Tool Tales: A Pivotal Piece of History

Pivot locator tool

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Today’s “tool tale” comes to us from long-time MAKE pal, automata expert and artist Dug North. Thanks Dug!

Recently, I’ve been learning how to repair antique clocks under the guidance of clock expert Bob Frishman. When assembling a clock, there are many axles with pivots on the end that must be fitted within the holes in the clock’s plates. It is one of those jobs that seems to require ten hands. A pivot locator is a long, thin tool used to gently nudge the pivots into place. You can buy them, but I’ve come to love the one shown here. It’s handmade, but not by me.

Pivot locator tool

I live in Lowell, Massachusetts which was once a major producer of textiles. Mill workers would fashion tools for themselves to help them do their particular jobs. I found one such tool at a local antique shop and bought it. I stopped by the Lowell National Historic Park to ask Exhibit Specialist Rick Randall at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum about the tool. He told me that the tool is called a reed hook or weaver’s hook. It was used to catch the end of a piece of yarn so that it could be threaded through the appropriate parts of a machine. Along with a pair of scissors, every loom operator had one tucked into her apron, as seen in this image of a Massachusetts mill girl from 1916.

Mill girl working at a loom

The weaver’s hook had a simple U-shaped bend at the end when I got it. The handle is made up of a stack of thick leather washers which were shaped, then tacked together at the base. A tarnished brass ferrule caps the front end of the handle. Copying the design of a commercially available pivot locator, I bent a second curve in the end of the tool forming an S-shape. This shape allows me to push or pull a pivot as needed when it is out of reach. It has the advantage of being longer than many of the store-bought versions. The square-sided handle prevents the tool from rolling off the workbench and helps me keep it oriented properly when in use. The tapered metal shaft provides feedback that reminds me not to use excessive force which can cause the delicate pivots to bend.

Pivot locator shown with a clock wheel

I like the idea of using an antique tool to repair an antique clock. Every time I reach for it, I wonder about the mill worker who once used it. What was her name? What was life like for her? I’ll never know all of the answers, but it’s reasonable to assume she spent many 10 to 14 hour days working with this tool. Surely, it would have felt like an extension of her own hand. For me, the tool is a tangible connection to the history of the city and the people that once lived and worked in it.

Do you have an antique, heirloom, handmade, or other special tool with an interesting story? If so, we’d love to share it in this space. Please let us know, below, or e-mail to Thanks for reading!

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I am an artist who creates contemporary wood automata with humorous and magical themes. I write on the subject for blogs, magazines, and books. I also consult on various mechanical and automaton-related things.

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