Leatherman has dominated the multi tool market with the Wave product line since 1998 when the original Wave came out. Now 20 years later the Wave is still the top selling multi tool and recently refreshed in 2018 with the Wave+ update. But Leatherman is shaking things up with the introduction of magnetic technology on their FREE line launched in 2019.
The Leatherman Wave+ and FREE P4 have very similar specs and tools, both have one hand opening knife blades. The FREE P4 offers one-hand opening pliers, larger scissors, a pry bar and awl, and all tools are outside accessible. With the Wave Plus you get longer blades, a superior file, and bit drivers with access to a large selection of bits.
I’ve carried both tools regularly during the past year to give them a true head to head comparison in regular use. The one-hand opening pliers on the FREE P4 are the key feature that makes it stand out from the Wave+. The small differences between the rest of the tools are not that important to me. I rarely use the file or the saw where the increased length on the Wave+ would be important.
My main concern was with Leatherman’s decision not to include a bit driver on the FREE P4 design, but they were smart and beefed up the shank thickness on the Phillips driver. Even though the stainless steel is soft compared to tool steel, the increased thickness provides more grab on the cross slot and doesn’t strip the screw head.
Once Leatherman addresses three issues I foresee they will retire the Charge+ line and keep the Wave+ around as an economy option. First they need to incorporate a bit driver, engineer out the hot spots on the handle caused by the tool locks, and add options for upgraded blade steel. The magnetic technology is that good.
My Wave Plus will reside in the center console of my vehicle for years to come, a place of honor reserved for my 2nd best full size multi tool, at least until another multi tool knocks off the FREE P4. The Wave+ is still a great tool especially considering the ~$40 price difference that currently exists.
Specifications: Leatherman Wave Plus vs Leatherman FREE P4
L x W x H
|4.00 x 1.53 x 0.74 in||4.25 x 1.34 x 0.83 in|
|Weight||8.5 oz||8.6 oz|
|2.78 in||2.5 in|
|Main Blade Style||Clip point|
|Main Blade Steel||420HC||420HC|
|Serrated Blade Length||2.85 in||2.6 in|
|Serrated Blade Style||Sheepsfoot||Tanto|
|Serrated Blade Steel||420HC||420HC|
(Base – Tip)
|0.28 – .09 in||0.29 – 0.08 in|
|Pliers Reach||2.30 in||2.32 in|
|Jaw Opening||1.63 in||1.52 in|
|Jaw Length||1.13 in||1.06 in|
|Jaw Width||0.90 in||1.10 in|
|Wire Cutters||Bypass style w/replaceable blades||Bypass style w/replaceable blades|
|Phillips Driver||Small & large bit drivers||#2|
|Flat Drivers||Small & large bit drivers||X-small, small, medium|
|File||2.45 in diamond coated file & wood/metal file||1.45 in wood/metal file|
|Scissors Blade Length||0.75 in||0.85 in|
|Saw||2.48 in||2.25 in|
|Openers||Can/bottle opener||Can & bottle openers|
|Ruler||8 in | 19 cm||1.41 in | 25 mm|
Pry bar/package opener
Knife Length: Measured as length of sharpened edge (mfg specs frequently include the unsharpened ricasso)
Pliers Reach: Measured from the pliers tip to the shoulders of the handle
Jaw Opening: Measured at pliers tip at max extension
Jaw Length: Measured from wire cutters to pliers tip
Jaw Width: Measured at widest point with jaws fully closed
Scissors Blade Length: Length of sharpened edge measured with jaws at 90°
Leatherman Wave Plus Tool List
1. Needlenose pliers
2. Regular pliers
8. Replaceable wire cutters
9. Replaceable hard-wire cutters
13. 420HC knife
14. 420HC serrated knife
15. Spring-action scissors
17. Diamond coated file
18. Wood/metal file
20. Large bit driver
21. Small bit driver
23. Medium screwdriver
30. Ruler 8 in | 19 cm
32. Wire stripper
33. Can/bottle opener
–. Electrical crimper
The Wave Plus includes Leatherman’s bit drivers as well as a diamond coated file that are not on the FREE P4.
Leatherman FREE P4
1. Needlenose pliers
2. Regular pliers
3. Replaceable wire cutters
4. Replaceable hard-wire cutters
5. Electrical crimper
6. 420HC knife
7. Spring-action scissors
9. Wood/metal file
10. 420HC serrated knife
11. Bottle opener
12. Medium screwdriver
13. Extra small screwdriver
15. Can opener
16. Ruler (1.41 in | 25 mm)
17. Phillips screwdriver
18. Package opener
19. Pry tool
20. Small screwdriver
21. Wire stripper
The FREE P4 includes an awl that is not on the Leatherman Wave+ and instead of the bit driver the FREE P4 sticks with dedicated tools.
Leatherman Wave+ Product Description
WAVE®+ Our best-selling multi-tool ever gets upgraded with replaceable wire cutters made in a premium material. An international best-seller, the Wave® + has all the essential tools of the original with the addition of replaceable, durable wire cutters. All 18 tools can be opened and locked quickly, conveniently to tackle any task. Many of these tools are outside-accessible, so you can use them when the multi-tool is folded and closed.Leatherman Wave+
Leatherman refined the Wave+ three times since it launched in 1998 as the original Wave. The New Wave in 2004, and most recently in 2018 as the Wave+. Both knife blades, the scissors, and the saw are one-hand opening and secured with liner locks.
Unfold the handles to get access to the pliers; can/bottle opener tool and large bit driver are inside one handle, and the other handle has the medium flathead, small bit driver, and scissors. All inside tools lock open with a frame lock mechanism.
One issue I’ve noticed with my Wave+ since it was new was that I needed to be careful how I folded the pliers. If the plier jaws were open and I didn’t fully stow all the tools in the handle the pliers jaw can get wedged between the scissors and the medium flathead.
There is a pin inside the handle to guide the jaw but that doesn’t fully prevent the problem – it will stop it from getting too severe because with the leverage possible you could really jam it in hard. After a few close calls it just meant that I needed to pay attention when closing the pliers and not do it any which way. A minor annoyance that I don’t have to think about with the FREE P4.
Leatherman FREE P4 Product Description
FREE™ P4 Say hello to the most advanced multipurpose tool ever made. A more robust version of the P2, the P4 also includes a saw and 420HC serrated knife so you’re prepared for every job. Even with 21 tools, it weighs in at a barely-there 8.6 ounces and has a closed length of just 4.25 inches, so it’s just as comfortable in your pocket as on your belt. Designed and manufactured in Portland, Oregon.Leatherman FREE P4
The FREE P4 just works. Once I learned how to get the handles started, opening the pliers with one hand is easy, and fun. Both knife blades open easily with the large thumb holes and lock in place with audible and tactile feedback. After the disappointment of the OHT, Leatherman finally has a true one-hand operating multi tool that we can get behind.
Leatherman changed from liner locks to frame locks to hold all tools open on the FREE P4. I like the consolidation where all tool release with the same mechanism. One downside is the frame lock tabs create hotspots when using the pliers and wire cutters.
When I needed to give a strong squeeze I needed to adjust my grip so the tabs weren’t pressing into my palm, even though the tabs are will rounded. This was only noticeable with my bare hand and was not an issue when I wore gloves.
Pliers and Wire Cutters
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Pliers: The pliers on the FREE P4 are have slightly larger outside dimensions, but the Wave+ have larger usable size. Leatherman increased the thickness around the handle pivot joint when they changed to the new spring design, we can’t tell if this is part of the magnetic technology until will take our tool apart.
In actual use I didn’t notice any difference between the two for the pliers. A difference of one-tenth of an inch just isn’t important.
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Wire cutters: Even more than the pliers, the Wave and FREE P4 have identical bypass style wire cutters. The Wave and FREE use the exact same cutting blades positioned the same distance from the pivot so they get the exact same mechanical advantage.
The only difference was from handle comfort, the Wave+ doesn’t have the same hot spots present on the FREE P4 so we could give a stronger squeeze to the Wave+. This became apparent when cutting thick wire, the hot spots quickly became uncomfortable on the FREE P4 but we could keep going with the Wave+.
Both models use 420HC, Leatherman’s standard blade steel that has proven itself over the years. During our research into stainless steel grades the experts told us that the heat treatment process was just as important as the steel grade and Leatherman has nailed theirs. The 420HC steel takes a fine edge with good retention. For multi tools that get used its a good utility steel because it is easy to hone between uses and easy to sharpen when needed.
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Main Knife Blade: The distance between pivots on the handles is the same for the Wave+ compared to the FREE P4. For the new lock design, Leatherman loses about a quarter of an inch of blade length because the sharpened edge starts farther away from the pivot.
The drop-point and clip-point designs are both classics with great general utility so it doesn’t give an advantage either way. The drop-point has a stronger tip while the clip-point blade has more belly for slicing.
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Serrated Knife Blade: Here we give the edge to the FREE P4. The Tanto blade design they used provides an extremely strong tip while still protecting against accidental piercings. The sheepsfoot design on the Wave+ is tried and proven and works well for cutting rope and fabric bags.
We do like how Leatherman put grooves on the back of the the serrated blade for the Wave so you can tell what blade it is without opening. With the FREE P4 the main blade is larger but you have to remember which one is the saw and which one is the serrated blade.
Wave Plus vs FREE P4 – Screwdrivers: In my opinion, Leatherman made a big design mistake when they didn’t find a way to incorporate the large bit driver on the FREE P4 at launch. The screwdriver tools included provide reasonable functionality but they don’t compare to the bit driver capabilities. With the bit driver extender the Wave+ can use any 1/4″ hex bit.
This highlights the situation where the FREE P4 would be significantly worse than the Wave+. If you use your multi tool primarily for the screwdrivers then stick with the Wave+ and get the bit driver extender with the bit kit. Leatherman is smart and hopefully they will refresh the FREE series with an upgrade soon.
Leatherman FREE P4: Leatherman finally produced a really good pair of scissors and made them easily accessible on the outside of the handles. The thumb pad is large and comfortable so we had plenty of power. I easily cut zip ties with one snip and paracord in two snips.
Leatherman Wave+: The Wave+ scissors are good, but no match for the larger scissors on the FREE P4. The jaws align tightly and they are good for snipping threads. It usually took two snips to get through a zip tie and while they would chew through paracord it would take 4-5 snips to get there.
Can/Bottle Openers and Wire Stripper
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Can and Bottle Openers: The combination can/bottle opener was on the original Wave and a hallmark of Leatherman multi tools for decades. Few people actually use the openers so the combination tool makes sense – have the capability for the infrequent situation it is needed, but minimize the real estate dedicated to seldom used functions.
So we were surprised that Leatherman deviated from their successful formula and separated the tools. Most likely this was a happy opportunity and not a big design change. They saw room on the Phillips screwdriver shank and moved the bottle opener over because they didn’t have better use for the space.
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Wire Stripper: Leatherman modified their wire stripper from the standard sharpened ‘V’ on the Wave Plue to a sharpened cutout on the FREE P4. However, I don’t think it is an improvement. With the ‘V’ wire stripper I would score the insulation with the stripper and pull it just far enough away to verify it was cut all the way around, then switch to the pliers to actually remove the insulation.
The technique is the same for the FREE P4 but the hole limits the size of the wire that can be stripped. I tried scoring and pulling the insulation off using the stripper and while it does hold the wire better than the ‘V’ stripper, I still prefer to use the pliers to finish the job.
Wave+ vs FREE P4 – Saw: Victorinox still makes the best saw on their SAKs, but Leatherman saws are also easy to use. Leatherman uses a thin and stiff saw blade, the smaller kerf means less material to remove and faster cutting. Even though it is one of the least used tools on our multi tools it is good to see Leatherman high quality engineering at work.
The Wave+ solidly wins the file competition simply on length, but that is not the only benefit. Both the Wave+ and the FREE P4 include double-cut rough files but instead of just putting a single-cut fine file on the other side Leatherman put a diamond-coated file.
Leatherman doesn’t publish specs for the file but we guess its about 400 grit. Use the diamond-coating appropriately and it will last a long time, but if you use the diamond file for coarse material removal it will wear out as the diamonds pull out of the coating.
Pry Bar, Package Opener, and Awl
Leatherman Free P4 – Pry Bar & Package Opener: Besides the Phillips screwdriver Leatherman also used the beefy shank on the pry bar tool. Its is heavy duty and tapers from 1/8″ thick down to 3/64″ at the tip over the final 1/2″ of length. Leatherman also ground a bevel into one side of the pry bar for a package opener. It works, but so does the unsharpened corner of the medium screwdriver on the Wave+.
Both multi tools are very well made and avoid the common pitfalls of other tools. Leatherman knows what they are doing and continuously improves their engineering to make better, more usable tools. But no tool is perfect and so we look to identify the weakpoints for each model.
Leatherman Wave Problems: The most significant issue we had with either tool was the pinch points that exist when using the Wave Plus pliers. As you can see in the image below, the spine of the knife blade is very close to the saw and will make contact when squeezing. A similar pinch point exists on the other side between the serrated blade and the back of the file.
The other issue we noted with the Wave was the pliers would occasionally bind when folding them away. After a few times we figured out it was because the adjacent tools were not fully stowed into the handle. In the picture below, the medium flathead screwdriver is getting squeezed between the plier jaws and the handle. The screwdriver should be below the jaws when fully stowed.
Leatherman includes a pin in the handle to guide the jaws up and away from the folded tools and prevent binding. It works as long as all the tools are fully folded but it doesn’t prevent all problems.
Leatherman completely engineered this problem out of the FREE P4 design, even when we tried to induce the same failure on our P4 we couldn’t get it to jam.
Leatherman FREE P4 Problems: We only really had one issue with FREE P4 during a year of carrying it almost every day. When flipping the handles to deploy the pliers one-handed the sudden stop at the end would cause the tools in the handle to unfold slightly.
Variants of the Leatherman Wave
Since it launched in 2016 the Center-Drive comes in the base model and since 2019, the Center-Drive Plus. The Center-Drive Plus drops the serrated knife blade to make room for scissors, while also changing the main knife blade to a combo edge.
- Leatherman Product #832531 Stainless Steel Wave+
- Leatherman Product #832533 Black Oxide Wave+
- Leatherman Product #832695 Stainless Steel & Black Oxide Wave+
Variants of the Leatherman FREE P4
Leatherman launched their magnetic technology FREE series with the P4 and P2 in 2019. They are still releasing new models of pocket knives but no new multi tools since the launch. The P2 is slimmer than the P4 by dropping the serrated blade and saw and it also changes the main blade to a combo edge.
- Leatherman Product #832640 FREE P4
- Leatherman Product #832636 FREE P2
Advantage to Leatherman Wave+
For most users, the large and small bit drivers on the Leatherman Wave+ will be the major advantage over the FREE P4. Paired with the bit driver extender, the Wave+ has 3.25 inches of reach and can use any standard 1/4 inch hex bit.
The Wave+ also has a superior file compared to the FREE P4. One side is diamond coated and the other side is a double cut wood/metal file. The 2.45 inch length is easier to use and more capable than the 1.45 inch file on the P4. The Wave+ file is also grooved on one edge which gives you the capability of grooving or cutting metal.
The Wave+ also brings larger knife blades by a quarter inch. Both are approximately 2.8 inches long and more than adequate, I never felt like I needed to carry a separate knife when I had the Wave Plus with me.
Advantage to Leatherman FREE P4
It is hard to overstate how much better a one-handed multi tool is to use. Previously there were significant compromises to get one-handed pliers and one-hand opening knife blades on the same tool. Until Gerber launched the Center-Drive in 2016 your only options were the Leatherman OHT with its short knife blades or the SOG PowerAssist with its heavy bulk and finicky operation to open the knife blades.
Don’t overlook the coolness factor with the FREE P4, it is Leatherman’s latest design and many people have not seen one in person. The one-hand pliers make an impression when you deploy them in public and we’ve come to expect people to ask us questions after they see us use them.
With the FREE P4 you have immediate one-hand access to the pliers, both knife blades, the scissors and the saw. The other tools are average to a little above average, if they were on any other brand tool we would be happy to see this size and quality. But we know Leatherman has better engineered designs and can’t help but think the second generation of the FREE P4 will be the sweet spot.