The great DIY revival: meet the people who’ll try to fix anything

<span>Daily fix: Lorna helps run things at Bath’s community Share and Repair shop.</span><span>Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer</span>
Daily fix: Lorna helps run things at Bath’s community Share and Repair shop.Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

I’ll need your sewing fingers for this one, Jean,” says volunteer fixer Richard Pope. He peers into the belly of a 1970s Grundig analogue radio, as Jean delicately knots the thread that provides the tension for the radio’s frequency dial. “It’s been stuck on Radio 2 for years,” Jean confides, “and I can’t stand all the shouting now that Vanessa [Feltz] has left the breakfast show.” A few seats away, cancer research scientist and “happy tinkerer” Callum Hall, 30, teaches civil servant Madeleine, 24, how to revive her DeLonghi coffee maker (“You don’t want to mess about with compressed steam and electricity,” he admits), as locals queue with toasters, TVs and battery-operated kids’ toys balanced on their laps.

The volunteer-run repair café at community centre St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green, London, is one of 580 such events operating across the UK. Repair cafés form the backbone of a flourishing nationwide repair subculture inspired by a movement that began with Repair Café de Meevaart, which launched in Amsterdam in 2009.

Today, the UK has many social enterprises to teach dying electrical repair skills. There are repair skillshare initiatives for women, such as Rosie the Restarter, which teach how to repair everything from lawnmowers to lamps; charities that adopt and renovate electricals for donation, including Brighton and Hove’s Tech-Takeback; and workshops that impart basic electrical troubleshooting and repair skills to schoolchildren raised in a country that is the second- highest contributor to e-waste in the world. (The UK is behind only Norway in this regard, generating 36,681 tonnes of household waste electrical and electronic equipment in an average year, or 1kg per household.)

But there’s good news. If we reuse the 13m items a year we currently throw away or recycle, we could save 930 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to waste management company Suez. This is equivalent to taking 199,000 cars off the road. Yet with the number of cobblers, clothes alterers and electrical repair shops having dwindled on our high streets since the 1990s, skills are in short supply.

“The repair sector will generate 30,000 jobs by 2030,” says Fiona Dear of the Restart Project, a social enterprise that promotes the reuse and repair of electronic and electrical waste. “So we need repair cafés and volunteers, but we also need to train people for these jobs of the future.”

Lorna Montgomery is one of the people answering this call. In 2016, the Somerset retiree found herself with a broken-down electric car and a neighbour with the skills to fix it, but lacking the necessary tools for the job. In Montgomery’s childhood home, everything from malfunctioning TVs to twin tubs was fixed on the spot by her electrical engineer dad, a situation that was not unique in postwar DIY Britain. “I realised that the world I’d grown up in was a lost world, and I had to do something about that,” she says.

In 2017, Montgomery launched Share and Repair Bath, which today includes a high street shop with a library of loanable electricals, from air fryers to carpet cleaners. It also offers kettle and toaster refurbishment and runs a donation project for low-income families as well as training primary-aged schoolchildren in waste reduction and repair. “We give the kids a vacuum cleaner with a blocked electrical motor to take apart and troubleshoot, and a broken torch with an accessible electrical circuit,” she explains. “They love it!”

Nevaeh Hall, 10, recently attended a Share and Repair workshop at her primary school St Stephen’s in Bath. Since then, says her mum, Lucy, Nevaeh has been really animated about repairing things about the house and is now learning to rewire a plug having tested the batteries in all the family’s remote controls. “I worked out there was a big chunk of tissue stuck in the tube of the Hoover,” Neveah says of the October 2023 workshop. “That was really cool and it gave me loads of confidence.”

Montgomery is also seeing more young people at the Share and Repair shop. “A 15-year-old was in with a broken microphone only yesterday,” she says. “Some kids really get it, even though they weren’t raised in our ‘make do and mend’ world.”

Proliferating screwdrivers enrage Giles Cattermole, a 75-year-old retired civil engineer based in Oxfordshire who spent his career working for Engineers Without Borders in eastern Europe, Kenya and Rwanda. Cattermole is a committed volunteer fixer at repair cafés in London, the home counties and Northamptonshire, where he makes a point of training people who arrive with broken electricals in the principles of electrical disassembly. Taking apart a kettle or toaster should be rather easier than it is, he says. “Every year they invent a new screwdriver. We’re up to around 42 different types now. Really, it’s exasperating.”

The dark days, repairers say, began with the 1980s electronics boom – when circuits began to inexorably shrink and manufacturers took to “hermetic design”, gluing products rather than using repair-friendly screws.
For all these irritations, Cattermole is energised by the growth of the repair subculture, and the enthusiasm of people he meets: “A light goes on when folk get confident in picking up a screwdriver.”

Since 2017, the Restart Project has collated a nationwide directory of items most commonly brought in to repair cafés. Lamps, vacuum cleaners and power tools top the list, with kettles, toasters, radios and coffeemakers also seen in quantity. In the run-up to Christmas, tree lights arrive in their twinkling spools, and spring sees a glut of lawnmowers. “This is really important data for us as it shows what the demand is, and what’s not catered for on the high street,” Dear says. “For example, small household appliances do not have a fixing infrastructure, whereas phones and laptops do.”

Toys apart, it might strike us as odd to think of sentimental attachment to household electricals. Yet “Repair Shop moments” are a known phenomenon in the repair world: those emotional outpourings when a dearly loved item flickers back to life.

Software developer Katya Menshikova, 39, volunteers at Bedford’s repair café and specialises in stitching and gluing. Her most memorable fixes included a treadmill with a severed cable that had been chewed through by a pet rabbit and a mechanised toddler’s Pluto dog walker, which she was delighted to later see out and about, under the wobbling command of a two-year-old. Repairs, she believes, are the ultimate ice-breakers. “I’m quite introverted as a character, but when people sit down next to me and I ask questions about the item I’m fixing, they really open up.”

For Huddersfield fixer and former electronics engineer “Spanner” Spencer, 48, the social aspect of repair culture is pivotal, especially in his pocket of Yorkshire, where middle-aged men, he says, struggle to discuss loneliness and mental ill-health. “There’s a real camaraderie that comes from fixing things together and feeling useful,” he says of his repair café in Huddersfield. “We often go to the pub afterwards as our repair gang, too, though we have to hold back from fixing anything that’s broken when we get there!”

But the Huddersfield repair scene isn’t just the province of older men. A 16-year-old boy has been coming into the repair café since it launched and is now a fixer in his own right. “He’s confident with most electricals,” Spencer says, “which is good as schools don’t teach stuff like this.”

Older people mourn the loss of old-style craft, design and technology workshops at secondary schools. Although these were usually only aimed at boys, it was a system that transmitted curiosity by exposure. “Obviously you don’t want kids sawing their hands off,” Cattermole says, “but the focus on safety and computer design has undoubtedly severed our link to, and comfort with, hand tools.”

In his art project, Unbroken Solutions, engineer and photographer Mark Phillips documents examples of best practice in tackling the global scourge of electrical and e-waste. The project began in 2010 when Phillips visited Cuba, where, after decades of US sanctions, a thriving salvage and repair culture has taken root. Although the lifting of sanctions by Barack Obama changed things a bit, he says, “Cubans still repair and refurbish items that we would throw away, like umbrellas and single-use cigarette lighters, which they modify to make them refillable.” The similar Indian philosophy, jugaad, or frugal/improvised solutions, sees machines given a new lease of life with salvaged add-ons: motorcycle sidecars fashioned from welded shopping trolleys; handlebar headlamps made from torches and empty loo rolls; and emergency puncture repairs from banana peel.

There’s hope, Phillips believes, in the rise of “right to repair” activism. Last October, Right to Repair Europe staged a publicity stunt at the European parliament in Brussels, The Price is (NOT!) Right, during which MEPs were asked to guess the cost of replacement parts for common household electricals, such as strimmers and washing machines (typically around 30 to 40% of purchase cost). “It is quite shocking how high the barriers to repair are,” he says.

Phillips’s favourite e-waste solutions are in Finland. Here, the state has established reuse centres where consumers can drop items off to be refurbished and buy attractive upcycled goods. “Crucially, these are attractive places to visit that feel more like shopping malls than smelly dumps,” Phillips says.

In the pub afterwards, we have to hold back on fixing their broken stuff

“Repair a laptop, fix the system” is the radical repair mantra. “Computer nerd” and former London squatter Nick Galbraith, 43, for his part, sees repair as a radical act. Galbraith is behind Twisted DNA, a new social enterprise that trains unemployed people in north London to repair electricals and electronics – to cock a snook at “chucking culture”. He says he was motivated by witnessing “a hundred roadside tragedies”: broken computer screens, TVs and kettles strewn about the pavements of the capital; the flotsum of consumer capitalism. Twisted DNA plans to resell goods fixed by its young unemployed trainees to reinvest in training – particularly speakers and amplifiers, commonly junked when broken, which are in high demand with London musicians. There’s a Heath Robinson strand to squatter cultures, Galbraith argues, that broader society could learn from.

“As a squatter you find things that are left behind in abandoned buildings – lamps and microwaves and whatnot – and you see if it still works and if not you fix it with whatever is lying around and might have been disconnected.”

Sound engineer Stefania Fantini, 59, hosts Rosie the Restarter during the winter months. They share skills for women and non-binary attenders to fix items such as kettles, toasters and fairy lights. “Anyone can mend a toaster if they have the right tools,” she says, “this knowledge is a gift we need to share as widely as possible.”

Similarly, Power Tools in Lancashire, run by art project Idle Women, began life with Arts Council funding to teach emancipatory DIY skills – such as changing a lightbulb, painting a wall and using a drill – to residents of a domestic abuse refuge in St Helens. It has since become a hit YouTube series and open-source project to which other female fixers can add their own video tutorials. “The history of the refuge movement is also a women’s DIY history,” explains Rachel Anderson of Idle Women. “There’s a long heritage of women sharing practical and DIY skills with other women to build safe homes.”

In 2021, thanks to campaigning from European activist umbrella group Right to Repair Europe, the first European Right to Repair measures for fridges, lamps, televisions and display units, dishwashers, and washing machines came into effect. Also extending to the UK, these require that appliances can be repaired with “commonly available” tools, and demand that manufacturers give professionals access to repair documentation and spare parts for up to 10 years. Recent updates to the legislation require manufacturers to equip future devices with user-replaceable batteries and extend the duration of software and hardware support for smartphones.

Meanwhile, legal cases are under way to require Apple and Samsung to make their products open to repair. Cattermole welcomes this. “Cracked phone screens and damaged charging ports should be a simple thing that anyone can fix,” he says.

Among UK governments, Wales is leading the charge when it comes to centralised reuse infrastructure with a network of reuse “sheds” feeding into the Newport Reuse Centre and Re:make Newport, a store where household items including electricals are donated for refurbishment and free events train locals in repair skills as a route back to work after unemployment.

Dear would like to see repair skills taught as “an essential life skill” in schools and for Britons to shift their outlook to reuse first. “At the moment policies incentivise recycling over reuse,” she says, “which is totally bonkers.”

Back in Bethnal Green, Jean’s radio is plugged into the wall and blasting out a local pirate radio station as Richard nods his head in appreciation of its liberated analogue dial. At the door, I meet Eileen, 76, cradling a wooden lamp. Its base was turned by her partner’s great-grandfather, who worked at the docks in Wapping, and is made of delicately joined strips of oak and teak, but an internal cord had frayed and needed replacing. Eileen thinks she’ll have a go at repairing herself, next time a fuse pops or a cord frays. “I’ve got a bit of confidence now,” she says, as she beams at the lamp and a tear wells in her eye. “You know, I’m pleased as punch.”

The Repair Shop, series 13, airs on BBC1