Good Shop Practice #12: Plan Time for Clean-Up.

Cleaning up shop at the end of a task or the end of the day is a way of extending courtesy to yourself tomorrow.  Having things where you expect them to be when you start the next job is the best reason for cleaning up after this job; it makes work much easier and reduces frustration.  Few things are as satisfying as putting in the last bolt or putting the seat back on the bike and seeing it whole again (then going for the mandatory shake-down ride), but that is not the end of the day’s work.  The half hour or so that it takes to wipe things down, put tools away, take care of the rags, &c., is last act, and it can be a very pleasant, low-mental-energy, reflective way to wind down.  It is also a great time for a beer.

Good Shop Practice #11: Focus

Distraction has become our normal psychological state. Focusing attention on one thing for more than a few minutes is now the exception, and this has interfered with our enjoyment of activities, our ability to see things to completion, the quality of our work, and our sense of peace and happiness. Distraction breeds anxiety and poor workmanship. Focus when you work, and prepare to focus for the duration of the work. If you need to gather information, such as, say, finding a video to walk you through a task, gather it all beforehand so you’re not searching at the same time you’re trying to work. Do one task at a time; if another task occurs to you, write it down and set it aside. Avoid the manic temptation to jump from one to the other. You can only do one thing well at a time.

Good Shop Practice #10: Make a Mess

Spread out, make some room. Get out everything you think you’ll need. You are in your space, so make yourself comfortable. Have plenty of rags handy. It’s OK to have crap all over the place when you’re working. When you’re in the middle of a task, you grab things, put things down, and your focus tends to me more on the problem than the organization of the space around you. As you develop a style and pace of movement, you’ll find your natural level of mess while working. Some people are more comfortable in the immediacy of clutter, with everything close to hand. If that’s you, let it work for you. Don’t assume a messy workspace equates to careless craftsmanship.

Good Shop Practice #9: Listen to That Voice

Mechanical instinct: it seems like some people have it and others don’t, but the truth is that while it does come easier for some, it must be cultivated and consciously developed. The way to do that is to listen to the inner voice and reward it when it is right. The most common thing your inner voice says is, “something’s not right here.” At first that voice may be too cautious or too reckless. You need to calibrate it by paying attention and checking it. The more you calibrate that voice, the more you can rely on it and the better your instincts become. Why do I feel like I’m forgetting something? Why is this panel cover not sliding on easily? What’s wrong with this picture? The voice can’t explain; it can only sound the alarm. By practicing, you will learn to tell the false alarms from the real ones and develop a keen mechanical instinct.

Good Shop Practice #8: Push Your Limits.

Something you’ve never done before can be daunting. You should consciously seek tasks that challenge you. Skill is an ascending helix that requires energy and a little daring, without which it flattens into a circle of boredom. This doesn’t mean you should completely disregard your skill level. You don’t want to take on too-difficult problems that will lead to inevitable failure. This takes judgment and self-awareness. Push your limits – don’t burst through them full-speed like Wile E. Coyote. Go bravely but with care. It’s not just learning new tasks: push yourself to perform everything a little better. Even routine tasks might be done with more precision or efficiency. It is up to you to escape the circle of boredom. Be undaunted.

Good Shop Practice #7: Stop.

Sometimes you get frustrated. Some part is really hard to access, or the instructions weren’t clear, or it just isn’t going right. Maybe you can see yourself getting careless, tossing tools around, skipping steps. Maybe you’re trying to hold too much in your head at once and forgetting details. Sometimes you get that feeling that the ground is rocky, so you just have to plow deeper. Force your way through. That’s the feeling you get right before you break something. So stop. Just stop and stare for a few minutes. Maintenance is a game of mental strategy, rarely a game of force. If it feels off, if you’re confused, if you feel like you just want to get through it, just stop.

Good Shop Practice #6: Use Multiple Sources.

This is going to take research. Every source will have a little different take – the manual may not make sense until you see a video of someone performing the task; one person might have a clever-sounding shortcut that you learn elsewhere is a bad or dangerous idea. A step-by-step guide may not be enough. You might need to go back and, say, get some theory on how a carb works. You need both theory and practice. The amount of information available is effectively limitless, so you need to seek, sort, sift, and above all evaluate. You are smart. Act like it.

Good Shop Practice #5: Don’t Get Cocky

The most inept mechanic is not the beginner but the reckless intermediate. A few years’ experience, a bit of success, and you start to get impatient and careless. You can see how much you have learned, but all that you don’t know is invisible. Your growing confidence is admirable, but see that it doesn’t grow faster than is warranted. Keep it in check. Watch yourself for the temptations to make shortcuts – temptations to which we are all subject. Force yourself to maintain those careful habits that got you this far. The swiftness and deftness of the expert is developed by the practice of care, not by careless shortcuts. As you gather momentum, downshift early or you will have to slam on the brakes when it is too late.

Good Shop Practice #4: Seek Mentors.

Learning is slow and hard without a teacher.  Yes, every piece of information you need is in a book or online somewhere, but a mentor shows, demonstrates, evaluates, rewards, and provides context and attitude.  The Grand Encyclopedia – the continuity of human capability – is not what is written but what is handed down from person to person, in person.  It is an unbroken line of know-how from the Achueulean hand axe to your machine.  This is the memetic transmission of culture and how we avoid having to re-invent everything from first principles each generation.  Novice mechanics usually intuit that they need guidance; it is the experienced mechanic who forgets that they, too, need a mentor.  Don’t be arrogant.  Unless you are some kind of Boddhisattva, everyone needs mentorship, and everyone has some mentorship to offer.  Be humble in teaching as well as learning.

A New Year in the Garage

Set the thermos on the workbench: coffee with Jameson’s. No work today; I just came out to the garage to “tidy up a bit,” my own preferred personal euphemism for doing nothing at all. It’s the first Sunday of January, but not too terrible cold for a’ that.


The only actual task I have today is to take down last year’s Garage Calendar (Rachael Clegg’s delightful, beautiful, sexy, and witty Milestones TT calendar) and put up this year’s (images of engineers rappelling off buildings from Wiss, Janney, Elstner; sexy in a very different way). I’m very particular about the selection of the annual Garage Calendar ever since I got the droolworthy 2010 Zero Engineering calendar.


So, January. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He has two faces, looking forward and backward. He signifies that every beginning is an ending and blah, blah, blah, whatever. January isn’t actually named after Janus, it turns out, but it’s close enough, so we’ll go with it.


So as we look forward to another year of, by the grace of Jupiter, riding, wrenching, tinkering, drinkering, revving, leaning, and getting home alive, it’s worth an hour or two to inhabit the garage, have some augmented coffee, and reflect.


Everything in the garage is put away so neatly now, as it never is during the season. Drawers are closed; King Dick wrenches are aligned on the wall in soldierly fashion; mower and wheelbarrow parked under the stair; hoses coiled; Triumph tarped and parked. It’s really quite pleasing to observe, and the temporary neatness masks all the undone projects nicely.


Of all the things still incomplete, I’d have thought I would have gotten the BSA on the road this year, but over there is the frame, and over there are the wheels, and under that sheet is the engine, and in those boxes… oh, boy. Look at that bucket full of nuts and bolts. This isn’t even at square one. It’s square zero.


Time to get realistic and realize I need to call in some help. Instead of lofty, hifalutin’ New Year’s resolutions, let’s be realistic this time. Sure, I’d like to be able to say I did it all myself with tools I forged myself from locally-sourced organic iron, but let’s get real. Let’s put ego aside and do what’s best for the project and give us the best chance of getting her on the road.


It takes some combination of time, skill, and money to complete any project. My resources of all three are limited. I’ve decided to decide that I can spend a little more money and borrow an expert’s skill. Do I lose a little authenticity? (maybe) Am I getting older? (yes) Well, I’m OK with it. I know I would enjoy doing more of the work myself (if I had the time), and I would surely learn a lot on the rebuild. I also know that, like everybody else, I’m going to be working my ass off this year and I can’t always put a bike rebuild first. “Others have excuses, I have my reasons why.”


This will be a good year. Maybe by giving up a little of my self-improtance, I’ll get a little more done and be a little less manic. Maybe I’ve had enough augmented coffee. (nope)


Well, the calendar is up. I guess I’m done here. Here’s to kicking the starter in 2015.