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Published 24 May 2024

My first 15 months in a Men’s Shed

I’m not new to Men’s Shed – I’ve been involved with them nationally for around 10 years and, at the local level, I helped set up The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead in 2014-15.   After retiring from paid work in January 2023, I decided not to set up another Shed where I live. Much as I’d like to have one within walking distance, to join an existing one – ‘just’ turning up for sessions – would avoid the hassle associated with planning, funding and administration. 15 months on from first turning up at the Letchworth Men’s Shed, what have I learned?  

For me, it’s about meeting more than making

Although I love to make things from reclaimed materials (mainly pallet wood) and have done so for years, I’ve discovered I’m quite happy doing it alone in my own shed at home. I like the familiarity of the tools and the space, and the opportunity to immerse myself timelessly in the job. Don’t get me wrong – I love being in the Shed with the other guys, but I don’t feel the need to make things there; I can take it or leave it. I know I’m not the only Letchworth Shed member making items at home for sale at an upcoming Steam Fair ‘because it’s easier’.

Turning up is a lot easier than setting up

While it’s sometimes satisfying to be in at the beginning of a new initiative (I’ve been involved in lots of start-ups) I’m pleased the Letchworth Shed was established when I turned up. I admire the effort the founder members put in to finding premises, attending monthly planning meetings with as many downs as ups, and navigating Covid and lockdown, but I’m pleased we’re now in the development, rather than the start-up, phase. Some people have the skills to start things, others are better at keeping them going.

People make Sheds

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, you can have the best-equipped five-star space, but that’s no guarantee your Shed will keep people happier and healthier for longer. While I suspect most Sheds (ours doesn’t) have at least one grumpy old so-and-so who rubs people up the wrong way without trying, that’s life. In Letchworth I’m surrounded by wonderful supportive people; all men as it happens, all with interesting stories to share, bad jokes to tell, and ideas to contribute. And then there are the people who are not regularly in the Shed (a couple are employed, others are recovering from operations or illness). Arguably, conversations with them are more important, which is one of the reasons I circulate a TWITS (This Week In The Shed) update in words and pictures to all members each week.        

It takes time to get to know people

Remembering names was my first problem (particularly with three Davids, two Rogers, and a George who’s known as Rod). Ten months after joining the Shed I did short, informal recorded interviews with some of my fellow Shedders to develop case study materials that we could send to would-be funders and post on our website (see https://www.letchworthshed.org/testimonials). It helped me find out more about some of the guys and those conversations have added poignancy because, sadly, a couple of the interviewees are no longer with us. Despite having now been in the Shed on a regular basis for nearly 18 months, I still have much to learn about those I didn’t interview – I need to stop talking and start listening! As our membership grows so, I think, does the need for social events beyond our regular Shed sessions, when Friday Shedders may not see Tuesday Shedders for weeks.

For most, it’s about more than ‘just’ turning up

On paper, our governance structure – trustees, committee, monthly meeting for all members – looks quite top-down. But I’ve been impressed that lots of members volunteer (without being asked) to make things happen – beyond the making, mending and learning. From the most important – making coffees and teas and washing up afterwards – to picking up materials from DIY stores and dumping stuff at the local recycling centre, a good number of different people are involved. There are also lifts for less mobile members and visiting/phoning others recovering at home from a string of operations (cataract removal being currently the most popular).

No Shed is an island

For me the phrase ‘men in sheds’ is not helpful. It conjures up an image of a group of people hidden away, doing their own thing, in danger of being quietly forgotten.  While I understand that some men may feel more comfortable with that invisibility and anonymity, I favour a much more outward-looking, community-rooted approach that proudly celebrates what men are doing for themselves. In our Shed we connect not with the public (we’re located on a working farm attraction with 80,000 visitors a year), and other organisations (in common with other Sheds, we’ve been commissioned to make items for local schools, wildlife groups, and sports clubs). Ironically, we’ve had only limited direct contact with other Men’s Sheds. I’m trying to put that right – we’ve recently been on a shed crawl around Cambridgeshire and I’m trying to get together a posse for ShedFest.

Sometimes the attraction is too strong…

When I joined the Letchworth Shed I intended to turn-up and get hands-on, without getting involved with planning, funding and administration. I haven’t avoided that, but it’s not a problem. Soon after I arrived, I saw that everyone was making a contribution – not relying on a few ‘leaders’. I became a Shed Trustee soon after ending my tenure as a UKMSA Trustee. I now spend more time on Shed stuff outside the Shed than in it, but that’s OK – my head may be at home, but my heart is in Letchworth. www.letchworthshed.org https://www.facebook.com/groups/1404444983028220      
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