Monday, November 28, 2011

Keychain Evolution

This is for Dan.

As I have mentioned before, the keychain is a necessary evil.  Who, if they had the choice, would want to carry a set of heavy metal items that you use, a total, of 30 seconds a day?  Not me.  But over the years people that like gear have set out to make this necessary evil something that was useful.  One of my favorite blogs, Keychain Pockets, is dedicated entirely to the construction and review of great keychain set ups and keychain gear.

Before I go through the evolution of my keychain, here are links to the keychain tools series I did a while back, basically all of the research I did in building my own keychain over the past four years:

Part I: Carry Methods
Part II: Flashlights
Part IV: Multitools
Part V: Knives
Part VI: Random Round Up

My keychain has changed quite a bit over the past four years. At first, I just wanted to figure out what tools to include on the keychain itself.  Here is what I did: I got a bunch of tools, a sort of "All Star" line up of things people liked on their keychain: a spy capsule, a mini lighter, a can opener, a knife, a multitool, and a flashlight.  I rotated them in for two weeks.  If I didn't use the tool, I took it off.  In the end I tested out a bunch of different things, but eventually settled down on two and only two tools--a flashlight and a OPMT.  All of the other stuff, a tiny pocket knife, the spy capsules, the can openers, the mini-lighters, were rarely if ever used.  They also added bulk and made it difficult to carry my keychain into secure locations, like courts and correctional facilities. 

After I figured out what tools I wanted I then started the process of researching upgrades.  Its funny because all of the research led me from cheap to expensive back to cheap.  I realized that the tools on my keychain were almost always backups, as I tend to carry a knife and flashlight whenever I am not in a suit.  And those days where I am in a suit, there is little need for anything more than the stuff on my keychain.  As backups I really just wanted failsafe stuff that was easy to use and cheap.  No need to drop tons of money on stuff that when it comes down to it, is used to light up my front door (the flashlight) and open a beer bottle.  After that I turned to the keyring itself.  I went from the standard split ring to a high end option from Berkeley Point, to a super lightweight option from my local hardware store.  Again, it was about weight and expense.  Nothing on my keychain, other than car related stuff, costs more than $12 or weighs more than a half an ounce.  It is a dramatic departure from my keychain at the height of my madness, where the entire thing cost more than $200.

Stage 1: The Split Ring

No picture here because, well it was boring.  I hate the standard split ring.  It is large, heavy, and difficult to use.  If the upgrades were expensive I could see why people still use it, but the option I use now is about a dollar and half more, so really, why bother?  The issue, for me, is accessibility.  It is hard to get things off the keychain and hard to use them when they are on the split ring.  It is especially hard to get stuff on and off when you are dealing with those fat rubber or plastic keys that car makers insist on using nowadays.

I tried out a bunch of stuff on this keychain--a spy capsule, a tiny knife (this is the reason I purchased a Dragonfly, initially), a tiny lighter.  All of this stuff, except the knife, was virtually unused.  The spy capsule had cash in it, but I never used that.  It seems to me that all of this stuff is really about an idea of being prepared more so than actual utility.  There might be a situation in which the spy capsule might be useful or the lighter might come in handy, but with something that I have to carry everyday, I'd prefer to have on it only those things I use everyday.  I can always keep that other stuff in my car or my backpack so that it is handy.  I just can't think of a situation in which I would need either of those things and have only my keychain on me.  There are situations in which they are useful, but in those cases I have my wallet or my backpack with me.  In situations where they aren't useful, which is like all of the time, I just don't need them.  So I cut them out.  The knife was useful, but I would like to have a bottle opener too.  So I dropped the knife, knowing that I would always be carrying one, except when wearing a suit, and instead looked at a OPMT.

This is when I found my Atwood Atwrench.  I liked the size and the custom feel of the tool.  It was also in the days before Atwood auctions.  I emailed Peter, asked what he had on hand, and he mailed me out an Atwrench later that week.   

Stage 2: Berkeley Point

After the Atwrench things started getting a little crazy.  I had always carried an Arc AAA-P on my keychain, but with the Atwrench in the mix, I couldn't help myself.  I tricked out my keychain with a nice, bombproof keyring from Berkeley Point.  Here is the whole set up:


Here is the triangle keyring attachment.  The triangle had the advantages of the splitring--durability mainly--but it also allowed for quick removal of tools and keys.  It seemed like a great solution at the time, but in reality it was less than ideal.  First, it was very bulky.  My keychain started to poke holes in the pockets of my slacks.  It was also heavy to lug around.  Second, unlike a circle, the triangle had corners and these bunched up the keys and tools.  They made it hard for the tools to flow around the keyring and often times led to awkward bunches that made it hard to extract the keychain from my pocket.

So the quest continued.  I even thought about getting a Keyport until I realized that it would not work well with my regularly shuffling lineup of keys.  During this search I also did something I should have done a long time ago--I keyed all of my exterior doors to the same key, eliminating two keys off the keychain.  I also took off the fob for my wife's car, which significantly decreased the bulk.


Dear Car Manufacturers,

If you insist on still using physical keys instead of biometrics or smartphone apps, please consolidate the key and the fob into one unit.  I don't understand why you waste all of that real estate on these massive rubber or plastic key heads on your logo and nothing else.  Put some fucking buttons on there.  Seriously.



Some car makers do this, like Audi and BMW.  But everyone should do it.  I see no reason why I should carry two things when one thing will do the job even better.  Even non premium makers do this, Chrysler for a long time had buttons built in to the key head.


Stage 3: Coated Cable

One day I was shopping at my local non-box hardware store and I saw a coated cable with a twist release.  It was in the keychain section and it was like $1.25.  I picked it up and took it home.  I swapped out the triangle for the cable and I have never looked back.  It is so much lighter, it does not cause clumping, and it is easier to use.  It is not as durable.  Eventually the coating wears down and the cable frays, but that is off set by the price (the triangle was not cheap).  Thus far I have purchased two coated cables in about two years.  Not too bad.

Here was my first coated cable set up:


With the lighter keyring I also switched out the tools.  I dropped the Arc, as venerable as it was, it was just too big, for a Streamlight Nano.  I also swapped out the Atwrench for a JDR Ti Baby Pacu 2.5.   The result was a much lighter keychain.  It was also cheaper too, making me less worried about losing it or leaving it at a check in station at court or a correctional facility.

The Nanostream was a great little light except for one major problem--the batteries.  The batteries are hard to install, even with the stack and slide trick, and they are very hard to find at an economic price.  The LR41s were $5 each at Radio Shack.  The unit uses 4.  You can buy them on the internet much cheaper, of course, but you need to buy them in massive shipments, of 50 or more.  At that point it is not worth it.  I managed to find a "watch battery pack" at Harbor Freight that had some, but they were not stocked consistently.  Which meant that I could just buy a new Nanostream for the batteries and save money.  I also noticed that the Nanostream gobbled up batteries.  I also really didn't like the "anondized" finish.  It started flaking off almost immediately.

So I dropped it and opted instead for the LRI Photon Micro II.  It is not particularly bright and there are about a million different rip off versions (fauxtons).  But is durable and the batteries last and are cheaper and more widely available. I liked its simple interface over the Freedom's more variable but complex UI. 

The JDR tool lived on my keychain for quite a while, but eventually I saw a Shard in person and realized that I really wanted a Phillips driver.  I bought it for $5 and tested it out.  The Pacu never made it back on my keychain.

Here is my current keychain set up after about four years of experimenting and testing:

At this point I am pretty satisfied.  I would strongly recommend against a ton of tools on your keychain.  It makes it unnecesarily bulky and quite frankly almost all of the tools are compromised in some way.  A bottle opener/OPMT and a small flashlight, for me, were the only necessary items.  Eliminating keys and lightening up the keyring itself were the most important changes as they make it much easier for me to carry and access my keys.

It seems weird to think about a keychain this much, but you carry it with you EVERYDAY and you use it, though seconds at a time, EVERYDAY.  A little bit of thought can make a big difference in what and how you use your keychain.  If I were starting out I would opt for either the Photon/Shard combo for a cheap lightweight solution or a Muyshondt Aeon/PS4 Squirt combo for a premium set up.  I have the Aeon/Squirt in my pocket usually, so I don't need to carry them on my keychain, but I can see why people would.  As for the keyring itself, there is no question--coated cable all the way.  They are cheap, sufficiently durable, lightweight, and don't clump. 

The coated cable twin tool set up makes an excellent stocking stuffer gift or an awesome thoughtful gift for a Dad or a brother (or a Mom or a sister, too).  Maybe eventually the splitring will just go away. 


  1. Aw, thanks man! I just finished studying Corporate Tax for approximately 10 hours, and this article immediately put a smile on my face. Very interesting to hear the evolution, especially since that little flash of blue really intrigued me in the shard review. I recently did a vid of my EDC and it's got a couple of your recommendations in it(love em both), and I just pulled the trigger on a Preon 2 last night. I got a nice deal ($35) but even then for a student it was kind of a splurge. But I revisited your old review on it and saw my comment down there from the summer saying I wanted it one day - and decided what the hell, early Christmas gift or something. Anyhow, my point is, I have learned a lot from reading your blog - now that I have read a little more I see another item on my list to refine my EDC. Thanks again.

  2. Its interesting to hear about the evolution of your keychain setup. My essential keyring items are knife, flashlight and bottle opener (gotta open those beers). Generally the smaller and lighter is it, the better. But its also got to be balanced with functionality. Sometimes when things get too small they can become harder to use.

    You've now got me interested in the gerber shard. Gotta add it to the list of things I'd like to buy.

  3. Great discussion. It's got me interested in a Shard as well.

    I tried carrying an MT on my keychain (SAK Cadet, followed by Squirt PS4) and it was okay, but not great. Not much "synergy." Doing hands-on work like cutting or tightening screws with a tool that's attached to a bunch of flopping keys is awkward.

    Also, both Squirt and Cadet were right at the upper limit (2 oz) of any item I'd want to keychain. That is MAX; I'd prefer to set the limit lower, like 1.2 oz. BTW the Gerber Shard at 0.6 oz would be awesome from this perspective.

    On the other hand I have had great experiences with a small AAA flashlight. A light makes more sense on your keychain than any other EDC item because: (1) You often need a light at exactly the times you're about to use your keys; (2) You don't do any fine motor stuff with a light except turn it on, so dangling keys don't interfere much with its function. (3) Flashlight is airplane approved, unlike a knife or many tiny MTs.

    I am loving the Fenix E05 on the keychain. Weighs a ridiculous 0.4 oz, nice and short (but not too short), and sheds a very useful, neutral tinted 27 lumen flood beam with its diffuser lens. AAA battery is about as common-cell as it gets. With Ultimate Lithiums I am getting nice rum times and they make the E05 just crazy lightweight and convenient. (The light costs $19.95, so pricier than a Photon.)

    I wouldn't mind adding a little cap lifter to my keychain and then calling it good. I'd probably use a Shard 90% of the time as a cap lifter; maybe that's the solution.

  4. BTW Dan good luck on Corporate Tax. I never took it, but I remember Federal Income Tax. Intricate, interesting (to me), and tough.

  5. I took both corporate and income tax and they were both really tough exams. Good luck Dan. I had a former IRS agent as a professor and that guy REALLY knew the code well. Couldn't speak at all about policy issues, but he could rattle off deductions like they were his children's names.

  6. Talk about "always be prepared"...NOW THAT IS A KEYCHAIN! I gotta update mine apparently!

  7. I guess the more bulky stuff you have hanging from a keychain the less likely it is you'll misplace your keys!