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What are Leatherman Pliers?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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Leatherman pliers are the most popular and well-known tools manufactured by the Leatherman Tool Group company based in Portland, Oregon. Leatherman pliers incorporate other tools such as knife blades, screwdrivers and can openers, all of which, including the pliers themselves, can be collapsed into the plier handles for compact storage. Although it is sometimes used to refer to any multi-tool, the name Leatherman is a registered trademark of the company, which has patented various designs of their pliers and multi-tools.

The name “Leatherman” seems to suggest its general use — multi-tools grew out of the tools used in the leatherworking industry. In fact, the product is named for the company’s founder, Tim Leatherman. According to the official company history, Tim Leatherman’s creation was inspired by his inability to find sufficient tools during a European vacation in the 1970s. He founded the company in the 1980s, and the collapsible multi-tool had become popular with campers, technicians and the general public by the end of the decade.

Although the company makes various devices, Leatherman pliers are the company's most recognizable product. The plier jaws can be collapsed into the handles, which also contain a variety of other small tools. Depending on the design, these tools can include knives, screwdrivers, wire cutters and strippers, hunting and fishing aids, files, scissors and rulers. When fully collapsed, the entire device can be the size of a pocket knife or smaller.

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Leatherman pliers have appeared in various films and television shows, particularly in the action-adventure genre. The central characters in the movies Rush Hour and Speed and the TV series The X Files have used the devices for such unlikely applications as defusing bombs and performing alien autopsies. Most notably, the TV action hero MacGyver used Leatherman pliers to improvise a weapon in one episode of the popular TV series. Despite its obvious pride in these pop-culture appearances, the company does not endorse its product for defusing bombs.

The Leatherman name and design have become ubiquitous, inspiring similar products, some of which are called “Leatherman” as a catch-all term by casual users. Although there are many commercially available multi-tools, Leatherman has defended its design patents in court. Similarly, it discourages the use of the word “Leatherman” to describe multi-tools it does not manufacture, as this risks turning their trademark into a generic word like “aspirin.” Amusingly, some people have taken to referring to the multi-tool as a “Leatherperson,” in a spoof of “politically correct” language.

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