Community Glue Workshop and the very real need to shift our focus to the 4th “R”: Repair.

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Over the past decade, the environmental movement has had a resurgence focused on the production of more “eco-friendly” products than you can shake a recycled bottle cap “stick” at. Here’s the thing: for the most part, it’s complete rubbish. (Applause for the pun.) Recycling takes a tremendous amount of carbon intensive energy and often involves shipping goods overseas to be broken down, mixed with additional materials, and shipped back to be sold in a form that is a downcycled piece of cheap nonsense as compared with its original form. I know this is hard for folks to hear, but recycling, while often a better alternative to throwing something into a trash can, is not a really a sustainable practice. Period.

Often if something isn't working, the entire thing doesn't need to be scrapped! Don't be afraid to "look under the hood" and tinker. It's already not working, so you may as well give repair a shot!

Usually, if something isn’t working, the entire thing doesn’t need to be scrapped! Don’t be afraid to “look under the hood” and tinker. It’s already not working, so you may as well give repairing it a shot.

We also have “repurposing,” which has become incredibly popular in recent years because it’s fun, creative, and keeps materials out of the landfill. It’s something we all should certainly do, but often times it also results in downcycling. Someone will repurpose an existing item that has a broken part—say a toaster with a broken spring—and turn it into a flower pot. Your standard toaster is comprised of hundreds of parts and complicated methods of metal extraction and other processes that are labor intensive and often manufactured in other countries under questionable employment practices. You know what else can be a flowerpot? A leaf. A cupped hand. A single piece of fired clay. Your brother’s gaping mouth if you shove a plant into it. Any simple thing, really.

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Image from The Toaster Project. That there’s the insides of a very basic toaster. Those parts took a lot of energy to create and came a real long way to make it to your local Target.

My point is: let’s just fix that toaster and not waste the kabrillion pieces that do work inside of that sophisticated little heat trap, people. In 2012, my friend Ally and I started Community Glue Workshop in Chicago because, quite frankly, we were pissed off at the fact that the environmental movement had in no way embraced one of the most obvious and abandoned part of sustainable living: REPAIR. It even starts with an “R,” so why it was never promoted is beyond me (P.S. “Reduce” is totally legit). Producing and consuming more materials is the opposite of the solution—“green” or no—and not fixing what we already have only leads to more consumption. Maybe you have a flowerpot now, but you’re still in need of a toaster and will go out and buy a new one anyway, and waste all the embodied energy in that original toaster, which is a big old shame and not doing the planet any favors.

That's a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

That’s a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

Not able to order replacement parts? That’s absolutely a problem, yes. Manufacturers intentionally don’t sell those parts like they used to in an effort to force you to buy new items. To get around this hiccup, Community Glue has used an inexpensive 3D printer to make simple little new parts when needed. Don’t have access to a 3D printer? Honestly, most of the time we can find another fix that doesn’t require the production of a new part. There are many ways to skin a cat, and that’s why fixing is indeed a creative and innovative process.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn't you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn’t you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Community Glue is comprised of about 10 regular, dedicated volunteers who come together once a month to fix anything folks can fit through the door, from broken table legs to vacuums to bra straps. It doesn’t matter if we have never seen anything like it (in fact, those are the most fun projects), repairing is also a collaborative process and we can almost always figure out a fix or at least diagnose the problem. There are exceptions: perhaps your exploding microwave from 1984 is accidentally cooking your brain through a cracked something-or-other and needs to be disposed of. We get that. But more often than not, the materials we consume are repairable.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, stuff gets done.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, people without resources get some help.

Next month I’ll be posting more on Community Glue Workshop and featuring our October repair clinic. I’m not gonna lie, I’m very excited to finally give some props to our amazing volunteers, curious, smart, generous buggers that they are.

If you're in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let's have at it!

If you’re in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let’s have at it!

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding "green" goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. Folks don't look that happy taking a pile of stuff to the recycle bin. Nope.

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding “green” goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. You can, too. People are into it.

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Saving South Bend

One of around 1700  vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

One of around 1700 vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. Sure would be a shame to see you go, good lookin’. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

South Bend, Indiana is, like many Rust Belt cities in the Midwest, marked by de-industrialization and population decline. The economic shocks of past decades—attributed to factors like the transfer of manufacturing to the Southeast, the decline in steal and coal industries, and good old globalization—have left a lot of these cities without jobs and well, without as many people. So, South Bend found itself with more homes than could be filled, currently around 1700 vacant properties, which apparently must either be smashed to bits or rehabilitated. Well, guess which is usually cheaper?

A home is demolised in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city's push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

A home is demolished in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city’s push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. It might be worth arguing that if we addressed all of our issues by turning them into tiny obliterated hunks of waste, we might not quite be addressing the root cause. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

Here’s the thing—it’s not the building stock’s fault that there was an exodus. In fact, the buildings in many of these cities, which once boomed with jobs and industry, are generally pretty extraordinary, laid out in well designed planning grids with accessible and centralized main streets. They are walkable and human-scaled and downright handsome. These historic structures are also unequivically the greatest assets these cities have to offer. They hold their resale value better (think long-term), are made with incredible old growth wood and other materials that are no longer available, and will, quite frankly, easily last another century if they are just shown a little TLC. This is simply not the case for new construction which tends to be out of scale, made with inferior materials, and ages about as well as acid-washed jeans.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

So, it was a no-brainer for ToolMade to support a group in Indiana that is working to empower homeowners by offering workshops that help them repair and restore their buildings. South Bend’s aggressive demolition program is already in the works and is set to span the next three years, so if the local government doesn’t see the value of preserving more of its built environment, it’s time to educate and put tools in the hands of residents who want to fight for their history and quality homes and neighborhoods.

Pad sanding like a boss.

Using a pad sander like a boss. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

To help fill the knowledge gap and teach homeowners and contractors how to work on these buildings, people like Elicia Feasel and Steve Szaday create and run workshops through Restore Michiana. This group is the result of a partnership between Indiana Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County. Why the partnership? As Steve puts it, “every house has a story, even if it was no more than Billy’s Grandma’s house…and if we can teach someone enough to give them the courage and skills to save that house by doing some of the repairs themselves, we have successfully made a difference.”

Hardware 101.

Hardware 101. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The workshops are lead by experts in specific fields and are refreshingly cheap—usually around $25-30 for a whole day, sometimes with pizza included! In the past two years alone, hundreds or locals and contractors have taken classes through Restore Michiana. Lectures have been given on a topics like how to research your home’s history, historic paint colors, and historic masonry care. Hands-on workshops have focused on plaster repair, wood floor repairs and refinishing, and the upkeep and repair of historic wood windows.

"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia." -Alexis Carrel

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” -Alexis Carrel (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The program is self funded and all of the fees are used up to print flyers, buy supplies, and help reimburse equipment rentals and or logistical costs. Some local hardware stores have helped by providing basics like glazing, chemicals, wood fillers, etc., and all of the tools that were used on these workshops were either brought in by guest experts or are a part of the Restore Michiana’s personal home stash of tools. This unfortunately meant that all the tools had to be shared, even with 15-20 people in a class. That’s limiting and frustrating if you’re itching to get some hands-on know-how.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The May class was a day-long Intro to Power Tools workshop for people having little to no experience using tools. The focus was on learning the basics of sawing, routing, sanding, and drilling, and took place at one of the most enduring and unique properties in St. Joseph County, the Birdsell mansion. The building is a Local Historic Landmark built in 1898, and currently available for lease (yes, sure, this is a plug. Preservationists ain’t nothing if not resourceful).

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty.

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

Several sponsors, ranging from hardware stores to Habitat for Humanity to real-estate groups to the local pizza spot underwrote/sponsored the event. ToolMade donated several items including a much-needed Craftsman Lithium-Ion 3-Piece Combo Kit (a drill, circular saw, work light, extra lithium battery, circular saw blade and a multi-chemistry charger), a Compact Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, and an ever-useful pad sander. The best news? Because the Power Tools was so well attended and now has more of the needed tools, there will be more of these classes going forward. Not bad for a crew working on a shoestring budget that is also conducting a number of other classes, often dragging in tools from their own garages. And so, I am left with no choice but to bust out the old Margaret Meade quote to wrap this one up: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I know, but come on, it’s just so damned true.

The Giveaway: Want Free Tools? Submit!

hmp5583bWhile innovation and creative problem solving is a wonderful thing, there comes a time when sawing pipes with an old steak knife has caused enough repetitive motion damage to your hands that your fingers resemble challah bread. Of course, sometimes one must make a choice whether to buy groceries or to buy a [insert semi-expensive tool of choice here].

And then there are other times when you get to eat and have tools! How can this be, you ask?

Three people/groups/organizations doing work that requires tools (and some heart—it matters), will each receive $200 worth of whatever tools or tool accessories you can find via Sears. Honestly, it’s kind of surprising how much bang you can get for your buck with that amount of money, especially during the holiday season. So here’s the deal:

The Giveaway

This is a write-in contest where 3 groups or individuals will be featured on the blog talking about what they do and how the tool(s) will help them with their work. Anything goes—hand tools, power tools, work gloves, whatever, but it has to be Craftsman brand.

Let’s keep this pretty flexible, but here’s some basic info you’ll want to include:

1. What do you do?

2. Why do you do it?

3. A couple of pictures of whatever you think best features who you are and/or the work you do.

4. What tool(s) you need and how it would help you/your organization out.

Submission deadline is December 15th, 2013. Email me at carlabruni@gmail.com and please put “Sears Tool Giveaway” in the subject line so it doesn’t get lost in the tide.

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OTHER STUFF

Where you live/Who is eligible: I don’t have a travel budget, so unless you live relatively near to the Chicago area or happen to be somewhere I’m already headed (New Orleans for New Years and Springfield, IL in February is all that is on the agenda for now), I’m not sure I can make it out to you for this project. BUT, if you have a really, truly extraordinary project, please write in anyway. If we can’t figure anything out now, maybe we will be able to later, and I can at least feature you on the blog and get you some publicity through Sears and other online outlets.

Who is judging this? Well, the idea of having to choose between some people I may know and so many great submissions by myself is mildly torturous. So there will be three judges, who, granted, I will take the liberty of selecting, helping with this process. If you aren’t selected, you can take out your wrath on them.

When do you get the tools? This project will span over the next 6 or so months, so I may not be able to visit some of you until Spring. If it is especially urgent for someone selected to receive tools sooner rather than later for a specific project, I’ll definitely try my best to accommodate that.

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An example of someone who will not be receiving free tools.

So, that’s it. Submit! Submit!

Get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty.

Changing brake pads.

Tools are what separate us. They allow us to create beyond the limitations of our bodies in terms of scope, detail, and pace. Whatever you are lounging on, writing on, drinking out of or toasting your Pop-Tarts in right now was not born after a romantic evening between two objects at the local Target, but made with the help of shaped iron or alloy steel, plastics, woods, or other durable material created for a particular function that couldn’t be done by hand alone. These things may seem obvious, but we are so removed from the process of manufacturing nowadays it’s hard to have any sense of how things are made and where on earth they came from.

But, this is not really a blog about tools. The ToolMade project is focused on exploring the relationship between people and tools—hands-on projects and trades that involve expression and skill and time and brains and creative problem solving. Tools allow us to manifest our ideas and understand the world we live in.

This project is the result of several things: hands-on restoration work via a career in historic preservation, a local repair clinic a friend and I co-founded last year, and Sears, which has afforded the opportunity to buy a heck of a lot of tools and write about them. Most of those tools will be given away to people already doing interesting and important things with them, or to people who want to teach others to use them. In a nutshell, here are the goals of ToolMade:

1. Shine a light on people and organizations doing hands-on projects that are education and/or community focused.

2. Help revive dying trades that deserve a renaissance and dig into their history and why they are so damned awesome.

3. Demystify tools so that people who might accidentally create a Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene with a power saw can become more comfortable with tools in general, understand how they work and how they can make their lives a whole lot easier (and more fun).

4.  Encourage everyone to step away from the virtual and spend some time in the physical. There are a crazy number of physical, psychological, sociological, and environmental benefits to getting your hands dirty.

Over the next year, I’ll be visiting the homes and workspaces of folks to hear about what they are doing, why they like hands-on work, and to ultimately explore the broader context of how the American style of work has impacted us as a society. And yes, I’ll be giving free tools to these crews whenever possible. So this is a call to mechanics, electricians, masons, pre-post-apocalyptic survivalist movement enthusiasts, and all you folks in the Preservation, Building, Maker, Hacker, and Fixer movements—I’d really like to feature what you do. This is also a blog for those who don’t know what a Phillip’s screwdriver is and would really, really like to build a coffee table or make that extra bedroom not look like an extension of Buffalo Bill’s basement. Basically, screw automated machinery and flimsy $20 replacement fixes from big box stores—let’s get our hands dirty.