Despite there being over 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia and 200 in Ireland, with the UK catching up fast, there is no typical Shed. Each aims to harness the resources of the particular locality to meet the needs of the men within it.
Just as Channel 4 TV’s ‘Shed of the Year’ awards stretches the definition of a shed, so too does the Men’s Shed movement. ‘Sheds’ in the East of England for example, include a former mortuary in Maldon, space in a community arts centre in Bedford, and a church building in Ipswich.
The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead occupies part of a warehouse and workshop space at the Hemel Food Garden – a horticultural social enterprise run by charity Sunnyside Rural Trust which works with learning-disabled adults to grow bedding plants under contract to Dacorum Borough Council.
Making, mending and learning are three broad areas identified for income-generation in Hemel Hempstead. With a strong environmental emphasis on waste prevention, the plan is for the Repair Shed to turn reclaimed materials into functional items, for example furniture made from wooden pallets. An affordable repair service will run alongside free community repair events at which owners learn how to fix their broken items themselves. More formal learning by and for Repair Shed members – in repair, re-use and DIY skills – will be developed into paid-for training courses and one-off workshops for the wider community.
The Repair Shed itself aspires to be financially self-sufficient through selling goods and services, but it’s too early to know whether social enterprise is a route to a sustainable funding model. Elsewhere, the idea of income-generation and running a business operation doesn’t appeal to all Sheds.
Some Shed members like the continuity of structure, targets and plans – tapping into their commercial skills and experience – particularly when seeking to get back into employment. Others come to a Shed to get away from the stress of a business-oriented environment as Andy Wood, who helped set up the Norwich Men’s Shed, explains: “Making things to sell or offering paid-for services will be part of our business plan, but we are aware that this may cause pressure on participants to produce, which, in our view, would defeat the purpose of the project”.
… and bird boxes
That said, most Sheds do make things – whether for sale or for the satisfaction of being creative. Bird boxes are bread and butter for many Sheds – easy to make, great gifts for all ages in kit form or made-up, and a ‘nice little earner’ as Del Boy might say. At the new Maldon Shed it’s early days, but Bob Adams reports: “We have already been commissioned to make bird & bat boxes by Essex Wildlife Trust, and a few local pubs have asked us to make some flower troughs.” When the Men’s Shed in Aylesbury started, the group used bird box making as a team-building activity, making 75 in the weeks before Christmas and selling two thirds of them on a market stall before the festivities began.
The challenge of balancing ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ activity, recognised by many social enterprises, is well illustrated by the recent bird box experience of another Buckinghamshire Men’s Shed, in Milton Keynes. A commission to make 150 bird boxes looks like good business but, for men not paid to join a production line, the loss of creativity that comes with making even 10 boxes can turn a hobby into a chore.
For more on Men’s Sheds around the UK go to www.ukmsa.org.uk