Handy PAW

When it comes to working with small electronics components, especially when you’re trying to solder them, it doesn’t take long for one to start wishing for a third hand.

Enter the helpful tool actually most often called a “third hand”.

They’re awesome, and there are tons of options out there to choose from. The only problem is that the cheap options can be a bit of a crap shoot: more often than not, you simply get what you pay for, and with these devices quality can come at a relatively hefty price.  I’ve seen them running upwards of $100.

While these tools are meant to assist with precision work, it’s not like they’re super precision, highly calibrated instruments. They’re simply a weighted base with one or more flexible arms and gator clips on the ends. The cost of the individual parts hardly justifies the asking price in many cases, and of those, the bulk are limited to just clipping and holding things (without modification).

So here I am looking for a more affordable option that doesn’t sacrifice quality and capability in the process. Of course, that means making my own.

To that end, I started scouring Google for ideas. I found two examples, each with their own merits (and faults).

The second one is cheap and easy to make, but is designed to be quick to make and no big deal if lost or broken.  My favorite is the one that uses flexible cooling hose, one major brand of which is known as Loc Line. There’s a similar design for sale here, for $45. Who copied whom? Dunno, don’t really care. The idea and implementation is top notch, in my opinion, but the things I view as flaws are:

  • Relies on a custom cut aluminum block for the base (not always easy to get, not necessarily cheap or fast to procure).
  • Requires tap and die kit to mount the hoses and tool tips (money spent on a tool set that might only be used once a year, if that).
  • Requires banana plugs to provide options for different tool tips on the stock hose nozzles (relatively expensive, makes tool change fast but flawed, requiring modding of the alligator clips to keep them from rotating while loaded).
  • Assumes access to a drill press for best results (and when drilling and tapping aluminum, this is a very sound recommendation).
  • If we include the retail version, the above issues are still relevant, especially if you think in terms of potential repairs. The aluminum costs about half the price of replacing that unit (and that’s before considering time and any additional tool investments).

Basically I like the approach with the use of the coolant hoses, but the aluminum component creates more work and cost than is honestly necessary for the task, not to mention conductive. That could be good for static discharge protection, but bad if you’re dealing with powered components in the tool tips. There’s a tradeoff to consider there for sure.  For my part, the primary objection is with the fiddly and potentially arduous process of preparing the base, which only increases with each addition or modification you might dream up after putting it all together.

So do I have ideas for improvements? Well , you’re reading this article on a projects blog; what do you think? 🙂

Here are my thoughts for making this device a bit more accessible for folks with limited access to tools and/or specialized parts (like hunks of aluminum or drill presses):

  • Base made of wood, so it’s not so difficult or tedious to repair or replace if (when) damaged/worn from constant use
  • Hoses are attached to the base with bolts and nuts, so the attachment points are not only adjustable, but replaceable in the event of a failure.  The aluminum design relies on the fine pitch plastic threads of the hoses for attachment to the base.  These will fail over time, unless you simply never use the tool. Using bolts through the hose bases will make them stronger and less prone to failure, as the attachment points don’t rely exclusively on fine pitch plastic threads.
  • Wood base design offers a lot more flexibility in design and expansion, again without requiring replacement or tedious re-tooling of a metal block
  • The base weight can be variable with weights that can be added/removed very quickly.  This allows for situations where the device base might be mounted to a heavier piece, negating the need for extra weight, or where the stock unit isn’t quite heavy enough to offset the piece it’s holding.
  • Tip tools are attached with bolts in the hose nozzles.  This will require more effort to change out tips, but when mounted, they will be much more secure.
  • Loc line hose segments separate, so tool tips could technically be swapped out faster by fabricating tools with Loc Line nozzles permanently attached.
  • Easier to add more “hands” if needed: just drill another hole in base and bolt on another hose. This would allow one to add an adjustable light, magnifier or even a small fume fan positioned just so for the work. All credit for those brilliant ideas goes to Instructables submitter rstraugh.

Right.  To the list of parts then:

  • 4 (base bolts)
  • 8 (base bolt washers)
  • 8 (base bolt nuts)
  • 4 (nozzle bolts)
  • 4 (back nozzle washers)
  • 4 (wood hemispheres that fit nozzle sockets)
  • 4 (Front nozzle washers)
  • 4 (nuts to bolt on Alligator clips)
  • 4 standard 2″ Alligator clips
  • 4 loc line hose
  • 4 loc line threaded base
  • 4 loc line nozzles
  • 1 piece of 1/2″ wood (at least size x size)
  • Optional: loc line separator pliers. They’re kind of expensive for what they are and the fact they’re made of plastic, but they’ll make it much easier to change out tip tools if you decide to make more.  Prices range from $9 to $24 on Amazon.