Network of blokes' spaces where social tools of comradeship are just as important as hammers and nails

As sheds go, it's a pretty flash one. A fully insulated 300sqm building on a concrete slab, with a lunchroom and a small electronics workshop partitioned off at one end, it could be a small factory.

But it needs to be well equipped, and big too, because it's a shed for a big bunch of blokes. Some 90 men are card-carrying members of its fellowship and on any one of the three weekly shed days, a couple of dozen will be in attendance.

Tucked in behind the tennis club courts in Elliott Reserve in Glenfield, the Men's Shed North Shore is one of more than 35 around the country - there are seven in the region from Pukekohe north - and the only purpose-built one in Auckland.

On Monday morning, when I turn up for a look around, it's a hive of purposeful activity. The average age of the 20 or so going about their business is well north of 60, and chairman Ross McEwan explains that the membership is predominantly retired blokes.


"Typically in retirement they've downsized their homes," he says, "and in the process they have lost their sheds. So they sit at home, under the wives' feet, and they still want to potter but they can't. Nobody wants them any more; they haven't got a job, they haven't got a workshop."

Well, actually, they have got one hell of a workshop, packed with tools and machinery, much of which has been donated by members or new widows with a shed full of stuff they don't know what to do with. And the blokes I see are doing a lot more than pottering around.

As one quartet erects scaffolding from which to install a system that will filter dust from the air, two other men painstakingly apply stain to a shelving unit. Elsewhere somebody's designing a predator trap for a possible DoC contract. There's a plan to make some wooden toys.

In the middle of the room, shed member Martin Adlington is trying to smooth the surface of a thin slab of wood, its bark still mostly intact. It's what remains of one of those kitsch coffee tables - we've all seen them - that were the souvenirs of choice for visitors to Fiji in the 60s.

Another member, Geoffrey Hoare, a smiling and slightly ruddy Englishman, passes Adlington a scraper that he has newly sharpened, promising to hone it even more finely for the final touch.

"What are you making?" he asks, and his eyes bulge when Adlington says it's about to be a chopping board.

"Sacrilege!" he says, in exaggerated mock horror. "That would make a lovely coffee table." He blushes when the slab is turned over to show the screw-holes left by its legs.

Hoare, whose engineering factory in London made the switching gear in "every Royal Navy ship afloat", is a relative newcomer to the shed. He says he enjoys "the comradeship and the chance to assist and pass on my knowledge to other people".


He's using a milling machine to make up some wooden jigs for a local bookbinder who has asked for help.

In other cases, members of the community will turn up wanting a broken pram wheel replaced or a kid's bike mended.

As it stands, the men's shed is a gathering of like-minded and similarly skilled individuals, but they are keen to encourage younger members who may have skills to share or the desire to learn. (They say even people of my abysmal incompetence would be welcome; they reckon they could find something for me to do, though I suspect it might be making the tea.)

What's being developed here is as ancient as village life: it's a model of companionship, collaboration and mentorship that was swept away by the creation of assigned jobs in the industrialised capitalist world.

But there's a specific and serious intent underlying the men's shed, which explains the support they enjoy from the Lion Foundation and the Birkenhead Licensing Trust.

Call it a health initiative, because that's what it is: the sheds are small communities that break down the isolation many men feel when they retire or find themselves alone after their wives die.

"I've seen blokes turn up here looking so lost and lonely," one man tells me, "and after a few weeks, they've got a real smile on their face again.

"They didn't realise how lonely they were until they came here, and now they're here all the hours it's open."