A Place to Tinker

It has been my pleasure to read the excellent posts on Engineer Blogs since its inception – and I’ve been following the posts on tinkering and its place in engineering education with particular interest. I’m excited to join Engineer Blogs as a guest blogger, and I thought I’d join in by sharing a bit about my experience with tinkering.

First of all I’d like to point out that “tinkering” means different things to different people. To electrical engineers like our own Paul Clarke and Chris Gammell, it may mean playing around with 555 timers and Arduino controllers. To a computer science major, it may mean learning a new programming language. To engineers on the mechanical and aerospace side, like myself and FrauTech, it may mean something different. As a little kid, I played with Erector sets and Tangrams.

But no matter what flavor of hobby you get into, the activities all have something in common – they require a place to tinker.

If you are learning Perl, you need a computer and maybe a work desk. Fiddling with a soldering iron requires a work bench – even if it’s just the kitchen table covered with a towel (in Miss Outlier’s home, this used to drive my mother NUTS…). Little Miss Outlier and her siblings would normally commandeer the dining room table to make marble runs, or the living room carpet to make Hot Wheels tracks. Things like Legos don’t take up too much room in the grand scheme of things.

But what happens when your projects and your ambitions get bigger? In my household, it was a common saying that, “The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.” My brothers went from playing with Hot Wheels cars, to fixing up four-wheelers and working on car engines. I went from building things with popsicle sticks to using a Bridgeport mill to make carpentry projects.

Wait – what? A Bridgeport mill, you say? And where on earth would Miss Outlier be able to find one of those?

Figure: Possibly Miss Outlier's favorite piece of machine shop equipment

Ah, well, in my garage.

Let me tell you about my family’s garage. It began when my parents realized that the home they bought, with one child, no longer fit their needs with four children. So they decided to expand the house. My father, being a mechanical engineer with construction experience, decided that we would do most of the work ourselves so that we could save money and be able to customize however we wanted. But – and here’s the catch – he wanted to build a garage first, so that he would have a place to put the tools to build the house.

So we built a garage.

But not just any garage. We built a six-car, two story garage.

The garage was just as big as the house!

And what did we put in that garage? Cars? Yeah, not so much. I do remember at ONE point that A car did fit in there. But not for long. :) The bottom floor of the garage became a workshop. There were carpentry tools (for making cabinetry and baseboards and anything else wooden for the house) like a chop saw, horizontal bandsaw, vertical bandsaw, planer, and tablesaw. There were handtools like a drill, joiner, sander, and sawzall. And then one day there was a factory fire at a machine shop in the area, and they went bankrupt and sold off a lot of equipment. My father came home with that Bridgeport mill and a lathe in the back of our truck.

My mother at this point, having been married to my father for thirty years, just rolled her eyes. I include a picture here, just so you can get the flavor:

My personal milling machine

And the top floor of the garage? Well, for a while we just used it for storage. And then, a Home Depot moved into our area and put out of business a lot of the little Mom and Pop hardware stores. While driving by the Ace Hardware store, my father saw a “Liquidation Sale” sign in the window. Now I’m sure all you engineers can relate to this – when you are working on a project, you ALWAYS end up missing some piece that you need. And it’s irritating, right? You sit down and are all ready for a project, and then you don’t have the right size of screw. And there are a vast variety of shapes and sizes of screws, so of COURSE the one you need you won’t have.

So my dad decided to buy the fastener aisle from Ace Hardware – you know, the one with all the nuts and bolts and screws. There! Never be running to the store for THAT again!

But driving by a week later, the “Liquidation Sale” sign was still there. And you know what? There’s a lot of other useful stuff in a hardware store. So my father bargained a good price, and brought home the rest of the inventory from the Ace Hardware store. So the second floor of my garage growing up looked like this:

My personal hardware store

It was fantastic to have such a great place to tinker at my disposal. In fact, I’m sure it had a great deal to do with why I became an engineer (another good theme here at Engineer Blogs). When we used to have friends over to the house for dinner, if they were interested we would hand them a bag and tell them to go fill it up with whatever they needed from the hardware store. Because really, how many cans of floor polish can one family use? :)

The point has come up in the comments about tinkering and engineering that schools don’t have enough funding to provide tinkering classes. And it’s true, you do need money for supplies. But more importantly, you need a place. And for mechanical engineers in particular, where projects may need equipment that takes up more room than just a computer, shop class may be the best way to have that space and those tools available to you. I was fortunate to have a place to play. Shoot, even Iron Man needed a whole basement!

Where do you do your tinkering?

14 responses to “A Place to Tinker”

  1. Chris Gammell

    Oh man, I broke out in cold sweat as I read that. That must have been the most awesome garage/home to grow up in. I don’t think I’m alone here when I say I’m supremely jealous.

    So what did you build with all that stuff? Perhaps that’s the next post?

  2. Fluxor

    Wow, Miss Outlier, what a fantastic first post. I think ‘garage’ is an obvious understatement. Love the pictures!

  3. GEARS

    When DrWife and I move back to the US in a few months, we plan on having a woodshop in our ideal house. Nothing like a wood working lathe and some hand carving tools.

    I might have to make room for a bridgeport or two though… :-D

  4. Kate

    So, so jealous. We too had a garage, and I had my own workbench next to dad’s. But, it wasn’t nearly as expansive. Awesome that you put all that tinkering knowledge to use.

  5. Miss MSE

    My parents had some simple woodworking tools in the basement, as my father did a large amount of the work on the house. Because they were both computer engineers, we also had various circuitry bits around, and I learned how to use power tools and solder before high school. My middle school also had an amazing shop teacher, who really let students explore the limits of what they could build.

    Now, living in grad school apartments, my “tinker space” is usually the tiny balcony with my Dremil tool, or the dining table. I also do tinker cooking, especially when it comes to making extracts, sauces and syrups.

  6. Cherish The Scientist

    What a wonderful place to grow up and build things! My dad was a carpenter until I entered junior high. I loved working with wood. Sadly, I’m now allergic to sawdust, so it’s not an option. I sure miss it! I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through others who can do that now. :-)

  7. Peter J Francis

    I am so jealous !! …. makes my single car garage / workshop look tiny. But it is very similar to yours in one way …. it’s jammed full of ‘STUFF’ :-)

  8. Kareem

    First of all I want to tell you that you made a wonderfull topic and tell you that u tutch something in my heart .
    my name is kareem from Egypt and i study power mechanical engineering .
    I spent my childhood in my own place and i loved mechanics . i was making my own experiments there but unexpectlly we had to change our home . you know this feeling it’s like when you spend long time making a project on Solidworks and oneday you open you PC to find your harddisk damaged .LOL ( this thing happened to me too ) . but now i have my own place but my memories is still at my first place .

    Excuse me cause i’m not very good in english and i’ll be happy to accept me as a friend of your blog .

    nice topic and go on^_^

  9. Dino Segovis

    That’s a pretty awesome garage! I only had a my Dad’s small set of mis-matched tools and some room on the porch to work with. However, having limited resources forced me to be innovative. That ended up being a good thing as I now think outside the box when working out how to build a thing. I usually end up taking the simplest approach.

    It’s so cool that you had a Bridgeport mill. I’ve had access to one and others like it but I want my own.
    Thanks for a great article. :)

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  12. dattajack

    the first thing i ever do when moving somewhere is to build a shop, then put up the curtains.

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  14. Awkward Engineer (Sam)

    Oh my god, i’m unbelievable jealous. You are very fortunate to have had this experience growing up.

    I had a good high school shop, but nothing like this.