Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Art of Tinkering

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve always loved to tinker, to take things apart and attempt to put them back together, though unlike my friend, Grey, I usually confined myself to things that were already broken.

When Grey was three, he handed his mother a double handful of screws. She asked, “Where did you get these?”

“I took my high chair apart,” Grey replied, toddling off, screwdriver in hand, to look for a new challenge.

Grey is now an engineer.

I believe that if a human being put something together, another human being should be able to take it apart. Unfortunately, this has gotten a lot more complicated with the addition of computer circuits and on-board diagnostics. I pay attention to stickers that say, “There are no user-serviceable parts inside. Opening this case invalidates the warranty.” Even after shipping those items off to my friendly, neighborhood repair person, there is still a lot of tinkering that can be done.

I was reminded not only of the importance of tinkering, but of the basic sensual pleasures of work that gets your hands dirty in a wonderful book, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson,” by Jessica DuLong. Ms. DuLong left a computer company desk job to become, first a volunteer in the engine room of a former New York City fire boat, then the owner of her own tug boat, and finally a Coast-Guard licensed marine engineer.

Along the way, she made friends with volunteers who salvage and restore old boats, and with John Ratzenberger, the founder of the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation. Ratzenberger believes that in North America we are in danger of losing our ability to invent and to work with our hands, in large part, because kids don’t grow up tinkering. The Foundation sponsors summer camps where boys and girls can relearn this lost art, and the provide scholarships for students who want to enter the trades.

Oh, if you take a look at his site and think that Ratzenberger looks vaguely familiar, try imagining him in a post office employee’s uniform, sitting in a bar called Cheers.

Sharon’s rules for safe tinkering.

If it’s already broken, you can’t make it any worse and you might make it better.

The exception to this is if whatever you are considering tinkering with contains caustic chemicals, liquid PCBs, or ionizing radiation. Stop. Do not tinker. Call the hazardous materials section of your local fire department to ask how to safely dispose of the item.

Believe stickers that say, “There are no user-serviceable parts inside. Opening this case invalidates the warranty.” Of course, if the warranty period has already expired, open it up. Likely, you won’t fix it, but at least you can take time to appreciate what the inside looks like. And you might find some lovely bits that can be used in art projects.

Always unplug the object and/or take the batteries out before you start tinkering.

Always wear eye protection when you remove that last screw in a covering. You have no idea what’s spring-loaded inside.

Use your digital camera. Photograph every step of the operation as up close and personal as you can. The photograph will help you figure out how to get things back together.

A good cleaning won’t hurt and it might help.

Above all, take time to appreciate the ingenuity that went into making this object. Look at the craftsmanship. Look at how the pieces—some of them very tiny—fit together so well. Above all, get your hands dirty and have fun.


Sheila Connolly said...

Brilliant idea about using the digital camera. We always think we'll remember where Part X goes, but of course we don't.

signlady217 said...

Most kids definitely don't know how to "tinker" anymore! Between their computers and cell phones they don't have enough energy left to use their brains! I loved that story about the three-year-old taking apart his high chair. Priceless!

Marilynne said...

My mother used to solicit broken clocks so my brother could take them apart. When he grew up, our grandson took clocks apart. It's part of our family heritige - except for me. My mother always told me that was boy's work. Maybe that's why I fix things in secret - just little things I come upon and know how to fix or am not afraid to try fixing.

Jessica DuLong said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Sharon, and for your excellent review on Story Circle Books (http://bit.ly/bQtUZd). I particularly love your points about appreciating the craftsmanship that went into making the devices in our lives.

I'm so glad word is getting out about the importance of hands-on work!

All the best,
Jessica DuLong