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?
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:
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:
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?