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When a man loves his multitool

Tom’s tools are his pride and joy, and you might be surprised at just what qualifies as a ‘tool’

I used to think multitools were for sissies. I mean, what real man would ever have a screwdriver as little as the ones on those tools? And a man use scissors? No way. Not this man. And it was clear to me what the little files were all about. A real man has rough, dirty fingernails. He doesn’t need a file.

Hmmmm ... where's the bottle opener?

But as the years passed, things have changed. Nowadays I’m never without my multitool. I use it dozens of times a day. I can’t live without it. I even stopped flying because I was afraid The Man would take my multitool away.

I don’t know which multitool is best. I do know that if you ever want to start a really serious fight between really serious men, all you have to do is to say that your multitool is better than theirs. Which is not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that I like my multitool. You can like yours all you want. My oldest daughter, Melanie, has what she calls a “Leatherwoman,” and she says hers is best. So who knows? My favorite multitool is an old Gerber, and here’s why.

First, it’s so old that the pain of paying for it has long been forgotten. I don’t even know what they call it. It used to go under the name Multi-Lock Scout, but I can’t find it on the Web. Here are some more things that I like about this tool. High on the list is that I can quickly and easily flick it out. Just a snap of the wrist, and the needle-nose pliers/wire cutter locks out, ready for action. Now, this is important.

When I’m ready for action it’s usually because I’ve just done something stupid on a par with falling into a nest of snakes, and I don’t have but so many hands available to open a multitool. But once I’ve flipped out the pliers I can do much more. For example, there is a serrated-blade knife. Serrated blades are the way to go, except when it comes to sharpening them. Also, there are two straight-slot screwdrivers; a Phillips head unit; a very sharp hole punch (great for starting holes for screws — saves me from having to go find my drill); a file, one side of which is coated with industrial-grade diamonds for the really tough nails; and, yes, a great pair of Fiskars scissors.

Hands-free headlamp.

Contrary to popular lore, scissors are not for sissies. I use mine for many things, but mostly for precision tape cutting. I used to just get mad and tear the tape off the roll, leaving an unsightly, albeit manly, mess.

I never expected when I first got my multitool that it would cause a major life change, but it did. And, no, this catastrophe had nothing to do with the serrated blade and flicks of the wrist. When I discovered the problem I would have returned the tool, but I was out in the Bahamas and couldn’t. This tool doesn’t have a beer-bottle opener, so I had to change from the long-neck Beck’s to Michelob Ultra with a twist top.

Tooling around

In my early years I would never have imagined that my multitool would be an everyday companion, but time and experience taught me to really appreciate this device. In the passing years, I’ve also discovered and loved, in addition to my multitool, a multitude of other tools that I never would have considered in the early days. As a rule, they’re small and not typically found in a dandy mechanic’s tool box. Many are unusual — some even a bit weird — but they do good things for me, and they can for you. Here are a few.

Take, for example, the old-fashioned wire coat hanger (just don’t take mine). You can straighten it out and bend it as you will to perform any number of jobs, such as reaming out small orifices, bending the end to form a hook for fishing all sorts of stuff from all sorts of places, even fashioning emergency holders to secure items by wrapping the coat hanger around and around the item. It’ll also serve for many more jobs. A coat hanger with plastic coating usually works best. They don’t come with a lifetime warranty, but if you drop one in the bilge or need to cut it to a shorter length, no problem. It’s just a coat hanger.

Dental picks are another source of joy. I don’t mean real ones. They cost so much that the only way I know to get one would be to cough and swallow it the next time the dentist sticks one in my mouth — or at least say that I did — and race to the bathroom where I could pocket it (carefully). But you can get inexpensive mechanic’s dental tools of various configurations at any good tool shop. These tools give you the same ability while working on your machinery that they give a dentist working on your teeth (except for getting rich). You can pick and clean hard-to-access cracks, pick stuff out of holes, clean rusty threads, figure out what is and isn’t a soft spot, and make a hard spot into a soft spot if you want to.

But I have one tool that’s proven more useful over the years than my set of dental picks. It’s a large fish hook. (It’s large, and it’s for large fish.) A good fish hook — and this was — is a tough piece of metal. The shark that chomped down on it bent it to just the correct angle for all sorts of picking, cleaning, snagging, punching and many other jobs.

While on the subject of things tiny, I should mention midget screwdrivers. They’re indispensable on a boat. These come in assorted packs, including straight-slot, Phillips head and other configurations. Their business ends range in size from too-small-to-see to just-big-enough-to-see. You can get these very inexpensively, but don’t.

Cheap tools are costly in the long run, and midget screwdrivers are good examples of this. It isn’t just that they will break. Worse, the corners of the tips will break or become deformed, and this will result in damaging the tiny screws that you’re working on, which means you’ll probably have to resort to dynamite to get them out. I don’t know, but I hear that stuff is really expensive.

Speaking of getting things out, you may be one of those people who change your shaft zincs under water because you’re too cheap to haul out every year. I am. I use Interlux Ultra with Biolux and can usually get by with hauling out every three years. Backing out the little hex bolts under water and putting the new ones in without dropping them is exceptionally difficult. And, of course, if you do drop them, they’re gone forever unless you happen to be doing the job in shallow water over hard white sand in the Bahamas.

But there’s a very neat tool made especially for this job. I don’t know what you officially call it, but it has a red T handle on one end and a hex wrench that fits the zinc bolt on the other. Mine is an Eklind 3/16, No. 61612. ( Since it’s big and long with that handle, it’s much easier to remove and reinstall the bolts, and it’s harder to drop and easier to find when you do.

If you use cheap zincs you’ll be replacing them often because of their porosity, and you may also be more likely to drop the bolt and nut. I only use Camp Zincs, which the company says are made to Mil Spec and have little washers to keep the bolts from falling out and retainers that help keep the nuts in.

Wooly bully

This reminds me of another specialty tool I keep aboard: bronze wool. It comes in pads like steel wool, but, being bronze, it doesn’t rust away quickly or leave tiny rusting fragments on your work. Before you put on a new zinc, you should thoroughly polish the portion of the shaft that the zinc will cover, even if that portion looks much cleaner than the rest of the shaft. A bronze wool pad usually does this well.

If you use a cheaper steel wool pad, that’ll be the last time you can use it. You can also use bronze wool for many other jobs, such as cleaning electrical contacts and battery posts. Stainless-steel pads are also available. I use them for rougher work.

Tom uses his Stylus Reach to illuminate tiny places, like the interior of the hydraulic fluid chamber on this outboard.

I also keep an assortment of small, long-handle brushes of varying bristle stiffness. These include bronze (relatively soft), stainless and mild steel bristles, the last two being much stiffer. I even have a few old toothbrushes in my tool bag. Small brushes are invaluable for doing jobs that would otherwise be very difficult, such as cleaning the threads of bolts, removing rust from hard-to-reach spots on your engine, and cleaning electrical contacts. For example, the bonding bolts on your various through-hull metals always develop green “crud” on them, and they are usually in hard-to-reach places. A stainless bristle brush can easily remove this so you can then coat them with an anti-corrosive spray.

While we’re on the subject of cleaning electrical contacts with abrasives, I’ll let you in on my secret weapon for this war. It’s used primarily on light bulbs and battery tips when I suddenly realize the flashlight I’m using is very dim. When this happens, you figure it’s probably weak batteries or dirty contacts between the batteries or at the bulb base. There are tools to do this “right,” but often I’m in a hurry and don’t have them handy. So I use my Dickies work pants. These are no yuppie-puppie cotton softies. They’re tough pants. I just take the bulb out and rub its contact against my pants. Then I do the same for the battery tips. It’s a no-brainer, because my work pants are usually so dirty that they are extra abrasive and oil the contacts as well.

If I have time I’ll go fetch a pencil with an eraser and clean the tips with it. If I have a really tough cleaning job on a small electrical contact, I’ll bring out my Corrosion Buster Pen by Star brite, which is an amazing little tool. I used it to clean the contacts on my bow light the other day. It’s also great for cleaning small spots of rust. Tiny fiberglass bristles are in the head of the pen. You can turn the base and move them in and out. They have an amazing amount of cleaning muscle. (Be sure to read the instructions regarding the safe use of the bristles.)

Muscle of any kind is not one of my strong points. I watch real mechanics turn wrenches and want to cry. I just don’t have the strength they do in my arms and hands. But I have a special tool for this; it’s called a cheating bar. Cheating bars are bad. You shouldn’t use them. They break things that you never want to break. And no self-respecting mechanic (and certainly no technical editor worth his salt) would be seen with one. The official “experts” scoff at these, which is why I’m not a self-respecting mechanic or official expert. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I succumb to temptation and bring mine out of the bottom of the tool bag to get a really tough job done.

A cheating bar is nothing more than a length of heavy gauge pipe wide enough to fit over the handle of your wrenches. It simply lengthens the handle and gives you extra leverage. The longer the pipe, the more the leverage you gain. It’s amazing how much more my puny muscles can do. But be very careful with cheating bars. It’s easy to break a wrench, particularly one with a ratcheting mechanism, or twist off a bolt head or whatever you’re working on. And with the extra length of the handle, it’s important to be careful of possible electrical contact.

Dirty laundry

There are wrenches and there are wrenches. You probably have some of the bread-and-butter kind — open on one end and closed on the other. But the more ratcheted wrenches you have — socket and straight — the happier you’ll be. These aren’t cheap (if they are, get another brand), but they’ll really speed up your work. You have to take care of them more, as in oiling the gears, and be careful not to strip them. Also, you’ll find the ratcheting mechanism on a wrench takes up room, and in some applications you won’t have clearance, but overall, these tools can really improve your life.

I mentioned my dirty Dickies as a handy tool, which indeed they are. They’re not only handy for their abrasive and oiling qualities, but also for use as a rag that’s always there to wipe my hands. Far too often, as I rush into the current engine room emergency, I forget to take a rag, but it’s hard to forget your pants. That isn’t to say I don’t use real rags. There’s nothing like a good rag. A soft, clean cotton rag for cleaning up, removing grease and providing extra traction when you’re trying to grip and turn something is invaluable. You can buy nice white rags (they look like wash rags) very inexpensively at Wal-Mart and home supply stores. These are great. But so are my old T-shirts and underwear (not yours) and socks and regular shirts and everything else I wear out or tear up on hose clamps.

In addition to cloth rags, I’ve found that oil-absorbent pads, like those from Star brite, are indispensable. I never change oil or do anything else that can cause a spill without them abundantly spread around. If nothing else, they save a huge amount of time in cleanup. They can also make a good, clean, white work space for disassembling something like a water or fuel pump or other component. It’s hard to lose something when you’re working on white, and it’s good to have a work surface that absorbs the grease and oil that inevitably oozes from the part. Also, they provide some buffer to protect the underlying surface that you’re working on. Some white absorbent pads are fluffy; some have a harder coating. The latter make better work pads.

Many of the tools in Tom's arsenal aren't typically found in a mechanic's tool box, like a fish hoolk.

Gloves also help. I have four types (none of them silk). Thin, blue nitrile Derma-Lite gloves ( give protection for such jobs as changing the oil. I also have heavier-duty Best 21R brown nitrile gloves (, which are tougher and provide gripping traction. I also have a set of everyday MechPro work gloves by Wells Lamont ( with Velcro release for easy on/off, pliable fingertips, and good gripping material on the palms. And finally, I always keep a pair of heavy-duty, rubber-coated cloth gloves to wear when I’m diving to protect from barnacles. Most of the time I don’t wear gloves at all. But when I need them it’s great to have the right kind, and I know that if I wore them more often I’d be using a lot less Band-Aids.

I’ve mentioned several special things that improve gripping strength, but one of my handiest is simply an old inner tube that I cut to fit. When I wrap it around that oil filter, pipe or stuffing box, I gain much more traction. I use my chain wrench for tougher jobs. It’s easy to break these, so get a good one. Once you get accustomed to using it you’ll be amazed at the additional things you can do.

My flashlight fetish is perhaps my worst tool fetish. There are some that I consider to be in the ideal mechanic’s tool category and keep in the engine room. These are by StreamLight, and one is the Stylus Reach. It looks essentially like a small ballpoint pen, but the LED light is brilliant and perfect for illuminating cracks and crevices on something like an engine. Models come with flexible wands that will reach even farther into dark zones.

Of course, LED means the bulb will last a very long time with negligible battery consumption. I also use the Streamlight Jr. Reach with a much larger head. It uses the new C4 LED technology, which means it illuminates far better than the standard LEDs with which you may be familiar. It illuminates a much wider area than the Stylus. It has 14-inch reach with its extension and a magnetic holder so you can clamp it to your engine to free your hands and brightly light your work for up to four hours.

I also use the 3AA HAZ-LO headlamp. This is one of the most effective small headlamps I’ve seen. It’s another special type of LED (high-flux producing 34 lumens), and its strapping actually holds it comfortably in one place on my head. Again, because it is an LED, it hardly depletes the batteries at all. One thing I really hate is a headlamp that dims when I need it — like when I see a snake (don’t ask).

Surgical precision

One thing most boats have in common is the fact that they are full of critically important little things. And they’re always in a place into which it’s impossible to insert hands or even fingers, and this place is always over the bilge or some place worse. These little things are often screws, nuts or bolts. Sometimes they’re really big-deal little things — like a set screw for something that was manufactured in ancient Egypt. For jobs involving these, I have two types of special little tools.

The first is a mechanic’s forceps. These are stainless and much like the ones used by surgeons. They are locking (sometimes known as “Kelly” forceps) so that once you grab the little thing with the long, pointed nose you don’t have to worry about continuing to squeeze. If you’ve got a good grip on the object and don’t hit any obstructions as you bring it out of the hole, you can reach in and retrieve items that otherwise would be forever lost.

The second type is what I call a screw holder. (I’m told there’s a better name for it, but I like my name.) I’ve used them for years. They are like long, thin pencils except they’re steel and at one end is a screwdriver tip that’s cocked open in the middle. You twist the body to close the break, put the tip into the screw slot, then let the springs inside open the tip again. The spring-loaded pressure, in theory, holds the screw in place. I’ve used these for removing screws from hard-to-reach places (after loosening them with a regular screwdriver) and for getting a screw into position and turning it just enough so that it begins to thread, allowing me to finish the job with a screwdriver without losing the screw. These are also made for Phillips head screws. They usually come with a magnet on the opposite end to help retrieve the screw if you drop it.

Some of my most favorite tools are the ones I make or improve. A good example would be my impeller puller for my engine’s raw water pump. The problem, as is so often the case when people ashore make stuff for boats, is that it won’t fit into the area around the pump. I’ve heard many other people say the same thing. Typically, that handy T handle won’t clear the components around it. I improved it by purchasing plain bolts of several lengths and the same thread as the T bolt. Instead of using the T bolt, I put in a plain bolt of the appropriate length, and then turn it with a wrench, preferably ratchet-driven, if there is room. Even if you can only back out the impeller partly, you’ll probably then be able to grab it (use a rag for traction) and pull it out the rest of the way.

And then there is the category of “stuff” that isn’t normally considered “tools” but will help you fix things, no matter what you call it. I’ve had a can of 316 stainless-steel wire (size .032) aboard for years, and I use it for many jobs, such as hooking small objects that have gone astray, for securing, for seizing, and for clearing very fine, long orifices. Get only high-grade stainless wire.

I’ve also been using Rescue Tape for more and more jobs. When was the last time the plastic twist-grip cover of your outboard’s tiller split? Probably never, because you’d never be as foolish as me and run the thing standing up with the tiller extended with a piece of PVC pipe. This is dangerous, but so is running into reef.

Many times in the Bahamas, while negotiating tricky reefs in my dinghy, I have stood up (hooked into the kill switch) while running the outboard so I could read the water well enough to stay out of trouble. Over the years this ruined the twist-grip cover. I tried taping it with electric tape, and the stuff quickly became a sticky slippery mess, which covered my hand with black goo, which soon covered everything else around. Finally, I did the job with Rescue Tape, and, so far, the repair has been great. Proper mechanics will say it’s better to take out a loan and buy another outboard part, but when the problem happened, I was far from any place I could do that.

I’ve also repaired a watch band with the tape and used it to cover those skin-ripping ends of hose clamps that tear you and your clothes to shreds. (Whenever you cover a hose clamp, remember to remove the cover periodically to check the clamp, as you would without the cover.) I’ve even talked with people who’ve made up a temporary get-home

V-belt in an emergency for a low-stress application.

Help in a can

Never underestimate stuff in cans for use as tools. There are innumerable products, many similar to others. Some don’t work well, but some really do. Take, for example, a relatively new product from CRC called Freeze-Off. It’s billed as a “super penetrant,” but this is true of other products. This product, used correctly, will also quickly and substantially drop the temperature of the corroded nut or bolt that you’re trying to loosen. This can cause the metal to contract, cracking the rust. Then the penetrant can soak in quicker. I’ve used this on board and have been very impressed.

And then there’s my latest favorite from Star brite. It’s in a spray bottle, and its mission is to clean baked-on bird poop — or spider droppings. It even has an “all natural formula.” It’s called, as you might imagine, Spider & Bird Stain Remover. In the past, when I got a really hard pile of baked-on bird poop on deck, I’d flip out my multitool knife, work the blade under the pile, and flick it off onto the boat next door, leaving the underlying stain for the sun to finish off in a few years. Now, I just pull out this spray bottle, pull the trigger, and demurely wipe it off a few moments later.

I love my tools, although the true tool qualities of many aren’t obvious at first glance. I’ve only scratched the surface of the things and “stuff” that help me solve problems on board. When you have a job without an obvious solution, let your imagination run free to find something that will solve it. You may make plenty of mistakes like I have, but probably none as serious as mine — like having a multitool that won’t open a bottle of beer. If you do, maybe you can find a better beer with a twist-off cap.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.