Make It Work

THE KEEPERS: At a recent Repair Café, volunteer fixers were able to salvage about 75 percent of the 202 items brought in. Co-founder Skinner (above) credits the café with changing his life’s course.

Photography by Timothy Archibald

Blatantly disregarding the “Do not disassemble” warning on a Panasonic iron, Pascal Bruyere and J.D. Pruett, ’23, removed the screws holding the soleplate to the shell, pulled the pieces apart and tugged on the iron’s cord. Instead of retracting smartly into the base, the cord made only halfhearted efforts at rewinding. 

“It’s not like I’ve worn it out by using it,” owner Jeanne Schaefer quipped. The 15-year-old iron still worked, yet the lazy cord bothered her. A replacement would cost as little as $25—but discarding hers seemed wrong. “Think of all the resources that went into making it,” the Palo Alto resident said. “The fact that we’d just put it in the landfill is why we’re in trouble. We just keep using up the earth’s resources.” 

Unable to fix it herself, Schaefer headed to the Repair Café, a quarterly pop-up fix-it workshop in Palo Alto where eco-minded engineering students and other volunteers perform free repairs on almost anything that visitors can haul in. 

Since the café’s debut in 2012, Palo Alto fixers have matched wits with more than 4,600 broken items, including coffee makers that won’t brew, beaded jewelry that has come unstrung, musical instruments that won’t play, zippers that won’t zip, bicycles that won’t brake and lamps that won’t light. The Repair Café is modeled on a concept that began in Amsterdam in 2009 and has spread globally to more than 2,000 locations.

Close-up photograph of hands fixing a metal beaded necklace with needle-nosed pliers.

When Peter Skinner, ’78, read a 2012 New York Times feature about the fix-it frenzy sweeping the Netherlands, he was intrigued and inspired. He told his wife, Marie Earl, ’78, MLA ’98, that he planned to launch the United States’ first Repair Café. She was justifiably dubious. “I can’t fix anything,” Skinner admits with a laugh. “I’m a total hack.”

But Skinner was confident he could corral a group of friends the couple had known since they were undergrads and tap their collective expertise. Libby Dame, ’79, was a longtime City of Palo Alto employee who had helped launch programs around energy conservation and solar power. Her husband, John Eaton, ’78, MS ’84, was a longtime tinkerer who had worked at Stanford’s original recycling center and handled energy conservation for on-campus housing. Today, he designs and develops medical devices. Bob Wenzlau, ’78, MS ’81, had started the university’s recycling center and, later, Palo Alto’s curbside recycling and composting programs. Now he’s the CEO of Terradex Inc., a local firm that advises on how to treat and handle hazardous and contaminated sites. 

The group worked their contacts to find a location and support. The Museum of American Heritage in downtown Palo Alto offered its space, and Ace Hardware donated supplies. (GreenWaste, which collects the city’s trash and recycling, later provided a trailer to hold supplies.) The first event, in October 2012, attracted media coverage and about 100 people. The next Repair Café drew twice as many, and about 140 people attended each of the four 2019 Repair Cafés.

Left, photo of a woman holding a printer; right, a mug with a broken handle featuring an illustration of two cats holding an umbrella

Palo Alto’s Repair Cafés are staffed by several dozen tool-toting volunteer fixers, often including Stanford faculty and engineering students eager to put their repair skills to good use. They make no judgments about whether an item is worth the time and effort to repair, no matter how old, obsolete or worn it is. If an owner deems it worth keeping, it’s fair game. “Most of the people who come have the same mentality,” Eaton says. “They could easily buy a new hair dryer, but they don’t want to throw a perfectly good item away.”

Dame and Earl greet visitors and log repair requests. Visitors nibble donated bagels and sip coffee in a sunny courtyard until a fixer is available. Owners explain the issue and watch—or sometimes even lend a hand—as the fixer tackles the problem.

Successful repairs are celebrated with the ringing of a handbell, which periodically punctuates the chatter of fixers and visitors. Repair Café fixers are able to completely or partially repair about two-thirds of the items they handle, making a symbolic and personal dent in a vast amount of trash. Between 1960 and 2017, the amount of waste sent to U.S. landfills roughly tripled, jumping to 39 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, even though the U.S. population hadn’t even doubled. Despite recycling mandates, environmental awareness and zero-waste initiatives, 52 percent of the waste generated in the United States in 2017 was buried in landfills. (Stanford sends 36 percent of its trash to the landfill and is working to cut that amount to 10 percent by 2030.)

Left, photo of a man lugging an ice maker; right, close-up photo of hands holding a white dress shirt with a ripped collar

Modern appliances would have much longer lives if engineers designed them to be easily repaired. “We struggle with plastic devices that can’t be separated [into components],” Wenzlau says. “The idea of disassembly isn’t built into products. If we have a zero-waste goal, how can we keep this material out of the landfill? Repair fits in really well with a zero-waste strategy.” 

Durable, cheap to manufacture and lightweight to ship, plastic is ubiquitous in consumer goods. Plastic components are typically fused through ultrasonic welding, a process that uses vibration to heat components until they melt together. An ultrasonic weld eliminates the need for screws, glues and fasteners, which saves resources. “But the flip side is that when something does break,” Eaton says, “it makes it very difficult to actually fix it.”

Left, photo of a man standing next to a rocking chair; right, man in red shirt holding a desk lamp

Stanford engineering students like Pruett learn this lesson firsthand at the Repair Café. More than 340 Stanford engineering students have apprenticed at cafés in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara and San Jose.

“I sell it as hands-on engineering,” says apprentice coordinator Lawrence Garwin, ’87, who spent 26 years building houses with natural materials, working on tall ships and creating off-the-grid electrical systems before completing his bachelor’s degree in 2013. While working with fellow engineering students on group projects, he discovered that few had experience with tools and repairs. 

photo of hands holding a wooden grate needing repair

Under the tutelage of skilled Repair Café volunteers, students hone practical skills and see how smart design choices can reduce waste. “A lot of them will become designers, and we want them to design for repair rather than obsolescence,” Garwin says. 

Students and seasoned fixers draw inspiration from vintage goods. They’ve had stellar success accessing and then repairing the inner workings of 1950s-era drink mixers, mid-century blenders, manual typewriters, adding machines and decades-old box fans.

left, photo of a foot in a running shoe with a broken eyelet; right, photo of a man holding a typewriter

Longtime volunteer Todd Smith says one of his most memorable repairs was a vintage Singer sewing machine. Employees at several repair shops had declared it a loss, but the owner had a sentimental attachment to the machine. Smith, a Stanford physics professor emeritus, eventually located and replaced a broken wire. The machine sprang back to life, and the owner wept with joy. 

Those satisfying fixes continue to motivate Skinner as Palo Alto’s fix-it program approaches the eight-year mark. “The Repair Café is this really tiny thing,” he says, “but it’s at least something that people can participate in at a local level that makes them feel like they’re contributing in some sort of way.” 

Skinner credits the Repair Café with changing the course of his career. In 2016, he transitioned from finance consulting to his current role as CFO of the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, which emphasizes waste reduction and transforms waste into energy or reusable materials. “I can’t say that it was part of a grand plan, but it has been sort of a logical evolution for me,” he says. “And I feel like I’m doing something that gets me out of bed in the morning.”

close-up photo of a broken wooden hangar with handpainted cat carvings affixed to the bottom

Of the 202 items that fixers examined during a recent café’s four hours, 75 percent were fixed partially or, like Schaefer’s iron, completely. She wasn’t surprised. At previous cafés, fixers had replaced the missing rivets on a pair of her pruning shears, and a mechanical engineering student had unstuck the valves on her son’s trumpet, which she then donated to a music program. Schaefer watched as Bruyere and Pruett disassembled her iron and discussed possible remedies.

“The spring that rewinds the cord is lazy,” concluded Bruyere, a mechanical engineer. The duo adjusted, tested and then fine-tuned the tension of a long, thin metal coil. When they were satisfied, they reassembled the iron and tested the cord. It retracted obediently. The repair had taken well over an hour and an impressive amount of patience. 

The fixers handed the iron back to Schaefer, who clutched it, delighted. “I like this place,” she said. The handbell rang. 

June D. Bell is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.