Matthew Day, Gundagai Shed

What do you think of when you see the words Men’s Shed? My preconception was of a shed full of tools, old blokes and tinkerers getting crafty with bits of wood. For many sheds this is in part truth, but for a growing number including my own, that was just how we started.

In 2017 I was asked to attend a special meeting of my local Men’s Shed. The former committee had been disbanded and it was in debt. They asked if I would take on the secretary position. At 32, I said I would take it on until someone better wanted it. I’m certain I was made secretary because I could use a computer though they jokingly said it was because I still had all my fingers. Anyone else see a correlation here?

My reasons for joining were that I had missed the opportunity to learn skills from my own grandfathers. What better way to learn than to find a mentor in someone else’s? Having lived in rental properties for many years I saw the benefits of not buying new tools, bringing in and sharing what I had.

In need of a Women’s Shed

From the crisis of 2017 we knew we had to increase our numbers to make a more resilient shed. In 2018, we were in a better financial position to pursue opening a Women’s Shed on an alternate day to the Men’s Shed. There were women in our community who wanted to learn when they were in school and had never been given the opportunity or encouraged. We set up a Women’s Shed day with some male mentors available should they need us. As it happened, we would need them more than we could have possibly foreseen.

The pandemic hit all sheds very hard. Many sheds lost members who simply didn’t return. Others, like ours, didn’t have many members to begin with. Had we not sought women members before the pandemic we would have folded.

Some sheds keep traditional tools for specialised woodworking and blacksmithing, others keep the latest gear, most offer a mixed bag, but every shed is different. People play a crucial part in defining a shed, absolutely, but so too does its contents. These determine the capacity of a shed and the breadth of activities and projects they are able to accommodate. A shed closure hurts all shedders because we all understand how hard it is to accumulate these treasures, and the loss a community will feel in its absence.

“We greatly respect our Women’s Shed members for saving our shed.
Their problem solving, creativity and their leadership on the committee
has been invaluable in getting us through our greatest challenges.”

In recognising our significant cultural shift, we could no longer call ourselves a Men’s Shed, it wasn’t enough. We rewrote our constitution and changed our name to Gundagai Shed which encompassed both sheds. Through inclusion we empowered women in our community and they in turn revived the shed. We currently have the most members we’ve ever had with some travelling to us from other towns.

In early 2022, we facilitated our first workshop run by the tradeswomen of SALT aimed at empowering teenage girls in using hand and power tools.

Our Community Garden

In 2019 we received funding to create our towns first community garden. We chose to use second hand food-grade IBC tanks to construct 47 wicking beds. Wagga Men’s Shed donated old truck guards to build our mushroom beds which are a brilliant way to divert waste sawdust, wood chips and shavings from landfill.

To conserve water we purchased three large rainwater harvesting tanks so that the garden was not reliant on town water further reducing running costs associated with the garden.

Sustainable water allowed us to establish a native green belt which would provide habitat for predatory insects and animals as well as attract pollinators. By allowing a planned wild section of the garden we invited beneficial insects into our food production areas and this has increased our yield while reducing pests.

As our local council already had issues with fruit fly control, they asked us not to plant any fruit trees. Respecting their wishes our food forest is a mixture of almond and hazelnut trees with an understory of rhubarb, asparagus, comfrey, mixed berries and herbs. As the cockatoos love our efforts, we eat lots of green almonds which are high in antioxidants.

With a lack of community members using the garden since the pandemic, we introduced our “take what you need, give what you can” table on our street kerb. Every neighbourhood has at least one citrus tree with fallen fruit at its base, a neighbour with a glut of silverbeet, a friend with too many seedlings, a stranger with an extra jar of pickles.

“The table can be a point of trade, but it’s mostly just there to provide.
Ours has been so successful we need a bigger table.”

A Green Shed

Our council assisted us immensely by securing funding for a solar array and LED lighting in 2020. Solar energy quickly became our greatest asset as, at the time, it was earning credit for the shed during repeated lockdowns. With energy efficient lighting, not only was it more environmentally sound, it was also a brighter and much safer work environment.

We’ve also become better at diverting our waste by using smaller offcuts of wood as affordable kindling. Many pensioners in our community use wood fired heating and our generous bags have become a service to our community. The pandemic has also helped change our value of hardwoods and we are using them and their offcuts in smaller and smaller projects.

Many shedders end up becoming bower birds; collecting, repurposing and salvaging whatever and whenever possible. These shedders are particularly vulnerable to kerbside cleanups, tips and garage sales. I admire them for seeing value in the discarded, in their ability to see potential in something long lived yet well made. I’ve also taken to carrying a screwdriver with me whenever heading to the dump.

In promoting a culture of repair, our shed has actively sought community projects that seek to restore toys and furniture to good working condition.

“I’m always excited to see a much-loved toy returned to the shed for some rehab. I’ve learnt that wooden toys can be fixed, multiple times.
We do what we can to minimise what ends up at the tip.”

Some shedders have excellent mechanical knowledge of which I am still so very ignorant. If our own machines break, we fix them. If we don’t have the necessary skills or equipment for a job we’ll outsource to other sheds in our region before, begrudgingly, taking it to the shop. This self-reliance in finding solutions to our own mechanical failures was a revelation to me.

The Value

“The friendships I’ve made through the shed and the connection
I have to my community because of it have been invaluable in
helping me build purpose in my own identity.”

Without the shed, I’m sure I would be more insular and incapable of seeing the interdependencies within my community.

Sheds are also about lifetimes of gathered truths and hard-earned wisdom through lived experiences. Many shedders have lived through your problems and they’ve each found their own solutions. Hindsight is an amazing tool they’re able to share; what they did, what they could have done differently, how you could apply their knowledge in your context.

In working with older people you come to understand certain things in greater detail. Death comes to us all and in seeing the aftermath you appreciate what you have, if only for part of a lifetime. In my time at the shed I have witnessed a number of kind words said in sombre circumstances and it doesn’t get easier.

When you go to these funerals you finally get to see who these shedders were to their children and grandchildren. You empathise with them for these shedders had shared the same life stories, humour, and lessons with you. On leaving them you can’t help but feel privileged that the deceased had made the decision to spend a number of their final days in your company. And in turn you grew to understand more about your world and the gravity they carried which held them to it for a spell.

You may think you have time to meet these people when, if, sometime. Time to learn the craft someday, somewhere. I would urge you not to dream. I would urge you to go have a cuppa and a biscuit. You don’t have to join a shed, but you do have to pay homage to our elders, admire the few who continue to do. Do it as often as you can and better yet, bring a deck of cards or a packet of all sorts.

If you’re like me however, truely see the value in those shared moments over; a much fought over Kingston; the pride of a finished shed project; solving a smartphone issue; getting a grant approved, you’ll begin to see something that could potentially outlive everyone in the room including yourself.

Should you decide you’re going to help build a legacy; a refuge for our best ideas, invest in making your local shed as resilient and sustainable as possible. As a shedder and future mentor, let me advocate for sheds as places for learning the skills we’ll need.

Finding a Shed

I feel people in the cities are spoilt for choice. If they don’t click with one group they can just move on to the next or better yet mingle in multiple.

I know of sheds restoring classic planes, making and playing instruments, brewing beer, keeping bees, or just playing cards; each unique, each worth ducking into and saying, “I’m a shedder from … [insert place here].”

Each shed I’ve visited, members have been keen to show me what they’re working on and enthusiastic to hear more on the progress of my own shed. It’s a giving relationship where good ideas can be exchanged and everyone benefits.

If I’ve convinced you to join a shed, expect a safety induction, shed orientation, a good mix of people, tea or coffee and a biscuit. No skills or experience are required when joining a shed but be ready to learn and use your creative problem solving.

About Matthew 

Matthew Day grew up in the New South Wales seaside town of Forster, moving to Gundagai in 2014. In between his time at the Gundagai Shed, Matthew is currently taking time off work to take on the role of primary carer for his two children. Matthew says that time at the Shed is important for his mental health and helps him feel useful to the broader community. During his time at Gundagai Shed he has built many meaningful relationships within and outside of the Shed, learned new skills and has invested his time into working on growing the Shed.


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