The soul of an old machine

  • Pictures by Marcus Nilsson
  • Pictures by Marcus Nilsson
  • Pictures by Marcus Nilsson
  • Pictures by Marcus Nilsson
  • Pictures by Marcus Nilsson
Date:31 October 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

Yes, we live in a throwaway society. But a growing band of old-school tinkerers and newschool hackers are rediscovering the joy of fi xing what’s broken.

How many MIT engineering PhDs does it take to repair a dishwasher? In the case of a balky Maytag at Eric Wilhelm’s house in Oakland, California, one doctorate sufficed. After a plastic wheel on the dishwasher’s upper rack broke off from its assembly, Wilhelm faced a classic consumer conundrum. The same plastic part had broken and been replaced three times – and now the warranty had ended. Considering this history and Wilhelm’s mounting frustration, repairing the 3-year-old appliance seemed marginally less logical than buying a new one.

But discarding the machine didn’t feel right to Wilhelm, who is the co-founder and CEO of, a Web site that details DIY projects, from simple repairs to elaborate, artsy computer mods. Armed with a drill, a vice and a spare stainless-steel bolt, Wilhelm repaired the wheel and got his rack rolling again – and it hasn’t broken since. “From a purely monetary standpoint, it probably made no sense for me to spend an hour and a half fixing a plastic wheel on my dishwasher,” he says. “But I got an intangible reward – a satisfied feeling that I fixed something and didn’t replace it.”

Not so many decades ago, Wilhelm’s little project wouldn’t have seemed noteworthy. Typical homes were places where socks were darned, lawnmowers rebuilt and bushings, gaskets, nuts and bolts were transfused into a steady stream of machines that needed rehabilitation. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, though, many people had come to look on tinkering as less a sign of competence than of deprivation and backwardness. My father, who grew up in poverty, probably felt more pride in getting a new washing machine delivered than in keeping an old, outmoded one working for a few more years. Buying new and buying often were American ideals – signs of a modern outlook and success. Popular mechanicsreaders were among those who never stopped building, modifying and fixing the technology in their lives: cars, stereos, garden sheds, computers, the occasional wind turbine or one-man submarine.

But today the repair culture is making a broader comeback. Saul Griffith, an MIT-trained physicist and a San Francisco Bay Area innovator of everything from low-cost spectacles to energy technology to kite-surfing equipment, credits the digital revolution. “You have 20-year-olds who grew up with Microsoft Windows, accustomed to complete control and personalisation,” Griffith says. “They want the same control over their physical objects. Repairing and making things does that.”

Whatever the cause, diverse data points support the conclusion that a mechanical revival is underway: the ubiquity of homeimprovement megastores and even more numerous DIY and man-and-machine shows on TV; the rise of Web sites such as and; and the healthy traffic at the plans-and-advice section of our own US edition’s Web site and at Instructables. Among this summer’s most widely reviewed books was Shop class as soulcraft, a manifesto calling for renewed respect for mechanical skills, written by a one-time philosophy post-doc turned motorcycle mechanic. (Hipsters in Brooklyn carry their copies in messenger bags as they pedal restored Schwinn bikes to welding class.) The Internet has fostered communities of guitarists fixing old Fender amps, shadetree mechanics endlessly rebuilding Volvos and steampunk show-offs grafting motherboards into antique-looking brass and steel contraptions.

1950s O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove

Owner: “Mister Jalopy”

Hands-on-care: Maintain the valves

The ’59 Cadillac of stoves, O’Keefe & Merritt’s four-burner unit is all chrome and shiny porcelain. A Los Angelesbased artist and entrepreneur who goes by the nom de wrench Mr Jalopy is at work restoring the mint green O’Keefe & Merritt from his childhood home. A key task is to clean and lubricate the valves that feed gas to the burners, chrome griddle and broiler.

Step 1: Turn off the gas at the nearest shut-off valve.

Step 2: “The wonderful thing about gas ranges of this era is that 90 per cent of their workings are accessible by just lifting the lid,” Mr Jalopy says. Pull off the knobs and unscrew the bolts holding the front panel. The valves are protected by a metal plate held by two screws. “These screws are usually corroded and ready to break,” warns Mr Jalopy. “Soak with a rust buster if necessary, and make sure you use a screwdriver that fits perfectly.”

Step 3: Clean away residual grease with rubbing alcohol, then apply a thin layer of valve cream to the conical valves. Test for leaks using soapy water.

Premature demise

Mr Jalopy is annoyed. An artist, business consultant and used-bike store owner in Los Angeles, the self-named tinkerer has become an outspoken advocate for keeping old machines running. “Repair culture is right in line with the rise of sewing, crafting and the slow-food movement,” he says. “All of these are about engagement with the stuff around us.” And he is troubled by the hands-off message that many modern products convey. Take the Apple iPhone. The battery is sealed into the phone, so when the battery goes the whole unit is supposed to be returned to Apple for an expensive and time-consuming replacement. For an indispensable digital tool, that’s a death sentence.

“When a product can’t even be opened, it takes away a fundamental aspect of ownership,” Mr. Jalopy says. “If I can’t repair it, then who owns it? What I’m buying is temporary use of an object that will soon (meet its) demise.” In a world designed by Mr Jalopy, cases would be easy to open and ease of repair would be a primary engineering goal.

There are products made that way – they’re just not sold in electronics stores. Industrial mainstays such as jet airplanes and diesel locomotives can stay in service for decades, thanks to robust construction and maintenance-friendly design. Modular architecture in Xerox’s commercial-grade copiers allows the machines to remain state of the art through multiple innovation cycles. Such “product life extension” strategies could be extended to more consumer products, says industrial ecologist and operations management specialist V Daniel Guide Jr, of Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business. But whether people want them is uncertain – such items often cost more, and people tend to choose cheap, disposable goods over expensive, long-lasting ones. (For a sampling of durable, repairable products, see “Tomorrow’s Classics”.)

Complexities also arise with the question of what environmental benefits come from fixing, rather than replacing, broken items. As the heralds of the DIY resurgence point out, it takes a lot of energy to mine raw materials, transform them into useful goods and ship those items from warehouses to stores to living rooms. “Repair is a small act to save money, but it’s also small action to save the planet,” Griffith says.

Broadly speaking, that’s true. But it’s difficult to determine the total environmental impact of a product – or just about any aspect of modern life. (It once took Griffith, who has multiple advanced degrees and won a MacArthur genius grant in 2007, several days to calculate his own carbon footprint.) Researchers who study the issue have identified a distinction between faddish electronics and the longer-lasting workhorses of domestic life. A paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology reported that it takes 30 litres of water and 1,3 kg of fossil fuels and chemicals to build a microchip weighing just 2 grams. But the chips aren’t used for long.

“Consumer electronics are designed with six-month life cycles,” Guide says. “All the energy embodied in them is consumed during the production phase – very little while they’re being used – but we get rid of them quickly.” If mobile phones could be upgraded rather than replaced, there would be a solid environmental payoff.

In contrast, many an ancient appliance could help the environment by retiring from service. “A washing machine is designed for a 20-year life cycle,” Guide says, “and very little energy is consumed in its production. Almost all of it is used during the life cycle.” New models of such appliances tend to be far more efficient than their predecessors – so if Wilhelm’s dishwasher breaks again when it’s 10 years old, he might be better off dumping it.

Machine code

Malcolm Frazier, 35, learned small-engine repair and a mending mindset from his father. For him, life-cycle analyses don’t matter when the wheels come off a machine. Fixing the problem just feels right – it fulfils a personal code that combines self-reliance with thrift. “I don’t throw anything out without trying to fix it first,” he says. Nothing is too humble – Frazier will replace the broken handle on a Swiffer sweeper – but he gets a bigger payoff with products such as the stereo receiver he fixed not long ago. “I think I can usually do a better job than paying someone else to do it, and it makes me feel good knowing that receiver would have cost $400 to replace. In my mind, I’m ahead $400.”

For Talbot Hack, 47, diagnosing a leaky coffee maker or replacing the hard drive on a laptop is a welcome change from his work as a marketing executive. And, he uses repair as a way to connect with his teenagers. “I try to instil in my kids the belief that they can feel confident taking on certain tasks,” he says. Recently, he and his son solved an engine compression problem on a 20-year-old moped. “The lessons my kids learn are: do a little research beforehand, break the problem down, go step by step and don’t give up at the first sign of trouble,” Hack says.

In the end, no accounting of monetary savings and carbon balances can outweigh the psychic rewards of taking charge of a concrete problem and resolving it. Old-school repair hobbyists and new-school garage hackers seem to agree that reanimating a machine or tool bound for the trash heap can yield outsize paybacks. “When you repair, there’s satisfaction in understanding your world and having power over it,” Griffith says. “You think, I know this machine. I brought it back from the grave. It’s a part of me, and I’m a part of it.”

1968 Fender Princeton Reverb amplifier

Owner: Steve Dube
Hands-on care: Replace the tubes

Musician Steve Dube has a thing for using (and fixing) old tube amps. “They always sound warmer than solid-states,” he says. When Dube came across a Fender Princeton Reverb identical to the first amp he ever plugged into, it looked “like it’d been through a hurricane”. But he couldn’t resist. Replacing the tubes is always the most delicate operation.

Step 1: Search out the right parts. Dube buys tubes from KCA NOS Tubes ( ) and sources schematics from or Gerald Weber’s A desktop reference of hip vintage guitar amps.

Step 2: Avoid injury. “Drain all filter capacitors using a cap discharge cable,” Dube cautions. “They can hold high voltages for days, and contact with them might kill you.”

Step 3: Clean the socket and pins on each replacement tube with Big Bath (tubesandmore. com) to ensure good contact.

1971 John Deere 140 lawn and garden tractor

Owner: John Fernandez
Hands-on care: Rebuild the carburettor

When computer systems analyst John Fernandez saw this old tractor for sale on the side of the road seven years ago, he fell in love. “I knew I had to restore it,” he says. One simple task on such machines is rebuilding the carburettor, a job made easier by advice from enthusiasts at

Step 1: Get the service manual and a carburettor rebuild kit. Yep, Kohler still sells them.

Step 2: Remove the carburettor and unscrew the bowl assembly. Place the parts in Sea Foam engine treatment overnight to clean out any gunk.

Step 3: Replace everything from the kit. “Use all of the new gaskets and you’re good for another decade,” Fernandez says.

1970s Millers Falls Dyno-Mite electric saw

Owner: Eric J Wilhelm
Hands-on care: Give it a new power cord

Everything about the sturdy circular saw Eric Wilhelm inherited from his grandfather is built for the ages, right down to the steel carrying case. With one key exception: The rubber power cord had disintegrated with time. Wilhelm rewired the saw with a power cord filched from an old computer. Here’s how it’s done.

Step 1: Disassemble the saw’s casing by removing a few screws.

Step 2: Unscrew the positive, neutral and earth wires of the old power cord.

Step 3: Strip the three wires on the computer cord and secure them to the contacts. In Wilhelm’s case, this work yielded a saw that cut strong and true. “I hope some of my tools are high-enough quality that they’ll still be around for me to hand down,” he says.

Tomorrow’s classics

Channellock 421 Pliers
A pair of Channellock 421 pliers begins life as two pieces of high-carbon steel. Drop-forged and heattreated, they are wedded together with a nut and bolt. Thereafter, the halves are joined for life. The jaws grip tenaciously without slipping. Maintenance? Practically none. Use an awl to clean gunk from between the teeth.

Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure
Every tool reaches a point of perfection – any development thereafter is detrimental. Stanley’s PowerLock tape measure resides at that pinnacle of engineering, with its slim chrome-plated plastic body and a springsteel blade coated in Mylar. Keep it clean and reasonably dry, and it will last for decades.

Gedore tool set
The brand has been around for as long as we can remember, and it’s still the stuff of legends: these tools are tough, durable, and every bit as classy as they were when we were kids. Cough up for this tool assortment today – think of it as an investment, not a grudge purchase – and your workshop will be equipped for the next generation at the very least (did we mention that all Gedore products carry a lifetime guarantee?).

Royal enfield bullet classic
Harking back to the days when gentlemen were gentlemen and not self-conscious about it, this gloriously retro single-cylinder thumper remains one of the most elegant (and surprisingly affordable) two-wheelers on the market. Treated with due consideration, it should last a long time.

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