"I would need a screwdriver. Or I would be at someone's house, and they would need something fixed," recalls Larry Legg, a machinist in Mentor, Ohio. But Legg never seemed to have the right tool. On the other hand, "I always had my keys with me," he says. "So I designed something that would fit on a key ring."
Thus was born Swiss-Tech's Microtechnician, a folding set of pliers and screwdrivers that can hang alongside your keys and weigh little more than an ounce. It's one of a new breed of minitools that make great stocking-stuffers for tinkerers or traveling executives (table). Many are more compact but less versatile than Swiss Army knives. Others are smaller variants of the all-in-one Leatherman tool--a 4-inch-long pair of pliers that hides a variety of blades, files, and screwdrivers in its handles. Closer in size to multiblade pocketknives, they feature sturdier implements.
If you don't mind trading off multiple functions for size, the latest folding plier from Swiss-Tech, the Micro Plus ($29.95), comes with four screwdrivers, two of them small enough to repair a laptop. It's larger than the original Microtechnician ($19.95), but still is only 1 7/8 inches long and weighs just 1.6 ounces. I carry a competitor's model, the Sebertool M3, a 1 3/4-inch-long plier, wirecutter, and screwdriver from SeberTech. I've used it to tighten a loose refrigerator door handle and help free a paper jam on a neighbor's fax machine. But its matte black finish has begun to wear off after only a few months. SeberTech also sells the more elaborate M4 ($26.95), with folding pliers, knife, file, can opener, tweezers, and three screwdrivers in a 2-inch unit. Like many tiny tools, unfolding its tiny implements can involve squinting and broken nails.
Among offerings with more heft, you may want to consider Leatherman Tool Group's Micra, a 2 1/2-inch-long gadget comprising a scissor, knife, screwdriver, tweezer, and other tools. A classier-looking choice could be the TiNi Crosscut from SOG Specialty Knives. Coated with titanium nitride for scratch resistance and blade life, it has a gold finish and scissors with geared jaws for easy cutting. Chubbier, but no less handy, is the Cool Tool ($19.95), a 5-inch bike-repair device from Gerber. I've found it a godsend on long bicycle trips, when I inevitably have a flat tire or find a pedal coming loose. Built around an adjustable crescent wrench, it comes with a variety of other wrenches, a tire lever and chain-repair tool, and even a bottle opener. Another Gerber entry is the Multi-Lite. About the size of one of those Swiss Army knives that does everything but cook dinner, it's best carried in a briefcase or purse. But it features a flashlight and industrial-strength tools, including a replaceable saw blade and foldup scissors.
You can find a large selection of minitools at camping and sporting-goods stores, including Cabela's (800 237-4444; www.cabelas.com) and REI (800 426-4840; www.rei.com). For discount prices, try Skylands Cutlery (800 854-5254; www.skylandscutlery.com) or knifecenter.com (800 338-6799; www.knifecenter.com). When you're shopping, don't forget to check out the tiniest minitool, Swiss-Tech's Utili-Key. The size of a car key, it unfolds to reveal a sharp knife and three screwdrivers. "I carry it with my Microtechnician and I'm ready for everything," says Dexter Ewing, contributing editor at Knives Illustrated magazine. For small emergencies, they're unbeatable.