How to (try to) Fix Anything

Taking Stuff Apart and Fixing It: A story about Bright and Shiny Things

People and fish have several things in common, and here’s one of them: they both like Bright and Shiny Things. When I was a little kid, those Bright and Shiny Things were Phillips head screws. This later expanded to pretty much all fasteners (e.g., bolts, nails). At some point I got too interested to resist removing those screws, etc., and set to grabbing my dad’s tools. Man, I started taking my toys apart all the time. Although I don’t remember the event, I imagine the first time I did went something like this:

What’s that Bright and Shiny Thing on the back of this Transfomer?

Game on. By the way, that’s “Transformer” with a capital T, as in the toys manufactured by Hasbro, not the part of most electronics that converts Alternating Current (AC) to Direct Current (DC). Stay away from those things. Pretty early among my attempts was taking apart my stereo. It was one of those single-box jobs designed to look like multiple components stacked on top of one another. It had a turntable, tuner, dual-well cassette deck (with High-Speed Dubbing – Oh Yeah!!!), and graphic EQ. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this stereo; I just wanted to know what it looked like when it was completely and utterly disassembled. So I took it apart, marveled at its innards, and then put it back together. It did not work as well as it had before I took it apart. No more High-Speed Dubbing (NOOOOOO!!!!).

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early lesson, I still love taking things apart. I sometimes do this out of necessity: I am not a wealthy man, and replacing or having someone else fix our stuff is almost always prohibitively expensive. Other times, though, I take my things apart because I am otherwise compelled out of curiosity. I will think: “Hmmm. This NOUN works beautifully, just as it should. I am going to now take it apart, find out how it works, and see if doing DANGEROUS VERB makes it work any better.” For me, you see, the phrases that you typically find adhered or plastered to the chassis of any given product represent a personal challenge. You know, those yellow stickers that say “DANGER: NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS INSIDE,” or “CAUTION: RISK OF ELECTRIC SHOCK. CONTACT A QUALIFIED PROFESSIONAL FOR SERVICE. THAT’S RIGHT, ASSHOLE, WE SAID ELECTRIC SHOCK.” Those things are just begging to be disassembled. I am just begging for voltage that my body simply doesn’t need to go coursing through me.

Here’s the deal: it seems we’re living in a world of gear that “must” be replaced every two to three years. Manufacturers, in some cases, seem to be designing products that will invariably fail in that two to three year period. I am not making a blanket, conspiracy statement here, merely an observation; also, use of the word ‘seem’ should be a clue that I don’t really subscribe to the observations I just made (not entirely, anyway). Whether or not things are built to fail is sort of irrelevant, however, simply because even if the things we buy (appliances, computers, vehicles, toys) were made to be user-serviceable, how many among us would have the skills to repair them, or the cojones to try…(gasp) acquiring the skills needed to repair them? I have a mantra I developed several years ago to help me with overcoming any fears I have about diving into a new repair job. Here it goes:

It’s already broken. As long as you’re careful, you won’t break it any worse than it already is.

That’s it. This bit of greeting-card wisdom has carried me through every repair job I’ve undertaken in the past several years. Fixing things can be really hard and daunting. When it works out, you have a repaired or restored functionality or product, and lots of really positive feelings about yourself and your abilities. When it doesn’t work out, you suck it up and find someone who can help or do the job for you. You shouldn’t let fears of incompetence get in your way (feel free to allow fear of getting shocked or electrocuted get in your way), because you’ll be in the same place everyone is at multiple points in their life: something is broken, and you have a choice about whether or not you’re going to do something about it with your own two hands.

Don’t think I am some specially trained person with regards to repair, because I am not. I just give it a go after some research into the problem and hope things shake out okay. Remember when I said that I’m sometimes compelled to tweak or take things apart for no real reason? Well, sometimes this doesn’t work out, and I have caused the thing to actually stop working the way it’s supposed to. In these cases, I end up knowing how to fix something because I was the one who screwed it up[1]. Here is a partial list of some of the things I have repaired in the past two years or so, in no particular order[2]:

  1. Power window motor on my car
  2. Truck was stalling while I was driving. Found what was causing it (with some consultation help from my youngest brother), pulled apart the necessary bits of the engine, refurbished, reassembled
  3. Laptop (failed Hard Disk Drive; replaced, reassembled, installed OS)
  4. Subwoofer (blown capacitor solder joint)
  5. Dryer (non-resetable fuse failed; replaced it on my lunch break)
  6. My son’s toy airplane (Weebles did not appropriately wobble inside the airplane’s cabin; found the offending gear slippage inside chassis; reseated gear, reassembled)

Most important feature of each of these cases: I had exactly zero experience with any of the specific repairs. My point is that it can be done. Find the Bright and Shiny Things, grab a wrench, screwdriver, or whatever it takes to get it off, and delve inside. You’ll either be glad you did or less afraid about doing it next time.


  1. This is very much to the consternation of my wife.  ↩
  2. These things actually needed it due to expected or unexpected mechanical failures, not because I tinkered with them till they broke. That list would be much longer.  ↩
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