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Tony Duhig, Shedder from Men in Sheds, Discusses the Age UK Award-winning Workshop

Tony Duhig (second right) at the Age Awards 2017 picking up the award for "Outstanding Community Organisation Spirit of Age"

Men in Sheds is an innovative project that supports older men who want to get together, socialise and learn new skills in carpentry, metalwork and furniture restoration - all in the welcoming space of a ‘Shed’. The Shed (a workshop) contains tools, and equipment and is run by a coordinator, with the ‘Shedders’ themselves deciding on the activities and projects they want to follow. Age UK Surrey’s successful Men in Sheds initiative has won a number of awards, including Outstanding Community Organisation at the Age UK Spirit of Age awards in 2017. We talk to regular Surrey Shedder Tony Duhig, about the benefits of woodwork, tea and chat at all stages of life.

How did you find out about the Shed and why did you start coming?

I can’t remember how I heard about the Men in Sheds project, but I do remember having a good look at the website before I rang John Fairs, who is the Shed mentor and leader, and asked to join in 2016.

Having been retired 20 years, my life was already pretty full and I’ve never been known for sitting down - I’ve always been interested in doing things with wood and I’ve built my own planters and veg boxes.

I thought that joining the Shed would allow me to be able to do things I couldn’t do at the time and that it had lots of useful tools! It was the practical aspect that drew me, rather than needing to get out of the house, but everyone has different reasons for being there.

I was down there yesterday and I asked two other fellow shedders why they’d joined; one said he found it on the internet and the other said a friend had recommended it to him.

The most beneficial thing about the Shed is acquiring new skills, which have widened the range of projects that I can tackle. The social side and the fun just happen all the time.

What are the big benefits of the Shed?

It is a lot of fun. One of the other guys said to me yesterday that the social banter and that jocular abuse that gets thrown around when we’re all there together, is what he likes.

There are four weekly sessions, two on Tuesday and two on Wednesday, and there are three double benches at each, where one person can work each side.

The maximum you can have is six people in each three-hour session, and John has a waiting list of people who want to join. I don’t really know much about the people in the other three groups in the week, but I know all the guys in the Wednesday afternoon one – and I go every week without fail, unless I’m away.

The most important tool in the workshop is that funny cylindrical thing in the corner that heats water – the kettle! Our session is normally a “one cup of tea” one I think – but I gather one of the other sessions is more tea than woodwork.

"The most beneficial thing about the Shed is acquiring new skills, which have widened the range of projects that I can tackle. The social side and the fun just happen all the time."

What makes the Shed work as a concept?

The central feature for ours is John; yesterday there was a chap doing things with a large piece of old wood, for example, and trying to saw it by hand. John was just walking past and twisted the handle of the vice two or three more turns, and the guy found it much easier.

He’s always looking, noticing and saying try this way, which makes the Shed a learning experience. At the same time, that same guy needed to whittle a piece of wood to a particular size, and I was able to take him through the process as I knew how to do that.

We also make friends through it, although we don’t really socialise outside the shed unless it’s a day out that, again, John organises, such as a trip to Brooklands museum and Concorde, or Portsmouth Harbour which we went to last year. And of course, we have Christmas lunch at the local pub.

Partners don’t come to the Shed or on the social events. Even when we won the Age UK award and five us went to London to accept it at a presentation, it was a trip for members of the Shed, not our other halves. It’s an interesting dynamic.

"The most important tool in the workshop is the kettle! Our session is normally a 'one cup of tea' one – but I gather one of the other sessions is more tea than woodwork."

Is it environment designed to be especially for men valuable, especially in later life?

I think some people find that being in an environment that is designed just for men once a week is a valuable part of the experience. I myself, don’t attend the Shed because of that – and indeed, there are other sheds and shed-like schemes around the UK that include people of all ages and sexes. 

Older men do perhaps have fewer opportunities to get together as a group than women do though – where I live there are business-like organisations such as Probus and the Round Table, but nothing like the Women’s Institute, for example, which is very sociable.

I do think it’s important to have outside interests and the Shed is a valuable way for men to get out and just do some woodwork. It’s a relaxed way of getting together, and it’s very enjoyable to sweep up after and see how much mess we’ve made in one day!

Further information

To join the shed and for more information contact Age UK Surrey on 01483 503414 or email enquiries@ageuksurrey.org.uk

To view and buy some of the beautiful handcrafted items made by the Men in Sheds including bird boxes, planters and storage trays, visit the website.

Age UK Surrey are experts in later life issues, supporting people to be independent and informed, healthy and active and connected to their communities. They deliver Services to people aged 50+ across Surrey, which include:

  • Information and Advice
  • Help at Home
  • Feet First and Counselling
  • Helping projects in local areas

To find out more about these and our other projects in local areas, please visit: www.ageuk.org.uk/surrey, alternatively call 01483 503414.

What sorts of things do you make in the shed?

When I joined, the key projects were bird tables, nest boxes and planters. However, we began to introduce smaller things too over time, including some rather attractive triangular hanging bird feeders, ‘tampers’ to firm the soil in plant pots and insect/bug hotels. Quite recently, I made a table to have beside our BBQ, and that was only made possible by the machines at the shed - especially for getting key pieces smooth and equally sized. 

The items produced at The Shed are available to purchase on Age UK Surrey's website, including Tony's bird feeder.

Can you come to the Shed if you’re not very experienced in carpentry?

You certainly can; maybe true ‘chippies’, like my late uncle, would call what we do ‘woodwork’ rather than ‘carpentry’ and I certainly don’t consider any of my efforts deserve the title, but I do enjoy it! 

Whatever your entry level, you can still take part in the joint projects and increase your ability; and that is the great benefit of having John there. Since joining the Shed, my skills have increased, but, perhaps more importantly, so has my confidence in tackling previously uncharted territory - such as redoing a section of rain water guttering and water butt storage behind a conservatory.  

What’s the best thing about using the Shed?

For me, the most beneficial things are the combination of acquiring new skills - always with the help of John. Some of those skills are even more valuable because they enable me to use machines that I could never dream of having at home, and have widened the range of projects that I can tackle, such as my BBQ table. The social side and the fun just happen all the time.

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