Life Lessons from The Repair Shop

In what I think is a first for the MissElaineous blog, MrElaineous and I have actually managed to produce joint content. Keep scrolling to read my ode to The Repair Shop or hit play to hear an original Jon Paget composition.

Just a warning, this is a long blog post and best paired with a cup of tea* or the beverage of your choice.

Back in 2017, BBC began airing a little television programme that has since become a big hit, with an average of 6.7 million viewers tuning in to watch experts fixing family heirlooms and precious items, from teddy bears and mantel clocks to model ships and pieces of furniture. MrElaineous and I are a bit late to the party; we just started watching The Repair Shop last year, but, since then, we have managed to work our way through the archive of nearly 200 episodes.

The interesting thing about more or less binge-watching a programme like this is that you can see common patterns emerge. For example, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone has put together a Repair Shop bingo (or drinking game) with common phrases you’re almost guaranteed to hear while watching an episode:

  • “I’m happy with that.” The experts say this when they have successfully fixed a part of the item; variants include “I’m pleased with that.”
  • “I’m excited and nervous.” This seems to be the most common combination of emotions experienced by guests before they see their repaired item.
  • “Can I pick it up?” or “Can I touch it?” Guests often treat their objects like museum artefacts after they’ve been repaired, causing host Jay Blades to respond, “Go ahead, it’s yours.”

On a more serious note, The Repair Shop also offers a number of lessons for work and life. There are a handful of general threads that run throughout the series and are applicable in almost any situation.

KNOW YOUR WHY

Each episode of The Repair Shop follows the same format: an individual or family brings an item to the barn that has a sentimental story behind it. Maybe it’s a teddy bear that has gone through every surgery with a young Special Olympics participant. Or a model ship built from matchsticks by a parent who died decades before. Yes, the stories tug at the heart strings, but they also give each expert working on the piece a reason for what they’re doing. Having a why that drives you—beyond just getting a paycheque—can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

LOVE THE JOURNEY AND THE PROCESS (not just the results)

I think this applies to every craftsperson who enters the barn. Of course they want to produce a fantastic end result for the person or family who brought the item in, whether that means a clockwork toy is restored to working order or a pile of ceramic pieces is reassembled into a vase. But they enjoy the steps they have go through along the way. Art conservator Lucia Scalisi painstakingly cleans the surface of paintings with a cotton bud. Silversmith Brenton West patiently polishes up silver until it gleams. Metalworker Dominic Chinea delights in stripping machinery down to its component parts so it can be built back better than it was before.

These aren’t easy or glamourous tasks to do, but by embracing the process, the team is able to produce stunning results. Yet, for many of us, how often do we focus on the finish line and end up tripping over our own feet by trying to rush things? We want to be done, not in the process of doing … yet it is only through taking things step by step that the magic happens.

ENJOY SOLVING PROBLEMS

MrElaineous has adopted a saying from Pixar’s Finding Dory—no, not “Just keep swimming,” although that’s a nice little ditty about the power of perseverance—but “There is always another way.” I think this mantra could probably be engraved on one of the beams at the Repair Shop as well!

Problems that pop up are dealt with as interesting puzzles to solve, not insurmountable obstacles that mean you should hang up your spanner. It’s not uncommon for someone to say at the beginning of the filming process that they’re not sure how they’re going to tackle an issue—maybe a component is too fragile to re-use or it’s completely MIA—but they will figure something out. The importance of being willing to look beyond Plan A (or B, C, and D) cannot be underestimated.

KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS

Too often it can feel like we’re expected to be a jack of all trades, and many jobs completely fail to take into account what we’re genuinely good at or passionate about. Instead, the focus is on bringing weaknesses up to an average level while the things we’re above average at are left to languish.

Yet the division of labour on The Repair Shop is very clear. Leather goods go to master saddler Suzie Fletcher because she has mastery of this material. Furniture in need of re-caning is sent to Rachael South, not upholstery expert Sonnaz Nooranvary, because they each have different skillsets. It takes at least a quintet of different people to make music boxes (Stephen Kember), gramophones (Tim Weeks), and miscellaneous musical instruments sing again, with Pete Woods on percussion, Julyan Wallis on guitar, and David Burville on organs and mechanical music machines. Specialists are even needed to cater from head (hatter Jayesh Vaghela) to toe (cobbler Dean Westmoreland).

While they’re all happy to learn new things (more on that next!), they focus on the area where they can have the biggest impact.

Recognising their strengths doesn’t mean that they’re trapped in a narrow range of ability. For example, Brenton is billed as a silversmith, but he can also repair antique cameras. Horologist Steve Fletcher can probably fix a clock with his eyes closed, but he can apply his knowledge to practically anything with a mainspring (and, in one electrifying instance, a Wimshurst machine). Knowing your strengths means you have a foundation to build on.

BE WILLING TO LEARN (and get out of your comfort zone)

When handed an unusual antique widget or whatsit, the typical response from an expert is, “I’m excited; this is my first time working on a [some type of whatchamacallit or thingamajig].” They know how to adapt their skills and apply them to something they’ve never tried before. By applying this trait, the experts are able build on their experience and expand their repertoire. Indeed, I would argue that it’s this willingness to try something new that has helped turn them into experts in the first place!

ASK FOR HELP

It is very common for The Repair Shop experts to team up to tackle a project. While Steve ensures that a tick-less clock is able to tock again, Will Kirk repairs and polishes up the woodwork. Tim Gunn repairs the workings of a bicycle that Dom then paints. While they are all skilled at what they do, they do not try to do it all (even if they probably could!). The power of diverse thinking really comes into play: if something leaves them stumped, they’re willing to ask someone else for advice. Just because we don’t know a solution from within our own field of expertise, it is well worth seeing if a different area has a different approach that could be just the solution we’re looking for.

Each and every single item on The Repair Shop is unique, with its own history and problems. Yet, when boiled down to the basics, the actual process of repair can also shed light on things we should consider when it comes to our own work, behaviour, or mindset:

BREAK TASKS OR PROBLEMS INTO THEIR COMPONENT PARTS

When a new item is first being examined by the experts, fixing it can look overwhelming: electrical wires are coated in dust and grime, metal workings are completely seized up, ceramic vessels have been smashed to smithereens. But once the craftsperson has an opportunity to consider the piece, they usually apply the same framework to it: take the item apart, clean it off, consolidate or strengthen weak areas, repair as needed, and polish or oil as appropriate.

This is applicable whether the item is a stuffed toy or a PhD dissertation: taking things one step at a time will sort it.

BE CURIOUS

All of the craftspeople are very good at exhibiting this trait. In particular, they’re not afraid to ask questions and clarify when needed: “What does success look like?”, “What do you want delivered?”, “What do you expect to see when I’m done?”

This is an especially important lesson for those of us in business who are delivering things to clients. I think it’s very common to assume we know what the client wants (we’re the experts, right?), so we don’t actually check in with them to make sure we’re both on the same page. But just taking a few minutes to gain clarity can save a lot of time, effort, and heartache down the road.

PROJECTS ARE OFTEN MORE COMPLICATRED THAN YOU THINK

It’s quite common to hear an expert say something like, “Now that I’ve had a chance to look at this, it’s in worse shape than I thought.” As someone who often has a similar phrase running through my mind when editing, I sympathise. I suppose this is less a lesson and more a fact of life? Either way, it’s always worth bearing in mind that “quick” or “easy” projects usually aren’t!

BE WILLING TO GO BACKWARDS TO GO FORWARDS

The work of ceramics conservator Kirsten Ramsay is a great example of this in action. Pieces brought to her have often been mended in the past, but she must remove the ancient glue and start again at the beginning with a clean break to make an invisible repair.

When it comes to problem solving, it has been scientifically demonstrated that people tend to overlook the power of subtraction, instead focusing primarily on what can be added. There is a logic to this: subtracting can feel like going backwards. But it is often more effective and efficient to remove rather than continuously add to a project: don’t fear a blank slate or starting from scratch!

HAVE THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB

This is such an obvious lesson, but I think it’s one we often overlook. While most of us probably don’t need Will’s chisels, Steve’s clock-cleaning fluid, or Suzie’s rotary punch, I can almost guarantee that there are tools out there that will make our lives a little bit easier … if only we would pick them up and use them.

Trying to organise a meeting? Send a Doodle poll rather than have emails flying back and forth. Getting distracted by browsing when you should be working? Install an internet blocker and/or pomodoro timer. If there is something you do on a regular basis, can you automate it? Taking a little time now to look at our daily activities and figuring out where a tool would be beneficial can save a lot of time over the course of months and years.

DOING A JOB PROPERLY TAKES TIME

No shortcuts. Slow and steady well and truly wins the race when working on many of the items that pass through the Repair Shop’s doors. Adding polish or paint is done bit by bit to get the colour exactly right. Wood or metal is often shaved down millimetre by millimetre; after all, you can’t put it back on if you take too much off. We tend to focus so much on productivity—trying to get more done in less time so that we can cross even more off our to-do lists—that we tend to forget that the outcome relies on the process we follow. What is the point of being productive if we cannot be proud of the results?

PAY ATTENTION TO DETAILS

As someone who works as a proofreader and editor, this one speaks to me. This isn’t about perfectionism—after all, what’s perfect to me may not be to you, and vice versa—but rather ensuring that the little things are taken care of. If the little things are sorted, the big things tend to take care of themselves (see above: carefully following the process means the outcome has the best chance of success).

GO THE EXTRA MILE

It’s not uncommon for the experts to go well above and beyond simply repairing an item. Brenton once recreated a box for a piano-shaped makeup compact. Steve designed a key with an acorn design for antique pinball machine from a pub called The Royal Oak. Julie Tatchell and Amanda Middleditch, better known as the Teddy Bear Ladies, always add a bow (and, quite often, brand new clothes) for previously bedraggled bears and baby dolls. As a customer, I notice when a business tries just a little bit harder, and as a business owner, I try to do the same for my clients. Isn’t it just good business practice to do so?

CELEBRATE A JOB WELL DONE

Early episodes of the show would occasionally see presenter Jay Blades call everyone over for a team huddle to admire a finished item. Throughout the whole of the series, all of the experts are very free with giving thanks and praise to each other. As someone who once worked in an office that behaved in the exact opposite manner, I can vouch that a lack of appreciation is corrosive.** A simple “Well done, that’s brilliant!” can go a long way to motivating people to continue to strive to do their best.

Of course, it’s not all about work or business. The heart of the show is the people: the experts, the guests who bring an item to the barn, and the loved ones who are no longer with us. They provide some of the most moving lessons of the entire series:

IT’S NOT ABOUT GETTING MORE STUFF BUT FOCUSING ON THINGS WITH MEANING

Unlike its BBC big brother, The Antiques Roadshow, The Repair Shop doesn’t dwell on the monetary value of an item. Rather, it’s all about what a particular piece means to the owner. Most people would have ditched a decades-old Stereogram, but Mark Starkey’s electrical wizardry saw a pair of sisters transported to the Christmases of their youth. Jeweller Richard Talman resurrected a battered ID bracelet given to a man by his late wife. Matthew Nickels restored a pair of stained-glass windows for a woman whose late husband had rescued them from a soon-to-be demolished theatre. There’s no need to keep up with the Joneses: instead, it’s about seeking connections with those we love.

DO THINGS SOONER RATHER THAN LATER

So many stories from visitors to the Repair Shop begin with “This broke [x-number] of years ago, and my [beloved relative or friend] always wanted to get it repaired, but they died before it could happen.” How often do we put things off again and again, expecting that we’ll have the time to achieve everything we want later? Carpe diem.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF VULNERABILITY

MrElaineous developed a weepy scale that he employs when watching The Repair Shop to predict who will burst into tears when they see their finished possession. This isn’t meant to be derogatory: we’re often sniffling along with them. In his excellent memoir, Jay Blades talks about how the Repair Shop itself is meant to be a safe space for everyone to open up and share their emotions, and I can’t help but agree that the world would be a much better place if we were all willing to show a little vulnerability and our common humanity.

There are also a few practical tips we’ve managed to pick up along the way. Not actually how to repair things, mind you, as it is clear that the skill and know-how possessed by the experts comes from years of actual experience, not watching a YouTube video or two.*** On that note …

LEAVE IT TO THE EXPERTS

There is an old joke that goes “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” The Repair Shop team show why it’s important to leave the repair of sentimental items to those who have the expertise to get it right the first time.

BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU PUT THINGS

Don’t store anything you want to keep in good condition in the loft/attic, basement, garage, shed, or barn. Placing things next to radiators or on windowsills should probably be avoided too.

Storage space is at a premium in the UK (I still don’t understand why closets aren’t a thing)****, so I sympathise with people who stuck their great-grandfather’s prized possession in the garage for safekeeping, only to find it damaged a decade later. But all of these places tend to lack climate control: whether cold and damp or hot and humid, either combination tends to spell disaster for precious items. A surprising number of items also manage to jump off windowsills (or have help from a cat), and wooden objects next to radiators are a big no-no.

MAINTENANCE IS BETTER AND EASIER THAN REPAIR

This seems obvious, but  I think this is something we’ve all been guilty of at some point: ignoring having the boiler serviced until there’s a problem with it or failing to take care of our health and wellbeing until we have a health scare. But proper maintenance, whether of clocks, our houses, or ourselves, will go a long way to avoiding bigger problems down the road.

The final lesson I picked up while watching The Repair Shop: you can never go wrong with a good pun. Whoever writes the voiceover script deserves a well-earned bonus for this skill. I’d just like to finish off by saying thank you to the all of the experts, crew, writers, and everyone who has helped bring this tea-rrific* show into our living room. Long may it—and its lessons for life—continue.

* If you’re looking for a good loose-leaf tea, my favourite at the moment is Peregrine Mountain First Flush from Team Tea (or Jade Dew if you want a tasty green tea). [Return to text]

** The people I worked with were lovely, but higher ups tended to forget that rewarding people for a job well done with a genuine “thank you” is more effective motivation than just piling more work on them. [Return to text]

*** Maya Angelou wrote, “I am capable of what every other human is capable of.” I think it’s important to embrace a growth mindset and always be willing to learn, so YouTube videos and courses are a great way to pick up new things … but probably not what you want to rely on when tackling your great-grandmother’s necklace or a Victorian fire helmet. [Return to text]

**** Instead of closets, it’s common for British households to have standalone wardrobes. [Return to text]

Many thanks to the talented and generous photographers of Unsplash for the photos used in this post.

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