How to Retrieve an Unreachable Item





Introduction: How to Retrieve an Unreachable Item

About: I'm retired and have always liked to tinker. I have restored a couple of old cars and have a couple more in line. My latest project was building a CNC router and have been using it to make signs and LED ligh...


Have you ever dropped a tiny screw or nut into a location that you just can’t reach? Well, I did. While working on an antique car, being a ‘klutz’, I accidently dropped a small nut down the radiator. I could see it, but I could not reach it. A definite “dooh!” moment. I tried tweezers, pliers, and even sticky tape on the end of a screwdriver, but nothing worked. I needed a magnet, but did not have one. So, I made one. This Instructable will show you how to make your own electro-magnet (a tiny one) that will pick up the wayward nut.

Step 1: Hunt for Stuff

Items Needed:

1. A battery. I used a “D” cell from a flashlight.

2. A steel rod. I used an old screwdriver.

3. Some tape. It does not really matter what type.

4. Some insulated wire. I used speaker wire.

Looking in the glove box, I found a flashlight, a roll of electrical tape, some left over speaker wire from a speaker installation, a screwdriver, and a few old mints.Throw out the mints. They are probably petrified.

Remove the batteries from the flashlight. This one had ‘D’ cells. A large battery like a ‘C’ or ‘D’ cell works best. I have not tried this with a smaller battery, but that would be a good experiment.

Step 2: Prepare What You Found

Cut off a piece of wire about 2-3 feet long. If it is a multi conductor wire like the 2 conductor speaker used in the pictures, strip back the insulation about 1 inch and twist the conductors together. Do this on both ends of the wire. Be sure to leave the wires bare on each end. You want to end up with the equivalent of one single length of wire with each end bare. If you have a single core wire, just strip each end.

Wrap one end of the wire a couple of times around the screwdriver and secure it with tape to the screwdriver, next to the handle, just to keep it in place, leaving about 2 inches free.

Step 3: Finish Your Electromagnet

Tightly wrap the rest of the wire around the shaft of the screwdriver almost to the end. It does not matter which direction you wind the wire and you can go back over the first layer if you end up with more wire than screwdriver. Leave about 2 inches free on this end and tape it down to the screwdriver like you did on the other end. The tape just keeps it from unwinding itself and then you have to start all over.

Be sure to remember that if your wire has more than 1 conductor, be sure to strip all of them and twist them together.

Step 4: Testing

If you would like to test your new electro-magnet, now is the time. Find a little nut about the same size as the one you dropped. Tape one end of the bare wire you wrapped around the screwdriver to one of the terminals of the battery. I found that it works best if you tape the negative end. That’s the flat end without the little bump.

Hold the other end of the bare wire to the positive end of the battery while you touch your little ‘test nut’ with the tip of the screwdriver. You have completed the circuit, which turns the screwdriver into an electro-magnet and will pick up the nut. As long as you hold the wire to the battery, the ‘magnet’ will hold the nut. When you release the wire, the circuit will be broken and the nut will be released.


Please be aware that while you are holding the wire to the battery, current will be flowing through the wire. This will create heat in the wire, so hold it on the battery for only a few seconds, just long enough to get the nut out of harms way and does not fall off. It will just get warm to the touch since it is only 1.5 volts, and will run down the battery if you hold the wire to the battery too long.

Step 5: Secure the Battery.

I found it easier to use if I held the battery to the screwdriver with something besides my hand while I took the pictures, so I used a zip tie to tightly hold the battery to the screwdriver. You can use tape just as well. This will keep you from 'fumbling' around with it.

Step 6: Go Fishin'

Take your newly made electro-magnet ‘glove box gadget’ to the scene of the crime and repeat the same thing you did in the test. Touch it to the dropped nut and it will be picked up with the magnet. Just be careful not to release the wire too quickly or knock your little nut off the screwdriver before you get it to a safe location. Please note that this will only work with steel items. Aluminum, brass, copper, stainless, or other non-ferrous metals cannot be picked up with magnets. In order to pick up those types of metals, you will have to find comething else in your glove box --- like some bubble gum.

Step 7: Success !

This could have been accomplished using other tools such some long needle nose pliers or a telescoping magnet if the little nut had been in a different location, but where it was sitting I needed something very thin to reach it. So this was the inspiration for the screwdriver. Besides, you get a since of satisfaction out of solving a problem with totally unrelated items and did not have to go buy a tool.

So, stand back and admire your work. You rescued the nut and made something out of nothing but stuff you found in the golvebox.

Step 8: How This Works ..

A wire is wrapped around a ferrous metal. Iron is the best. Each end of the wire must be connected to a voltage source. When the voltage is passed through the wire, current is generated in the wire. This turns the iron core (in this case a steel screwdriver) into a magnet. Either end of the iron core will attract a ferrous metal. In our case, one end was covered by the screwdriver handle, so only the tip could be used.

This same principle can be scaled up many times with higher currents, larger iron core, wire size and number of turns. As an example, many scrap yards use huge electromagnets to lift junk iron and old automobiles to be recycled. These can lift several thousand pounds.

Thanks for looking at my 1st Instructable. If you like it, please vote for it in the Ford sponsored GLOVEBOX GADGET CHALLENGE.

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    16 Discussions

    Yep, but I said nice things when I got it out. I'd like to scale the idea up for 12V and much longer reach. I thought about an old telescoping radio antenna.

    Nice instructable. I made a telescoping magnetic pen
    with items I had around the house. I was more satisfied with making my
    own then buying something that would break before too long. Besides, I
    designed it the way I thought was better than a store bought one. Keep
    us posted with your enhancements.

    How about one of the small telescoping magnetic pick up tools you get from $1 shops (if you have those) and either remove the magnet or "boost" it with electricity. Also a push button on/off (torch swich or small piece of spring steel as a contact perhaps)

    That would be the easy way out. This at least gives you the self satisfaction of making something out of nothing. That's half the fun!

    I like this idea, thanks for sharing. I shall file it away and bring it out when needed. I will of course claim all credit for it!!!! ;-)

    Cool. I like it. Used to make those as a kid out of 16 penny nails, bell wire and a 6 VDC dry cell battery. Spent many a day playing with that thing. What do you do if the nut is brass? :)

    2 replies

    Yeah, if you can even see the hole. But even if you can see the hole, there's always the possibility of dropping it into 'never-never land' when it falls off your wire. Besides, its no fun doing it the easy way. This gives you a chance to make something out of nothing. Much more satisfing!

    Excellent. I'll wager the Monday morning quarterbacks haven't had this happen to them.

    Thank's for your kind comments. It is now posted on the Glovebox Gadget contest page. so if you liked it, please vote for it. I would really like to have a new 'toy' to master.

    Great solution! I know I'll need to do this at some point. :)

    love a good MacGyver fix! nice problem solving

    I like it! I've dropped many nuts down in un-reachable places on old Bug, this will definately come in useful in the future!