Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Leatherman WAVE - 98 vs. 04

Back in the fall of 1998, after pondering the choices available, I decided to get a Leatherman WAVE. It had about the best selection of tools, the blades especially being very easy to access. I also liked the rounded edges on the handles, making them much more comfortable to hold and squeeze on. Honestly, about the best $100 I’ve ever spent. I don’t think a day has gone by where I haven’t used it for something. Even sick as a dog, flat on my back, I found some task it could accomplish. Without any exaggeration, it is one of my favourite possessions.

Then in 2004, Leatherman released an updated version of it. I had been mulling over the idea of a second multi-tool anyway, and was so fond of the original version, I opted to get the new version.

I realize that short of checking on E-Bay, you’re not very likely to find an old version of the WAVE any more, but I thought it might be interesting to compare the two.

(So I don’t have to keep stating it, the top one will be the 1998 model, and the 2004 model will be below that.)
Both models feature needlenose pliers, wire cutters, hard-wire cutters and a wire stripper. The 2004 model featured an oval shape, which made for more power when cranking on a bolt or trying to cut through wire.
Regular clip point blade and serrated sheepsfoot blade below that. The length of the blades is 7.37cm/2.9". Both blades on both models are 420HC steel. Not the best steel, certainly the edge retention isn’t the best, but they’ve served me well. (Although admittedly, for any really serious cutting tasks, I usually have another, better blade on me anyway.) For the 2004 model, the blades were made wider, since one of the complaints about it was that some people managed to nick their thumb while opening it. The opening hole was also made wider, to make it easier for some one with gloves on to open it.
One nice touch on the 2004 model is the jimping on the top of the serrated blade, two different sorts, to give a tactile indicator of which blade is which.
The file has a wood saw on one side and a diamond coated metal file on the other side, as well as wood file teeth on the bottom edge. Quite a few strike anywhere matches have been struck on them, and a few damaged fingernails have been filed with them as well.
The saw while small, is quite mighty. Many a small branch has been cut for feeding into the BushBuddy.
The liner lock for the four outside tools.
The blades/pliers end of the multi-tool. On both models, one side has a 5 lobed Security Torx bit (which I believe is more correctly called a Line screw), the transverse side has a 6 lobed Security Torx bit. (On the internal tools side, my 1998 model has 5 lobed Security Torx bits on both sides, but the 2004 model also has a 5 lobed Security Torx bit on one side, a 6 lobed Security Torx bit on the transverse side.) I wondered about this for a bit, and then thought it might be due to the fact that the Security Torx bits are hard to find and fairly expensive, so anyone who needs to tighten up or take apart can use one of each bit, rather than having to use two sets of bits.

The Security Torx bits have always been a bone of contention. They were, and maybe still are, not so easy to procure. Leatherman wants to prevent anyone from dismantling the WAVE, stating that getting it back together is fairly difficult. Many people would try, and then have to send the pieces in to Leatherman for them to put it back together. So those screws were their attempt to prevent anyone from tampering with it. But as a guy that likes to tinker and see how things are made, this restriction rankles a bit.
The folding/retractable lanyard ring. I think I prefer the one on the 1998 model more. It folds in rather than retracts in like the 2004, and of the two, I prefer it. The small keyring I added myself in both cases, and it will not fold or retract with the ring attached.

The stippling/knurling on both has also been used many times as a striker for strike anywhere matches.
The pliers end.

The tools end, with the lanyard ring deployed and retracted.
The four outer blades. The 2004 model has a tab at one end to release the locked inner tools. One complaint about the 1998 model was that the screwdrivers, scissors, can opener on the inside didn’t lock, so that shortcoming was remedied on the 2004 model.
Looking down at the interior tools. 
One of my dislikes about the 2004 model is all the internals from the mechanism to lock the tools is a crud collector. Trying to get it clean out in the bush can be a chore. Minor point, but still a nuisance.

One handy feature on the newer version though is the 19 cm/ 8" ruler on the handles.
As far as internal tools go, one side of the 1998 model has a large slot screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver and a (very good) can opener with a wire stripper.

The 2004 model has the same can opener/wire stripper and a very novel interchangeable bit system. Although standard it just comes with a Phillips #1-2 and 3/16" bit. The bit system is proprietary, meaning that if you lose one, you can only get a replacement from Leatherman themselves. They’re essentially bits that have had one third shaved off one side, and one third shaved off the other side. Because they’re so narrow, the #2 and #3 Phillips, the larger hex and Torx bits are truncated on two sides. Despite missing most of the nodes that a smaller bit has, enough of them remain that it grips the screw. Being able to carry 40 bits in a package about 12 mm thick is pretty cool in my books.
The can/bottle opener/wire stripper. Many a bottle of beer and many a can has been opened with it. Works as advertised. Haven’t really stripped much plastic coating off wire with it though.
Closeup of the more straight forward 1998 Phillips bit, and the more intriguing 2004 bits. Besides the issue of only being able to get replacements from Leatherman, and that some bits may not be available, another gripe some express is that the bits are pretty stubby, and make getting at any screw that is recessed near on impossible.

They’re zinc phosphate coated, making them more rust resistant. I also got the bit kit for the old style driver, and they rusted like mad.
The other side of the 1998 version has scissors, an extra small slot screwdriver, a small slot screwdriver and a medium slot screwdriver.

The 2004 version has scissors, a 1.4732 mm/.058" flat driver and a Phillips driver that is somewhere between #00 and #000 for tiny stuff like eyeglasses and electronics, and a large screwdriver.
Large screwdriver. 
Extra small slot screwdriver, small slot screwdriver and medium slot screwdriver.
Miniature flat and Phillips driver. Neat, but I’ve barely ever used them. Good for getting a stuck disc out of a drive.
One thing that I do use a whole lot are the scissors. And while I think for the most part the 2004 features a lot of improvements, one thing that I didn’t think was an improvement were the scissors. 

The new scissors are an entirely different design, that unfold and store in an entirely different way. I still find them a bit awkward to manipulate. You do get the hang of it, but...I still just find them inherently awkward.

With the old scissors, you unfolded the pivot bar to a certain point, and then the scissors themselves would come out. It reached a détente, and then clicked and they would unfold. Only when they deployed all the way would the cutting edges be exposed. 

When opening the new scissors, they have to be opened all the way out, while folded up, and then when they click, they can be folded out. The natural tendency is to use your thumb to push it all the way open. Since portions of the blade edges are exposed while you open or close them, there is a chance you’ll slice your finger on them. The blades have a pretty shallow grind angle so the odds aren’t that great, but the user should be aware of it. Use the nail tab to open the scissors. When closing them, they have to first be folded all the way flat before closing.

The other thing I like about the old scissors is that they are larger than the new ones, about 20mm/.75" rather than 15mm/.6" - which is about 25 % smaller. According to Leatherman, the new ones are supposed to stay sharper longer and cut better. The first part I don’t know about – in a dozen years of owning the 98 version I’ve never felt it necessary to sharpen them - and I use the scissors a lot – but I’m not in the slightest bit convinced they cut better.

As far as dimensions, the Wave is 10cm or 4" when closed. It weighs 224 g or 8 oz. for the 1998 model or  241 g or 8.5 oz for the 2004 model. 

A few years ago I decided to take advantage of Leatherman’s 25 year warranty. My much loved and well used 1998 model was in need of a little TLC, so I sent it in. There was a chip out of the small screwdriver, and the internal tools flopped down when I opened it up. Nothing major, but given the Security Torx bit situation, I couldn’t do much about it myself. In addition to those two things, I asked if they could give everything a good clean and sharpen. When it came back, it was like new. I’ve reached the halfway point on the warranty on that particular one, and maybe I’ll send it in for another bout of TLC just before the 25 year mark is reached. 

While I think for the most part the 2004 version is an improvement over the 1998 version (save for the afore mentioned crud collector and the in my opinion inferior scissors), I still prefer the 1998 version much more. Maybe it’s fondness because it’s the one I got first. When I sent my WAVE in to Leatherman, I stated very specifically that I did not want a replacement. I had read somewhere that someone had sent one in to them to remedy some problem and they gave him a brand new one. I already had a new one, and I was afraid that they might think they were doing me a favour by replacing the old one with a new one. Call me crazy, but after a decade of use, I had grown very attached to that transforming hunk of steel and felt that it had been imbued with a bit of my spirit.


  1. Wow! What a detailed write up on the Leatherman Wave, It really is an amazing tool and one I've used for the past 7 years. It's also nice to hear they happily took in your tool for a service, did you have to pay return postage etc on that or not?

    1. Not a penny.

      Victorinox was another one I have sent a tool back to, and their service was also excellent.

  2. Thanks for this. It was fun to read. I also have both because I thought I lost my old one but later found it in a suitcase pocket. I like the new one better because of the available replaceable bits and extension, which I use a lot, especially the hex bits. I agree on the scissors, though.

  3. Great write-up, I travel a lot and hate having to leave mine at home and check a bag so I picked up the new one, seems much more difficult to use than the old one. Hoping it does loosen up with use, but I was lucky and found a pre 2004 model at a gun show for $50 this weekend.