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Get handy, Halifax

Local pilot project empowers women with tool literacy

5 min read
caption Learning the tricks of the trade.
Maddie Johnson
caption Learning the tricks of the trade.
Maddie Johnson

Six women gather in the centre of a workroom, fidgeting as they wait for the workshop to begin.

The group is one of two to participate in the Do-It-Herself workshop, a pilot project launched by the Halifax Tool Library (HTL) last week that finished up Monday evening. The workshop was developed by Clay Radcliffe and Mary Hartley, volunteers at the HTL, in order to engage women and help them develop tool literacy and confidence working with tools.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable that more than half the population doesn’t have this skill set,” said Radcliffe. “We realized there’s a need for tool knowledge and DIY enthusiasm, and we want to focus on women because we think they’ll benefit most from this program.”

Radcliffe said it’s common to misjudge women and their literacy with tools, and the point of the workshop is to break down that stigma. He was worried that hosting an event, which separates people by identifiers such as gender, could be alienating. But Radcliffe hoped the workshop would encourage women to learn and experiment in a low pressure environment.

The women agreed.

In a Q&A session held midway through the day, every one of the women shared an anecdote about feeling incapable next to men when they needed to use tools.

Sarah Rahr, a hydrographer from Halifax, signed up for a Halifax Tool Library membership last year and never once stepped foot inside the shop. She said she was worried about being judged, especially since she didn’t know the names for half the items.

“Tools might as well have been another language,” Rahr said.

Rahr saw the posting for the trial workshop on social media and rushed to apply. Her job involves building things from time to time, and she “feels inadequate and frustrated” when the men are always given priority on these assignments.

“As a female, the expectation is that you are going to suck. Either that, or you have to be extra good at whatever it is you’re doing so you can ‘wow’ people,” said Rahr. “This workshop seemed like the best way to get my foot in the tool world, without the pressure.”

Radcliffe said he is always looking for ways to get people involved with the tool library, especially women and members of marginalized groups. If the women’s workshop is successful, he is considering running programs for the LGBTQ community and individuals under economic pressure.

“The majority of our active members are men,” said Radcliffe. “After chatting with fellow volunteers, we realized this could be due to a lack of knowledge. We want to change that.”

The tool library began in 2014 as a way to put “underused tools in the hands of people who need them.” An annual membership fee allows participants to rent any of the tools the shop possesses for a certain period of time. It’s a registered non-profit society that is 100 per cent member funded. Radcliffe hopes introducing regular workshops will generate funding for the tool library and make it more accessible to all.

The Do-It-Herself pilot project was made possible after the HTL received a grant from Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG). The grant covered the cost and equipment for two trial workshops with six women in each.

The women got to spend four hours in a local woodshop learning relevant skills. Radcliffe discussed various types of wood and how to buy the appropriate shapes and sizes, as well as the different tools available and how to use them safely and efficiently. The women then put this knowledge to work by building a storage box, under supervision of HTL volunteers. The workshop was free of charge — it even came with a homemade lunch — and participants got to take home their finished product at the end of the day.

caption Joanna Brenchley and Jessie Dale measure out the wood.
Maddie Johnson

Alex Kirincic, another participant, loved the experience. The college student applied for the workshop so she could become more handy around her apartment.

“It’s hard to learn things without first knowing the basics,” said Kirincic. “I found myself needing tools for various things, but I didn’t want to commit to buying anything, especially if I didn’t know how to use it.”

Radcliffe said he has received great feedback so far, and he hopes the workshops will continue.

“I think it’s so important to be able to trust yourself with a skill like this,” said Radcliffe. “There’s a practical purpose to it, of course, but there are so many fun DIY and creative projects people can do — once they become comfortable and confident with these tools.”

Kirincic agreed and said she’s looking forward to showing off her new storage box, which she can confidently say she made herself.

Signal reporter Caora McKenna caught up with women at the final workshop. Listen here.

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