The tinkerer at FixItWorkshop.co.uk is Matt Marchant
I love repairing things and hate throwing things away that can be saved. There’s far too much waste in the world. Many things that can sometimes appear unrepairable, are indeed repairable, with a little tinkering. I want to encourage people who doubt their own ability to repair their things, to give repair a go. After all, if ‘that thing’ isn’t working, grab a screwdriver, take it apart and investigate. What have you got to lose? I’ve been tinkering with bikes, cars, coffee machines, toys and vacuum cleaners and pretty much anything that can be dismantled since I could hold a screwdriver. I’ve worked for BT as a senior engineer, and I’ve studied design, business and electronics. Enjoy the repair diary of a tinkerer. I hope it gives you a nudge to repair your broken thing. If you can’t, I might be able to help.
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From brand snobbery to The Queen – Matt’s talking about what lies beneath in some products and asks if they’re worth it.
Do you know a brand snob? I bet you do. Maybe you are one yourself. Who knows, but let me tell you this; manufacturers and retailers have got you and me wrapped around their little fingers. Of course, this is nothing new, and badge engineering has been going on, well, forever. We tend to think of brand engineering as a relatively new phenomenon, linked to our fast-paced consumer led lives, but it’s just not the case. Indeed, preserved street food shop branding was found on previously submerged buildings in Pompeii, during a dig in 2020, having been previously covered by a volcanic eruption in 79AD. I mean, what have the Romans ever done for us‽
Nowadays, a brand’s application, values, promotion and maybe even worship is a very sophisticated affair…see Apple’s iPhone! Allow me to explain. I might even make the odd reference to sustainability, repair and the forthcoming Jubilee, an odd combo I think you’ll agree.
Am I worth it?
A slight twist on a well recognised slogan there, but with a serious point. The well know French manufacturer of hair and skin care products that rhymes with ‘low-heal’ (sort of) sells high quality, well-engineered products at a premium price on the promise that said product will deliver benefits way above anyone else’s say, shampoo. And you can afford it, because ‘you’re worth it’, quite possibly the best marketing slogan of all time, in my humble opinion! However, they’ve been taken to task around the world by various agencies for making over ambitious claims about their products, which are potentially misleading.
It’s something we need to think about when seeing adverts featuring famous film stars, endorsing the latest eyelash enhancing widget that they claim we all need in our lives. They don’t do it for the love and it must be said that one can have the same beautiful shining locks using a bottle of shampoo from Lidl.
Hang on Matt, what’s any of this got to do with repair or sustainability, anyway. Good point. I must get back on track. But first…
Hands up; how many of you have bought a product on brand reputation alone?
I have, and I’m sure you have too, but have those purchases always lived up to the promises made on the packaging and propaganda that influenced our choices? Sometimes. Here’s the thing though, many items such as toasters, kettles, TVs, lawnmowers, clocks, laptops, cookers, washing machines and irons (I could go on) are either similar or identical inside. The makers’ mark, colour and name of the product may change on the outside, but the insides can be the same.
How do I know this? Well, I must have opened up 1000s of products like this during repairs over the years, and have got to understand who really makes what. It’s really nothing new and manufacturers have been doing it, since er, Roman times. Always in the interests of good value, I want to make sure I and others are not paying too much, if one must buy something new.
But how can you tell if two seemingly different toasters are basically the same without taking them apart, one at say £99, the other at £39? It’s very tricky. By having your wits about you and an interest in detail, can save you cash. Pay attention to the position of the knobs, switches and dials and have a good look at the toasting slots especially. If they look more than similar, chances are they were at least made in the same factory. At the end of the production line, one had an expensive badge applied, the other had the cheaper relative. If the expensive one comes with a longer warranty, then it may be worth it, if it doesn’t well, that’s for you to decide.
In other news, it’s the Queen’s Jubilee this year, and in case you didn’t know HRH is a big fan of the Land Rover, well, the Defender anyway. As a lifelong devotee to one of most reverered motors of all time, maybe The Queen will be celebrating her time on the throne with a little bit of repair and maintenance by doing the odd oil change and tappet adjustment on her trustee motor. Incidentally, the Land Rover marque is much admired and carries much kudos, so much so that manufacturers literally copy Land Rover vehicles in China, where intellectual property rights may not carry as much weight, in order to sell their cars. And that’s just another example of a brand’s power on the mind.
If you’ve read my articles before, then you’ll know that I’m a fan of good quality, simpler and supported repairable products. In general, it means that one doesn’t have to keep replacing things like toasters every couple of years – wasting energy and materials. However, in the interests of balance, some branded things are usually higher quality and perform better than the wannabes. Take a set of high-quality Bowers & Wilkins speakers or a Brompton folding bicycle*, both good examples of, repairable items made to last a lifetime. They may seem expensive in the first place, but will give many years’ service, perform well and still hold their value, when you come to sell them on. Something to think about the next time you need to splash out.
This month in Tales from the Workshop, I want to talk about three sensitive subjects that are not often discussed in repair circles, and readers of a nervous eco-disposition are advised to look away now!
Controversy Inside The Workshop
Repair Cafes and campaign groups such as Restart.org and Repair.eu are working hard to defend our repair rights and offer support to local communities, by providing empowering repair skills. It’s all good stuff. But I’m often asked to fix things which are not viable because the damage or wear is so great or the time required to do the fix will take many months, that I can’t offer. And that’s all before we’ve discussed parts availability, cost and other materials. So, this month, I thought I’d consider the case against repair. Have I gone quite mad?
Sometimes, it just isn’t worth repairing stuff, sometimes a broken thing should just be thrown out at the appropriate recycling facility, of course… or scavenged for usable spares in my case!
It’s no coincidence that popular TV series The Repair Shop majors on pre-1980 cherished items. Older items, made from quality materials, conceived before manufacturers built-in precise planned mechanical and electronic obsolescence, usually stand a chance of being repaired by crafts people, as that’s how they might have been made in the first place.
You see, a child’s toy or home printer manufactured today, on a sophisticated plastic moulding machine with sealed-in electronics will be almost impossible to repair without destroying the outer casing first. And even if you could get to the faulty battery or printed circuit board, it would be virtually impossible to repair at a reasonable cost, assuming the spares were available. Believe me, I’ve tried. When asked to take on certain repairs, I must be honest and frank with would-be customers about the chances of success and likely time a repair will take, which isn’t a conversation I like having, but it’s essential. Those conversations are not TV friendly.
Years ago, and I generalise here, people repaired things as it was usually cheaper to patch things up to get more wear out of the item. Whether clothing, cars or kettles, repair kits and local engineers were always available and usually cheaper than buying new.
But take a modern washing machine, and parts prices are often not economic to buy, especially when you factor-in an engineer’s time for the repair Its often easier and cheaper to replace the whole thing anyway with next day delivery, just a click away on your phone with interest free credit. And that’s a mighty tempting prospect when the family’s washing is piling up on the floor.
On to my second controversial point; repair is now the reserve of the reasonably well-heeled. As a general observation, most of my customers are reasonably affluent, women coincidentally, and have a historic connection with the faulty item which they want repaired. It could be a favourite family toy or food mixer that needs a little TLC. To bring it back to life, it will need care, parts, experience and (usually lots of) time. All things that must cost money. The results will hopefully bring joy to the customer, which is all part of the experience. It’s why The Repair Shop works so well.
Repair is definitely a discretionary purchase now and if you’re a bit brassic, and your microwave oven goes kaput, are you going to spend £100 getting your old machine repaired? No, you’ll do the sensible thing and buy a new one from Amazon for £40 delivered next day, as you need to feed your family.
New appliances are sometimes more efficient and perform better. Take a domestic fridge. Modern ones could use as much as half the energy than those made 30 years ago, and offer more features as standard.
Compare a modern household torch made recently with one made 15 years ago and it will be like comparing a tea light with the sun. Technology never stops marching on, and we can all benefit from replacing some creaking appliances with something up to date sometimes. But all this comes with a big health warning.
You might be wondering if I’ve lost the plot, knocked the shed down and chucked out my screwdrivers. Not a bit of it. It’s usually more environmentally beneficial to keep something running as long as possible by spreading the manufacturing and shipping impact over a long functional life. And I don’t know about you, but I dislike the thought that someone else has already booked the death day for something I own!
I mean, just by looking at carbon-offsetting alone, consider this: Replacing a domestic kettle every three years, which has been shipped from China, made with complicated materials and electronics with no hope of repair, is not as environmentally kind as a simpler one that lasts for 9 years. Sadly, those kettles just don’t exist any more and if they did, I suspect that they would be far too expensive to be a mass-market product.
It’s such a complicated conundrum to solve, it’s just not possible to do in these hallowed pages alone. But I can leave you with a simple piece of advice; look after your things, buy quality items if you can and consider second-hand at all times to make the Pound (or insert your chosen currency here) in your pocket go further, all very sensible in these uncertain times.
*** Stop press! Feedback from FixIt Clinic in the U.S. ***
One of the great things about keeping a blog is the engagement with readers. Over the years, I’ve built up a network and contact base with fellow fixers, around the world; from all over the U.K., Europe, North America and Australia. We are certainly not alone!
Following my light article on reasons why one might not repair something, my friend Peter Mui from FixIt Clinic in the U.S. got in touch to share his thoughts. I liked his letter so much that I thought I’d share it. And since you’re here and obviously interested in this subject, why not check out their website? http://www.fixitclinic.org
I’m compelled to drop everything and to respond to your three cases against repair:
Agreed: many things these days are overly complex relative to their core functionality (the KitchenAid kettle is a good example) and I would totally support a return to simpler designs generally.
Currently there’s a “race to the bottom” where the dominant factor in design for manufacturing (DFM) is to lower manufacturing cost in ways imperceptible to the [purchaser user owner] until the item is out-of-warranty. That’s why Fixit Clinic hosts through colleges and universities: to inform up and coming design and engineering practitioners to design for [durability maintainability serviceability repairability] from the very start using open source designs.
– Totally agreed, Peter. It IS a race to the bottom and agree wholeheartedly with your point – Matt.
How can we get (return?) to a situation where most things can be cost-effectively repaired?
There might be an alternative future where the design and engineering of durable goods discourages “manufacture on sophisticated plastic moulding (sic) machines with sealed-in electronics that are impossible to repair without destroying the outer casing first”, instead: spare parts are readily available at low cost from multiple sources and are easily interchangeable.
(First: I believe you intended to write “well-heeled” not “well-healed”)
– thanks for the spot Peter – Corrected! – Matt.
Agreed: there’s a component of economic privilege in repair at the moment: ironically it’s more expensive to repair than to buy a replacement.
If the end-consumer / owner is sufficiently motivated to be willing to assume (most of) the research and labor for an item that can often change the calculus in favor of repair; that’s why Fixit Clinic emphasizes conveying generalizable skills over “free” repair or repair as a service. But only the well-heeled have the precious time to undertake repair; your average consumer / average user, factoring in the time and uncertainty of the outcome, makes a reasonable economic calculation against repair and just buys a new item.
Additionally, there’s the perception and widely held assumption that “new” is always better than “used” or “repaired”.
I don’t have a good solution here either: the true full cost of modern durable goods is not reflected in the price paid at the moment of purchase; until the myriad of upstream and downstream costs of an item are added into the moment-of-purchase price this is going to be a hard nut to crack.
See “They Used To Last 50 Years” https://ryanfinlay.medium.com/they-used-to-last-50-years-c3383ff28a8e which makes the case that if you factor in the embodied energy in their manufacture and their shorter durability, new appliances may not be as ideal as keeping less efficient appliances in service for as long as possible. And I submit that the LED lighting vs. incandescent lighting example is cherry-picked: lighting technology is a category where the energy savings through technology advancement is particularly visible (wink.) The vast majority of new items or features marketed as “advancements” are incremental or even retrograde; my (admittedly also cherry-picked) counter example is 3D TV: do the people who upgraded to pricey 3D TVs feel they got good long-term value? Probably not.
Anyway, thanks for keeping me engaged into the wee hours of the morning.
If it looks like it might come in handy, then it probably will…
Rubber bands, toothbrushes and cat food
This time in the workshop, I thought I’d give you a behind the scenes glimpse into just some of my repair world, by sharing some of the shed-tastic-things that I do regularly to save things from the dump.
Before we start and without meaning to sound pompous, repair is sometimes a bit of an art. When manufacturers no longer make something, or the part you need never existed in the first place, it can sometimes mean getting creative in order to make something function again. This takes time of course and can even lead nowhere, but it ain’t half-satisfying when it all works out. Google a problem and there’ll be a link, video or picture explaining an appliances’ issue and maybe a quick-hack repair (if you’re lucky), but it’s often the humble tricks of the trade, which breathe new life back into something.
Hanging on to ‘useful’ repair nick-nacks also requires almost concerning levels of organisation, which can mean more expense on things like containers and storage. I’m allergic to more cost. But by using ‘free’ packaging that comes with many everyday consumables, one can save cash by repurposing. Still with me, thought so.
As you might have guessed by now, I dislike waste immensely and will always do my best to avoid it. So, here is my random, if not weird, top five cash-saving, waste-busting, possibly ingenious ideas even, that might just serve you well too. And remember, if you don’t use any of the following suggestions for repair, there’s nothing like doing a bit of junk modelling to pass the time on a cold winters’ night.
Five – old toothbrushes
We all (hopefully) use them, but I fear that far too many only hang around in bathrooms. So, stop throwing them in the dustbin, when it’s time for replacement. Why? Well, where do I start, quite frankly. Dirt and corrosion are the curse of many a broken lamp, bike and dust sucker. Toothbrushes make excellent cleaning tools by using the brush in small crevices, on bike chains, on electrical switches, or on vacuum cleaners. I could go on. Cut the brush bit off, and you have an excellent scraper, again, ideal for cleaning. Toothbrushes are usually made from high-grade plastics and have excellent properties. Many a time have I fashioned a plastic part from an old toothbrush handle.
It’s not just me finding new life in old toothbrushes. My good friends and fixing supremos, Danny and Karen Ellis (aka @menditaussie) in Oz, have also come up with some very useful re-purposing ideas. See video below. Give them a follow.
Four – torn washing-up gloves
Stop sniggering at the back, old rubber gloves (the Marigold type) can be re-purposed for many useful things, where elasticity and waterproofness are two qualities needed. I favour making rubber bands from them. Yes, you heard correctly. The next time your favourite flowery rubber gloves spring a leak, why not cut the arm bit down into slices, and you have a healthy supply of rubber bands. I use rubber bands to neatly store appliance flexes, before customer hand-over, it’s just more professional. Neat eh?
Three – take away pots and lids
Endless possibilities for these! The plastic ones make excellent batch cooking meal containers for the freezer as many will know, but what you might not have considered is that plastic lids also make a really good base to cut out small plastic templates, brackets and covers for all sorts of small repair jobs. Low-tech it may seem, but I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve made pretty decent replacement parts from old pots this way. I’ve even made lamp shade brackets from shampoo bottles and cosmetic pots, which tend to be a bit thicker and can be used when a superior finish or strength is required.
Two – empty coffee tins
We’re all coffee aficionados these days, and manufacturers have responded to the market’s expertise and perhaps snobbiness with some very funky packaging. I love funky packaging and really enjoy the artwork and logos manufacturers have now put on these colourful tins. They’re far to good to go in your recycling bin and can easily be rinsed out to make a handy storage container for all of those useful shed-trinkets. Many lids from Kenco and some of the supermarket-own coffee tins also fit regular tins of baked beans, tomatoes and cat food too, so save those lids to preserve a half-consumed tin of moggy grub. Waste packaging like this can even be educational! Coffee tins make excellent old-school string telephones for kids, teaching them how sound can be transmitted. Cool eh?
One – a drinks can
Hopefully you’re not disappointed by the number one slot. I have been known to walk the streets in search of an old beer can if I have non in stock, for a repair, they’re that good! They’re usually made from aluminum, so won’t rust, are strong, abundant and effectively free.
Using a pair of scissors or sharp knife, spacers (shims) and washers can easily be fabricated on your kitchen table, but do take care as the metal edges are always sharp. I’ve often used a can in this way to make a scooter steer correctly or a lawn mower switch on again. Material is sometimes lost as moving parts wear. Sounds familiar right? Sometimes, a small trimming of can metal, in the right spot on a broken item, is all you need to make the difference between bin or box fresh.
Just remember: Cutting things out involved knives, scalpels and scissors and any sharp implement that might come to mind. Once the item you need is cut out, that might be sharp too. So, take care and take your time.
Why do people get things repaired? Some thoughts shared. One day, I’ll write a book on the subject.
What makes something cool and just maybe worth hanging on to? Is it good design? Is it great functionality? Is it celebrity endorsement? Is it scarcity? Is this a list that could go on forever? Yes, probably.
Some stuff is just cool and loved from the off, and some things take a while longer to enter the hall of fame. But why is that? Why does it happen?
I was pondering this while going through my workshop enquiry inbox recently, and began wondering what motivates people to get something working again or restored to its former glory. The subject is probably a study in its own right, but I thought I’d share my own thoughts on the subject here. Now might be a good idea, assuming you fancy a drink, to grab a cuppa. Please come back as soon as possible.
One of the things I get asked to repair frequently is food mixers, especially Kenwood Chefs. Like the original Mini, AEC Routemaster London Bus and K6 Phone Box, the Chef in its many forms has become a design icon. It also helps that the mixer excels in function and is timeless in design. Many Chefs that I receive come with an interesting family backstory. Recently, one such example involved a 1964 machine which had travelled the world, after being originally purchased in South Africa. It had accompanied an army family each time my customer’s husband had transferred to start another tour. The Chef had grown up with her family making cakes, treats and dinners for over 60 years and had visited over 15 countries and was now worth way more to its owner than the sum of its parts. After the mixer was repaired and returned, I was told that the Chef would be passed down to the next generation to enjoy, when the time came. This particular Chef was, quite literally, one of the family.
Luckily, many Chefs new and old have spare parts readily available with straightforward access to technical information, making repair possible, and I was able to fix this one which only needed a motor overhaul and gearbox re-grease. Not bad service really, considering its age and life!
Old toys are another ‘workshop favourite’ enquiry. Many toys from the 1970s and 1980s have seemingly survived playtime to then be laid up in attics and cupboards for many years, only to be rediscovered when children move out or something similar is spotted, while browsing eBay! Toys from this era which take batteries, tend to have traditional electro-mechanical parts (switches, motors and bulbs etc) which if broken, can be repaired or replaced. By comparison, later made toys with microprocessors and micro components are sometimes very difficult to reboot without donor parts. A few months ago, I repaired a motorised ‘Tomy Kong Man’ toy for a customer who had found it in his parents’ loft. The toy was in good condition, but wasn’t working. The Dad wanted to get it working for his kids as he remembered having so much fun with it, when he was their age. After a good hour of dismantling, cleaning, re-lubricating and a touch of soldering, the toy was working well once again, ready to be enjoyed by the next generation.
The great thing about the repairs recalled here is that the owners all had a connection with their item and were prepared to preserve it for future generations. For whatever reason a strong bond had formed between item and owner, established over many years and incorporating many shared experiences. It’s programs like BBC’s The Repair Shop and Drew Pritchard’s restoration TV which draw out those backstories to bring tales of product ownership to life.
Sustainable is probably an overused word at the moment, but in order to really live more sustainably and reduce our impact on our environment, we need to buy less stuff, love the things we already have for longer and lobby decision makers to assist when repair barriers exist. So, the next time you’re thinking about binning your old Hoover, just think about all the fun memories you’ve had together and consider repairing it.
For ‘The Workshop’, it’s about preserving an item, with its story intact, keeping it going, providing good service and enjoyment for as long as reasonably possible. Until the next time.
Right to repair laws are a good thing on the face of it, but don’t go anywhere near far enough to give the public back control over their appliances.
As you might expect, I’ve been keeping a weather eye on our neighbours in France over the last couple of years and was pleasantly surprised when they announced a Repairability Index scheme, on the 1st of January 2021, the first European country to do so.
The scheme in France will make it easier for consumers to assess the longevity of some products on the market. But I nearly choked on my custard cream, when the UK Government announced a Right to Repair bill for UK consumers, which came into force on the 1st of July 2021. The news report made it sound as if a magic wand had been waved by the Brits, and that all our gadget maladies had vanished. Sadly not.
There’s always a backstory to any announcement like this, and the new UK ‘right to repair’ laws, are on the face of it, a good thing. However, don’t for one minute that the new laws passed will help the public directly.
The laws will make it compulsory for manufacturers to provide spare parts and documentation to professionals, whoever they are, for at least ten years. Consumer items such as TVs, fridges and washing machines, will in theory, be given the opportunity to last longer. But there are problems, and here’s why. The legislation doesn’t specifically cover planned obsolescence, parts prices and consumer accessibility or product durability. These are all issues generally accepted as the main barriers to repair. Let me explain.
During the many years I’ve spent locked away securely in the workshop, I’ve regularly been presented with items which were designed, made and sold with no attempt on the manufacturers’ or retailers’ part to design-in repair. In other words, many items that I see are not meant to be repaired at all, and there’s usually no support network in place, when the product is out there in circulation. Sometimes I can fix these things, sometimes I can’t and many-a-time, I’m working without certainty. Over the years, I’ve built-up knowledge on certain products and have a working knowledge of various spares providers for many items, but this trainspotter knowledge, isn’t easy to acquire. It takes many shed-years and a limited social life.
Items such as complicated coffee machines and toasters do have some spare parts available, sometimes long after they’ve gone out of production, but prices for spares are often so high that repair might not be cost-effective. I once attempted to repair my own UK made Triton shower as the heater inside had failed. The shower was 10 years old and parts, were available here in the UK, for delivery next working day. Price of a replacement boiler £80. Price of the same brand-new complete shower from Screwfix, £50 with a new warranty. Now, as much as I’m passionate about repair, I’m not daft. I had a bath instead.
The new legislation, which is regarded by me and others in repair circles, is a step in the right direction and certainly highlights the current issues around our throwaway society. But it doesn’t scratch the surface of the problem. Not even close.
A true Right to Repair would enforce proportionate parts prices, sensible repair accessibility, free documentation and accessible repair support from manufactures and retailers directly to consumers and independent repairers. Luckily though, there is good news. Repair initiatives such as therestartproject.org, repair.eu and the Repair Café movement are actively campaigning, organising petitions and actively lobbying governments for change, and you can get involved. Repair Cafés operate in my own area of Adur and Worthing (Sussex, UK) and are home to dedicated repairers and tinkerers.
And there’s more good news. Over the last 20 years or so, eBay has revolutionised the second hand domestic goods parts market. If you need a cost-effective part for your vacuum cleaner, coffee machine or washing machine, you might just find the part you need online from parts breaker, on eBay. I’ve saved many a vacuum cleaner using a second-hand motor for a tenner and recommend it, if you know what you’re looking for and have the nerve. If the government is serious about right to repair, the circular economy and its goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions, the process needs to include all stakeholders. Honest and transparent consultation with robust legislation that includes the second hand parts market and the home repairer is the only way to truly gain back control of our appliances.
A classic 1980s Tomy Kongman game pays a visit to the workshop, for some much-needed TLC.
Every now and again, a little gem drops right into my inbox and I think; Christmas has come early. My eyes light-up! It’s nice to get something different to work on, and hopefully repair, especially when it involves motors, batteries, ball bearings and a gorilla.
A customer contacted me after rediscovering Kongman in his attic, not literally you understand, but the 1980s hit toy from Tomy. The toy was in wonderful condition, despite being a little dusty. A new battery had been installed, but upon switching it on, nothing happened. Not even a peep.
I should really kick this thing off by saying what Kongman (the game) is. Kongman is an animated vertical game with the objective of getting a small metal ball bearing from the bottom of the wall to the top. The player must defy gravity and move the ball up-stairs, across a bridge, along several steps to a magnetic swing and then into a lift. The zenith of the game is reached with a quick flick of the ball on to Kongman’s magnet hand, which then gets dropped down a hole, ringing a bell on the way down. Fun really doesn’t get any better. If you’ve ever played Screwball Scramble, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. Did I mention that this infuriating game can be set against the clock too? Bonkers!
Tomy’s Kongman comes from a time just before kids games started to contain many electronic gizmos and wizmos within, parts that when kaput, render a toy useless, forever. Luckily, Kongman uses an electro-mechanical animation movement; elegant and clever. Old, but good.
Kongman is powered by a single D-cell, 1.5V battery and the motion of the toy is actuated with a reassuringly simple little motor, connected to a compact gearbox driving a series of levers and rods, which make up the games’ animation. On a slightly different note; are D-cell batteries an endangered species? I mean, really, ‘what the 1980s torch’ takes D-cell batteries any more?!
Make and model: Tomy Kongman, circa 1981
Fault reported: Not working
Cost of replacement machine: £40.00 if you can find one working
Manufacturer support (in the UK): 0/10
Cost of parts (for this repair): £0.99p
My time spent on the repair: 1 hour
Tools needed: Small knife, pliers, small screwdriver
The toy wouldn’t run and after checking the basics like battery contacts and proving that the local wiring from the battery compartment to the main gubbins was OK, it was time to dive in.
One of the things that makes this already difficult game to complete, is the fact that as a player, you’re up against the clock. This seemed to be the next logical place to check.
The timer seemed to be part of the gearbox which is responsible for driving the rest of the game’s motion. I found this a most practical application of sound and efficient design. You can trace the DNA of this toy back to early pinball machines and jukeboxes, something I also love. Anyway, I seem to be getting romantic, not the workshop way.
The gearbox was easy to remove, just a few screws, and it was out. The timer’s switch contacts were situated within the ‘box and came apart with a gentle prod of a small screwdriver. This allowed me to apply a small amount of additional tension to the switch’s spring and to clean the contacts with cleaner. Reassembling was pretty much the reversal of the disassembly.
With the gearbox back in, it was time to turn some attention to the mechanism, to ensure smooth, reliable performance. With nearly 40 years’ worth of dust to contend with, it was time to clean all of the game’s nooks and crannies with a small brush and treat some of the sliding parts to a little silicone, plastic-friendly, lube.
With the D-Cell battery installed, a deft twist of the timer’s knob, and the game sprang to life.
I’ll be honest with you now. I tried several times to get the ball the whole course to ring the bell, against the clock, but alas, I failed. I did complete the game, but only with the timer set to ‘auto’… which provides as much time as you need, or at least until the battery runs out.
I discuss some basic tools that should be found in every home…
I think it was Michael McIntyre who first referred to the man-drawer as ‘the funniest drawer in the kitchen’, full of all the ‘that’ll come in handy items’ that we accumulate over time. It’s brilliant observational comedy, and he nailed it so well that today, we often refer to the ‘man drawer’ as a thing in our homes. The reason that the joke still resonates today is that it’s true. But, what should be in a man (or woman) drawer for the conscious home maintainer?
I want to talk about the tools that I think every home should have. Tools that could empower you with a fighting chance of having a go at fixing something yourself. The tools that will help you get the best from your appliances, make things last longer and help save you money. If you already have a good selection of tools, skip the next paragraph and head straight to the ‘common jobs, useful tools to have’ section. If not, do read on.
Let’s bust some tool-related myths. Firstly; tools are expensive. Sure, like anything in life, you can pay through the nose for a set of screwdrivers or spanners if you want to, and there’s a tool quality to suit all circumstances and pockets. But here’s the thing, for most DIY purposes, a reasonable set of basic screwdrivers costs less than a tenner and the best part is that you’ll get that money back again and again when they’re put to use. Secondly, you need to be an ‘expert’ to use tools. Well, a knife and fork are tools and we all (hopefully) use those, so don’t be deterred by people who might dissuade you from tackling jobs yourself. I’m wary of the term ‘expert’ anyway. In my experience, experts are a rare thing. Luckily, these days, most of us have access to YouTube. Search for the thing that’s foxing you and the chances are that one of the 2.3 billion users have an answer.
Before you reach for your phone to fix a dripping tap, if you haven’t got some already, you’ll need to arm yourself with some basic tools. Below is a brief summary of tools I think every home should have and what I think they can be used for. Some jobs are obvious, some less so.
Common jobs, 6 useful tools to have
1: Small flat-blade electricians’ screwdriver. I think it’s possible to write a thesis on the usefulness of a small flat-blade screwdriver, but I’ll spare you that for now. For small change, you can buy one and use it to: Wire a plug, adjust light fittings, get batteries out of a gadget, scrape-off old paint from a surface, prising something open, cleaning nooks and crannies. A screwdriver like this has uses beyond screws.
2: Pliers and cutter combination tool. Really useful for cutting and shaping garden wire, fixing Christmas lights, fixing kids toys, recovering items that have ‘fallen down a gap’ not forgetting cutting and trimming wire. If you have a bike, a lawnmower, taps or doors in your life, then you need pliers and cutters as adjustment of those items will be needed from time to time. Do it yourself, and you’ll save yourself time and money.
3: Adjustable spanner. If you don’t have space/ need/ cash for a full spanner set, consider an adjustable spanner instead. OK, so they’re not ideal for regular nut-spinning, they are useful for those less frequently required tasks such as; adjusting a bike saddle, tightening a tap and adjusting a radiator valve.
4: Cable ties and electrical tape. OK, not strictly tools, but honestly, I can’t think of more useful tool/fixings to have in your own man-drawer. Cable ties and electrical tape has a million uses, are cheap, readily available and can fix so many things either temporarily or permanently including; tying cables, mending a broken handle on a hoover, fixing a backpack strap, mending a buggy, making a hook loop, tying a door back. I always keep both in my mobile tool wrap to fix something, on the go. Get some today.
5: Screwdriver set. If you’re going to tackle more jobs around the home, invest in one that contains at least; big and small flat blade screwdrivers and large, medium and small cross-head screwdrivers. From kitchen appliance maintenance, kids toy adjustment, door hinge fixing to furniture assembly, a basic screwdriver allows you to keep things running for longer and to do the job properly.
6: A small set of Allen keys. Allen ‘hex’ screws are used on lots of things now including bikes, home appliances and children’s toys. As with the other tools mentioned here, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a set of keys that will open many common household objects.
Don’t worry if you don’t yet have the knowledge to fix your coffee machine, just a quick search on YouTube will show you how to remove the doofer to access the widget to clean the thingy. Using a few of the aforementioned tools will allow you to complete the job like a pro, saving you cash, saving the appliance from landfill and giving you the power to do more. Just remember to unplug from the socket first. Tools also make excellent gifts, so the next time you’re wondering what to buy a loved one, have a sneaky peek in their man drawer, make a note of what’s missing for your gift list.
Until the next time… Do you have a DIY fixing related matter that you’d like me to explore in this section? If so, please get in touch.
Who doesn’t like a TV prop, that you can buy? Not only that, a TV prop that actually does something cool. The BBC’s long-running, family-friendly, sci-fi series Doctor Who has featured a Sonic Screwdriver on and off since 1968. To date, there have been 13 Doctors, and due to the flexibility of the concept, the options available to the writers and actors are virtually limitless. It’s a story that might never end. The ‘Sonic’ is unique to the actor playing the part of Doctor at the time, and it has various functions that play out during the Doctor’s many varied story lines. Think of it like an officer’s Swiss army knife, but much cooler.
The options for merchandise is as seemingly limitless as the show’s various plots and in 2012, The Wand Company introduced a ‘toy’ version of the 11th Doctor’s Sonic, quickly followed by the 10th Sonic, due to public demand. Did I mention that Doctor Who has a strong and loyal fanbase?
Unlike the Doctor him/herself, the Sonic toy doesn’t regenerate, when the battery eventually expires. And since many of the early screwdrivers are over 8 years old now, many have simply become ornamental, rather than fully functional. Thankfully, due to nostalgia, I suspect that many have avoided the scrapheap and are languishing in drawers, waiting for a battery transplant.
This time in the workshop, I take a 10th Sonic back in time for a reboot, fitting a fresh LiPo battery to bring it back to life…
Make and model: The Wand Company, 10th Doctor Who, Sonic Screwdriver
Fault reported: Not holding any charge (flat battery)
Cost of replacement machine: £20.00 if you can find one working
Manufacturer support (in the UK): 8/10
Cost of parts (for this repair): £5.99
My time spent on the repair: 1 hour
Tools needed: Small knife, spudger, pliers, small screwdriver, soldiering iron etc
Sundry items: None
Cleaning materials: Silicone spray
Repair difficulty: 5/10 (fiddly)
Beverages: 1 strong coffee
Biscuits: None, but 2 slices of cheese on toast, with a dab of Encona hot sauce
A customer got in touch to ask if I could replace a battery on his Sonic as it wasn’t taking a charge. When plugged in, the green light would operate, meaning that the battery was full. As soon as the USB cable was removed, the light went out and the screwdriver was dead.
One of the hardest jobs at FixItWorkshop, is locating the correct spare parts. There are so many variables affecting the supply of spare parts, that it is an essay in its own right. Some brands have a strong presence in the country you reside, which can make sourcing parts straightforward. Others act on behalf of a manufacturer far away, which can make obtaining parts more of a challenge. Actually, distance is less of a thing these days, but often, with so many products available online or on the high street, there is an extremely complicated supply chain with twists and turns that make locating parts an art. It’s a constant issue that has to be balanced with the viability of a repair.
So, to start with, I contacted The Wand Company (www.thewandcompany.com) who were extremely helpful and provided full battery replacement instructions and really understood what I was trying to do. The only snag was that they were not aware of a suitable replacement battery as the original battery maker no longer supplied the battery used in their product. Even supportive companies such as The Wand Company face supply challenges, and have to make sensible decisions when it comes to ongoing support. They kindly provided photos of the original battery specification by email, which saved me time.
Using the power of the Internet, I then decided to search a variety of UK and Chinese battery supply websites, which drew no results. The size of the original LiPo battery fitted made the sourcing of alternatives difficult. Seemingly, all of the ‘nearly correct’ battery alternatives were either the wrong size or slightly out of specification. For months, I had several threads running with a couple of suppliers before placing an order via aliexpress.com. A battery intermediary seemed to have the correct battery size, with a slightly better performance (but complying and or exceeding original specification) battery. However, despite two attempts at shipping, this order fell through. I’m not sure if it was Covid or Brexit that affected shipping. I’ve used cliexpress.com many times before, without issues. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
At this stage, several months has elapsed.
Sometimes ‘projects’ like this must be put on the back-burner or you can dwell on the problem for too long, which can affect one’s mojo. The thing I’ve learned over many years is to be up front with customers and all other stakeholders, so that they can decide if they want to wait any longer, it’s the right thing to do.
I buy from many parts suppliers weekly on eBay and by pure fluke, happened to be browsing batteries for another item, when I spotted a LiPo battery which might do the trick for the Sonic. A gaming headset item, with similar dimensions and a slightly higher amp hour rating. At just under £6, I had to take a chance.
The battery arrived from overseas, despite being sold by a UK seller and I got to work quickly.
The Sonic ‘clips’ together. There are no screws. When taking something apart like this you need the obvious tools such as small screwdrivers, a sharp knife and spudger, but the most important item you need in your kit bag is ‘mechanical sympathy’. If something feels like it’s going to break, then it probably is. The Sonic is delicate and has many moving small plastic parts that can break easily. The main challenge is to do no harm to the casing. It’s nail-biting stuff, working on something like this.
With the Sonic apart (finally- phew) I was able to see the original battery, which was stuck on to the tiny printed circuit boards (PCB). It had two tiny wires soldered on to the PCB, which would be tricky to re-attach. This toy had been made with delicate instruments and expertise.
So, the first thing to do was to remove the battery which involved very careful cutting of the adhesive. It was like performing surgery, I’m sure!
Next, de-solder the existing wires. Just a dab with the soldering iron and the wires freed easily. Phew again. The battery I’d bought, although not original specification, fitted well with a touch of hot-melt glue to keep it secure. Just a quick-dab solder for each battery wire connection, and I was ready to reassemble.
I don’t think I mentioned that by this stage, I had been taking LOTS of photos on my phone as the parts had to be taken apart and then put back together again in a strict order. No cutting corners with this design.
With the Sonic back together, it was time to apply power to the USB connection for an hours’ charge (or so). The red light illuminated indicating a battery charge was in progress. After the hour, the light changed to green, indicating a fully charged status. Job done. The Sonic was back in business, ready to travel back (and forward) through time. Time to put the kettle on.
This time, I want to talk about something that’s seemingly become the norm for many streets up and down the land (in the UK for people reading this elsewhere). The ‘free to take’ trend has arrived from somewhere, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it’s happened.
I have a few working theories, that I’d like to share with you. Indulge me for a few minutes if you please.
With UK-wide social restrictions still in place and most of the high street closed at the moment, many of us are taking more walks locally to spend time, which isn’t only good for our health, it’s also much, much kinder on one’s wallet. Whilst out walking, have you noticed how many households leave small appliances and other domestic items out on the pavement on-offer to passers-by? I have. To be honest, I never know if the items are fair game, or if I should ask permission before taking something. Whilst mulling this over, during the past few months, I’ve decided that it is OK to take discarded items, if it’s obvious that they’ve been abandoned and that I can do something useful with them. I suspect that there are many reasons why items are being abandoned like this, and I’d like to share my thinking with you. If you’re still with me, I hope you’ll find it interesting.
This year so far, I have acquired a cordless kettle, a 4 slice toaster, and two Dyson vacuum cleaners. Why you ask? It’s a good question, but before I go in to why I think they were all left out for ‘Magpie Matt’, here’s another thing; The kettle and the toaster worked perfectly, with a clean-up. The two Dysons needed thirty pounds’ worth of spare parts between them. When new, the vacuum cleaners would have been worth about £300, each.
So, why do folk do it? Why leave items out, working or not, for others to take for free? Here is a list of possible reasons why.
1 Folk just get bored with an item, and see so little value in it any more that they want to get shot of it quickly but feel, possibly with some guilt, that they should give it away, rather than disposing of it. We’re bombarded with advertising that tells us to replace things often by retailers and manufacturers, so it’s hardly surprising that some people feel this way.
2 It won’t fit in the bin. General waste bins should only ever contain non-recyclable plastics, polythene, some packaging, kitchen waste and a sprinkling of dust. However, take a look at your street on bin day, and you’ll see other items poking out from under the lid. Vacuum cleaners don’t usually fit in a 140 litre bin, which could explain why we see them on the pavement, from time to time. The local amenity tip is an option for the responsible owner when looking for a place to offload items, but if you don’t own a car, the whole process can be a bit of a chore.
3 The value of the item, which may have broken is now low and not worth repairing or the expected cost of repair outweighs the cost of replacement. This issue is as wide as it is long and could easily form the basis of a master’s degree. I simply can’t do this point justice here. What I can say here is that the value of a broken item, which might be repairable is often zero, many manufacturers don’t make enough effort to support products in-life and there are limited repair and knowledge opportunities for people locally.
Obviously, there’s more to it and these are only three examples of drivers that can influence what happens to an item, after it’s become useful or has broken.
However, there is hope. Repair Cafés have become very popular across the world, and we’re very lucky to have at least two well-run (Repair Cafés) in the Adur and Worthing area (UK). I believe that the BBC’s very popular The Repair Shop is changing attitudes too, and it’s theme of keeping things longer with repair and restoration is a winning formula. Indeed, my own waiting list for repairs grows longer by the day. The French Government recently implemented a scheme to appraise repairability on items sold there, and it was revealed recently that the UK Government plans to do similar. I’m watching progress with a beady eye.
If you’ve been following my articles here, you’ll know that I advocate keeping things for longer, with good maintenance and the odd dose of repair. It’s usually kinder to our environment, our wallets and helps slow the march of discarded items going to landfill, which is better for us all.
What’s the strangest item that you’ve seen abandoned? Please get in touch- maybe this could be a new feature!
A much loved soft toy gets new (apparently non-replaceable) batteries…
For a change, this one’s just for me. I don’t often write-up repairs on my own items, but I couldn’t resist dedicating a few words to our beloved Bagpuss soft toy. He’s been around in the family for a good few years and when my youngest daughter decided to dust him down and make his voice work, I wasn’t surprised when no noise came out. Our Bagpuss has an electronic voice box which is activated with a gentle squeeze around the belly. After many years and many hugs, the batteries had gone kaput.
I grew up in the 1980s and remember watching Bagpuss on BBC1. I must have been about four I guess. Bagpuss lived in a shop window, a shop that was owned by a child, a shop that didn’t sell anything. Emily, the shop owner, would bring Bagpuss and friends broken objects to restore and explore. The story would begin once Emily had left and Bagpuss woke up…
Well, this Bagpuss wasn’t waking up anytime soon and to make matters worse, the batteries within appeared to be non-replaceable. Well, that’s not very good is it? So, in the spirit of the original TV program, I decided to take an unpicker tool to the cat and carefully dismantle his seams…See how I get on.
Make and model: Bagpuss talking toy
Fault reported: No talking, no sound
Cost of replacement machine: £10.00 if you can find one
Manufacturer support (in the UK): 0/10
Cost of parts (for this repair): £1.00
My time spent on the repair: 1 hour
Tools needed: Needle and thread, small flat screwdriver
Sundry items: None
Cleaning materials: Contact cleaner
Repair difficulty: 2/10
Beverages: 1 tea (as usual)
Biscuits consumed: No biscuits, just a slice of chocolate cake (I think)
There’s always that moment with a fix like this when you think; shall I just leave it as it is? I mean, it was still a loved toy right? But as my regular reader will know, that’s not quite how we do things in the workshop. Things must work correctly and if there’s a reasonable chance of success, then the repair must go on.
So, here it goes.
I knew that this Bagpuss ran on batteries, but had no battery compartment to gain access etc. He’s a soft toy, made from a mixture of polyester and cotton fabric, which is all neatly stitched together. All I could do is roughly locate the sound box within his chest and neck area and then chose a suitable seam to unpick, in the hope that it would allow me some access to the box without causing too much damage.
Using a standard stitch un-picker tool, I was able to gently cut into the neck and part of the chest area which gave me access to a small red and black smooth polyester bag, which contained the voice box. At this point, I was starting to feel a bit sick, I mean, what had I done!?
Moving on, the voice box just slide out of the red and black bag and from then on in, it was standard toy-fare. The plastic voice box had a switch on one side and a battery compartment on the other side, all perfectly normal. The battery door was held in place with a small screw and once removed, revealed three LR41 coin cell batteries. Very normal stuff, nothing non-replaceable here.
Luckily, I had some spare batteries in stock and with a little contact cleaner applied to the slightly tarnished battery contacts and the new cells fitted, Bagpuss’ voice was heard for the first time in ages.
Now it was just a case of putting the voice box back in the right place, so that the switch to make the sound work could be reached easily. Once that was done, it was just a case of carefully re-stitching the neck and chest bag together using white cotton thread and lots of neat tack-stitches that would be invisible, once tight.
After a few minutes of finger-pricking sewing, Bagpuss’ head was back on and it was time for a squeeze…
See what you think.
When a label or someone tells you that a battery cannot be replaced, ignore it and try anyway.
Once Bagpuss was back together, I couldn’t help but wonder why the manufacturer hadn’t fitted a hidden zip to allow simpler battery replacement. Perhaps it’s got something to do with safety standards. Who knows. What I do know is that Bagpuss isn’t alone, and I suspect that many toys like this are discarded needlessly each year due to short-term, lazy design.