Ask Hackaday: Helping Hands

[ProtoG] sent us in this video (also below) where he demonstrates the use of machinist’s dial-gauge indicator arms as helping hands. I’ll admit that I got so jealous that I ordered a pair. I wouldn’t say that I need more tools to hold things in place, but I certainly want them. The rapid coarse placement combined with fine adjustment looks so sweet. Using them as scope-probe holders is brilliant.

Our own helping hands, purchased for $5 from a surplus shop, have seen nearly twenty years of use now. About ten years ago, I heat-shrinked and plasti-dipped the jaws, and since then they do less damage to cable insulation. The clips kept coming loose, but that was fixed with a little epoxy. I never used the magnifying glass, and by removing it I bought some more sliding room for the jaws, which was an easy win. The base has a “non-slip” coating of Shoe-Goo that keeps it in place on the desk. Cork might be classier.

For bigger holding, there’s always the desk vise, though I’ll admit that I mostly use it for holding PCBs while soldering, and that a better solution for that particular task wouldn’t hurt. [Mike Szczys] tells me that the Stickvise seen here is a handy thing to have on the bench. It started on and we still carry it in the store.

For grabbing the fiddly little things, nothing beats a pair of hemostats and a range of tweezers. Hemostats in the desk vise make a great ad hoc holder. Good sharp tweezers pay for themselves with the first removed splinter, or placing SMT parts.

So, Hackaday, what do you use for holding things? What do you hold your PCBs with while soldering? What do you use to hold down SMD parts? What’s your third hand, or twenty-third?

41 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Helping Hands

  1. Hemostats! Thank you for letting me not be the only one who uses those! Along with pinzettes and forceps anyone working with tiny things needs to use medical tools. If you ever said to yourself, hmm, I wish there was a small, scissor-like tool to do an extremely specific task, surgeons have you covered. All the best steel, too. Wikipedia has some fine lists of stuff.
    The only other thing I can think of are jeweler’s tweezers, if you really, really need finesse in picking up small things, because they have finely adjustable tension.

    1. I have kept loads of hemostats (or Kelly clamps) around for decades. In every toolbox and bench drawer. There is another surgical gizmo where just the end opens in a little gripper that is great for getting into difficult spaces. You can insulate the shaft as long as it isn’t tight. The shaft is two parts that slide against each other. The Hartman Alligator

  2. I designed and printed a copy of these which I quite like for holding PCBs (works for other stuff as well of course). I like that it keeps them up a bit higher:–4#/
    (No, I wont give you the files because I don’t want to be an asshole to the original designers)

    The generic “helping” hands need to die. One of the most useless products I’ve ever used. I do like the look and functionality of those arms in the video, I might have to pick up a few just to have on hand (teehee).

      1. We use something similar where I work, in partnership with the scope probe holders that [ProtoG] uses on a large metal plate. We use small 3D printed stubs that have the magnet in to allow pinning of awkward shaped board (some designs have things on the edges which would prohibit a larger metal block).

  3. I’ve managed to do all my soldering jobs in the last 30 years with my fingers (hold one thing between thumb/index, and another between middle/ring finger), or by using junk on my desk, such as rolls of packing tape, or the spool of solder wire itself, as support.

    1. Ah, I can’t count all the times that I have used the solder spool to delicately arrange things so that they are perfectly aligned for soldering, only to discover that I need to unspool more soldering wire. Gah!

  4. Panavise, hemostats, clothespins, and sometimes those noodley armed alligator clips. The traditional helping hands I have are gathering dust, and will continue to do so at this rate.

    1. Basically the same setup as a welders finger (known by a number of other names, most not suitable for a family publication such as this). Never though of that for a probe. I tend to use Noga type arms (the indicator arms in the vid) for a lot of things. I buy the cheaper ones meant for centering in a mill (no base, just an 8mm stub shaft) and make my own mounts or mount them on garage sale surface gauge bases. The surface gauge bases usually have fine adjust, allowing me to get away with less expensive arms. Uses, aside from holding test leads and probes, include camera mount and small work vise.

  5. It has surprised me for a while now that these ubiquitous helping hands are somehow a bit of a standard. Though not absolutely useless, they tend to damage PCB and cable alike, generally require a bit of fiddling to get right and are unstable at the worst of times. When I finally bought one of these PCB holders, things finally fell into place. Boards of almost all sizes are easily and reliably clamped in place and you get to rotate them with ease to inspect both sides of the work piece. They are sold under various names, but hardly break the bank. If I would have to pick one soldering accessory, that would probably it.

  6. Most of the time you just need a “heavy thing” to hold your stuff in place on your desk while you solder. I co-opted a 123 block from the shop for this purpose. Works great.

  7. I had loose clips on very cheap helping hands, found that they would easily solder the previously crimped attachment over a cooker gas burner. Just don’t get them too hot that the flux instantly vaporises.

  8. One thing that greatly improved my life was the use of the Ikea Rissla desk protector. Since it has a steel plate inside, you can use magnets or dial indicator holders with a magnet base to stick things to it.

  9. For probes, I have a bunch of fiberglass arrow shafts, and a piece of plywood clamped to a shelf above the bench. The shafts thread through loose holes in the ply and have a wire through the shaft to a pogo pin. The shaft weight holds them in place on a PCB and the various style pogo pins make solid electrical contact. I keep imagining a better one with connectors to easily swap out pogo types, or the proper sockets, and a BNC panel. I would use SMA but they are too slow for a fiendish trouble-shooting session. Great for logic analyzers, and also for scope probes with the right cable and termination.

  10. Find any flat chunk of steel and drill a hole and tap or just force a drywall screw into it and break the head off to hold a larger alligator clip pointing up,use goop feet or inner-tube rubber on bottom. The biggest problem with those silly things is that they are too tall for their base. I rarely need more than a single one of these. When tall you hold your hands up off the table and don’t have the steady posture of hand resting on bench to hold the other end or wire that one uses the second clip for on those silly holders.

    A vacu-vise is handy when doing plugs and jacks small boards and much more, not that pathetic thing they sell at horror fright fools either. You need weight not plastic but cast aluminum.

    A very handy thing I used for years till it got duty holding my WiFi antenna in the right direction is a baby bottle holder meant to clamp on the rim of older cribs. I don’t know if they’re available still or not. C-clamp base with ball and foot long arm with second ball and another arm original end lost four inch spring clamp on end instead. At bench’s edge it would help hold swing out detachable circuit boards of running things (VCR’s) while allowing access to both sides. Don’t do VCR’s anymore.

  11. I use a random assemblage of clothespins/pegs, bulldog clips, spring clips, couple of hemostats, 3″ clamp on bench vise, small pairs of vice grips, pliers, slices of old inner tube, this thing I picked up that’s like a mini tabletop workmate, dunno what it was “for”, useful though. I clamp things to each other, like vicegrip in 3″ vice, hemostat held in vice grip, holding spring clamp or something like that for multi articulated holding akin to helping hands.

    A thought I had while reading this, was microscope stage slide clips…. think of something like a pegboard, and you had a bunch of those in 2 or 3 sizes, that would be a pretty useful set up. However, pegboard would need to be a bit thicker, maybe double stacked. They kind of wedge lock in the bore against the tension of the spring leaf….

    Anyhoo, can’t right this moment think of the “easy” thing to make the spring leafs out of, it’ll come to me if I let it mull probably.

    1. Okay, light tension version for assembling “stuff”…. Get old picture frame, or sticks for frame, 2 pieces of pegboard to fit frame, piece of HD foam sheet for on top, the frame is backside just to hold off bench a tad. Top foam can be perforated undersize for extra bit of holding… get a bunch of 3/16 dowel/stick, could be the giant size BBQ skewers turning up in dollar stores… cut a bunch of lengths inch and a half to 6 inches probably useful… those are the posts…. Now for the spring tension clip, popsicle sticks, stirrers, spatualas, tongue depressors, craft sticks, that you can drill a 3/16 hole into, and glue a blob of high density foam rubber on the other end…..half the tension you get from that, half from the spring in the stick…

      Okay, so you stick dowels in all around the thing you’re holding, and then slide the sticks down them, then firm them down such that the tension binds the dowel posts in the hole and binds the stick/spring on the dowel…. this will look all crooked and annoy OCD people, so do it as often as possible around them.

  12. Tie the scope probe onto something heavy ideally with a straight edge using a rubber band. e.g,. a roll of solder in its box has the right weight and the straight edge prevents rolling. I have tried bottled water and it works too except not too stable.

    Make the probe side stick out a bit so that the whole thing will try to stand on the probe and the (ideally straight) edge. The adjustment is easy as there are few degrees of freedom to adjust. This works great for dense SMT boards and will stay on tiny untented breakout vias. If you use through hole parts, just use the proper probes. :P

  13. For those who don’t know, the cool lockable arms shown in the photo halfway down the article are known as “magic arms” in the film industry, and are dirt cheap on eBay/AliExpress.

      1. I splurged one day and bought a Noga brand version. They are awesome; they actually work as designed (did they design them?) They have ones with fine adjust on the end and the base.

        However, they still require you to turn the knob to tighten, which usually moves as you do that then you need to fine adjust. I want one that that I press a button to make it go floppy, then release to lock in place; either a mechanical button or electro-mechanical.

        I’m building my robot arm to do this for me; my own Dummy, just like Iron Man..

  14. Epilogue: I picked up two of these (sans magnet base) and threaded them into some heavy hardwood chunks from the basement. They are M5 nuts on the bottom, I drilled wood at 4 mm and let the bolts do the tapping. Unlike the OP, neither my scope nor multimeter probes fit, so I made some quick plywood adapters.

    The 8mm clamp mounts are a good match for 8 mm dowels. Fluke probes are nearly exactly 10 mm at the widest point, and my scope probe was 1/4″, so drilled out to 6.5 mm is a snug fit. I also soldered a couple alligator clips with smushed and filed snouts onto some copper wire. All in all, a useful addition. We’ll see how they stand the test of time.

    I may add cork to the bottoms, or maybe drill and epoxy heavy magnets. We’ll see. So far, they’re just fine with the plain wooden bases.

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