BLAST FROM THE PAST Workshops, Big and Very Small By Mister Jalopy
Build a stowable mini workshop for modest tasks like lamp rewiring
and scissor sharpening and soon you’ll be building your dreams.
As sensible people slumber, the
palpable thrill of junk acquisition wakes me at 6: 30
a.m. every weekend. Sleeping on Saturday mornings
is for those who have not fallen prey to the temptress
of garage sales. There are such unbelievable riches
buried in suburban cul-de-sacs that I sometimes
wonder if I’ll find the Hope Diamond in a junk drawer
amongst the S&H Green Stamps, unsticky tape, and
keys without locks.
When arriving at an estate sale, I forgo the house
and go directly to the under-lit, spider-webbed
garage. Time is frozen under a layer of dust, and
you can get a feel for the makers who preceded
you with their tube radios, home weather stations,
and oddball tricks.
At their best, garage workshops are chock-full
of raw materials like baby food jars filled with cup
hooks, cigar boxes of lamp parts, reclaimed kitchen
cabinets full of solidified cans of Plastic Wood,
and neatly coiled power cords cut from broken
appliances. In the postwar, cardigan-wearing and pipe-smoking handyman heyday, considerable creativity,
planning, and reuse trumped money when working
on the project that would never end — building
the ideal workshop.
Based on my extensive field research, it seems
home workshops assembled today are but a whisper
of what they used to be. Of course, the workshops
have changed along with the world. The external
forces of Depression-era poverty and the following
wartime rationing shaped a generation’s view of
what was worth fixing, saving, and reusing.
At some point, the cost of buying a new hammer
dropped below the cost of replacing a broken
hammer handle and everybody was able to afford
a hammer. Then came the economical pocket
calculator, and now a $200 hand-crank-powered
computer is right around the corner.
Affordability is a great technological advance in
itself and empowers those who previously could
not afford a hammer, calculator, or computer, but
there are losses when replacing instead of fixing.
Besides the chain of raw materials needed, energy
required, distribution transport, and end disposal,
life is just less rich when everything you own is only
five years old.
Can it be improved upon? Think how pinstriping would
dress it up! Or a deep-sea diver fighting a giant lobster
painted on the side. Or the correct answers from last
week’s crossword written on the inside lid. Make it as
personal as your diary.
My shop grew from a single Craftsman workbench
that I couldn’t access until I pulled the car out of
the garage. A workbench can be as unattainable a
luxury to a citizen of Manhattan as a computer is
to a resident of Zambia. Inspired by the handyman
magazines of the past, Mister Jalopy’s Hide-Away
Workbench is a modest workshop that can be tucked
away until project time.
Start with your workshop and then build the rest
of the world around you.
“Closet Door Workshop,” Science and Mechanics,
“Better Ways to Build Workbenches,” Amateur Craftsman’s
Cyclopedia of Things to Make, 1937
Mister Jalopy breaks the unbroken, repairs the irreparable,
and explores the mechanical world at