Aug 112011

I was skeptical Jan Gregor was going to get us there on time. I heard his vintage alarm clock go off early in the morning; genuine brass bells and a clapper making the ringing noise. By then I saw sunlight coming through my window and thought we might be running late. The Google map directions said it would take an hour and 48 minutes to drive to the Leatherman factory in Portland, and I thought we should have given ourselves more time.

I had booked this tour about two months previously. Leatherman offered it only on Wednesdays, and the available openings closed up fast. Looking at this trip in another way, I’d been waiting for this moment for more than 20 years…

I discovered the Leatherman tool sometime in the late 1980’s. Back then I didn’t read any hype or promotion about the tool, I just bought it because it looked worthwhile. I quickly realized that this tool was a game changer, a tool so incredibly useful that I’ve carried incarnations daily on my belt ever since. The robust elegance of the tool was immediately obvious; it didn’t have twee little thingies like toothpicks that the Swiss Army knife did. I found myself using the needle nosed pliers much more than the knife. The way that the pliers folded into the handle was remarkable, it was robust as a tool yet it folded neatly and compactly into its own handle.

The first incarnation of the Leatherman tool was about 90% perfect. I can think of only three drawbacks. The most important was that the folding tools, especially the knife blade, did not lock into place. The second was that the edges of the handles were not rounded. Gripping the tool was a bit uncomfortable when the pliers were unfolded. The last issue was that the tool was just a tad too small. Over the years Leatherman corrected all these issues, and the current model I carry on my belt is the “Core.” The Core is a full-sized tool, slightly bigger than the original model. Its folding blades lock out, and the handle channel edges are rounded.

As Gregor and I drove towards Portland, I sipped coffee from his Thermos. I tried to mask the anxiety I was developing about being late. The e-mail from Leatherman said that if we weren’t there by 9:55 we were out of luck. Jan tried to reassure me; “this clock is 10 minutes fast, we should be there in plenty of time.” What if a semi truck jackknifed in the road? What if it was transporting watermelons that splattered everywhere? There were too many things that could go wrong; we should have left a half-hour earlier…

We dutifully followed the Google directions, and lo and behold we found the Leatherman plant on time! We actually arrived early, and decided to enjoy a couple of egg McMuffins at the nearby McDonalds. While most corporate tours end in the gift shop, this one started there as well. We looked at all the snazzy new models on display, as well as prototypes that Tim Leatherman created back in the 1970’s. Our tour guide Meei arrived, and we all put on wireless headsets in order to hear her voice over the din of the plant. We all put on protective eyeglasses as well. We entered the floor of the huge plant, which employs several hundred workers. The first stop was a large blanking machine, which punched out tool components from a strip of steel wound on a large roll. We were handed a rough blank and we passed it around. Not surprisingly, every blank that is punched out has a significant burr on one edge, which much be removed.

Then we were led to a polishing-deburring machine. This was a large vibratory tub that contained small ceramic cylinders. A gritty paste was added which we were told was silica. Hundreds of tool components were added, and a large cover was dropped over the vat so that blobs of paste wouldn’t escape. A magnet was later used to separate the blanks from the abrasive. Another station used glass impact bead to create a matte finish on some components.

Other stations along the tour featured both automated and hand-fed punches that folded the flat steel into channeled handles. Random pieces were pulled from the line to visually inspect for cracks that might result. Other blanks were cut by a high power laser beam. Surprising, we were able to watch the laser beam cutting the metal without needing darkened welding goggles. A laser beam was also used in another station to cut through the anodizing on tool handles to create custom engraving.

One station included workers that loaded rough pliers into a conveyer belt. The belt fed a robotic arm that quickly passed the pliers over a rotating abrasive belt. Watching the robot was mesmerizing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the tools had to be assembled by hand. This was done in U-shaped work stations that allowed 4 or 5 workers at a time. Some handles were held in customized jigs while the fold-out tools and washers were aligned by a drift pin. Most Leatherman tools are held together by rivets, but some are joined by threaded fasteners. Thankfully Loctite is applied to the fastener threads during assembly! Years ago I had purchased various non-Leatherman multitools for comparison. One was a unit that used proprietary threaded fasteners. I happened to be in Europe when one of the threaded fasteners came apart, thus leaving me dead in the water. That episode put the kibosh on my celebration of multitool diversity…

About an hour after we started, our tour came to an end, back in the gift shop were we started. It was by far the most impressive corporate tour I’ve ever been on! I ended up buying a t-shirt and a small “Squirt ES4” which included useful wire stippers. No photographs were allowed of the shop floor, so I’m afraid I wasn’t able to illustrate this blog entry. Later on Jan took me to an excellent pie shop in Portland, and wondered aloud if Leatherman workers might assemble “Frankenstein” tools of their own design…

If you like machines, power tools, robots, steel, and live in the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend taking this tour!

 Posted by on 08/11/2011 Personal History

  2 Responses to “Leatherman Factory Tour”

  1. Awesome! I had no idea they offered factory tours. I too have been carrying a Leatherman tool ever since I got my first one (probably a PST; I don’t think it had scissors like the PST II), to the point where now if I accidentally leave it at home when I go to work (or vice versa) I feel uncomfortable and almost naked until I get it back. I have a Wave (original style) now, but that Core (which looks to have been replaced by the Super Tool 300) looks pretty nice too.

    I’ll definitely have to try to get down there for a tour some time. I love factory tours.

  2. I had an original Super after my first PST. The Super locked out, but you had to pry another tool open to close the first one! A half-way solution…

    The new Super 300 looks like the replacement to the Core; it’s very nice, but the locking button is sleeker on the Core. They have a new line out called the “MUT” which has a funky carabiner type thing at one end. The only thing I wish Leatherman would produce would be a full-sized version of the Micra, so I could have a full-sized scissors!

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