tool (above), three decades ago. And since I have been a very loyal Leatherman buyer – I’ve purchased two in the last 30-odd years – I thought it was past time to go see exactly how these sometimes life-saving tools are made by visiting Leatherman’s headquarters and manufacturing facility here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, where the privately held company has been based since before Tim Leatherman made that first sale to Cabelas.
Tim has since retired and turned the company over to his son, Lee Leatherman, who met me at the large Leatherman manufacturing plant in Northeast Portland. The Leatherman family hails from Europe and emigrated to America generations ago. The story goes that upon entry to the U.S., the family name was transcribed by immigration officials as “Leatherman” and since they were making a new start in America, they essentially went with it.
Tim’s original Mr. Crunch prototype established the Leatherman form factor, making the Leatherman Wave Plus I used to repair my leaking motorcycle a grandchild of sorts. Tim got the Mr. Crunch design patented and after years of refinement, the first Leatherman multitools, then called the Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool (PST) came on the market. My first Leatherman, the Super Tool, debuted a few years later. As luck would have it, I received another Super Tool as a birthday gift a short time after I bought my own. Did I mention that I already had one to the generous giver? Of course not, since the only thing better than having one good tool is having two.
I still have that gifted Super Tool, largely unused, and it has pride of place in my toolbox, still in its natty black leather snap belt case with “Leatherman” in gold script. It is a small treasure. The Super Tool I purchased went on many adventures until it unfortunately got lost (or stolen) and I replaced it with a Wave Plus, which I carry to this day.
Anyone who owns a Leatherman will tell you that Tim’s instincts were spot on: For most repairs, pliers are far more useful and practical than a knife, but it’s even more useful to have both. It sure worked out well with my leaky motorcycle – and also during the countless car repairs, home repairs, bicycle repairs and even delicate sliver removal operations I’ve done. Meanwhile, the Leatherman is standard daily equipment for many hard-working people and travelers like myself, and has inspired imitators as well.
Lee Leatherman told Forbes.com that every Leatherman product is made at his Portland plant using U.S.-sourced materials. Nothing is sourced from or outsourced to other countries, including the metals and packaging. Some parts are sent out to other facilities around the Portland area for special treatment, but Lee says one of the things he’s most proud of is to be able to offer workers living-wage jobs with benefits building a U.S.-made product with a well-earned reputation for quality.
Indeed, Leatherman guarantees their tools for 25 years and will repair them essentially with no questions asked. I jokingly told him I thought my original Leatherman Super Tool was out of warranty, but Lee not-jokingly said if it ever broke, to send it in and his staff would try to make it right, no matter when it was made – and that essentially goes for anyone who owns a Leatherman product from any year. Just contact them, Lee said. His confidence is not misplaced.
Out on the factory floor, Leatherman employees closely watch over large hydraulic presses as they rhythmically stamp out parts from rolls of high-grade steel. The parts are sorted into bins for further finishing and then assembly into the multitools. I was astonished to learn that all Leatherman multi tools are hand-assembled by workers at the Portland plant, not by robots or in facilities overseas.
Lee said at one time they had actually looked into using robots to assemble the finished products, and small, simple robots are used in the Portland plant for some sorting, QC and tool finishing processes for consistency and quality assurance. But overall, Leatherman tools are essentially made by hand. Lee says that so far, no robot they have tried could give the tools that very precise feel and smoothness Leatherman tools have when you open and use them. So for now: no assembly robots.
Instead, dozens of people who specialize in making certain Leatherman products chat away while piecing the tools together. Some listen to earbuds or just focus on assembling then “feel testing” the completed tools before they are sent out for more quality checks and packaging, which is often made from recycled materials. The workers do not look rushed or as though they are working under pressure in some sweatshop. The vibe is friendly and light in the assembly area and throughout the factory floor. Design and administration staff work in offices on the second floor of the building. At the time of my tour, many were still working from home.
In an era of ever-growing robotic sophistication often used to build complex machines like cars and consumer electronics, the staffed Leatherman manual assembly stations are a throwback, but they are also technically sophisticated, with workers using numerous computers, measuring devices and other technologies to get assembly just right. But in the end, it comes down to how the employee thinks the tool feels, and then makes any adjustments. Lee says that for the near future, he doubts the company will move to assembly bots, even with the expected increase in production with the new facility coming online next door. The jobs – and the people that do them – are more valuable, he says.
Along a long hallway in the office portion of the Leatherman facility, there are framed photos or brochures of every major product Leatherman has produced. There’s also an archive of the actual products, and a large flat file of the handmade drafting drawings of the early tools, going back to original designs by Tim Leatherman and his team (below).
Decades of refinement later, the Leatherman multitool has featured numerous tool options, but until recently, has typically hewed close to that original recipe: a folding pair of pliers, plus everything else in the handles. It’s a winning formula, and Lee Leatherman says the company has sold over two million units over the years, and employs over 150 people to make them at the Portland facility – with expansion underway in a huge building across the street.
But with Lee taking over as president and owner of Leatherman, changes were afoot. Lee assembled a small think tank of designers and formed an experimental design unit called the Garage, an homage to his father, who designed the original Mr. Crunch in the family garage. The team works in a small room on the second floor of the building with the division name on the door, written on a post-it note.
In 2022, the Garage team produced their first product, an homage to Tim’s first multi tool. The name? Mr. Crunch, of course. It was limited to just 500 units and sold for $200, pretty much in line with their other products instead of having a special inflated “limited edition” price tag. This author actually tried to buy one without success: they literally sold out online in seconds. If you want one, you can find them on eBay for four figures.
One key feature of the original 1970s Mr. Crunch was a sort of interior set of secondary pliers that slid into place when the tool was opened. Back in the day, it was too much of an engineering challenge to mass produce, and did not appear in the early tools. But it is present in the new Mr. Crunch, and to watch the pliers’ parts smoothly move within the tool as it unfolds gives a clue as to the original complexity and ambition Tim Leatherman was pursuing back in the analog drafting table design days. Lee said he and his team personally hand-finished many of the Mr. Crunch units to assure top quality. Since the Mr. Crunch debuted, the Garage has issued three more special editions in larger numbers that sold out just the same.
The second Garage tool was called the Darkside, a 13-tool version that riffs on an existing base design but with a black finish and teal borders on the handle rails. It also includes what may be a first for a multitool: a pen, which removes from the tool for use. There are also scissors, three types of nearly surgically-sharp cutting blades, and more. Lee said that although the Darkside was based on existing designs, it was re-thought to incorporate new tools and ideas, and also to investigate new manufacturing processes around colors and materials.
For the third Garage issue, called Parts, Lee and his team went in a wholly different direction – for a Leatherman product. Instead of adding complexity and tools, they made what appears to be a simple folding knife. Of course, it’s not so simple. It’s called “Parts” because it’s made from pre-existing parts at the factory, but also features two interchangeable blades and a tool to swap them out.
The one blade is a pocketknife-like 3-inch blade while the second is a “work knife” suitable for slicing open boxes, cutting through packing bands and so forth. It makes a good companion tool for those that consistently need a larger, more robust blade than the slim but razor-sharp smaller blades tucked into the handle of the regular multitools. It also features splashes of light-colored material on the handle and teal points on the spine and opening button.
For those scratching their heads over why Leatherman would produce such a product, Lee said the Garage products also act as test cases for features that may appear in later models that will see much larger production runs.
The fourth and most recent Garage model, called EUROPE75, is based on a folding-knife design but includes very critical travel bits like a bottle opener and corkscrew. It’s a lighthearted (but definitely useful) wink to Lee’s father Tim and mother Chua’s European travel travails in 1975 that inspired the original Mr. Crunch.
Since Leatherman has the pliers-based “multi-tool’ market well covered with their popular Wave, Surge, and Charge lines, the company is also expanding their offerings with some new form factors and features outside of the Garage small-batch tools.
There’s the Free line of multi-tools and folding knives (with tools) that feature magnetic closure, and a popular medical-grade pair of field-operation folding medical scissors called the Raptor Rescue. There’s even a new “Crunch” model that features vise-grip type functionality. Additionally, new colors are on offer for some models, and many Leatherman products can be customized while ordering with specific tools for little if any extra cost.
But for many, the original Leatherman multitool is still the most useful, and most iconic. I still carry my Wave Plus pretty much everywhere, and even paid to ship it back home from an airport after carrying it out of habit, nearly missing my flight.
For myself and many other motorcycle travelers and adventure seekers, the small lump of metal clipped to a pocket or tucked away in our gear gives some peace of mind that whatever happens out in the middle of nowhere, it’s likely a problem that can be fixed, given the right tool.
Special thanks to Lee Leatherman and his staff for taking the time to show Forbes.com around their Portland facility.