Know what’s not restricted by those constraints? Multitools. There’s almost no limitation to what you can design and implement in a multitool – form factor is variable. Still, most multitools follow the formula that was laid out by the first Leatherman in 1983: two handles that fold outward on dual pivots to reveal a pair of pliers and some implements hidden in the handles. When someone makes a good formula, other people tend to follow it. Gerber deviated much more from the pattern than pretty much any other maker, creating a multitool with a sliding plier head that can be deployed out the front of the handles one-handed. It was such a good idea that Leatherman brought out their own interpretation of it (creatively dubbed the OHT) when the functional patent expired, a turn of phrase that will sound familiar from a lot of reviews dealing with newer sliding bar lock knives after Benchmade’s patent for the AXIS lock expired.
Gerber Center-Drive Plus
The Gerber Center-Drive takes the one handed opening concept and adds a unique twist to it: a screwdriver that’s aligned with the center axis of the tool when opened, making it more of a primary tool than a secondary implement like the screwdriver is on a lot of multitools. There’s a lot of clever engineering in the Center-Drive Plus that works really well – and there’s also a lot of half-developed ideas and some quality problems. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s an interesting tool.
Primary Implements: Blade, Pliers, Bit Driver
You can divide the tools integrated into the Center-Drive Plus into two groups, primary and secondary. Primary are the larger, higher-frequency use tools which are all one-hand accessible from the closed position, and the secondary implements are smaller tools which require you to open the tool and unfold them. Considering the three most-used tools on any MT I’ve ever carried have been, in order, the pliers, the screwdriver and the knife, Gerber has put the focus on the right things here.
First, the blade. Normally the blade plays second fiddle on any folding multitool, but Gerber has managed to pack a fairly enormous knife into this thing, measuring 3.25” long with a drop point shape and a partially serrated edge. The knife is deployed via an oblong thumb hole and is locked in place with a steel liner lock, which also includes a detent ball to keep the knife securely closed when not in use. Gerber doesn’t list a blade thickness, but it’s relatively thick blade stock compared to the narrow profile of the blade necessitated by fitting into the handle. They do not list what type of steel it’s made out of, so it’s safe to assume it’s not M390. Most likely some variant of 420 stainless, it has a nice stonewashed finish and a remarkably well applied edge grind as well as some very effective serrations.
To me, who always has a primary knife in his right pocket when I’m carrying this tool (considering it weighs nearly 10 ounces, this is a work carry) the blade itself isn’t super important – while I appreciate that Leatherman puts higher quality steel blades on the Charge line (154CM and S30V) it’s not super high priority for me. To that end, while I’d never (never!) carry a primary blade with a half-serrated edge and an italicized question mark for blade steel, it makes sense as the blade on my multitool: able to cut through fibrous stuff, easy to sharpen, a great backup.
The pliers slide out of the handles with one thumb, using a slider on the outer edge of the handle that also holds the blade. A demo video from Gerber shows a guy confidently pulling this tool out of the sheath and then slinging it open with a flick of the wrist; don’t expect to do this successfully the first time – it took me a while of carrying the Center-Drive to actually figure out how to do it. The trick is to hold the tool flat, with the handles touching your thumb and forefinger with the slider above the forefinger, then flick the whole tool out and downwards and let momentum propel the plier head into the locked position. It’s more practical and less anti-social to just press the slide forward until the plier head is extended and the lock clicks in place. Once it’s all the way out, you have to press the button on the slider down to unlock and retract. The pliers themselves are spring-loaded (a huge plus for me) and feature a needle nose section towards the front, a rounded plier section in the center, and hard wire cutting bits at the bottom which are held in place with torx screws – they can be rotated when they get dull or replaced.
Finally, the tool the whole thing is named after: the bit driver. This is the whole reason for the tool, and I gotta say it’s a home run. The driver flips out of the same handle that holds the pliers slider, rotating out 180 degrees opposite the plier head and locking in place with a liner lock. Unlike Leatherman’s bit drivers, it uses standard ¼” hex drive bits (rather than proprietary flat bits) which are retained in place with a strong magnet. It’s called the Center-Drive because the bit driver is curved so that it lines up with the center line of the tool when it’s open. This sounds simple but no one else has thought of it yet: using a screwdriver on a multitool is generally a pretty annoying task, because turning the screw/bolt in or out is done in an eccentric pattern (like a cam lobe) which is not a natural movement for your hand, especially if you’re used to using regular screwdrivers and the like.
Secondary implements are those that require the tool to be opened to access, rather than being one-hand accessible from the outside, the second layer of tools are packed into the handles. It’s a weird assortment on the Center Drive Plus, with four in one handle and a single in the other. First, the single: it seems especially odd at first, a spare bit holder inside the handle that also contains the knife and the driver as well as the slider for the pliers. It holds one hex bit, it’s oddly shaped, and it folds out ninety degrees to allow you access to the bit. While Gerber refers to it as a spare bit holder in the callout diagram, it’s main purpose seems to be as a spacer to stop the handles when the pliers are closed all the way – if you flip it out and actuate the pliers, the handles will flex a little bit if you squeeze past the closed position, but with the tool in place they have a more solid stopping point.
All the other tools are packed into the other side, containing a file, an awl, a bottle opener combo tool, and a set of sprung scissors. All of them are locked in place by the black plastic tab at the end of the handle when open. The file has a coarse and a fine side (single and dual cut patterns) and deploys with a nail nick. The awl is only ground on one side with no edge bevel, so it will only pierce – rather than slice – things. It deploys with a tab on the top side. Like with a lot of multitools, the bottle opener serves a lot of different roles: decapping bottles, small and large straight screw drivers, angled prying tool and nail puller. It also opens with a tab on the top. Finally, on the far side are the scissors, which open up with the blades parallel to each other and you must carefully rotate the moving side around 180 degrees until it engages with the torsion spring to use them. All the implements on this side are locking and require you to press the black plastic slider to unlock them, then rotate the tools back in.
Features, Fit & Finish
There’s quite a lot going on with this tool, so it’s hard to evaluate fit and finish as a whole since it’s much more complex than a knife. That being said, quality on this tool is generally less impressive than what you get from a similarly priced Leatherman or Victorinox multitool – not saying that either of those are perfect. By now I’m probably well known for making fun of how bad Leatherman’s edge grinds are from the factory – because when you’re making something this complicated for this amount of money, expecting it to be absolutely perfect isn’t realistic. There are too many stacked tolerances in a folding multitool for everything to be flawless.
Build quality issues are present, but nothing that makes you unable to use the tool – you just have to set your expectations different for a ~$150 multitool than you do for a $150 pocket knife. For instance, the outer edge of the file rubs against the inside of the handle and leaves a mark on the file. There are rough machining marks in several spots on the plier head. There’s about a quarter inch of wasted blade length that’s just not sharpened towards the ricasso. But none of these things are quite as irritating as how “wiggly” the pliers are when deployed. I think it’s a design flaw with any multitool that uses sliding pliers rather than fixed pliers with handles that rotate around them, but the amount of movement in/out/up/down/side-to-side in the plier head when they’re deployed does drive me a little crazy. You can grab one side the pliers when deployed and move it up and down about a quarter of an inch relative to the handles. Tighter fitment of the lock in the slider would probably help this – it looks like that’s where the play comes from – but I’m not sure. The tool just ends up feeling slightly “rattly” when you’re using the pliers, like a set of pliers you’d get on sale at Harbor Freight, and that’s a bummer. They still work well, it’s just a perception of quality issue.
As far as decoration goes, this is a nice looking tool. Gerber does a good job making their MT’s look a little more exciting than some competitor’s. I love a Leatherman SuperTool 300 but even I’ll admit it’s a drastically bland looking thing, and the fractal triangle pattern on the handle here is very neat, along with “GERBER- made is USA” etched on both sides of the handles.
With regards to features, It’s worth mentioning the other stuff this tool comes with: primarily, a very stout leather sheath which Gerber describes as “Berry Compliant.” For those not familiar, the Berry Amendment requires the US Department of Defense to spend money on domestically produced products. This is relevant since Gerber is a DOD supplier. Beyond the domestic certification, the sheath itself is very stout, using a button snap and rivet construction for durability. It has a very wide pass-through in the rear for a belt, and a built-in compartment in the front to stow the bit kit which comes with the Plus model. The bit kit carries twelve ¼” hex drive bits, and it comes with the following: #1/#3 cross bits, #1/#2 square bits, T10/T15 Torx bits, 5/32”, 7/32”, and ¼” flat bits, and 9/64”, 5/32” and 3/16” hex bits. Of course, since these are just standard ¼” drive hex bits you can customize the bits you carry in there as much as you want.
I take a lot longer to evaluate multitools for review than I do for knives, since there are so many more facets to them. I carried the Center-Drive Plus for several months at work, comparing to my day to day work carry, a Leatherman Charge AL (which has since been replaced by the Charge+ which adds replaceable bit cutters in the pliers and a gutting hook to the serrated blade, but is otherwise the same.) First up, carry. The Center-Drive is bigger (4.7” closet versus 4”) and heavier (9.5 ounces versus 8.3) than the Charge, and the sheath is also larger than the ballistic nylon sheath I carry my Charge in, which also includes a bit carrier. The ¼” hex drive bits are wider than Leatherman’s proprietary 2D flat bits, so that makes the whole ensemble a little thicker. But there’s a lot of extra space above the top of the tool with the sheath closed that the Leatherman sheath doesn’t have, so the Center-Drive ends up feeling a good bit bulkier and heavier than my Leatherman.
Things I like about the Center-Drive – the one hand snap deployment pliers, after you get the hang of them, are very handy when you’re holding something with one hand and trying to open your tool to grab it with your other hand. A firm wrist flick will usually snap them open, but you can also just slide them open with your thumb, which was something I didn’t think was important until I had a one-hand-deployment set of pliers like these. It’s very handy when you’re working on cars. I wish the pliers themselves had a bit more of a needle nose towards the tip for grabbing smaller items, but they’re still small enough to use as a fuse puller which is one of my most frequent tasks.
The pliers are generally good, able to do a bunch of things passably if nothing perfect – they work well for counter-holding caliper guide pins while you remove the bolts with a power tool using the toothed center section, they’re pretty good at cutting wires using the hardened bits at the base, although I wouldn’t recommend doing a lot of twisting with them as they’re not particularly strong when it comes to torsion. The other winning element of the pliers is that they’re sprung, which is lacking in a lot of multitools, and it makes using the pliers a more natural action and a lot less tiring on your hands. I’m not in love with the ergonomics of the tool when in pliers mode – the knife and driver make a hot spot in your palm and the plastic sliding lock feels odd under your pinky – but this is a tradeoff for the added function of those tools.
What’s a real home run is the Center-Drive’s bit driver. This is the killer app, it’s awesome: it’s a real screwdriver. You do real screwdriver stuff with it and it doesn’t feel weird or contrived. Sure, the square two piece handle isn’t as ergonomic as a real screwdriver handle – multitools are devices of many compromises – but the awkward elliptical motion of most MT screwdrivers is absent, and the driver itself is quite long which allows you to access a lot of deeper-down screws you can’t with the super stubby driver in Leathermans. You can actually apply a good amount of torque to it as well, and it never bends or wiggles, and the bit stay firmly seated in the driver.
It’s not super relevant to me, but the knife itself is well designed and good and sharp out of the box. It’s a little stiff to deploy but can be done one-handed easily, it has a secure liner lock (with no play when it’s open) and it’s actually a full sized knife. I just never end up using the knife on a multitool because I’m a knife guy, multitool knives are awful, and I always have a real knife on hand. I do appreciate the added functionality of the serrated section in a backup tool and the few times I used it I did appreciate the long reach of the blade.
What don’t I like? All of the tools nested inside the liner, the secondary tools. They’re all less frequently used so it makes sense that they’re not all the very best, but some design mistakes were made. Specifically the scissors, which are the most frequently used secondary tool, are complicated to deploy (deploy the pliers, spread the handles, pull them out with the nail nick until they lock, figure out which way the moving blade turns, spin it around, then close the pliers back up). Then once you’re using them, the issue is that your thumb that’s pressing the moving side is also pressing the plastic lock release, which will cause the pliers to unlock and then fold downward while you’re in the middle of cutting something. The scissors themselves work fine, it’s just an ergonomic issue – they feel “crammed” into the tool, and I don’t know how you’d fix it.
The file isn’t bad, good for deburring roughly finished metal items, but it also suffers from the same auto-unlocking syndrome when in use. But the two center tools are also nigh on impossible to get out, especially the awl, which is liable to break your finger nail if you’re not careful the first few times you pull it out. Same with the bottle opener/pry tool, which seems a little short but does a fine job of opening a beer once you get it out – just a bit tricky to deploy it.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.The most obvious alternative to the Center-Drive Plus is the Leatherman OHT, and – to be honest – I’ve never much liked the OHT. It always seemed like Leatherman was just filling a market niche without actually doing anything creative or new. It has tiny pliers, a tiny knife, no bit driver at all (just a series of fixed drivers) and is heavier than the Center-Drive Plus. It does have sprung pliers with hardened cutting bits, and it doesn’t have any nested secondary tools (all the tools are accessible from the outside) but it’s still a tough sell. It is usefully cheaper than the Gerber at $90-$100 versus $150, but a good deal on a product you don’t like isn’t really a good deal.
Not a huge OHT fan, but obviously Leatherman does make some good tools, and at the $150 price range of Center-Drive you have your choice of quite a few full size Leatherman tools. Particularly the Free P4, which was a ground-up new design for the brand using magnetic opening and closing for easy one-handed deployment like a balisong. It’s a bit lighter at 8.6 ounces and shorter closed (at 4.25”) but it does lack some of the flexibility of the Center Drive, without a bit driver (using fixed tools only). It does pack a lot of specialized single use tools into its 21 tool loadout (compared to 14 for the Gerber) like a dedicated clamshell package opener, a ruler (why?) and a wood saw. It’s sort of a flagship for Leatherman (if you don’t include the Charge TTI) at $140 but it’s a very high quality thing.
SOG also makes a bunch of interesting pliers-based multitools, and the Powerlock features a lot of clever engineering. Most attractive are the compound-leverage pliers, which use a set of gears to increase the amount of gripping force at the plier head relative to the amount of force you apply to the handles – so you get a more secure hold on what you’re grabbing. SOG’s pliers are narrower and come to more of a needlenose tip, but the lack the replaceable hard-wire cutters – they do, however, also include an “EOD Crimper” inside of the handles when open, presumably for use when setting up explosives but also handy for electrical crimp connectors as well. The Powerlock packs 18 tools and is available in 4 variants – black oxide or satin finish, and with a pair of scissors or a v-cutter (which can be used to pull-cut webbed materials.) SOG is unique in that they’ll sell you individual tools as accessories and you can disassemble and swap them out kind of like Legos – including a 12-24 gauge wire stripper, bottle opener/medium screwdriver, Philips screwdriver, large screwdriver, file, and basically all of SOG’s tools available individually. This is unique in the industry and allows you to customize the loadout of tools for what you actually want to carry.
Finally, even though it’s been around basically forever unchanged, we would be remiss to not mention the Victorinox SwissTool with ratchet. It’s expensive ($150), it has a pretty small plier head relative to the handles, and it’s heavy (10.2 ounces) but the original SwissTool is hands down one of the highest quality, best made, heirloom-worthy multitools ever made. It also uses wholly familiar Swiss Army Knife tools as secondary implements. It’s outdate but in a nice way, a classic tool that never gets old.
Man, I really like the Center-Drive Plus. There’s a lot of creative outside-the-box thinking going on with this tool that makes it a real pleasure to actually use in ways that other multitools can frustrate. It’s innovative and useful in a lot of deeply satisfying ways, primarily the center axis ¼” bit driver, which for me is the industry standard that no one comes close to matching. And they won’t, presumably because Gerber has a patent, but I’d love to see them apply the center drive principle to smaller, more EDC-friendly multitools. It’s so good. Same with the one hand deployable, sprung pliers with hard wire cutting bits. I’d like to see more of a needlenose profile at the end of the pliers, and a plain edge blade that’s a little easier to deploy, but for me the Center-Drive Plus is a great work day multitool. It’s pricey, but I think it’s worth it.
- Center-Drive screwdriver is a real game changer, one handed opening sprung pliers, big knife, uses standard ¼” hex bits, replaceable wire cutters.
- Secondary tools are difficult to access and less than ideal, lock disengages itself, some quality issues, plier head “wiggles” when open.