Category Archives: Salvage and Repair

The magic of an all-metal non-electronic sewing machine

As I’ve gotten more into the swing of repairing things, I’ve realized how useful it would be to have a sewing machine around, and know how to use it and maintain it. My initial investigations online showed me that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” and turned up lots of complaints of plastic in the entry level sewing machines that only lasts a few years, if that.

But use-em and throw-em away didn’t used to be the norm. Remember mom’s sewing machine, the one that weighed A LOT and always seemed to be ready for duty, tucked away in the corner? Well guess what? They’re still for sale, but not at Sears, rather on Craig’s List or at Goodwill. I picked up a Sears Kenmore 153.14000, vintage early ’70s (like me!) made in Japan, all metal, no electronics. It’s very cool.

I am particularly enjoying learning how the machine works. Thanks to the splendor of Youtube, there are great videos explaining exactly how a sewing machine makes a stitch that are really useful for learning how to troubleshoot. And with nothing more than a flashlight I can run the machine with my hand and watch the many metal parts in action. I find this lack of mystery to be magical in and of itself.

I have a degree in Computer Engineering, I’ve studied electronics, and quite frankly it’s a lot of black boxes. On paper it makes a certain logical sense, but when you look at it? A mysterious black box.  And if it doesn’t work? Well I guess you pull out the multimeter and try to troubleshoot, but good luck.

On the other hand, a non-electronic, all-metal sewing machine has the potential to be repaired for a very long time. As long as I keep it well oiled, which isn’t that difficult, the metal parts should work for a while. And should one wear out, I could in theory have a new machined. I’m thinking the most likely part of the machine to fail is the motor, and even that may be repairable. Or in the worst case, I could even convert the machine to be manually powered!

The key point is that with this wonderful piece of 1970’s technology I can really come to understand how the machine works, and I can keep it running for a long, long time.

Oh and if you’re wondering what project #1 is? Thermal curtains.

“Hot-wiring your clothes dryer” and the return of the repair culture

Recently I had the inconvenience–and the opportunity–to have our clothes dryer stop working on us. It would tumble, but with no heat. It’s funny because I’ve been wanting to learn more about appliance repair, and voila! our appliances have been going down, in repairable ways no less. First it was the fridge (coils needed defrosting) and then the dryer.

My first realization when the dryer stopped working is that it’s a luxury. Our living room gets lots of glorious California sunlight in the mornings that could be put to work drying clothes. And our fancy washing machine has a timer mode, so we could set it up to wash in the early morning before we get up, so we can then dry by sunlight in the living room. At the very least we can dry the heavy things, like my Jiujitsu uniform, our jeans, and maybe even our towels.

But then I got to thinking about the dryer itself. We just bought the dryer a few months ago, bargained hard, and got a model with lots of electronics, features, bells and whistles. But now that we’ve had a chance to use it, I realize that most of the time we just use the “regular” mode. Granted, it does have a moisture detector which is useful for minimizing the operation time. But it also has a steam mode (which we don’t use), anti-static mode, anti-bacterial, and so on that we just aren’t using.

So what would I do if the electronics on the dryer stopped working? Well if it was out of warranty, and I didn’t want to buy a new “motherboard” for my drying machine (I’m only being slightly sarcastic) I’d be tempted to hot-wire the thing in such a way that I’d at least be able to turn it on and off. I have no idea how complicated a modification like this would be, but I think it’s possible.

I recently stumbled on the book How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic which tells you which tools you need, and then how to use them to repair your seemingly hopeless electronics. Although I haven’t gone through it yet, I think there’s great promise in the (controversial?) idea of fixing, or modifying, appliances and electronics instead of just tossing them out.

And by the way, the dryer problem? It turned out that one of the power wires internally had burned out, although I don’t know why that happened. So luckily the heating element was fine, it was just the burned wires that needed to be cut back and re-attached, although this time with extra protection. This particular dryer will see another day.

Cars no longer a disposable item?

A few years back when the economy was taking a dive, I was chatting with my auto mechanic and asking him how business was going. “We’re busier than ever,” he told me, “because people can’t afford to buy new cars, so they’re fixing their old ones instead.” And thus it may be that the car is the first item, of more to come, that falls off of the “disposable” list.

I have to admit that this was somewhat jarring to me, because as  someone who owns and drives cars for a long time (“until they stop!” as a friend once pointed out) the “repair or replace” decision isn’t something I think about much.  In fact I’m also surprised to hear of how popular it is to lease cars for three years, and then give ’em back to the dealer in order to get a brand new one on the next lease.

In just thinking about how much metal, energy, and labor it takes to make a car, it’s clearly not sustainability to get a new car every 3 years! It may have been the case that during the rise and rise of the housing bubble, people had no problem buying new cars every few years with pumped up home equity. But now that the air has been let out of home prices, the cash isn’t around to treat cars like a disposable item.

And it makes me think of the case of Cuba, where for various reasons they have had to keep repairing their cars for decades. I wonder if one of the reasons Cuba has been able to keep using old cars for so long is that those cars have little (or no?) electronics in them. Sure it means that the gas mileage is crummy, but then it’d also mean that they can fix them, one way or another, with standard machine shop tools, in order to keep them running. If you stop and think about it, it’s quite amazing what Cuba has been able to do with its old stock of cars.

The key point here is that if the pendulum can swing on cars, from being a throw-away item to being something that you repair for as long as you can, I think the pendulum will eventually swing to other items as well. Maybe major appliances are next?


When product repairability makes a comeback

The “modern wisdom” around most things that break is that it’s cheaper to throw it away than it is to try to fix them. Right? But this has never quite felt right to me. And now that we’re seeing a new floor on oil prices, I suspect that the pendulum will start to swing back to product durability and repair.

I may be romanticizing, but I imagine that once upon a time, products were built to last a long time, and were built to be repairable. If that’s true, then at some point things went off the tracks:

  • I’ve been flipping through the book The Look of the Century which mentions in the 50’s “the decision to build in physical obsolescence, so that through a lack of actual durability the product only had a limited lifespan. The debatable defense..was increased employment.”
  • I wonder if the increasing use of plastics led to more breakage as well.
  • And then of course the wholesale transfer of manufacturing overseas, to places where people work for very little money and live in poverty, which drives down production costs and sticker prices, but then also makes repair uneconomical.
So we’ve come to the point where customers aren’t shocked to find that their 1 year old $19.99 clothes iron is leaking water everywhere. Based on customer reviews on websites like Amazon, there is a lot of frustration from consumers on the poor durability of today’s products. So there may be an opening.
I can see a few potential forces for change towards durability:
  • raw economics: as shipping and material costs go higher, the “cheap” goods may cost a lot more anyhow
  • product availability: I see a real opportunity for smart product makers step up the durability and repairability challenge and build brands around products that last
  • consumer attitudes: as people get more in tune with the waste and futility in the throw-away culture, there will be demand for durability
I also see some challenges to a durability movement:
  • we need to have local repair shops that are able to make a living, and that have the skills needed to fix things. Fortunately there are still a few of these shops around, and hopefully there will continue to be.
  • the products themselves need to have *less* electronics in them. Consumers can help drive this by being smart about avoiding the products with needless electronics and opting for the simpler version.
  • I’d be willing to bet that more solidly built products will cost more. Are people willing to pay?
So the next time something stops working on you, before you reflexively toss it in the trash, ask yourself if it might be repairable, and if not, consider replacing it with something that is.