Making Do and Mending

A number of years ago, I read an article by the inestimably marvellous Robert Llewellyn about repairing a video camera. You can read that article here:

In the article, Robert Llewellyn sets aside his trepidation and decides to have a go at repairing a broken camera with no prior expertise. Developing this sort of attitude is probably the biggest obstacle that most people face when they want to start repairing technology or inventing things. Lots of people are unwilling to try their hand at fixing something because they think that a repair is going to be hopelessly complicated, and that something might go horribly wrong. It’s natural to feel afraid when you are venturing into the unknown, but as Robert himself says, “the camera was stuffed anyway”.

In Shedlandia, the metaphorical camera is always stuffed. Once you get that flash of realisation – that you can’t break something that is already broken – then you are longer afraid to experiment. You will try to glue bits back on, and see what happens when you plug things in. Sometimes you will plug things in and they will explode, and other times they will start working properly. It’s always a gamble, but in most cases it’s a risk worth taking.

Hearing the man in the rubber mask talk about the “alien technology” of the camera made me smile. Even experienced engineers look at a circuit sometimes and don’t have a clue know what it does. Engineers are not superhuman creatures with infinitely large brains. They often rely on the web, manufacturers handbooks and the experience of other engineers when they need to find something out. It is true that reading technical books will provide a deeper understanding of the principles involved, but the reality of repair work is a combination of experience and trial and error.

It all starts with a bag full of marbles. Every time you have to make your own tool to do an awkward job, you throw one of the marbles away. When you’ve got a workshop full of tools, and you’ve lost all of your marbles, then you’re a blacksmith.

Engineers are faced with “alien technology” almost daily, and deal with it using a 3-step diagnostic routine:

  1. Is it connected to the bit that is broken?
  2. Does it smell, look burned, or has it exploded?
  3. No? It’s probably not important then….. Try something else.

Obviously, this diagnostic routine is only half serious. The real point is that engineers start looking for the big things first, ignoring anything that isn’t directly related to the broken device.

In about 80% of cases, a decent pair of eyes, a multimeter, and a soldering iron are all an engineer will need to fix something – but it does help to have some funky diagnostic tools to help out when looking for faults. Oscilloscopes and multi-meters can be useful for testing individual components and signals, and a decent selection of tools will give you a distinct advantage with more complicated repairs.

There is an old story about a blacksmith, who was asked “how do you learn to become a blacksmith?” He said “It all starts with a bag full of marbles. Everytime you have to make your own tool to do an awkward job, you throw one of the marbles away. When you’ve got a workshop full of tools, and you’ve lost all of your marbles, then you’re a blacksmith.”

A silly story, but it makes the point that you don’t start out with a well-stocked tool chest. You make or buy the tools you need to do the job at hand, and they’re there when you need them. When you have collected enough tools to do pretty much any job, then you’re an engineer.

There are some really good tips for repairing things in the article, too. Not everyone has a dedicated workshop, and a clean tea tray and gaffer tape strips are very useful for keeping your project all in one place. There is nothing better than gaffer tape for making sure that no tiny screws, springs and other technological ooajmabobs go flying off the table and land under the fridge.

There are other little tips that engineers use, like using a tiny bit of bluetac on the end of a screwdriver to stop non-magnetic screws falling off at an incovenient moment. An empty tuna tin with a magnet underneath is great for stopping screws falling out. A tuna tin with a metal scouring pad inside it is ideal for cleaning the tip of a soldering iron.

I remember reading the article, and thinking that it really captured the hidden benefits of repairing things. It’s not just about saving money, it’s about the feeling of satisfaction you get when you repair something yourself. Sometimes it’s about resurrecting something of sentimental value and being able to say that you tried, even if you didn’t succeed. It doesn’t really matter if you fail, because the metaphorical camera was stuffed anyway.


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