The hymenopteran tarsus is equipped with claws and a movable adhesive pad (arolium). Even though both organs are specialised for substrates of different roughness, they are moved by the same muscle, the claw flexor. Here we show that despite this seemingly unfavourable design, the use of arolium and claws can be adjusted according to surface roughness by mechanical control. Tendon pull experiments in ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) revealed that the claw flexor elicits rotary movements around several (pre-) tarsal joints. However, maximum angular change of claws, arolium and fifth tarsomere occurred at different pulling amplitudes, with arolium extension always being the last movement. This effect indicates that arolium use is regulated non-neuronally. Arolium unfolding can be suppressed on rough surfaces, when claw tips interlock and inhibit further contraction of the claw flexor or prevent legs from sliding towards the body. To test whether this hypothesised passive control operates in walking ants, we manipulated ants by clipping claw tips. Consistent with the proposed control mechanism, claw pruning resulted in stronger arolium extension on rough but not on smooth substrates. The control of attachment by the insect claw flexor system demonstrates how mechanical systems in the body periphery can simplify centralised, neuro-muscular feedback control.