COMMENTARY: The art of fixing stuff

Terry Sullivan (Courtesy Photo)

In the 45 years that I’ve lived on Vashon Island, I’ve found most of my neighbors to be a stubborn and independent lot, but also friendly and helpful. Being dabblers in a lot of things and having a penchant for frugality, many of us end up indulging in the pastime of tinkering. In shops, garages and utility rooms across the island, many a gadget is coaxed back into proper function or brought into being for the first time. The results can be ingenious, beautiful or maybe even comical. It may take six months to several years to get around to it, but the deep satisfaction of defeating entropy is well worth it.

Fixing can be an art. The more unfamiliar one is with the object to be repaired, the greater the challenge and the greater the payoff. When encountering very unfamiliar territory inside one of our familiar appliances, a true tinkerer patiently employs the power of observation to make sense out of the seeming chaos of wires and multi-colored and multi-shaped objects within. A few basic principles often suffice to make things clear. Sometimes, all you need to know is, “the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone, etc.” A very basic knowledge of electricity, which most have, is necessary, and a basic familiarity with the machines and tools you will need to use. As you progress, there are finer points to learn. The important thing to learn is that you can learn.

The other side of this is that too many of these projects end up in the landfill for want of what could be an exceedingly simple repair. Given that you might be able to find somebody in the business of fixing such things, you are often looking at a $45 item and a $60-an-hour repair person, whether it is an appliance, a chair, or a pair of pants. Nostalgic value may make the repair worth it, but otherwise, if you don’t have the confidence to repair it yourself, you lose something you need and either create toxic garbage, rags or bad yard art.

There is hope, and it is free. You can bring your broken lamps, appliances, chairs, torn clothing or practically anything that you can carry in by yourself (except gas engines or things that leak fluids) to the first Vashon Fix-it Café this Saturday. You will be able to take advantage of a room full of addicted tinkerers and seamsters that may be applying a screwdriver, wrench or sewing machine to your item before you finish telling them about it. It’s your chance to learn what you need to know so you can do it yourself next time. Except for maybe purchasing something you may need for your repair, there is no charge for labor or advice. If you are a tinkerer yourself and want to join the fun, please do. Most tinkerers love a good, fractious debate over a piece of equipment and cup of coffee and are usually pretty collegial about the likelihood of the correct diagnosis coming from unlikely places. No room for prevarication here: either it works or it doesn’t.

Your project may not get repaired due to lack of a critical part, lack of time to do the repair (as in needing glue to set up before you can proceed) or simply universal vexation (not a common occurrence, but memorable when it occurs).

King County’s EcoConsumer Program Manager, Tom Watson, says that about 70 percent of the repairs that are taken on at fixit cafes are successful. If your repair will take more time and effort than we have, you will be instructed in how you can complete the repair yourself. Most likely, your tinkerer will be glad to be available for a phone consultation. If worst comes to worst, you can bring it to the next event.

Taking money out of a transaction changes everything. It also makes possible work that literally wouldn’t happen in the monetary economy without somebody losing their shirt. It’s a gift from one neighbor to another with no strings attached. Tinkerers have fun and stuff gets fixed. What can be better than that?

Saturday’s cafe will feature snacks and, hopefully, some activities for kids, although taking things apart is pretty appealing to kids as well.

— Terry Sullivan is a longtime islander, tinkerer and one of the founders of the Vashon Tool Library.