Photo by Agnieszka. Used with permission.

You know this: we live in a disposable culture. We buy clothes and shoes and sometimes even furniture of a low enough quality that they wear out easily and of a low enough price that we can usually replace them instead of mending. If that’s you, don’t feel guilty; we’ve been bombarded with “buy buy buy!” messages all our lives. We’re encouraged not to repair broken goods, and — not to get too hippie rage on you — we end up trapped in a cycle of consumption and destruction.

Most of the loudest messages in our lives are from commercials and pretty faces in magazines telling us what we have isn’t good enough. Did you know that, beginning in the ’90s, the main reason people gave for attending college was to earn more money? It was the first time students didn’t say they went to higher ed to become an authority in their field or help people in distress. And now in the last few years we’ve seen the biggest economic downturn since the Depression, fueled largely by our willingness to buy more than we need.

And that’s how it came to be that mending what you break, repairing your own goods and do-it-yourself culture can be small acts of rebellion. I truly believe the DIY movement can help put the culture’s priorities right again.

Agreeing a bit? Take these small steps now so you can be more prepared to mend the old and broken instead of buying a new thing to use up.

Buy high quality goods

Several reasons: well-built things are less likely to have a screw snap off or rip a stitch, so you won’t be overwhelmed by the things you need to repair. Additionally, as a general rule of thumb, the better the tool/shirt/appliance, the easier it is to repair.

One of our chairs saw too much action during the Airing of Grievances last Festivus. Happily, some wood glue and time in a clamp put him right again.
High quality doesn’t have to mean expensive! Sometimes it means a product is better designed, has fewer moving parts, or is made from higher-quality materials. I bought a steel-tined tiller this spring for twenty bucks: there’s not much that could break on it, and I didn’t drop $150 on a motorized tiller full of bits that could throw a wrench in my gardening plans.

Keep your home stocked for repairs

Put a few tools on your shopping list. If you’ve already got them, take a few minutes to make sure they’re all in the same place:

Keep it organized so you can strike while the iron is hot

By the iron I mean your brain and by hot I mean, when you’re thinking about it. I am SO much more likely to sit down and fix a thing right away if I know the tool I need is in the closet. If I can’t find it, that broken widget will probably end up on my to do list, getting pushed back every day. I’ve had “mend Scott’s jeans” on my list for months because I couldn’t find the right thread on the day he asked me to fixed them.

Do it during downtime

Multitask while you watch TV, wait for a ride, or just feel bored.

Find trusted repairmen.

You want to learn leatherworking so you can repair your dress shoes? I thought not. Ask around, visit Google Places, just keep your eyes peeled for people who can repair what you can’t. When you find them, keep ’em on a centralized, easy-to-find list. And let us know! We want ’em in our Directory!


Don’t get frustrated by botched fixes

If you’re new to working with your hands, you’re gonna fuck some things up. It’s okay — it happens. Just because we belong to a species which uses tools doesn’t mean we’re born knowing how to use them. A fuck-up — or a feared-fuck up — is a good time to reach out to your handyman mentor. I call my dad a lot to ask his advice on projects.

A good start? The best part of all this is: there’s no better feeling than knowing you fixed a thing, so get to it! And leave me a note on your proudest repair in the comments!

Comments on Repair as rebellion

  1. I grew up working at my parents’ hardware store.
    We always gave fully stocked – with the basics – tool boxes to all of my friends, sisters’ friends, and family friends as a high school graduation gift. 🙂
    I still use mine and would highly recommend that as a gift as we come upon graduation season.
    In addition to the items you list above, my parents taught me that duct tape and cable/zip ties will do wonders when you’re in a pinch! Everything from furniture or bicycle fixes to wardrobe malfunctions, temporarily. Oh, and I would add a tape measure to the list! 🙂

    • My parents got me a pretty basic tool kit when I turned 13. It probably remains the most useful and awesome present I’ve ever received.
      I second the tape-measure, and I’d like to add a different set of scissors for fabric.

      I’d also like to mention, as a woman, how friggin liberating it is to have a toolkit and the basic knowledge to enable me to fix almost anything myself, or to arrange to have it fixed. I feel much better living on my own.

  2. Great post! We’ve had beds break the under-mattress supports many times, so we just get a piece of wood, cut it to the right size, and replace it. My husband tunes up our bikes, I mend our clothes, we rig stuff up all the time. Our fixes aren’t always pretty, but they work! Being poor is a great creative motivator!

  3. Great article! I’ve just totally been turned off on buying anything (except for necessities) over the past several years. I love places like Goodwill, garage sales, etc, but even so I’m just so uninterested in buying things. I’d much rather live by the slogan fix up, wear out, make do or do without! I don’t feel like I’m missing out either. I know eventually some things will need to be replaced and/or upgraded, but I really don’t feel any hurry to do just that. Love your blog!

  4. I take my multi tool for granted mot of the time. I’ve had one in my pocket almost everyday for 11 years. If I loose it i notice I look for it in my pocket at least 3 times a day. Be careful, fixing stuff is addicting!

  5. My roommate’s VCR broke (tapes weren’t going in and out). There was a sticker on the outside saying, basically, “Don’t you dare open this sucker and try to fix it unless you’re a legit repair person!” I thought, “Eff that. I’m taking a look.” Opened it up, found a little plastic gizmo that was in the way, checked to see if things would go haywire if it was propped back, then tied it off with a piece of dental floss. VCR worked just dandy afterwards.

    So I say, give it a shot. The worst you can do is break something that was already broken, right?

    • Exactly! If you can’t fix it, oh well! It was worth a shot.

      I have some BRAND NEW headphones that stopped working almost as soon as I bought them. I’m pretty sure I could fix them if I had the least bit of electronics know-how. I’d try to teach myself, but I’d need at least a little soldering iron, and that’s just not in the budget right now.

  6. My Dads whole job when I was growing up was ‘handyman’ he would go fix things for anyone! It has really helped me as an adult, it feels pretty good to be the only girl in the office that knew how to put together the new office chairs 🙂 and I have managed to make way less money stretch way farther! once you get the repair thing down a whole new world of adjustments and alterations opens up leaving your living spaces looking better, more original, and best of all just how you want it!

  7. Not exactly repair, but related: we’re landscaping and have found a way to reuse almost everything that was in our yard to begin with, including gardening plastic, brick pavers, plants, dead trees, and several tons of rock, the latter moved to low-water usage areas. A lot of the same rules apply as above, especially having the right tools, fitting the work in whenever there’s a few spare minutes, keeping track of your resources, and knowing when to call someone in to do something we can’t (like cutting down a tree wedged between our house and the neighbor’s.)

  8. My dad was also a handyman which has given me lots of little helpers while I was living by myself and also now (my husband’s not the greatest at eletrical stuff i.e hooking up a tv/surround sound). I know lots of little things I take for granted that a lot of girls my age (to generalise) don’t really know about. Fixing fuses (or … turning them off — handy when a particular person is making a tad too much noise :P) etc. I’m big on not throwing things out — and reaping the benefits of my dad’s handy skills! I have a kitchen shelving/winerack unit (all in beautiful rimu wood) made by my dad that now serves as a bookshelf/knick-knack cubbyhole.
    Also, my boss would love this! He’s all about turning junk into awesome stuff. Old wooden TVs? Fishtank. Buying old bicycles from the dump and making them cool again. Making a trailer to transport said bikes with another bike …

  9. This article rocks! I think I must have fixed my vacuum at least 10 times (after my boyfriend showed me how the first time, that was very nice of him I’ve got to say) before it finally died completely – now I just use a shop vac. Long hair and a shedding dog can be hard on vacuums but we tried to keep that thing going until the bitter end 😉 I think most people would have just given up! I also sewed an old canvas purse of mine back together dozens of times when it was falling apart but now I’ve just started to buy tougher (leather) purses (because apparently I’m hard on them – I seem to recall completely destroying at least one book bag a year in school… I’m not sure how I do these things – I just do, eek! Quality does make a difference though). All great advice, love it!

    • My fiance’s sister has bought 6 vacumns in the last 3 freaking years!!! She keeps saying we break them (funny seeing as how we don’t borrow them…) we always fixed ours till it died all the way, currently we have one of those super sturdy outdoor brooms, and sweep everything up! Sure it takes a while, but hell, it’s kind of a free work out too!!!

  10. And don’t forget computers! When it dies, normally most bits still work and there’s just a part that needs replacing. It’s really easy to take the back off a computer case. I replaced the fan all by myself. I admit I got my boyfriend to replace the hard disks when they died but I suspect anyone could have figured it out with a bit of help from the internet.

    • Even with computers that are not designed with repairs/upgrades in mind. My first machine was a Dell and a lot of the components were hard wired together and to the case (even upgrading the graphics card was a nightmare) but we still managed to salvage some parts. Especially all the external stuff – the speakers, the screen, the mouse & keyboard etc.

  11. Repairing things when possible has always seemed normal to me. My dad’s an electrician and my mum is very into DIY so they were always working on stuff around the house.

    I think it also helps that I’m very sentimental. It’s the flip side to the packrat issue discussed in an earlier article. Downside: I keep tons of stuff I odn’t need, Upside: if something breaks my first inclination is to fix it any way I can because it’s my stuff and I don’t want to have to get rid of it.

    Also it might be stating the obvious but when looking to buy stuff in the first place don’t overlook charity shops. I get all my jeans from there because I wear them out rediculously quickly. If I buy cheap ones I wear them out even faster but I can’t afford to keep buying expensive ones, so I buy expensive ones barely used from charity shops and get the best of both worlds.

  12. I feel proud to have come from a family of fixers. I love my toolbox and my sewing kit.

    I also love my cobbler, so so much. He’s fabulous and returns my haggard old boots looking lovely, and it fancy little bags.

  13. I led a service trip in college where one of our tasks was to re-roof a house while working with a professional roofer. He pretty much only trusted the guys for help, which left us ladies doing other stuff. One of the things I did? I sawed off and refitted the drainage pipe to the kitchen tub sink, pretty much by myself. Then I caulked that sucker up to make sure it wouldn’t leak. It took about 5 trips to the hardware store but it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt like now matter what, I could take care of myself. I pray that the thing didn’t start leaking again as soon as I left.

    ABOVE ALL! ForTheWin!!!
    Old tools are designed to last, NOT to break at the first sign of trouble. They cost a minimal amount of money at your local flea market (So you can replace them if you Do need to) and often, they themselves are reparable. F’rinstance, my 1930’s hammer had a wooden handle that split. Get new handle. Whack with mallet. Ta-Da! New handle. A rubber-wrapped steel cored 90’s hammer handle? not so much. And I can’t emphasize enough that antique tools DON’T BREAK as readily as modern tools, because lasting power was of value. Admittedly, modern “high end” tools might have better staying power than the ultra cheap ones which I cannot afford, but when I can buy a SET of good wrenches for a dollar at the flea market, used and loved since 1947, OR get 1 crap-tastic wrench made of potmetal in a 3rd world country by someone who is getting paid in pennies for EIGHT BUCKS. *Hyperventilates* Seriously though, rant aside, Buy. Used. Tools.

    • Yes! I was looking for a set of the long sort of clamps for gluing and clamping a split in an old tabletop I was fixing. The clamps were pricey and I found a set of cast iron Craftsman antique pipe clamps on craigslist. They were about the same price, but I knew the Craftsman ones would last forever. It sounds weird to say about tools, but they are truly a pleasure to use. Good design in every sense of the word and built to last.

  15. My repair wasn’t a repair so to speak, but when we moved into the house the med cabinet was put in too high, for someone about 6 foot tall, I’m 5’2″. Moving the thing down and learning I needed sheetrock anchors in the absence of a stud behind the sheetrock instead of just a screw was frustrating, made the trip to the hardware store that much more miserable when you have to do it in the middle of the project. But 5$ and 10 minutes later I was brushing my teeth without a stool and putting my makeup on with my feet flat on the floor. YAY go me!!
    P.S. A good screwgun is also a very nice tool to have around, 🙂

  16. Definitely major yes to buying quality things, instead of cheap, breakable ones. I’m also big on buying from the Salvation Army and yard sales, where a lot of times you can find things that are high quality because they were made (as KayFay said) when quality really mattered. We outfitted our house without paying more than $20 for any piece of furniture, and even got a lot (a bed, a couch, a coffee table, chairs) for free from friends who were moving. There’s a lot to be said for just asking around, and returning the favor to other friends when you move away!

    • I love our coffee/end tables we got for free, sanded them down, stained them, now I have lots of cherry wood furniture for next to nothing! ALSO, I love when my candles are done, get the label off, place them in some hot water to get the rest of the wax out, and now I have jars for my paint brushes, the water for the painting, pens, cooking utensils, hair combs and brushes…

  17. I feel very lucky to come from a family of farmers because I think they are the original DIY’ers, recyclers, composters, etc. When you grow up on a farm you see the effort that goes into creating things (like raising/growing and preserving your food) so you are more invested in fixing things when they go wrong and it’s not an easy trip to the hardware store so you better find a way to figure it out! I didn’t really realize until I was a teenager, and living in the city, how many skills my upbringing had given me that most of my city friends didn’t. Grow your own veggies and can them? Change a tire? Fix a leaky faucet? Check, check and check! More importantly I have the confidence to try it myself which I think is the most important part of all this. I asked for tools for my birthday the year before I moved out and my friends thought I was crazy until we were in our first apartment and they were using their shoes to pound in nails to hang their pictures. It’s empowering to be able to take care of things yourself. I do ask for help when I need it but I’m glad I don’t always have to wait around (and possibly pay!) for someone else to fix my stuff.

  18. amen!

    p.s. i have found that my ratchet tie-downs make awesome clamps for really big stuff. because, um, big clamps cost big money. if you don’t happen to have ratchet tie-downs (mine came with the old truck my bro gave me), there are knots that do much the same thing – and rope is cheap.

  19. My husband and I are saving a fortune but doing almost all of our house repairs and remodel ourselves. Now when I get quotes for big projects…like installing wood floors…I can’t stomach to make it happen because I just know I can do it SO much cheaper on my own.

    Can’t be afraid to try. It’s often a hell of a lot easier than you think.

  20. My landlady buys a cheap (like, £100) new oven for our house every year. Every year it breaks again, every year she buys the cheapest piece of crap to replace it. If she’d just bought a decent quality oven five years ago for £500, she’d have saved money simply by dint of not having to pay for delivery/installation five times over.

  21. Definitely loving this article, my dad used to be a carpenter, and a lot of my uncles are labor workers, so I was always the one handing them tools and what not, and now that I’m with my fiance, who is SUCH a handyman, I’m learning ALL KINDS of goodies, including wobbly handles on pots and pans (that’s just ASKING for a burn) replacing door knobs, rotating tires, but I must say, but biggest proud moment was when we got this FUGLY couch for free, it was big and comfy, unless you count that it’s made from DENEM. As in blue jean fabric. So it’s hard to clean, the fabric was stiff and oh so ugly, but handy me, I went and got $60 in upholstery suede and reuphostered it ALL BY MYSELF with my sewing machine and a staple gun! Every one always compliments our “new suede couch” asking how much it was, because they are doing rent to own for like $3,000. Um that’s a big oh hell na!!! So I say, if you love something at a yard sale and HATE the fabric/color/texture, buy it, reupholster it!!!

    • Go you! I have a big round ottoman that I have decided to try upholstering as a test before deciding whether to do my living room chairs myself or bite the bullet and have someone do them for me. The ottoman is stripped down to the frame and will need to be re-webbed and the springs replaced and re-tied, in addition to doing the fabric. I am both apprehensive and excited. Upholstery success stories are encouraging–thanks!

  22. I work for my husband’s family’s furniture store.
    From my experience, there is a ‘sweet spot’ of price and quality. There are long-lasting, quality made furniture (both US and internationally made) that won’t cost outrageous amounts.
    The trick is to do some research. Find a furniture retailer interested in a long-term relationship, a business that will educate you on the quality and longevity of the furniture. Too many furniture companies are desperate for the short sale, and will talk up oh-so disposable furniture.

  23. LOVED this article! Just discovered this blog… I feel like I’ve come home 😀

    My “repair as rebellion” victory moment happened when our bathtub slowly started clogging until we just had inches of standing water. Our solution used to be horribly offensive, chemical-laden and environment-destroying drain opener, until that stopped working. A couple YouTube videos later, I had acquired master plumber knowledge – which boils down to you can clear most clogs with a plunger and heat. And when you’re plunging, don’t forget to seal the overflow (oh THAT’S what that circle-y thing is?!) to create a build up of pressure. Maybe this is common sense that I somehow missed, but you’d be surprised how many people learned a trick or two from my proud stories of triumph over old pipes and long hair down the drain!

    • I used the have the same problem with all my apartment tubs ever. One thing that helped as a means of prevention was to buy a secondary drain screen to help keep out long hairs and beard trimmings. Now I just scoop up the fallen hairs and toss them in the trash, instead of them getting gunked with hair conditioner and stuck in the drain.

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