All posts by Mark

Rare Trades: 1. Bookbinding

The Institute of Backyard Studies is proud to present a series of short films on some of the rare trades which are fast disappearing in the modern world. The films, originally made by Institute Director Mark Thomson with producer Graeme Isaac and renowned cinematographer Kim Batterham to accompany an exhibition on Rare Trades presented by the National Museum of Australia, will be posted on the site one by one over the next few weeks. The first one features the art of traditional hand bookbinding as practised by Daphne Lera, and coming soon will be films on sawmaking, stonemasonry, coachbuilding, shoemaking, millinery, scroll painting – and more. Check the site every week or so for new films.

We look forward to your comments on the films, and any suggestions for other rare manually skilled trades which the Institute might investigate in future.

Burt Munro’s spirit lives on

*One of the above is true!

Deep in a former crumpet factory in Adelaide’s western suburbs Spog and the Volts on Salt One team are hard at work on an electric racing bike they believe will have the grunt to take out the world record.

A former professional go-kart driver, Spog has assembled a dedicated team who over the next couple of months will prepare the bike for their assault on the record. In late March 2011 they will wheel a mighty quick bike out onto the salt flats of Lake Gairdner in outback South Australia.

On the 10 mile straight track, the mass of lithium (LiFePO4) batteries will discharge their magic in a few minutes and Spog and Volts on Salt 1 will travel at unspeakable (ie we’re not telling you yet) speed.

To learn more about this must-attend event go to Already it looks like having a big turn out. Spog recently went up to the Lake Gairdner site and said it was all looking fantastic. The event seems to be very well organised as it has been running for over twenty years.

In the meantime the Institute of Backyard Studies site will be the place to keep track of the Volts on Salt developments.We’re proud to be associated with Spog and his crew’s efforts and salute the spirit of Shed Scientists everywhere and Burt Munro  of World’s Fastest Indian fame in particular.

Good on you fellas for having a RED HOT GO!

For further information about electric vehicles, check out the Australian Electric Vehicles Association website on

Mid January update

The VOLTwerks crew have been putting in a few late nights lately. The two Advanced DC L91 motors fell into place after many nights, working frantically for a technical inspection in Gawler this Sunday (23rd January). The original frame, a 2001 Suzuki GSXR donated by a mate who rode it into the back of a parked car and decided that it would be better as a contender for the electric land speed record, has been heavily modified. It will be considerably heavier than the original bike as weight is an important factor in racing at higher speeds.

The batteries – LiFePO4 – have turned up, all 240 of them, which will deliver 150 volts of power through a Soliton Motor Controller.  As for the bike speed that will result from this much power… only the Lake will tell in late March. There should be heaps of people turning up for the tests. (see )



February 1st update

Despite the fact that it has been murderously hot in Adelaide in the last few days (and in a shed with a low roof it really cooks) the VOLTwerks team have been hard at it. They’re hoping to having a working bike running in two weeks and ready for dyno tests in three weeks. Despite this cracking pace, the team has introduced a radical new element to the design at this late hour: they’ve added a third motor to go in front of the other two main motors. This motor, a 20 HP brushless DC outrunner motor from a very large radio controlled model helicopter, will accelerate the bike from 0 to 30 kph. A clutch will then disengage this small motor and the two large motors will then kick in. The logic behind this third motor is about energy efficiency: the considerable force required at starting (and thus the heat generated) will be borne by this motor. The clutch mechanism will have to be smooth…

The engine mounting work has continued and about 2/3 of the batteries have been tentatively put into place in the space where the fuel tank would have once gone. Each of the small batteries can put out an astonishing 100amps of current!  These batteries are joined up through the Soliton motor controller which discharges energy as required. So much power is dangerous – there’s lots of warning in the instructions about how a spanner dropped across the terminals will vaporise…

The remaining 1.3 of the batteries will be distributed about the bike, including along the swing arm (the forks of the back wheel – shown below on a jig). “Pistol Pete” a legendary gun metal fabricator, has been brought in to help with the rebuilt swing arm, which Spog estimates is about 4 times heavier than the original.  It’s built like a loco. Crew Chief Rocket Rodders has been putting in long hours helping with the fabrication and keeping some quality control to the design. Another vital team member has been Dr Jeff who is the guru of all things electrical. The team is doing good things. Everything thus far seems to be going to plan although there’s a hell of a lot of work to go yet. Bring on March!


Mid February update

Work is progressing and the shape of the creature is emerging

rare shot of The Spog minus helmet overcoem with emotion as the true shape of his vision emergesEven without the tailpiece its looking good

9th March update

With up to 5 people working on the bike up to 18 or 20 hours a day, the pressure is really on at the Voltwerks.

Resident boffin Dr Jeff has been putting in long hours soldering up an enormous amount of circuitry that will evenly control the battery charging and discharging. Nearly all the standard parts of the bike such as brakes, throttle have been reinstalled on the original frame and in many cases beefed up. As the bike needs to be heavy to prevent wheelspin at high speed, there is ample opportunity to add heavy weight in terms of robust structural design – as long as the additions all fit within the streamlined fairing. There’s also been a very nice bright orange paint job -it’s going to look good as well as go like hell.

One anticipated problem is the dissipating the rapid heat build-up in the motors from putting a colossal amount of electricity in a short time and then cooling them down again after the run. Spog and Rocket Rodders have built a cooling system that pumps coolant through an ice tank and then in coils around the motors and also cools the Soliton Controller. This is about to be put together and trialled and when the circuitry is finished and a few more bits fall into place, the moment of truth will take place… very soon.

Spog's lisits of millions of tasks to do. Note the bottle of Coopers memory aiThe Spog half way through another long day


Heavy rains in the South Australian desert have made the roads to Lake Gairdner impassable, cancelling the March 2011 DLRA meeting!

The Volts on Salt team, after months of incredibly hard work, are gutted. Especially when the bike was so close to being ready. A showdown with the competition sometime in the next few months is still on the cards if a suitable venue (ie a disused airstrip in good condition) can be found.

In the meantime, VOS1 runs, and beautifully smoothly at that.(You tube clip cming soon)

Spog and the boys are going to take a breather but are committed as ever. Stay tuned.

What do we know about Henry Hoke?

Hoke’s Bluff - never easy to find

Contemplation of Henry’s work always provokes thought: indeed, profound thought. What is this widget really for? What was he thinking when he made this? Why bother? What is the point of anything? Henry Hoke was (potentially at least) our own Thomas Edison, never fully recognised … but right to the end, he was a sceptically thoughtful yet energetic man whose activities ranged far and wide across the broad fields of human endeavour. I believe that for his colossal efforts Henry deserves, at the very least, a dusty, inconspicuous corner in the Temple of Fame. Henry Hoke’s life promised so much yet the specific details often remained elusive: the few scraps that remain are like the glimpse of magnificent vine-covered ancient ruins through a dense jungle. They tantalise us and pose more questions than they answer.hokesblufftoday003-new-col1.pngWe know, for instance, that he was raised in the small town of Hoke’s Bluff, now a ghost town – sometimes there, sometimes not. His father, Silas Hoke, was the town’s pharmacist and librarian and of slightly sinister character. His mother Beryl was a leading figure in the Ladies’ Blacksmithing League, an organisation described as midway between the Hell’s Angels and the Country Women’s League. It is almost certain that Henry gained his early mechanical and metalworking skills from his accomplished mother.We know that he worked for a period in the Merchant Marine and as an automotive mechanic and a shearer. Despite our painstaking forensic reconstructions and laborious research, the mighty jigsaw that is Henry Hoke still has many empty spaces. It is time to redress the outrage that we have, until now, neglected a true prince of inventiveness in our midst, a man whose life’s work towers above us like a monument to colossal pointlessness. I leave you to reach your own conclusions about Henry Hoke’s astonishing life and work. I’ve got no idea. Readers are encouraged to help fill in any details they might of Henry’s lfe and activities by clicking here.loadballslite2.png

For the connoisseur of corrugated iron

As the ABC Collectors programme knows very well, people collect all sorts of stuff. One particular line of collectible that doesn’t turn up very often is corrugated iron.

Almost immediately after it was invented sometime in the early 1820s by Henry Robinson Palmer, a British engineer and naval design, it rapidly became a popular lightweight building material (although the early corro was very thick – sometimes up to ten times its usual thickness nowadays – which gives a clue of the age of any really old corro you might find.

It’s hard to credit but there are still a few snobs around who sneer at it for being  ‘too industrial”.  Get a life, I say – or else you try lifting 2 square metres of roof tiles in one go and see what you think then… Corrugated iron is fabulously efficient, strong and effective building material that we here at the Institute like to celebrate.

So it was with great pleasure that I recently met Wayne Rabone, one of Australia’s small number of corrugated iron collectors, Wayne, a demolition contractor who lives in Kaniva in Western Victoria, has easily the biggest collection I’ve ever seen. Being a demolition contractor must have a few advantages in this line of collecting.Wayne Rabone’s corrugated iron collection (part view)

Wayne reckons there are about 10 other people around who collect pretty seriously.

If you are of a similar mind or have a piece of iron that might interest him, his contact details are:

Wayne Rabone, 5 David St., Kaniva Vic 3419

Ph 03 5392 2442, Mobile: 0408 922442

Also my good friend Don Morrison makes steel bodied guitars out of old flattened corrugated iron sheets and is always on the look out for nice old logos and so on. We’ve been working on doing an old fashioned Donmo logo to spray on some new iron but am having trouble finding the right ink (it’s not a paint by the way) that can penetratev the zinc/steel. The stuff that they were using 100 years ago must have been pretty amazing. Anybody got any suggestons?

Mark Thomson


Hooting smoking and whistling at Murray Bridge

“You fellas have too much time on your hands!”

We heard that a few times over this last weekend when the Institute took the Random Excuse Generator to the 12th National Historical Machinery Rally on the banks of the Murray River at Murray Bridge in South Australia. We thought it was pretty funny coming from somebody who might have spent eight or nine thousand hours repairing an old tractor they’d pulled out of a swamp!

The biennial rally is the biggest rally of old traction engines, farm equipment and historical working vehicles in Australia, bringing together most of the restorers’ clubs and associations in one place. It’s an immense event covering numerous acres, full of hooting, smoking, whistling machinery, most of it beautifully restored or at some point on the way there.

A magnificent machine in the grand parade

It also attracts a very pleasant, chatty bunch of people who have a really good time together. They’re very accomplished shed dwellers with an amazing range of skills between them and a fair willingness to share them. So it was a good place for the Institute to take Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator on a rare outing and show people some of our products along with a few pieces of our remarkable Hoke’s Tool Co. collection.

Technical Director Dr Chris Block explains the intricacies of the REG

The Random Excuse Generator got a big workout – IBYS Technical Director Dr Chris Block was obliged to make numerous running repairs as the REG seems to have acquired the ability to make excuses for itself (there’s clearly a feedback issue here).

Over the weekend we signed up a number of new Institute members, added a lot of people to the email address list, took orders for t-shirts (because we sold out over the weekend) and held a draw for a valuable Hoke’s Tool Co. Trivia Drive. T-shirts and Certificates of Membership will be in the mail in the next few days. The lucky winner of the Trivia Drive was John Becke of Yanco in New South Wales. John was exhibiting a 1952 Norman generator set at the show, and is a member of the Riverina Vintage Machinery Club.

For us it was all worthwhile, seeing the slow smiles come over people’s faces when they realised what we were up to. We met lots of terrific people that we would like to participate in our online activities and put their sheds – which would be some of the most interesting to be found anywhere – up on our site. Stay in touch and thanks to all those people we met over the weekend who made it such a good experience.

Mark Thomson

Advanced Research Director




In building this blog/website, it’s been necessary a couple of times for me to point out that what we are trying to do is not just talk endlessly about sheds, humpies or backyard outbuildings for their own sake. There is a method, a big picture, behind it all. What I want to do is to encourage curiousity, creativity and resourcefulness and the place that it tends to happen most, in the way that I want to encourage, is in the shed.

The sort of shed culture that I am keen to propagate is about a sort of frugal thoughtfulness blended with the sort of creativity that has become unfashionable. Creativity is not an easy subject to raise in these circumstances because in many people’s minds it brings up images of.. well, wankers and artists who are obsessed with themselves. It’s a bloody tragedy that ‘creativity ‘ has now become a specialised activity and that people have bought the idea that there is a small specialised sector of zany, whacky creative types – usually weird, messy or otherwise being outsiders – and that there is everybody else, who are normal and not at all creative.

This proposition strikes me as crap. I meet large numbers of people who are undoubtedly stunningly creative and innovative in many ways. They might be builders or mechanics or any of hundreds of occupations but because they are outside of the conventional description of ‘creative’, or worse still, make things that are useful, their imaginative skills are not recognised. Officially creative is generally defined as things that have a big white space around them. That you know they are creative, such as in an art gallery or a framed picture that way you don’t confuse them with the merely useful.

Saying that most of the art world is basically up itself and a waste of time makes me, of course, an ungrateful barbarian to many of my former colleagues in the art world (yes, I once went to Art School).

And I would leave it at that but I feel that not harnessing or recognising the full creative talents of a culture could be a fatal flaw for any culture.

I’ve recently been reading “Collapse” by American biologist/geographer Jared Diamond in which he outlines numerous cultures and societies which have collapsed and vanished and why. The story of Easter Island is particularly disturbing. Jared Diamond points out; what could they have been thinking when they cut down the last tree, thus leaving them on a very isolated Pacific ocean with no way of making a boat to leave the place?

“Collapse” certainly makes convinces me that anyone who thinks that somehow the vast magnicient edifice of western civilisation couldnt fall over very easily is deluding themselves.

However, I’m starting to rant. I think I’d better go out to the shed and make something.

That’s why I want to encourage a sort of personal sense of responsibility for how the world works around each of us. In fact the backyard and its associated institutions – the shed and the barbecue to name a couple – can make a strong claim to being the very generators of our prosperity, our well-being and sanity.

The thoughtful application of the principles of mechanical advantage – the screw, the lever, the pulley, the wheel and axle and the inclined plane and wedge – meant that solving problems was a source of delight, satisfaction and even occasionally profit.

But with urban infill housing slowly taking over the backyards of our cities, this personal playground of creative minds is being obliterated.

We are becoming an indoor, inward looking nation, gazing out on patio courtyards paved from edge to edge and ordered to within an inch of their lives. The woodpile down the back or the pile of useful scrap has vanished. Rather than fix anything we ring up ‘the man’ (that mysterious individual from… where?) to come and install a new part or we buy a new plastic version made by slaves in some unseen part of the world.

Television, flapping away at computers and the minimising of all risk now dominates our lives. We are diminished as humans by technology almost as much as we benefit from it. We are literally losing touch with the world.

This website is for people who reckon that it’s no bad thing to get your hands dirty or those who don’t throw good stuff out at the drop of a hat. And if you’re one of those people, you’re very welcome to make a contribution.

The answer’s in our own backyard.

Mark Thomson.
Advanced Research Director



Guiding Principles


  • Never throw anything out- you’ll need it one day, sonny jim.
  • Being a practical and useful person is a worthwhile achievement
  • Encourage curiosity, wonder and other cheap thrills as the origins of imaginative problem solving.
  • Useful and everyday things contain their own beauty.
  • Without a grasp of the principles of mechanical advantage – the lever, the pulley, the screw, the inclined plane and wedge and the wheel and axle – we’re stuffed.
  • You can never have too many tools.
  • I said put that down!
  • A big mess in the shed or the backyard is only a problem for those without a clue.guiding-principles.pngguiding-principles.png
  • Reticence, mumbling and disorganisation are the signs of a deep and enquiring mind.
  • Good ideas are precious beyond rubies but if not shared freely are as useless as tits on a bull.
  • And leave something for the next bloke.


Show and Tell Sheds

Every so often we receive stories and pictures from other sheddies, shed kings, or ‘shedonistas’ as UK associate Julian Lea Jones calls them.

Now you can post your own stories and pictures in the Show and Tell Sheds section of the Forum. Just click on ‘Our Forum’ in the sidebar on the left, register your preferred username and password to become a member of the Forum, and then click through to Show and Tell Sheds to add your story and upload photos.

Here’s a great example from Bobcat to get you thinking.

Bobcat’s story


I am going on 62 years of age. From when I was 10 or 11 years old, I grew up in country NSW. My stepdad was a drover, an old bushie born up in Bowling Alley Point near Nundle in NSW. He was the smartest bloke I ever knew. It was marvellous what he could fix with a piece of No.8 wire and a pair of pliers. I often feel I was a bit of a dickhead for not taking in more of what he tried to teach me – he did most of his own repairs on his droving equipment and leather gear, did some blacksmithing, etc, etc. My brothers and I used to spend hours taking turns at winding the blower on his portable forge. He could fix most things that shit themselves. Boy, if only I had the nous then to take in more of his bushcraft.

I’ve missed out recording my days out droving, the endless nights as a kid listening to stories around the campfire – stories about a myriad of things to do with the good ole days and my own life from the 50’s onwards.

I still remember quite a lot but most is lost now. It’s a bloody shame. But back to the shed thingie.

As a kid I did all those things that young blokes do: pushbikes, billycarts, gadgets and inventions, things that make all the politically correct B#@holes of today freak out. I still remember my late brother making leaf springs out of Masonite strips nailed together then nailed to a billycart – and ya know, they bloody worked! He also fitted an old Victa lawnmower engine to his fixed wheel bike. I spent hours towing him up and down the street on my bike trying to get it to start. Lucky it didn’t start. Some knowledge of gearing probably would have been helpful. Lots of laughs.

I have owned a few modified cars: FJ/FC/FB and EH Holdens, utes, vans and sedans. Nothing too flash. I once owned a real cool 1961 Studebaker Lark, and some motor bikes and much more. Sorry, I’m rambling again. My first sort of a shed was an addition to a large carport on our first house at Modbury Heights in Adelaide. The carport was 9 metres by 7 metres and I closed in the western side for a workshop that I built myself, complete with a lockable storage room for my tools.

That was in 1977/78, about the time they banned advertising for smokes on TV. I was Somehow I stopped smoking. I had been smoking 25 to 30 a day at home and sometimes more than 60 a day when I was working ( I was driving interstate trucks at the time) for 10 or 12 years. So when I gave up, I spent the money I was spending on smokes on tools instead. My missus was quite happy with that and I’ve never got into trouble spending money on tools.

I first bought myself a Transarc Easywelder, a 5 inch Makita angle grinder, a Bosch 3/8 drill, a Taiwanese drill press and a bench vice. I slowly but surely built my tool kit and workshop up from there.

I built two steel workbenches in 1978/79 and I still use them today.

I moved all this gear from Adelaide to Leigh Creek (1981) then to ‘Kikatinalong’ at Port Pirie in 1991 and finally to Caboolture in Queensland (2000). The welder is still working but the angle grinder died last December, after all that time. I did replace the armature once after I cut the floor out of a VW bush buggy and did a lot of other work it wasn’t designed for. The old Bosch drill shit itself a few years ago but the rest are still going strong.

Using this gear over the years I have built heaps of bullbars and stuff for 4×4’s, loading racks, tandem and box trailers with gates or loading ramps, implements for Fergie tractors and lots of other items too numerous to mention.

In 1981 we sold our house in Adelaide and moved to Leigh Creek up in the Northern Flinders ranges for 10 years. Leigh Creek houses had sheds about 4.8 metres by 7 metres and being on shift work, the amount of time spent in the shed was unreal. What I’m trying to say is that the shed was well worn by the time we moved out in1991. At this time we acquired 2 trikes, a Honda 70cc for the kids and a Suzuki 125cc for myself. I also bought a wrecked 125 and used the rear axle and other bits to build a trailer for my trike, which our old blue heeler Ugly loved.

Our stay in “The Creek” was great. We went all over the Flinders Ranges and up the Birdsville and Strezlecki Tracks. We used to camp at Muloorina Station at Lake Eyre (it was about an hour and a half drive from the Creek) about 4 times a year and saw water in the lake 3 or 4 times in our 10 years. (I still have a litre coke bottle of water collected from the lake in July 1983). We also travelled to Lake Torrens, to some great sand dunes at Ediacra (west of Beltana) and also to Coober Pedy, Woomera and Roxby Downs. In 1988 we had purchased “Kikatinalong”, a five acre block at Port Pirie, South Australia. It came with a house and three sheds, all only a few years old. We used the 7m x 6m shed on the back fence for storage and I pulled down a 4.8m x 3.6m shed and built a BBQ area and an elevated cubby house for the kids on the site.

The other shed, which was 12m x 6m had a pit and 3m x 6m office. I used bits from the shed I had pulled down to extend the big shed (that’s another story) but over the years we were there I installed a tiled shower, kitchenette, a storage loft, shelving and extra storage and more workshop areas. The move to Kikatinalong was supposed to be our last move.

In 2000 we decided to move to Queensland to be nearer some of our kids. We were too far away if there was a problem family wise – a 20 odd hour non-stop car trip was required.

The exercise moving up here was a huge saga and a story on its own.
Once here we inherited a 6m x 6m shed (now 9m x 6m. The bloke that owned this place before us must have been a bit of a galah as he built the shed at far end of the yard and the other side of the house – so you have to back the car and trailer across the back lawn to get to the shed.
a place for everything and everything in it's placea place for everything and everything in it's place

We bought with us some of the storage shelving and three work benches, steel odds and ends, boxes of bolts and screws, fittings, all kinds of stuff new and used, two diamond drill bits, a steel tyre off a wagon wheel, a bullock yoke and some harness, a dingo trap and other stuff too numerous to mention. I find it hard to believe I really did bring some of the stuff all the way up here. It’s a bloody joke.

How does one fit a 12m x 12m shed into 6m square shed? I’ve tried to set it up as good as I can – power points everywhere, plenty of lighting. pegboards on most walls. For what it is, it’s OK.

Then, two years ago I was diagnosed as having Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). I kept on working until 4th December last year when I was squeezed out – good ole honest John’s IR laws strike again.

I now have plenty of time for the shed. On retirement I bought myself a new MIG welder, $2,000 worth of Metalcraft gear,, a new Makita 5 inch angle grinder, a belt/disc sander, a guillotine for cutting steel bar etc, a large workshop fan, 14 volt drill to replace the ole 9 volt Makita and built a new mobile 2.4m x 1.2m work bench.

I did the extension of the shed with a little help from my wife and one of my daughters. It took me a few weeks due to my illness. I had a concreter do the slab and we did the rest, also installing a 3,000 litre water tank with pump etc. I also built a steel storage rack outside the shed and fitted it with plastic sewer pipes with capped ends to try to keep my steel bar dry and free of rust… hopefully.

I’ve found that my shed keeps my mind off my illness and I don’t dwell on things as much. I don’t spend all my time in it as the drugs I’m on have a “chronic fatigue” type of effect and some days I only make the lounge. I do try to keep busy most of the time in the shed or in the yard. My early retirement upset our plans – we were going to do the old grey nomad thing but had to use most of our super to pay off the house. We will prevail though, no worries.

I have considered the shed club thingie in your last book. My only problem is that a lot of people who go in for that sort of thing have never owned a shed or tools in their whole life. I’ll speak form some of my own experiences: some fellas over the years have tried to borrow my gear – some blokes in Leigh Creek once tried to borrow my cement mixer. “I’m sorry I don’t lend things” I said “Ah shit, we’ll have to hire it then… how many bloody slabs will it cost?” “Sorry, I don’t hire my stuff either.” “ Well you can go & F#@*! ya self” End of story.

I have found that a lot of blokes who drink , smoke and gamble etc spend all their $’s on the same ( and that’s up to them – no worries) but they are always the ones on the bludge.

The thing is that I went without heaps of other things to do my thing, which is building up a really cool shed/workshop. I have been caught a few times but not too many. It’s easier to say no in the first place.

On my present 4.2m x 2.4m tandem trailer I have put some stickers on the rear mudguards that SORRY TRAILER NOT FOR LOAN OR HIRE and some people still try it on. No-one looks after your gear the way you do yourself although. Over the years I have helped out countless friends and people in strife I have always used my on gear. But I’m straying off the track again, eh.

In closing I have enjoyed many a visit to other’s sheds. Or places like the dump at Muloorina station, which in 1991 was a museum of old gear from 1909 to the present. There was even a old 6×6 Army Duck and a gyrocopter. I was amazed by the old Blacksmith’s shop at Copley near Leigh Creek. It was just as it was when the smithy shut doors in the 40s or 50s.

I have adopted many a good idea form other blokes and their sheds and hope to see a lot more before I check out and close up my shed for the last time. My grandsons will hopefully inherit some really good tools… I do spend time in the shed with one of them but it’s never enough though. I think a few of them will be sheddies later on. I sincerely hope so.

Keep on shedding!



What are we here for again?

As a baby boomer, I spent a lot of time endlessly thumbing through Popular Mechanics magazines. They were just so damn practical and useful, populated by a world of deeply handy and capable Americans that were hard not to like.

Things are different now. Americans seem to have different things on their mind such as reducng third world countries to dust and misery or ignoring global warming to the point of calamity. They’re not as easy to like.

make coverUntil yesterday when my jaded view of the US took a sudden turn for the better. From my friend Genevieve in Oregon (who is transplanted there under most unusual circumstances) I received a copy ofThe Best of Make: 75 projects from the pages of Make.

Make Magazine is a US Magazine that has only been going for a few years but has found a vast niche market: the people who are the shed tinkerers of the US, the hard rubbish collectors, the try-anything-for-a-bit-of-a-laugh types, the frugal people who never throw anything out because they can see use still in that stuff.

The projects they make a somewhere between art/craft/engineering… and fun. Most important… fun.

At last! We here at the Institute of Backyard Studies salute Make and the many activites they propagate such as Makers Faires and lots of online material (see

The book is even better. It starts with a story from Mister Jalopy about trying to repair his car’s non-functional fuel guage which was going to cost over $500. He decided to try to do it himself and ended up finding it was a very simple problem involving a broken clip which would have cost about a dollar.

What the Maker people are about is forcing manufacturers not to do this sort of wasteful foolishness and they pursue with a missionary zeal.

Their Makers Bill of Rights should go up on any respectable shed wall. It includes things like Cases shall be easy to open! Batteries should be replaceable! Special tools are allowed only for darn good reasons! Screws are better than glues! And many others usually relating to eletronics (they are very keen on liberating electronics from geekdom).

There’s also an eagerness and openness about sharing ideas and knowledge that is quite infectious.

This book will gladden the heart of any tinkerer and it is especially good for a child who needs to get some hands-on experience and will see some results from that experience. It would be a nice addition to any library in a community men’s shed..



from Mark Thomson, IBYS Advanced Research Director

Coming from an organisation that celebrates tinkering in all its many forms, in the past few weeks we at the Institute have been enjoying the revitalising of tinkering culture. Or rather the public recogntion of the value of tinkering. It’s pleasing because a couple of years ago I had a two week residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, during which I wrote a monograph entitled “I tinker therefore I am”. At the time people thought I was some sort of raving loony. Most of them still do of course but I feel a slight smug twinge of satisfaction that I was right.

With the GSU (Global Stuff Up) and all, people are no longer throwing out consumer goods with quite the gay abandon they once did – at least in the wealthy west. The rest of the world has, quite sensibly, always conserved resources and tinkered of course.

Tinkering is a beautiful thing. Or as I said in the Haystack monograph:

Tinkering a minor risktaking activity without any great consequence: it is not goal-directed nor are there defined outcomes. There are no key performance indicators for tinkering. Thus, tinkering is suspended from the pressures of defined goals and time limits. It’s about a question mark, not a product or a saleable process. Tinkering involves a flow state, an intense focus on a small closed world. Tinkering and play are closely interlinked: a ceretain sense of wonder propels the curiousity at the heart of every compulsive tinkerer. Tinkering also allows failure which is essential for any process of evolution.

And so on…

There have have been Wall Street Journal articles:

Tinkering Makes a Comeback Amid Crisis

The ABC (Australian Braodcasting Corporation to you outside Australia) has been busy on tinkering, including this interview with Miles Park from the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales who has been exploring the relationship between tinkering, product longevity and e-waste reduction

There’s also an interview with me (gosh! self promotion! just fancy that!):

There’s also a Tales of Tinkering Blog that the ABC has set up:

Alex Pang, a bloke from California who works on strategies around future uses of technology, has also written a very nice comprehensive survey of the state of tinkering:

Nancy White, another West Coast guru (whom I had the great pleasure of meeting recently) has been reflecting usefully on the subject:

Through Nancy I met (on a stinking hot Saturday morning recently) an Adelaide local Mike Seyfang, who is following up on many of the same themes that we explore in the Institute. A man with a strong science and technology bent, Mike is a veteran of the early days of modern computing in Australia. He’s got an impressive grasp of the possibilities of digital tinkering and knows lots of people of the same ilk. His theories about the future of language could lead to some interesting discussions…

There are a number of other people who are in on this caper if you are interested: John Seely Brown, Anne Balsamo, Mitch Resnik (more suggestions are welcome)

Or if you want to make some further comments, feel free to add them in the ideas section of our forum.

The chook shed on wheels

It always seemed like an urban myth or a piece of bush leg-pulling: that somewhere out there was an old chook shed being towed behind a van. Then, some months ago, I was going around the roundabout in downtown Alice Springs, just by the council offices and the public library when there it was.

So I threw the old Falcon into a tight squealing u-turn (it was my sister’s boyfriend’s car which I had just borrowed to go down the shops) and went back and had a chat with Frank Turton aka The Chookman.


Frank is an entertainer and he had just been driving around the Northern Territory doing his stuff. The NT is the kind of place where they appreciate people like Frank. He comes from Paringa which is on the River Murray next to Renmark in South Australia. There’s not a lot to Paringa – a bakery (7/10) and a slightly expensive junk/curio store in the old garage. I suspect that Frank is one of the biggest things Paringa has going for it.

Frank takes his chooks on his musical tours around the great Australian countryside – or at least it was taken for granted that he did. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. So he needed to tow them behind in their own specialised accomodation.

Frank Turton’s chook shed on wheels

The chooks were definitely in there – they would peek out from the sound holes of the guitars or through some of the ventilator flaps that Frank had thoughtfully provided for his fowls. From the many stickers on the trailer shed it was clear that these were some very well travelled chooks.

Good on ya Frank. Think about it… some people spend their lives pruning the geraniums with nail scissors or getting the the knives and forks in perfect size order from left to right. Not Frank. His mission has been to take his chooks on a national tour and more than once it seems. These are chooks with an expanded view of the world. Just imagine what other cage-locked fowls must think when they meet these sophisticated well-travelled birds. They would be impressed. I was.

Hard rubbish -the garbo’s perspective

Some time back, Malcolm sent me a few shed photos. As you can see below, it’s a modest shed, but clearly loved by its owner.

Malcolm’s shed

Malcolm’s shed pic 3

Malcolm works as a garbological transport engineer for one of the Sydney Councils, which is an excellent position to be in when you want to build a shed.

A good many of the components for the shed (including tools) were sourced on the job, especially during the twice yearly Clean Up day (or ‘hard rubbish’ day as it is known in some parts of Australia. Other parts of the shed were culled from traditional sources: part of the structure was the old roof trusses from a mate’s place that was being renovated;similar with the cladding. The floor was from a garage sale. A bit of money was spent buying new stuff but it was kept to the absolute bare minimum.


The Institute of Backyard Studies pays homage to Malcolm and all who do the right thing and build like this. But wait, there’s more!

It was a privilege and a revelation to speak to someone who works on collecting hard rubbish. He more or less confirmed what I have always suspected – that there is a vested interest in councilsd leaving the stuff out on the street for a while because sooner or later there’s a good chance that a freeloader like me will come along and grab those worn green widgets or that piece of painted, dinged up but so useful Tassie Oak shelf.

And for Malcolm the job involves some hard choices. He said that some days the cabin of the garbage truck is so full of good stuff at the end of the day that the council supervisor has to come and get the rest of the crew in another vehicle because they won’t fit inside. There’s also a lot of transferring stuff going on. He knows that some people he works with a looking for certain things and vice versa, so a lot of swapping can go on at the end of the day. Other things end up being sold on Ebay. Other stuff ends up at the local Vinnies or Salvos if it known that they are looking for good furniture or whatever. As Malcolm says, you make a bit, spread some around, give it away.


Interior Malcolm’s Shed 1

Since these photos were taken Malcolm and his wife have moved home and the current place does not have a shed. As you can imagine, that situation will soon be rectified.

Any more observations about hard rubbish are welcome in our forums. I’ve noticed that hard rubbish seems to be changing – this year there’s heaps of those trolley barbecues, along with the usual canvas and wood fold up chairs, cracked plastic furniture, busted bamboo anti mozzie oil lamps and broken battery powered vacuum cleaners. Many whippersnippers seem to have reached the end of their working lives (although I’ve now got 4 and the motor works on every one of them) There’s even a few satellite tv dishes (they look handy…) I’m always looking for more Random Excuse Generator parts or something that may have been part of Henry Hoke’s Quack of Doom (see elsewhere on this sight for sore eyey about Henry’s inventions)

Hard Rubbish and re-use is a subject worthy of further study. There’s an interesting essay about all this from ‘The Sage on the Page’ and look up bindilling and re-use

More to come later