Make: Online Toolbox: Jigs, clamps, and helping hands

Make: Online Toolbox: Jigs, clamps, and helping hands

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we try to focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.


Last week, we looked at Ten tools you won’t want to live without. This week, we follow up with a piece on shop widgets for keeping your… ah… stuff together. Anyone who’s done any sort of building project, from cabinet making to robot building to scale modeling to electronics projects, knows that, eventually, you’re going to need more hands than you have on your torso and/or you’re going to need hands that are more precise or can endure more clamp-time than those meatbot end-effectors you call hands. This is where all manner of mechanical aids — clamps, vises, holders, third hands, and jigs — come into play. We put the word out and asked makers to share some of their favorite jigs, clamps, and helping hands.

What are some of yours? Share your favorite mechanical helpmates in the comments, with links, if possible. Our favorites will be added to this posting and our favorite of the bunch will earn the poster a Maker’s Notebook.

The first recommended tool is not a tool at all it’s an attitude towards this entire category of tools. In the lighting toolbox piece, I talked about the importance of good lighting and what a revelation that was to me. It also took me too long to realize that having a decent collection of various kinds of clamps, jigs, and third-hands/helping hands was a huge part of successfully building things. As Jason Schlauch of Dorkbot DC so aptly put it: “Go to Harbor Freight and stock up with an amount and variety of clamps that seems unreasonable at the time. It won’t seem unreasonable later.” I have a “policy,” when I go to Radio Shack, Home Depot, or similar. I always make sure to buy something I didn’t come for, not a big-ticket item (er… usually), but something like a hardware assortment, a package of connectors of some sort, adapters, some cheap specialty tool that I might only need once or twice a year, or clamps and jigs. The wisdom of this has proven itself too many times to count. (Okay, and it’s also jacked up the frustration factor when I have every variety of media cable, adapter, and connector in my media toolbox except the one I need, the one I hadn’t gotten around to buying yet.)


Don’t forget to consider the cheapest and most readily-available clamps and jigs you likely have on hand. Lots of people suggested rubber bands, zip ties, string and rope, and tape. I would add poster putty. I use this stuff all the time for all sorts of temporary binding purposes. Jon Singer also reminds us to not forget toothpicks. Tooth picks can be used for shims, as stand-offs, to pry, stir, stab, 1001 uses.


And wooden blocks. David Edwards writes: “A small collection of little (variously shaped) wooden blocks, originally intended for small(er) children are fabulous for impromptu jigs when trying to (quickly) clamp oddly-shaped work pieces, and they’re brightly painted, so they don’t get lost in the scrap. And I can play with ’em while trying to figure out how to proceed. Which brings up another often overlooked jig/helping hands tool: LEGO bricks. You can form them to nearly any spec you need.

Several people recommended magnets. Our very own Brian Jepson says: “Throwie-sized magnets are great for holding things in place, especially for temporary stuff: drop of glue, magnet, and you’re done.”


This spring clamp is the exact sort of “frivolous purchase” I’d make at Home Depot, a $2 investment that’ll pay off the next time I need to clamp something. Having a half-dozen of these and C-clamps of various sizes are a must-have for any shop. Brian Chamberlin, of Dorkbot DC, writes: “If my girlfriend is not in shouting distance, then I usually grab a simple 4″ spring clamp. I have a bunch of them scattered about. They’re cheap and work well in a pinch.” (Ah, no pun intended, I’m sure.)


Andrew Righter says: “As for the handiest third hand, I bought this from Home Depot about six months back and it’s worth its weight in gold. The first thing I did though was break the damn plastic nut that’s supposed to lock it into place on a desk/lab table, so I ended up modifying it with a metal-based version and it works a lot better. The amazing thing is that the top part of the vise comes off completely so you have a nice desktop holder for multi-purpose projects. Good stuff.”


I fell in love with this tool while painting and sculpting tabletop wargame miniatures. The pins allow you to clamp in objects of different sizes and shapes and it holds them in place while you work. Jason Schlauch says: “It keeps fingers away from the business end of a Dremel, gives you extra grip on smaller items, and still allows you to move the work piece around. You can also unscrew the handle and use it to clamp odd shaped items in your bench vise.” $13 at Harbor Freight.


Martin Rothfield send me the photo of this weighted base he made for his Panavise. He says: “Here’s my homemade weighted parts tray/base for a Panavise. It doesn’t tip over no matter what. It has non-skid shelf liner glued to bottom so it doesn’t slide around, either.”


MAKE contributing editor and Make: television producer Bill Gurstelle send us a link to this very cool wire bending jig. With it, you can create “S” hooks, fishing rod eyes, curtain rod rings, and other shapes in up to 3/16″ diameter wire.


MAKE author Steve Lodefink writes: “I have an “X-type” extruded aluminum picture frame clamp (Clamp Mate 88094 Picture Frame Clamp) that I really like. Although the intended use is for picture frames, I find myself using it for cabinetry, furniture, etc. where I might have otherwise used a whole mess of pipe clamps. I often find myself needing to build wooden frames as sub-components for various projects, and this thing makes a great clamp for anything with four corners. I have even used it for the occasional picture frame or canvas stretcher. So handy.”

MAKE contributing editor Charles Platt uses this simple yet ingenious method to create handles for carrying boxes:


DIY Box Handles
Make handles from half-inch plastic water pipe sawn into 5″ lengths. My local Lowe’s sold me six feet of pipe for around $3 and you can use any wood saw to cut it. You may feel this is a luxury, but if you want to protect your hands from the edges of the plastic tape, handles are nice to have.

Read the rest and see more pics on Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, a great source of recommended helper tools and jigs.


Of course, for the electronics geek, the mother of all jigs, clamps, and helping hands is the Helping Hands or Third Hand tool, a device with adjustable arms terminated with alligator clips. Most also include an adjustable magnifying glass. You can get a decent one of around $10. More expensive ones have better hardware for easier adjusting, a heavier base, and a better magnifying glass. But better than better is more. You want to have at least two of these (and a Panavise) to have all your bases covered on the benchtop.

There are many variations on the Third Hand. My friend, DC geek extraordinaire Tim Slagle, made himself a “Fourth Hand,” seen above: “A milli-hack I did to a standard $5 “third hand” fixture with alligator clips and a magnifying glass was to buy two of them and put all four clip arms onto one of the bases – two on each side of the base support. That way, the inside two clips can be used to hold a small circuit board while the others hold wires, or you can have two clips on each wire for better strain relief and isolation from pulling. To do this, I removed the magnifying glasses from the moveable clamp that slides along the rod, put both clamps on the same rod, and stuck the alligator clamps and joint from the second unit onto the ball ends where the magnifying glass joints went.”


My favorite Third Hand is the one I built myself, using the instructions in Best of Instructables (based on the Third Hand ++ Instructable found here). When I was editing the book, I couldn’t wait to be done so that I could build this project. I literally placed the order for the parts within hours of sending off the final edits to Production. I ended up putting it together at last year’s Maker Faire Austin and didn’t have the right tap sizes for the mount so I ended up friction fitting the threaded ends into the holes on the aluminum base. Not elegant, but so far, they’ve held just fine. One of these days, I want to add another arm to it and make some of the specialty arms described in the Instructable.


Here’s a soldering trick that was a revelation to me the first time I saw it. It’s not really a jig, more like using the material, in this case, solder as itself a jig/helper. Dave Burton, of Dorkbot DC took this picture for us and writes: “A fellow DC Dork asked for a visual aid after I was unable to describe this soldering technique via email. Basically, you coil up a piece of solder and let it serve as a jig for you, but since I’ve already proven my inability to describe it verbally, here’s my attempt at modeling it. This is a piece of Radio Shack perfboard, with my butane soldering iron, and a diode sticking out of the perfboard in the back. Note the technique of coiling the solder on the table and reaching one end upward. I can’t remember who taught me this technique (neither could my fellow dorks), but it has saved more soldering hours than every other jig, clamp, and hack that I’ve got.

See last week’s Toolbox for information on two other indispensable clamps and helping hands: the Panavise and hemostats.

So, what are some your favorite jigs, clamps, and helping hands> Share your thoughts in comments.


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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