a christian perspective on the world today

The “Men’s Shed Solution” For Male Loneliness

Enter the The Woodwork and Craft Club in southeast Queensland and you’ll see piles upon piles of wood and wooden goods—finished, unfinished and not even started. Everything from chests, dollhouses, stools, chessboards, lamps, birdhouses and much more.

Behind the stack of projects hangs a black-and-white framed photograph of an old man with a plaque below that reads Tom Rolfe. When I ask the men in the shed about him as we sit down for morning tea, I hear, “Oh, he passed away a long time ago.” I’m told about his quest for a place like this and of the deals he made that eventually got him prime land at a cost of close-to-nothing. The men tell stories of Tom and laugh about him as if he’s still at the table with them. Before my tea even had the chance to cool down enough for me to take a sip, I realised there was something special about this place.

A history of sheds
Men’s sheds, or community sheds, originated in Australia to improve the health and wellbeing of older men. Since the first community shed opened in 1993, the Australian-born movement has grown to include more than 1200 sheds in Australia and more than 2500 worldwide, with more popping up in countries like Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. While the one I visited isn’t exclusively a “men’s” shed, it is mostly retired men who attend regularly. Though they welcome women and young blood with enthusiasm.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average age of retirement for males is 59 years, meaning many spend decades of their lives outside of paid work, a place where they often find their sense of fulfilment. The loss of a work routine and sense of purpose can make retirement challenging. For men who don’t find new meaningful activities to replace work, there is the risk of boredom and a sense of purposelessness that can be stressful and can lead to depression and other health problems.

“When you’re used to working and all of a sudden there’s nothing, you’re lost. You want to be doing things still,” said Ian, who comes to the shed nearly every day. “We have gotten a few women come in with their husbands and get them to join up. Mainly to get them out of the house or give them something to do.”

Meeting the rabble
As it neared 9:30am, one man said, “The rabble should be turning up soon . . . they always flood in just in time for smoko.”  Those who were there started telling me how the shed works, about different members and projects within sight. Various men from a range of ages and many walks of life trickled in, as predicted. The jug was boiled numerous times, and a barrel of biscuits covered in a thin lining of sawdust was passed from one set of hands to the next.

Richard, a recently retired tax lawyer, rode in on his black Harlem Fatboy electric bike. As he pulled up, Ian, once a welder by trade, turned to me and said, “Should change that to old boy.” He laughed but I could tell he’d made that joke before. Richard and Ian have been regulars for years and I got the impression the shed has been a very big part of their lives.

“A lot of the time what we make is orientated on whatever timber we’ve got hanging around. We think, What could we make with that? Rather than think we want to make this and then let’s find the timber. That’s too expensive . . . A lot of the time we use old crates and most of our timber is donated,” Ian said. “We’re the ultimate recyclers,” Richard chimed in, pulling out a small branch of bottlebrush he found in his garden that he thought would make a nice bowl.

The rain started to hit the tin roof when Peter, 86 years of age, rolled in on his mobile scooter. I’d already heard about him and his model boats. Since the first time he heard a ship coming into Sydney Harbour as a boy, Peter has been fascinated with boats. He spent his former years as a boat builder and shipwright and, for the last decade, has been coming to the shed nearly every day to work on faithful reproductions. He showed me his latest project, The Yawl, a 1902 tier masted grass-green sailing vessel. There are a few men older than Peter, who also ride in on their scooters, but he’s the longest running regular of which he made sure I noted.

Then there were the two Micks. One makes sculptured creatures that he sometimes sells off to a local cabaret venue or otherwise leaves at the shed entrance to give people a fright. He dreams up things and makes them on the whim. He doesn’t measure much. Just gets a chunk of wood and grinds away at it until he likes what he sees. Then there’s the more calculated Mick, a retired carpenter who does precision work and who struggled to sit down for tea because he was eager to test out a new machine. “He’s one of our skilled operators. Quite the craftsman!” one said. “A what?” Mick replied, shrugging off the compliment. “A craftsman!” I watched him at work later and can vouch he’s exactly that.

Building for others
On top of the projects the men go about individually, they make time to do things for the community. Recently they made a dozen garden beds and potting benches specifically designed for wheelchair access. This was for a community garden for the physically impaired, an initiative by their local neighbourhood centre.

During school term, they facilitate classes for the students at the school the shed resides on. “It’s really rewarding working with the kids and being able to teach them different things,” one said. He explained that they always have more men come in when they are involved in teaching the students.   

The men also attend community markets every now and then to sell what they’ve made. “It’s good for guys to come along to the shed, but if they don’t have a project of their own, they can build something to sell. It gives them a project to do and it’s good for their ego knowing someone will buy it,” another said.   

As morning tea wrapped up, the men drifted to various parts of the shed and got back to work, chatting, helping each other, and grabbing another cuppa. This was a typical day there. And while it may sound like a bunch of men pottering around, it’s much more. It’s a place where people value one another’s company, where they can put their hands to good work and pour themselves into something they’re proud of.

Research conducted by Beyond Blue shows that men who frequent these clubs experience a host of benefits. They feel better mentally, emotionally and physically. They experience less pain, are more sociable, optimistic, relaxed, confident and cheerful. They also report that they feel useful and better about themselves, which might be because they help people in their communities.

“Thousands of people around the world live longer and happier lives thanks to their humble shed,” said David Helmers, CEO of the Australian Men’s Shed Association.

Lessons on community
We often hear about the importance of community. Of the power it has to change us, ease our angst, brighten our mood, add to our sense of purpose and even increase our lifespan. But community isn’t always easy to find, and we don’t always desire or miss it unless we’ve been a part of one. But once you’ve seen it in action or experienced it, you know that it’s one of the greatest, most underrated things life has to offer.

From my brief time at The Woodwork and Craft Club, I could tell that this was a place where community and comradeship were valued. It reminded me of a few things about community that we can each take with us into various contexts.

The first is that community takes effort. We don’t just stumble upon it. At some point, each man there had to enquire about how to join, ask about machinery and tools, and start from scratch with new relationships.

The second is that there is beauty in our differences. So often we choose to spend time with people who are just like us. But there is value in connecting with people from different walks of life, of different ages, with different skills and interests.

Lastly, there’s power in serving. Not only does it give us a sense of purpose and fulfilment but it brings us closer together.

Whether you’re part of a community or searching for one, my hope is that you take a note from the men at The Woodwork and Craft Club and sink yourself into a community in which you can belong and contribute. If we surround ourselves with people who are positive and supportive, our lives will be better for it.

“Alright kiddo, lovely seeing you,” one says as I make my way out. “Take care. Come back again,” another says. I’m gifted with a wooden surfboard keyring and a reindeer they made to sell at the markets for Christmas. I leave, though not really wanting to, and look forward to when I can return
. . . And that is a sure sign of a place and a community I hope we all get to be a part of.

This article is dedicated to Peter (maker of the ships), who passed away in December 2023, a few weeks after this interview was recorded. Peter was an iconic character of the shed and will be sorely missed. He was there only a few days before he passed.

Zanita Fletcher is a life coach and assistant editor for the Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland.

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