Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Retrogrouch Tool Time: 3rd and 4th Hand Tools

Ever wish you had another hand?

Granted, literally having another hand would make buying shirts more difficult - but when working on bicycle brakes and cables, there are a couple of ways to get that extra hand when you need it.

Let's take a look at some bike tools with a very "handy" name: 3rd-hand, and 4th-hand tools.

A 3rd-hand tool is used when working on most types of rim brakes, whether sidepull, centerpull, or cantilevers. In use, it holds the brakes closed, with brake pads close to the rim while you tighten the cable fixing bolt.
The "spring" type of 3rd hand tool in the upper part of the picture is pretty generic and has been made by lots of different companies over the years. No idea who made this one - I found it in a box of assorted tools in a garage sale. The Var 02 tool below it is the "ne plus ultra" of 3rd hand tools, if you ask me. That's my "go to" when replacing brake cables. I like that you can control how much pressure you apply to "squeezing" the brakes, because I think a 3rd hand tool works best when it doesn't mash the pads tightly against the rim indiscriminately. The only drawback (if you can really call it one) is that it won't work with deep-section aero rims. Since none of the bikes in my collection have such abominations, that isn't a concern.
Another "handy" tool is the 4th-hand tool, which is good not only useful for brake work, but (in my opinion) is indispensible when replacing derailleur cables. That's basically what a 4th hand tool does - it pulls the slack out of cables before you tighten the fixing bolts.

Mine is the Hozan 4th-hand tool. There is a Park version of this tool that adds a thumb lock feature which I suppose means it would continue to hold the tool tight even if you let go (and I don't know why you'd do that). But the Hozan is a  sturdy classic and works as well as I could want it to.

The way a 4th-hand tool works is that it acts like pliers with double-hinged jaws. One part of the jaws grabs hold of the end of the cable, while the other side of the tool butts up against the component (whether brakes or a derailleur). As you squeeze the handles, the jaws spread apart, pulling the slack out of the cable. Then with your free hand you can tighten the pinch bolt.

Some say that when working on brakes with a 4th-hand tool, you don't need a 3rd-hand tool, because while the 4th-hand pulls the cable tight, it can also squeeze the brakes to the rim. That may be true, but I still like having both. I especially find that, when working on either cantilever or centerpull brakes - with their straddle cables and yokes, etc. - having both tools works nicely with very little cable adjustment needed afterwards.

And besides - there are very few bike-specific tools where somebody doesn't eventually make the argument "you don't really need (fill in the blank)" and I tire of those discussions pretty quickly. If you follow that one to its logical end, eventually you arrive at "I've got some vise-grips and a hammer - and I can fix anything."

Check back from time to time, and I'll highlight some other fun items in the toolbox.


  1. Those are two of the best tools ever invented--especially the VAR version of the Third Hand. It looks almost medieval, but it works great.

    Back in the day, there used to be a mail-order business called the Third Hand. It sold the third hands you mention, as well as other bike tools. I wondder whether they're still in buisiness.

    1. For some reason, replies to my own blog posts weren't showing up! I remember the Third Hand business for bike tools. I think they went out of business a few years ago.

  2. I like the Irwin Quick Grip tool, especially for adjusting Weinmann style center pull brakes, would that be a second hand tool?

  3. The 4th hand also works great for tightening zip-ties