If you've ever wanted to pick up a boulder, log, railroad tie or giant tire — and all you had was the bucket of a backhoe — you may have wished it had a thumb, something to grab the bulky object with.
That was precisely the idea that popped into Ted McCoy's head when he was trying (not very successfully) to wrestle some big rocks off his land in Hawaii, where he'd retired for a period.
After moving back to the Rogue Valley, where he grew up and worked in his adult life as a heavy equipment operator and machinist, McCoy refined his vision of a backhoe "thumb" — something that's easy to imagine if you think of trying to pick up a rock with just your four fingers.
McCoy said he's delighted with the final product, called the McCoy Thumb. Patented in 2008, it lifts a ton, is built and distributed by Knapp's Machine Shop in Central Point and sells for $2,350.
"It will pick up a huge pile of trees and brush," says the Central Point resident. "It will lift rocks, six or ten of them, in one load. ... We tried to put a lot of flexibility into it."
McCoy said one man can bolt the thumb on the boom of a backhoe or excavator in about half an hour. The mounting bracket is held on with bolts, so there's no welding and no damage to the boom.
The grip on McCoy's is enhanced by carbide-tipped teeth with rubber pads.
"The thumb cradles things like a clamshell, with no new hydraulics," says Al Knapp of Knapp's Machine Shop, noting that the thumb or claw is bolted to the boom in such a way that it opens and closes with the hydraulics of the boom.
One local owner of the thumb, Gene Gros of Highway Products, says it's been key to moving big rocks on his 70-acre ranch for the past three years.
"It's awesome, a great invention," says Gros. "I use it more than any other part of my backhoe. Without it, you have to scoop or push rocks. With the thumb, you can pick up rocks or anything and set them in the right spot in your yard. Any backhoe operator who needs to pick things up just can't do without it."
As with all innovations, Gros says, "it's a matter of getting people to use it, then they understand its value."
In his five-year attempt at retirement on his one acre in Hawaii, McCoy said, "I got so frustrated trying to move a lot of rock and cinder that I machined my first one. It worked so good, I thought it was worth getting a patent."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.