Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Running a repair café - an interview with Chris Möller

Mending a saucepan at the Royston repair cafe
What is a repair café? How did you get involved?
It’s a place you can bring stuff that is broken, and there are people there like me that like to fix things – and if we can we do. They started in the Netherlands: there is an organisation, They have about 200 registered there and 100s more across the world. You give them some money and they give you an information pack and logos you can use.

I went to one first in Royston to see what it was like, and then I started one in Cottenham. We have a community centre that has a café and a room behind that you can hire. I asked if I could have it for free and they said yes – because there’s always lots of waiting around and while people are waiting they will sit in the café and have some coffee, so it works for them too. Now I also help with the Cambridge ones, organised by Transition Cambridge and Cambridge Carbon Footprint. So I do 10-12 a year, something like that.

What sort of things do you mend?
Electrical appliances are the bread and butter.

Small electrical appliances are the bread and butter; also computers and computer peripherals, phones, toys, bikes, pushchairs, a parasol - anything that turns up.

The most common job is a toaster with a burnt out element. They have a nichrome wire and it gets a hot spot and breaks. You could put a new element in but they are very specific to each make. So my standard technique is, typically the wire is wrapped around a mica sheet so you drill a little hole in that, push the tail end through and join it up on the other side.

Also thermal fuses – lots of things have a thermal fuse, like a hair dryer – put your hand over the end for a few seconds and it gets too hot, blows the fuse and it’s a write-off. But a new fuse costs about 20p. You put that in and it’s as good as new.

I have a checklist of all the tools and bits I need to bring. It takes me about an hour to get it all together in boxes before I go – it weighs 80 kg and I keep adding new items every time I find I need something I don’t have with me.

Isn’t it a bit scary, taking someone else’s stuff apart?
Well if it was worth thousands of pounds it would be! But most of the things people bring in they’ve already written off. You say to them I’ll do what I can. I’m not an expert and I may make it worse. They say fine – have a go. Then you explain what you are doing. You might open it up and say, I don’t understand this, do you mind if I experiment? and they say OK.

There is a legal issue too, but the way I see it is, if you asked your neighbour to fix something for you and they damaged it, you wouldn’t sue them would you? Well the repair café is a way of meeting some new neighbours. Asking someone to fix your thing at a repair café is like asking a neighbour.

You do need a good grasp of what you can and can’t do. You need to understand about safety, including your own safety - like with microwaves you need to be a bit careful you don’t fry yourself. I have some advice for repairers that covers some of those issues.

How did you learn to do all this?
The trite answer is I have three sons and they were good at breaking things so I got a lot of experience. Right from my childhood, my Dad would never dream of throwing anything away until he had mended it at least twice and I’ve inherited that from him. It wasn’t the money so much, it was more that he didn’t like to be dependent – we have so much stuff these days that we have no idea how it works and we rely on other people to keep it going. My Dad would hate that.

What do you like about doing a repair café?
Well honestly, the look on someone’s face when you bring their whatever-it-is back from the dead – it’s just priceless. That alone is ample reward for my time. Last Sunday I was at Royston and someone brought in a broken DVD player. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought my TV with me so I couldn’t test it but I did the usual maintenance and said let’s hope – well apparently it worked first time and I got this gushing email, they were so thrilled - it is very satisfying.

And also its fun, and you get to look inside all sorts of things that you wouldn’t normally come across. For example, the other day I was given an astronomical telescope sight to fix. I’d never seen one before and I’m never likely to do so again. I took it apart and there was a wire that was broken so I fixed that and it all worked.

People know I fix things so if they knock on my door and ask me to look at something it's quite useful to be able to say – why don’t you bring it along to the next repair café!

How much does it cost to do these repairs?
Well a screw doesn’t cost much, or a fuse, or a bit of insulating tape. Most of the repairs are things like that. But we do say to the repairers, if they have expenses then we will pay for them from the donations. We usually make a profit.

Are there any repairs you’ve done that are particularly special for you?
The thing that tickles me most, was a couple that brought in the press button from the igniter for a gas hob. They couldn’t find a replacement and they had looked everywhere – even in India when they went to visit family. The switch was held together by two rivets, so I drilled them out and took it apart and inside there was a little phosphor-bronze spring that was broken. So I soldered a piece of wire across the break and put it back together again with two screws to replace the rivets – and hey presto it worked! They were so thrilled – I had achieved the impossible as far as they were concerned.

Of course like most of the repairs we do it made no sense at all commercially – the switch probably cost 20p new and it took me 20 minutes to fix it. You couldn’t run a business like that.

Also I remember a 7 year old boy came in with a radio-controlled car that was broken. His Dad was very clear – he said you are going to show this boy how to repair this and he will do it himself. I have to say the boy did a cracking good job. There were a few broken bits inside that we managed to glue back together. My experience with my own son’s things has taught me which glue to use in which circumstances.

Sometimes people bring things that aren’t actually broken, especially if they’ve been donated so they don’t know much about it. A lady came in with a couple of kids and a pushchair she’d been given and it would only go round in circles. Well the truth was one of the wheels was locked in position and she needed to be shown how to unlock it.

What sort of people volunteer as repairers?
Oh all sorts: mostly retired, but we also get undergraduates who like repairing computer equipment, and we have a husband and wife couple who are both very good. It’s a mix.

What would you say to someone thinking of volunteering as a repairer?
Come along and make somebody happy – and have good fun yourself! Surprise yourself that you can fix things you didn’t know you can fix.

When is the next repair cafe near here?
The next one in Royston will be 1st November - look out for it at There may be one before then in Cambridge - if so it will be in the Transition Cambridge newsletter.

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