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!

18 thoughts on “Tool Tales: A Pivotal Piece of History

  1. ka1axy says:

    That looks almost exactly like a tool I used to use when working on Teletypes, called a spring hook. It was used to hook the second end of a spring over its attachment point. Wonderfully handy tool…still have mine.

    1. Dug North says:

      I hadn’t considered that use. It would indeed be perfect for connecting springs! Thanks for the tip!

  2. terrefirma says:

    And I love the patina these little gems have- I’m always trying to recreate it on my rusting tools with various concoctions, but time and use has no equal.

    1. asciimation says:

      Lend them to an apprentice!

    2. Dug North says:

      Agreed! I love the gloss on the leather handle, the tinges of rust on the tack and shaft, the brown patina on the brass, and green oxidation where the brass meets the handle.

  3. Dynamic says:

    This article seeds many branches of thought – that is EXACTLY how I think about people in the past. “What was their experience LIKE?” So many facets of our human experience drop away over the years. People used to store perishable food in the GROUND, for Pete’s sake. They used to build barns out of WOOD…that they cut from NEARBY TREES! Our social consciousness is continually becoming removed, layer by layer, from our own origins. We’re constantly moving toward realizing our own identity with our mechanical and electronic creations.

    1. Dug North says:

      Your thoughts are very insightful. It’s interesting to consider that the growth of mills like the ones in Lowell were part of the process you are talking about. For the first time in American history, young women were leaving their homes and traditional domestic roles to move to the cities and earn a wage. This afforded them a measure of autonomy they hadn’t had before. It was also the start of the Industrial Revolution. More people had money of their own and a greater number of good to choose from, but they were removed from the process of making those things for themselves.

    2. Jerry Carter says:

      @Dynamic – precisely why I collect good condition wood working and metal working hand tools. They not only connect me to their owners (and in many cases makers) through their various nicks, scratches and dents, but help me learn skills that might be lost if I totally embraced automation today. I think of my job writing software, and it’s a blessing, but nowhere near as satisfying as making something by hand, using old tools and techniques.

      1. Dug North says:

        I am totally with you, Jerry! As I’m sure you know, many of the old tools were really well made. Robust, beautiful, and surprisingly ergonomic. Some have been customized in ingenious ways. Many of the parts were designed to be replaced. What a concept!

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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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