In 2018, a local repair cafe was set up in Leamington Spa and although I wasn't present for the pilot, I've been in attendance for the subsequent monthly meetings. Here then is an article of what it's about and what I turn up equipped with to tackle anything that happens to come across my table.


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I recall first hearing of Repair Cafe's a few years ago, I think on the BBC Click programme. It sounded like a marvellous idea: somewhere the public could bring their broken items and have a coffee while volunteers attempted to bring something busted back to life. When I heard in 2018 that a local cafe had been started in my neck of the woods and they were looking for someone to undertake the PAT testing of electrically repaired items, I figured I'd get involved. As it turned out, that second cafe was the busiest I've ever experienced, and besides PAT testing I was quite involved in repair work myself. Since then, sessions have varied in popularity and while there are a core of regular volunteers, others turn up or not, so in any given month we may be oversubscribed with those prepared to wield the screwdrivers or overwhelmed by people dropping in with dicky toasters and ripped zips.


And that's the point, anything can be brought in; not just the (perhaps expected) array of duff electrical items. Any repair cafe is only as good as its collection of volunteers, so although it needs someone handy with a soldering iron, it also needs someone who knows how to drive a sewing machine, someone adept at the mechanics of reattaching a broken chair leg, someone who can strip down a lawnmower engine and so on. Personally, my mechanical skills are lacking, so while I can have a crack at something electrical, I'm not the right person to be working on furniture or on anything with complex moving parts. It's important to know your own strengths and not to undertake anything you feel uncomfortable with or for which you believe you lack the requisite competence. For a repair cafe to be successful, it needs to attract an array of volunteers with different skillsets and to then advertise its existence to the wider community to ensure the busted bits start rolling through the door and we're not all sat around twiddling our thumbs.


FB1A handsome chap at a 2018 session. Image courtesy of Repair Cafe Leamington Spa on Facebook


Some people get nervous about electrical items being worked on, but in many cases electrical faults may be little more than a loose connection or a damaged flex. Those bringing items in are made aware that a repair comes with no guarantee and while a botched electrical repair could be dangerous, well... so could a botched repair on many things from a 'fixed' chair leg collapsing when you sit on it to a repaired petrol mower catching fire or spinning off parts at a high velocity. If your attitude is "repairs cannot be trusted", then a repair cafe isn't for you. If however you believe there's enough waste in the world and extending the life of something is worth the effort, then it may be worth investigating whether something similar operates in your area either so you can take some items of your own, or so that you can get involved, be that directly as a repairer, if you have the tools and skillset to take certain items on, or as one of the people who works to keep things moving, booking people in, making drinks and collating feedback forms.


FB3Furniture repair underway by those skilled in such tasks. Image courtesy of Repair Cafe Leamington Spa on Facebook


I can't speak too much for the organisation of my local repair cafe as I'm not involved in that side of things, but feedback forms, waivers, bookings and close liaison with the community centre it all runs from to ensure it operates within the scope of their insurance is a body of work taken on by others.


FB5Anything from an old Discman to a sewing machine may turn up. Image courtesy of Repair Cafe Leamington Spa on Facebook


Of course, not all items can be repaired, especially with electrical goods which these days have forever smaller and more specialist components and chipsets. Sometimes, people just want to know they tried. That DAB radio which doesn't work anymore and can be replaced with a new one for twenty quid from Sainsburys? Well, the person bringing that in may well receive the news that the power supply is okay, but nothing is coming out of the PCB, there's no obvious reason why and there's not a lot soldered on there to even work with when it comes to faultfinding. Still, they take comfort in knowing they tried; that they didn't just bin it without getting a second opinion. Even then, they may donate the working power supply to the cafe as there's a good chance it could end up running something else in the future. More items are repaired than not despite the manufacturers sometimes doing their best to make things unserviceable. While some repairs can be quite involved, many are deceptively simple and take little time to investigate and correct.


FB4Two of the Leamington Cafe founders: Judy and Luke being interviewed on local radio about the initiative.
Image courtesy of Repair Cafe Leamington Spa on Facebook


I can't speak from the perspective of those who perform other repairs such as sewing, but let's have a look at the kit I turn up with, besides my standard toolbox, which I've found handy to have present over the past two-years.

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A soldering iron is a must if you're likely to end up looking at anything electrical, but I also go armed with a variable DC power supply to drive any equipment where the PSU is missing, where batteries aren't present or if the supplied PSU isn't working.


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Don't forget an extension lead to juice-up the above or to power any mains items being brought in.


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While my standard toolbox contains the usual screwdrivers, pliers, cutters and such, jewellers' screwdrivers and Torx (star shaped) drivers are a must for the fiddlier repairs.


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This Torx T15 anti-tamper screwdriver can be searched for using the term 'Dyson screwdriver' [https://amzn.to/2SuBc4J] as they're an example of a brand who like to make things awkward to get into. The Torx end has a hole allowing it to mate with the anti-tamper screws that feature a nipple to prevent standard Torx drivers like those shown above from getting in. You have to question any company who want to make it difficult for you to crack open their goods if not armed with the right tool. Blenders (of many makes) are another example of items you're just not going to get into if you don't have one of these to hand.


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A basic multimeter such as this pen-style model is essential for continuity testing and voltage measurements. One that can also test capacitance is recommended.


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This Micronta battery tester from Tandy is probably about thirty years old now, but it has the ability to test batteries under load. A voltmeter will often give a good reading from a dying battery under no-load conditions, so this serves to give a better picture of what state a battery is really in. It also supports a range of cells from the common AA, AAA and button cells to the not so common types that might make an appearance.


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Blu Tack? Okay, I know you think I'm pulling your leg now, but a blob o' Blu Tack makes fiddly soldering operations easier. Don't leave home without it!


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An assortment of fuses is essential, from the everyday BS1362 plugtop types to those you may find hidden inside an appliance. It pays to pack some quick-blow, and antisurge glass/ceramic fuses.


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Okay, so I mentioned I have my normal toolbox with me, and this thing lives in there but it's worth mentioning in its own right. An electric screwdriver can take the pain out of any item held together by a thousand screws!


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A jewellers' magnifier gets you up close and personal to any tiny part numbers, suspected PCB track breaks or anything else that requires a closer look.


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A basic energy monitor can tell you if a seemingly dead appliance is pulling any load current without the need to get to live parts in order to stick a meter in there.


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Ensure a good torch is to hand for peering into dark corners.


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An ESR meter can give you a heads-up on failing or failed capacitors without the need to remove them from circuit.


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If you are an electrician, it doesn't hurt to have your multifunction tester to hand.


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And the all-important PAT instrument of course. My role is to check any electrical repairs are fit and proper and that the appliance passes the PAT process afterwards. If I'm not happy with a repair of an item or if something comes in that isn't in a condition viable for repair in the first place, then I can make a call on it, after all, it's my name on the PAT paperwork produced for the place.

 
Hundreds of items have come our way since the first session in July 2018, and although 2020 has been hampered by COVID with today's session being the first since March and the first involving one-way systems, social distancing, masks, sanitisers and such, we've seen many happy people walk away clutching something that was fit for the bin now back in working order. It didn't cost them or us anything other than time, unless any specific parts were identified as being required that is, and from my point of view it's good publicity. I keep business cards on my table, people ask me for electrical advice which can lead to bona fide bookings and those visiting appreciate and respect we volunteers for giving our time for free.


The make-do-and-mend mentality shouldn't be one that applies only during wartime when materials are in short supply. It often takes little effort to figure out and fix something and if that can be done to save it from scrapping, then so much the better. On one of my YouTube videos, I showed how I upgraded our Makita site radio with Bluetooth to give it extra functionality to extend its usefulness to us. Someone commented I could have just bought one with Bluetooth from Screwfix for a hundred quid. Well, no shit. Just because something can be replaced by throwing money at it doesn't mean it needs to be. It was cracking things open to see how they ticked when I was a kid that expanded my learning, but these days too much is made that is unserviceable, that is contained on a black-box chipset or that comes with so many warnings it's no wonder people are put off from even trying to figure how it's supposed to work... and why it isn't.


Just because we live in this throwaway society doesn't mean we have to always be party to it. Roll up your sleeves and get stuck in folks!

 

 

Leamington Spa Repair Cafe's are usually held at the Sydni Centre in Sydenham on the first Saturday of every month. See their Facebook page for up-to-date information.