Inside the Real Repair Shop 8

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‽

FixItWorkshop, Worthing – well, Pompeii – somewhere

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.

FixItWorkshop, Wothing, May 2022, A Smeg toaster in bits.

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, May 2022 – Queen in her trusty Land Rover Defender – or is it a Land Wind?

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.

*Not a brand endorsement, just an example.

As always, until the next time. Matt.

Inside the Real Repair Shop 7

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?

One

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022 – Matt with a washing machine.

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.

Two

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022, A classic Anglepoise lamp in the workshop for some ‘light’ restoration.

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.

Three

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022, torches old and older – but one has a modern CREE LED bulb that will burn retinas.

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

Hi Matt:

I’m compelled to drop everything and to respond to your three cases against repair:

One:

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.

Two:

(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.

Three:

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.

-Thanks Peter, an engaging response and continuation of the issue. Thanks for sharing the link too. Here it is again for folk who wish to copy/go to the link: https://ryanfinlay.medium.com/they-used-to-last-50-years-c3383ff28a8e -Matt

Your comrade-in-fixing,

Peter Mui @ Fixit Clinic

Inside the Real Repair Shop 6

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, January 2022 – Featuring MendItAussie’s handiwork, with kind permission.
FixItWorkshop, Worthing, January 2022, Don’t forget your toothbrush.

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?

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, January 2022, making rubber bands from old rubber gloves.

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, January 2022, old tins can come on handy when repairing things like scooters.

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.

Right to repair or despair‽

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.

Matt, July 2021.

KONGMAN lives again!

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.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, June’21, Kongman box

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

Sundry items: None

Cleaning materials: Silicone spray, contact cleaner

Repair difficulty: 5/10 (fiddly)

Beverages: 2 teas

Biscuits: 2 custard creams

So, on to the repair.

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.

Until the next time…

What’s in your man-drawer?

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?

Toolbox talk!

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.

The perfect blend…

An Optimum 8200 Blender, escapes the chop!

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, August’20, Optimum 8200 Blender… in red.

When I agreed to ‘have a look’ at a customer’s beloved broken blender, I had no idea that the market for blenders was so, well, juicy.  One can spend anything from £50-£1800 – a huge price range.  You have to ask yourself a question; is the juice made by a blender costing 36 times more than a cheaper one, any better?  Hmm, the virtues of blender technology, robustness and efficiency could be debated in a future, exhilarating article, maybe. But for now, our attention is on this one, the repair of an Optimum 8200 Blender.

The reason I mention the huge price range is that prices for spare parts also vary wildly too.

Make and model: Optimum 8200 Blender

Fault reported: Leaking, noisy, crunchy, horrible

Cost of replacement: £300.00

Manufacturer support:  5/10

Cost of parts: £18.95

My repair time: 1.5 hours

Tools needed: Screwdrivers, test meter, heat shrink, soldering iron etc

Sundry items:  paint, contact cleaner

Cleaning materials: Bleach, bicarbonate of soda, washing up liquid, car polish

Repair difficulty: 3/10

Cups of tea: 2

Biscuits: 2 X custard creams

I received this blender with a broken drive coupler/ socket (the bit that transfers the power to the blades in the jug) and a rough, leaking blender jug.  This high-mileage kitchen appliance had been used until it would work no more.

Upon taking the blender into the workshop, I suggested to the owner that ‘it must have been sounding rough’ for a while… There then might have been a small admission of guilt.

Now, I realise that I’m unusual.  I regularly service my vacuum cleaners, sandwich toaster and kettle and I know that this isn’t normal, so my views on machine maintenance are a little outside the bell curve.

The owner had done her own research on repairing her blender.  She’d located a spares provider and had identified the parts required, to get the blender back making smoothies, which is more than many folk do.  The trouble was that the total amount for all the new parts required, was more than the price of a reconditioned unit.  This is often the case as some reconditioning agents have access to cheaper parts, not available to regular punters, through economies of scale.  To make this repair financially viable, I was going to have to work smart.

As mentioned earlier, blenders vary widely in price and there are established names out there that command a high price.  However, look beyond the logo and things are a little greyer.  Badge engineering, colour and subtle style changes can literally add hundreds of pounds to the asking price for the same basic machine.  This is nothing new.  Manufacturers have been sharing designs and production since the dawn of time and when it comes to buying spares for an expensive machine, there can often be a cheaper route for good quality alternative spares that are compatible, intended for the cheaper variation.  The skill is knowing where to look.

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A picture paints a thousand words as they say and the slide show above shows the stages that I went through with this repair.

Using the original parts listed for an Optimum 8200 blender, the best deal the customer and I could find was:

  • Replacement drive socket, £39.95
  • Replacement blade and bearing, £69.00
  • Tool for blade removal, £11.99

Total, £120.94 (more if you want speedier delivery). Source:  froothie.co.uk

Shopping around for alternatives…

  • Replacement blade and bearing, £18.95 for a Vitamix blender (Amazon.co.uk)
  • Repair to existing drive socket (I drilled and tapped a new grub screw), £ my time
  • I used a tool I had already to remove the old blade (a plumbing bracket) so no need to buy one

Total, £18.95, plus my time

I chose a Vitamix blade as I noticed that some Optimum and Vitamix blenders shared the same jug design.  I actually saw the blade assembly for £7.99 on eBay, but decided that the warranty offer on Amazon.co.uk, was a better deal.

Now, I know I haven’t been that scientific here, but one suspects that there is little or no difference in blender blade robustness and all the ones I’ve ever seen to date contain the same bearings you might find in a scooter or skateboard.  I suspect that the blade assemblies are all made in the same factory, somewhere.

My guess here is that the aftermarket parts supplier must charge a comparitively high price for some items to:

  • Cover staff and site overheads
  • Provide a sense of reassuring expense compared to the original purchase price
  • Potentially recover a high charge from the manufacturer

The trouble with this strategy is that many domestic appliances are worth little once unwrapped compared to the original ticket price.  The comparative high prices for aftermarket parts would likely in many cases, put a customer off doing the repair at all.  The customer then weighs up the cost of:

  • Finding someone to do the repair work
  • Doing the repair work themselves
  • The price of parts
  • The price of labour

Often, when added up, it’s cheaper to replace, rather than repair which in my opinion, not the way to go.

As a repairer, the statement I’m always grappling with is:

Value Repair ≤ Replacement Product Purchase or simply: VR ≤ RPP

So, when someone brings me an item to repair, I’m always looking for:

  • An overall repair that costs-in for the customer, encouraging the customer to keep the existing machine for longer, saving it from the dump
  • A repair that’s likely to be reliable in relation to the condition of the machine
  • An upgrade to the original design (where possible) taking advantage of the innovations or modifications to the original design that enhance longevity or performance

It’s a careful balancing act and one that doesn’t always work first time, but that’s the challenge!

I’ve gone a little off subject but it all relates.

Back to the blender, I saved the customer money on the purchase of a new appliance, saved money on a potential repair elsewhere and saved the broken blender from the chop.  The customer was happy.  As with all items I receive for repair, I also cleaned and polished the blender to make it shine like new.

 

Footnote: The repair was over, or so I thought.  A week or so later, the customer contacted me again to tell me that a new fault had started.  Speed control was now a little erratic and was making the blender hard to use.  I said no problem and agreed to have a look.  Likely to have happened during my repair work, a small lead on the printed circuit board had become loose.  A quick tighten up and normal operation resumed.  Phew!

 

 

Make it so, number one

A Star Trek Next Generation themed money box gets a light restoration

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, August’20, Star Trek money box.

Some things are just cool.  I mean look, if this money box doesn’t encourage prudent saving behaviour, then quite frankly, nothing will.

Spoiler alert:  Put money in, some of the Star Trek crew (Next Generation) light up, followed by speech and cool sound effects.  What’s not to like.  Pressing the Star Trek (Starfleet) button, simulates the effects too. What fun.

This money box had once been cherished by its owner, but had been left in the attic for a number of years, with the original batteries still fitted.  As anyone who’s done this before will know, old batteries leak in time.  If you’re lucky and catch the ensuing corrosion in time, you might get away with just battery removal and a light clean up. If you leave it long enough, like the owner of this toy had, you’ll end up with a lot of rusty mess and no chance of life (Jim, but not as we know it). Remember, take batteries out before putting your toys away, long term.

Make and model: Star Trek money box (make unknown)

Fault reported: Not working/ battery compartment heavily corroded

Cost of replacement: £ Irreplaceable

Manufacturer support:  0/10

Cost of parts: £4.00

Hours spent on repair: 1.5 hours

Tools needed: Screwdrivers, test meter, heat shrink, soldering iron etc

Sundry items: Cleaning materials, paint, contact cleaner

Repair difficulty: 3/10

Cups of tea: 1

Biscuits: none (1 jammy donut, slightly warmed, as they should be)

 

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When I get an item like this, I tend to spend a bit of time researching it online, to see who knows anything about it.  It turns out, that this money box isn’t that well represented and after a few Google searches, I simply gave up and got on with the repair.

Parts for something like this are not available from the manufacturer, even if they are still around.  Presented with a situation like this, the only thing that can be done is to see if other parts can be bought off the shelf from component suppliers and be made to fit.  One simply has to be creative.

Good old eBay came up with the goods.  AA and C type battery terminals were available in single and double terminal variants and I ordered a couple of packs from a Chinese supplier, who delivered the bits I needed, within a week.  These things are reasonably cheap, so I ordered a pack, just in case I ruined a few, practicing first.

Just a few small screws hold the casing together and after de-soldering the wires going from the battery compartments to the main circuit, I was ready to start.  With battery corrosion as severe as this, all you can do is soak the parts in something like WD40 and attack the rusted parts with a small screwdriver and knife, taking time to avoid damaging the (aged) plastic casing..

After an hour, I’d removed 99% of the mess and fitted the new terminals.  The AA terminals went in OK, but the C type ones needed adapting with some metal I had lying about in the workshop.  A quick re-attachment of the wiring,  a quick clean with brake cleaner to de-grease and then touch up with some satin black paint and one would never know that batteries had ever wreaked such havoc.

Sometimes, I want to hang on to some of the things I repair.  This was one such item, but alas, I had to give it back.

Time for a brew.

Swan tea urn off the boil

A cheap fix gets this essential tea making machine back in business…

I admit it. I do get some satisfaction when I divert an appliance, on a journey to the bin, to my workshop for repair.  I have been known to collect the odd item from skips or just dumped on the pavement while supposed to be doing something more productive. I think I just feel sorry for things. Weird, but true.

Make and model: Swan Hot Water Tea 20L Urn

Fault reported: Not staying hot

Cost of replacement: £80ish

Manufacturer support:  3/10

Cost of parts: £1.70

Hours spent on repair: 45 minutes

Tools needed: Screwdrivers, test meter etc

Sundry items: Cleaning materials, heat transfer solution

Repair difficulty: 2/10

Cups of tea: X1

Biscuits: Malted Milk X1

This Swan hot water tea urn was one of those items.  Spotted during an office reorganisation in the ‘scrap pile’, it had been put there as it wasn’t working properly and a new one had now been ordered.

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, July’20, Swan Hot Water Urn… shiny!

 

Being fairly light-fingered, I spirited the urn away to the workshop for some tinker time.  Not strictly staff policy, but you know, seek forgiveness after etc.

An urn is really just a big kettle.  This one has an all metal 20 litre tank with bar-style tap to brew up, when needed.  There are no real controls as such; just an on/off switch with neon light and two tell-tail lights to indicate boil and keep warm.  Keep warm is usually on all the time when switched on.

The fault seemed to be that the urn reached boiling temperature when switched on, but then switched off totally, allowing the water to cool again excessively.  Timing the switching intervals of the thermostat, 20 minutes or so, and a 15-200 hysteresis confirmed a fault. There was also no ‘keep warm’ green light on, when in use.  To push the thermostat further, I poured cold water into the urn to see if that sped up switching between hot and cold, it didn’t.

Opening up the urn’s base involved just three screws, allowing access to all components.  Such a nice change to not have layers of covers and things to move out of the way first!

Checking the wiring out for logic revealed that someone had been here before! The wiring was incorrect and the ‘keep hot’ element was not wired up correctly and effectively not in circuit with the power source. A small wiring change corrected this and meant that the ‘keep warm’ element was now working again.

The thermal reset fuse/ button seemed to be working OK- proved with a test meter and the thermostat did seem to switch on and off, albeit with excessive hysteresis.  Time to fit another one! Luckily, these thermostats are very common and I managed to get one from eBay, rated at 1000 (a couple of degrees over the one fitted) for less than £2. Fitting a new thermostat only involved a couple of screws, a light smear of heat transfer solution and reconnecting back into the wiring harness.

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With all wiring back in place and the cover refitted, it was time to test and brew up.  This time, the urn boiled, switched off and then stayed warm on the secondary ‘keep warm’ circuit.  To prove that the new thermostat was an improvement, I then topped up the urn with cold water and within 5 seconds, the thermostat clicked in and the boiling process started again.

Time for a brew.

(PS, the urn has now returned to its normal place of work)

Repair, kettles and er, the Citroen 2CV

Less is usually more. Simpler devices can mean repair is more likely in the event of failure.

I keep a model of a Citroen 2CV car on my desk at work.  It’s about 30-odd years old and it’s a bit battered due to an incident involving a shelf, my old cat and an 8ft drop, but that’s another story.

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, July’20, The 2CV (AZ series)

The 2CV is there to remind me to keep things simple, to the point.

To me (and many others) the 2CV represents pure function over form.  Nothing on the car is superfluous to its function as a capable load lugging, robust, ever-repairable and frugal vehicle. I have a soft spot for these cars. They encapsulate the phrase ‘less is more’.

Not every story from the workshop is rosy and my heart usually sinks when I receive something to fix that has tiny printed circuit boards fitted inside that do ‘something’ and nothing at the same time.

What the Tin Snail do I mean by that? Many appliances and machines manufactured in the last 20 years or so often contain ‘mini’ circuits that control ‘something’.

Take an electric kettle, something that most people have in their homes. Kettles generally are a water holding vessel, a heating system, and an on/off switch with a boiling water state detecting negative feedback loop (it switches off by itself when the water boils).  There’s also some wire and stuff.

Electric kettles haven’t really changed that much over the years, after all the basic need hasn’t changed:  You put water in, you switch it on, you get hot water to make a drink. Nothing has changed. However, many offered these days are fitted with things like filters, LED lighting and other electronic temperature control systems with bells on.

Trouble is, all these (kettle) gadgets tend to be controlled by a small circuit board which isn’t repairable or even replaceable. It only takes an accidental water spill, some static electricity or bump mishap and that tiny circuitry is toast.  Not even a professional circuit repair agent, let along home spanner wielder would have a chance of repairing the broken circuit. When failure occurs, many will just discard the appliance and go and buy another one, quickly. Who wants to be without tea or coffee?!

The tragedy is that the rest of the (kettle in this case) appliance is, nine times out of ten, OK and if it was made with more traditional components that one could see with the naked eye, the appliance would stand far more chance of being repaired easily and economically. Something to think about, next time you’re considering a new purchase.