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Because our house's previous owner thought he could tinker, I am now mopping. He could not tinker, he was not a thinker, even the thought of him in mid-putter makes me shudder. I think he's a stinker.

Time to go do some more mopping...


Uncle Merlin is right, the time to change a lightbulb is too small a unit. I suggest the time it takes to make a run to the nearest independant hardware store (no big boxes please). It doesn't make for a very precise t.u. but every good tinker includes at least 3 hardware store runs. Therefore, if the task takes fewer than 3 t.u.'s it is a putter.

David Glynn

The basic tinker unit is the time it takes to remove, inspect, clean, and reinstall the spark plug from your lawn mower. Include any time needed for tool round-up.

For you techno types it's the time to dis-entangle the cable snake nest attached to your computer, haul out said computer, and remove the exterior case panel to get access.

Installing any card in a computer will take three tu's, as you must include time to dust, install card, reassemble, and attempt to tame the cable snake nest upon return of the computer to it's usual abode.

Configuring software to make the card work correctly is an unknown quantity, and cannot be known in advance, despite what anyone says to the contrary.

Ken Muldrew

I think Dave's on to something with the metric of hardware store runs (HSRs). One trip makes for a nice tinker (because if you start out in a good mood, you will browse around a bit and pick up a few things to supplement your tinker with some puttering for the afternoon). But having to make a second HSR means that either you were too hasty or stupid to size up the job initially, you got the wrong part at the store, or you've broken something. Any of these possibilities is annoying enough to seriously escalate the value of the tinker.

Probably it is unwise to try to estimate the t.u. for any job that you haven't done before as there is always a surprise (or two) waiting in the wings. A recent personal example: last week the sink in my upstairs bathroom was leaking. So I go to have a look and discover that the contractor who did the plumbing on my house didn't put in any shut-off valves for the sinks. Visions of some fat, satisfied plumber lazing on a Caribbean beach, spilling his Cuba Libre while his ass-crack hangs out of his pants filled me with spite as I headed down to shut off the main water valve. Then a trip to the plumbing supply shop to get some shut-off valves and the rest of the kit and I'm subjected to a half-hour lecture from the guy behind the counter about how he had warned everyone against using poly-b (my house was plumbed with polybutylene so I had to get some poly-b to pex adapters - that's what triggered the self-important rant). Finally I am allowed to leave and then receive another lecture when I get home about doddling at the hardware store while everyone else is waiting for the water to get turned back on. The job itself only takes 20 or 30 minutes but the aggravation makes it feel like you've been working like a dog for hours.

Car repairs, naturally, are much worse, but strangely there is a threshold where a tinker can go so badly that all hope is lost. A pause to reflect and regain one's calm. Perhaps some strong drink. Then a glimmer of hope...a way out...maybe you won't need to take the bus to work in the morning. Some scrap metal, a tap-and-die set, a welder...the tools that a non-mechanic employs to recover from a devastating series of catastrophes. With some luck, sweat, hard language, and more strong drink, the thing is eventually brought back to life. Of course the simpler the solution, the better, but the main thing is to get it working again.

I think my best ever car repair was of a starter that started failing intermittently and then finally quit for good. It was easy enough to figure out that the solenoid wasn't working, but too late to try to get a new one. So when I take it apart I find that the plunger has worn a defect in the contacting strip of copper so that it no longer allows current to flow. The teenage daughter is frantic by this time, needing a vehicle for some social event or other, in turn cajoling and pleading to make it work. Some thinking, some staring at the defect, some whiskey, more staring...finally a light goes on. I take a penny out of my pocket and try it in the defect. Almost a perfect fit. Some flux, a propane torch, then a bit of filing, and voila! The car is starting once again and it only cost me a penny! Wonderful stuff, when something like that happens. Almost good enough to cover up for all the bolts that shear off, the grimy filth that falls into your eyes, the cuts from a nut finally giving way as you put all your strength into pushing your hand into a sharp piece of metal...and countless other miseries that hound the tinkerer who dares to challenge old cars.


Dammit, I gave away a Sansui 5500 amp/receiver last year to some guy in an audiophile group. Had I know Uncle Merlin liked that stuff...

The time required to install a new piece of hardware (like the Lexmark scanner/copier/printer I just got) equals one t.u.

Exiled in New Jersey

Attaching the icicle lights to the gutters and leaders without bending the gutters out of shape is 2tu, and add another half for hooking the extension wiring and the timer. Taking them down? If you can't do it in less than one you are hopeless.

Tom W.

The blog has become the new tinkerer's workbench, in my blog-tinkerer's opinion.


Dave nailed it.

Now we need more words. Putter and tinker do not suffice.

I am thinking of the broken spring on the oven door of the vintage O'Keefe & Merritt stove I love. Ten months and counting. Twice replaced, second time with refinement on first approach. Twice failed. Still baking with various items - wood wedge, silicon potholder, Japanese backscratcher - jamming the door shut, but only sort-of, what with with periodic flop-opens.

I'm thinking of the hole in the bathroom wall. Nice in the summer because I can reach out and pick herbs from the garden. Miserable in the winter. Awaiting the full-out repair for, oh, six years now, it has been puttered?/tinkered? shut with (a) a pizza box, (b) old album cover, (3) yesterday's solution: waxy Fedex box. These hold until the rain washes them away.

I'm thinking of the odd shapes (oh, look, a shark! a bird! a little house!) of metal - some sheet metal, some copper - hammered over the holes that have formed in the 100-year-old soft wood floors of this former silent movie theatre we call home..."just until we have the floors redone"... except pretty soon it's going to be more metal than wood.

And - you could have guessed this - the put-tinkerer here is a licensed contractor/master builder/artist.

In other words, says the wife, in this arena, we need words to capture the act, its result, durations, cognitive dissonance, and more. Because, you know, we really need to talk about this.


Great post Lance.

I just read something to the effect somewhere else. About no one repairs electronics because nothing is made well enough or is too expensive to be worth fixing the one part instead of just replacing it.

Mike Schilling

The family and I were in an old hardware store the other day, and, lo and behold, it had a tube testing machine! I explained it to my kids, but I think the idea of fixing something electrical rather than throwing it away remained as elusive to them as the notion of "vacuum tube".


I loved this post!! My father used to use the words "putter" and "tinker". And Lance, you hit the definitions right on the head!

The post brought back such nice memories of the house in which I grew up and of my wonderful father puttering and tinkering. I also had to smile thinking of my mother's exasperated head shakes, never quite understanding what my father was up to or getting himself in to. :)


The putter unit is the amount of time it takes to adjust the works of your toilet (i.e., bend the float rod) so that it no longer drips. A tinker unit is the amount of time it takes to replace the old, float rod style works with some new, sleek, streamlined Jetsons looking works, screw around with it for a while, realize it doesnt work worth a damn, and install a replacement float rod unit.

Amanda Marcotte

I'm a tinkerer, though I rarely have the time to do it. My apartment is an ode to my tinkeriness. Nothing is well enough alone. Everything is furnished from garage sales and been rebuilt, repainted, re-something. I love to tinker. It clears the brain. Puttering is a poor substitute.

Most tinkering sorts turn to gardening, I think. The garden is tinkering in slow motion, so you have the time to do it.


A putter is the time it takes to change a lightbulb.

A tinker is the time it takes to strip the ends of the cord and replace the plug.

A hect-tinker is the time it takes to run to the hardware store to buy a new plug.

A kilotinker is the time it takes to stop at your parents' house and borrow some wire strippers from your Dad, assure him that you know what you're doing, watch as he demonstrates it anyway, show him how to load a new computer file, promise to look into graduate school, and lie about the last time you had your car's oil changed.


A putter is the time it takes to change the heating element in the pastor's electric hot water heater. A tinker is the time it takes to run the new gas line from the furnace to the hot water heater, disconnect the old one (which you wisely drained while running the gas and got a couple teens from church to remove)and hook up the new, gas hot water heater (which said teens also brought down).

But only if, by a miracle, you actually have every part you need. I have found that every time I do plumbing, I can expect to be missing a part every forty to fifty joints on average. Electric, which I do more infrequently, averages a trip every twenty-five connections or so. I was amazed that I got everything for the hotwater heater in one trip. It was my first gas line by myself.


The other miracle involved, is actually getting two teens to show up to do anything.

Exiled in New Jersey

There is another unit of measuring, or non-measuring if you will: the mess-around, as in "I'm going out back to mess-around with the mower to see if it will start.' The word means that you have no intention of fixing it, unless some Supreme Being or the kindly old gent next door, who is only here in summer, pops in to lend a hand. After I spent good money on a new weed whacker, he came along and drained the gas from the old, cleaned the spark plug, and now happily uses it. A 'mess-around' usually precedes 'let's go and buy a new one.'

Ken Muldrew

Some great comments that clearly demonstrate the need for a taxonomist to enter the field of amateur home repair. Not only do we have a problem of measuring and describing tasks, but we also have a wide range of participants with widely varying collections of tools and supplies (though now that the People's Republic of China has decided to put their country's vast resources behind subsidizing the cost of tools for Americans, someone like SV really has no excuse not to have wire strippers (unless the excuse is to provide his or her father with the chance to give a superfluous, but still appreciated for all that, lecture on the use of said wirecutters -- after all, instructing the youngsters in the ways of manual crafts stands at the very pinnacle of puttering)).

Readers of this blog will probably appreciate an essay on tinkering by William Harris where he discovers that doing something outside your training is the only way of finding out whether your training was any good.


I like the distinction between puttering, tinkering, and Exiled's addition of messing around.

One putter unit is a task that doesn't require any tools other than fingers and no cuss words. More than one putter unit may involve a cuss word, or the need to buy supplies (e.g. a light bulb). If you need tools, it shifts into tinkering.

I think trips to the hardware store, degree of cussing, need for tools, and elements of danger/unrepairability need to be factored in, when determining amount of TUs involved.

One tinker unit, for example, measures a task that can be completed with the tools at hand, without cussing, and without any particular mental or physical strain or risk.

Installing a curtain rod would be a single TU. Installing a curtain rod in horrible glue board that resists all attempts to make a hole in it would be several TUs. Installing a curtain rod in glue board that also requires the purchase of a ladder, purchase of additional screws when the originals fall into the heating vent, and the strong possibility of physical damage from falling would be counted in multiple TUs.

Messing around is pretending to tinker, for fun. Sometimes a task that starts out as tinkering (let's fix the broken shredder) becomes messing around when you realize that you will never fix it, and want to save face.


In my software-centric world, a tinker is the amount of time it takes to do an OS re-install. A centitinker is installing a patch, and a kilotinker is automating my ReplayTV to server tranfer process.


Might be better to think of it as a constant. However long you think it will take, multiply by 3. Whether bypassing a broken 800$ part on a car or changing something from automatic to manual operation so it never fails, it always seems to work out exactly using that formula.

Kevin Hayden

Oh, I should think replacing a light switch or outlet would be a t.u.

Replacing a toilet's wax ring would be a t-squared.

Painting a room would be a mega-tinker.

Leaving behind an iced tea and good book while departing a hammock on a warm summer day would be a giga-tinker, requiring scowling and guilt-tripping the irritant who compelled you to do so.

Uncle Merlin

Oh replacing a wax ring on toilet is definetly a tu-squared, actually from direct experience I can tell you its a 3Xtu-squared!! Then when you commit to that virgin flush it almost always ends up on the basement floor!

Electrical is sooooooooooooooooo precise, plumbing is suuuuuuuuuuch chaos. Yin/Yang.
I can't get over how many different scale units exist in plumbing , I have even see the pros hit the wall once they get something opened up!

I think tinkering does clear the mind whereas a putter wouldn't. I get the feeling there is no resolution to/after a putter. But that there is resolution after a good tinker.

Maybe I think of putter as more exploratory and tinker as more preplanned.

I also think there is much more muttering when puttering hence the similarity.

After a successful tinker there is the treat unit! A hot cup of tea, a handful of almonds, a springle of potato chips.

My dog gets a treat unit after a successful outing in the yard.
I have discovered in this case dogs are very digital! By experimenting I have observed a treat must follow reentry into the house immediately BUT the quantity and size of that treat is not of importance. A biscuit, or two or one small potato chip or one tiny carrot, all solve the equation equally for him. All he is looking for is the treat unit after his putter in the yard.

You see everything gets an accompanying unit, this is actually very Chinese. Everything is expressed with its own unit so you know how much everyone is talking about in a conversation.

If we're thinking physically you could define the tinker unit as the time it takes a system to go from disrepair to functionality with the input of a director. But then we would get into quantum tinkering and that's a subject for the future!

I feel the need for a treat unit about now............


Recent experience (where "recent" equals two days ago) with tinkering.

Poorer and wiser, I am.

Ed D.

It is now easier and cheaper to drill a hole in a penny and use it for a washer than to trip off to the hardware store and buy some 3 or 4 cent washers. Ok, now, where did the 'cent' symbol go on these dang keyboards?


What about changing oil and filter on a car as a TU?

Tom Clarke

>Claire wrote: The family and I were in an old hardware store the other day, and, lo and behold, it had a tube testing machine! I explained it to my kids, but I think the idea of fixing something electrical rather than throwing it away remained as elusive to them as the notion of "vacuum tube".

The last time I was in a store with a tube test (many years ago) testing tubes for my wife's grandmother's TV, a little kid came up to me and asked "What kind of video game is that mister?"



If we're thinking physically you could define the tinker unit as the time it takes a system to go from disrepair to functionality with the input of a director. But then we would get into quantum tinkering and that's a subject for the future!

I feel the need for a treat unit about now............

James Goins

Wondering if you can help me locate a 250K ohm (B) X 2, potentiometer? It is a volume control for a Sansui 5500 receiver.

Uncle Merlin

Hi James:
Another 'SUI enthusiast! I would try two places for your volume control.
1) Mouser electronics and I would call them to talk to a rep don't waste time searching throug their website. Something like this item is scarce and usually doesn't make it onto their site.
2) they have an entire section devoted to Sansui and they have another section devoted to members selling parts to each other. This would be your best bet.
Post some pics of your unit when you get it going!


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