By Richard Baynes

WE are laughing out loud. This isn’t a text message "LOL", a private smirk at some clever-dick message or a picture of Donald Trump's head grafted on to a blowfish, but proper, rib-shaking laughter from actually hearing someone deliver a good joke. 

Frank Kent is sharing it with me and a man named Jim at Kirkintilloch Men’s Shed. I can’t remember what Kent said, but he was ridiculing an 83-year-old fellow with gallstones and a septic foot. His target is laughing too: Fred Longrigg will fire back in kind.

The craic here is daft, funny, like it is on building sites and in cycling gangs and on bothy nights with any group of unruly, unruled men I’ve ever found myself with. The depth of friendship between Frank, 69, and lanky, lugubrious, soup-strainer-moustached Fred can be gauged from a few words of piss-taking.

It’s banter, a word abused as a veil for sexism or racism, but which is part of the lives of many men – it's barbed but not cruel; funny and inclusive; verbal wrestling which aims to entertain and even communicate affection. 

It’s a big part of the men’s shed movement. The movement helps men with time on their hands who need a social outlet in a society geared towards shopping, watching screens, written words, passive acceptance: looking and following, not the doing they are used to.

The idea is simple: sheds are places for men to meet, pursue hobbies and have a laugh. Drink is barred, and it’s not about sport. Men repair machinery, make bookshelves, use lathes and bandsaws, play bridge, build model railways, drink tea, tell sometimes vulgar jokes and ridicule each other. I don’t know if any sheds have a rule barring women, but there aren’t many queuing up to join ...

Men’s sheds originated in Australia, where despite the blokey culture there was a recognition that men have social needs not always met by beer and football.

Kirkintilloch Men’s Shed is in an industrial unit owned by East Dunbartonshire Council: in this context, a shed can be any building whatsoever. Scotland’s first and best-developed men’s shed, founded in 2013 at Westhill near Aberdeen, is in a disused library. So far there are more than 15 sheds in Scotland, with 40-odd more in the pipeline. To help create more, the Scottish Men’s Shed Association (SMSA) was launched at the Lighthouse in Glasgow last autumn with support from Royal British Legion Scotland and a talk by Artur Steiner from Glasgow Caledonian University, an academic studying the shed movement. 

Many at the launch were women: health and social work professionals, I like to think, seeking answers to the problem of loneliness for men. I went for similar reasons: my local community centre wants to do something for men, and I said jokingly: “Let them build a shed.” After hopping on to Google the centre manager had found the men’s shed movement and talked me into finding out more.

Kirkintilloch is the first shed I visit, and Jim is the first man I meet there. His history is dark. In his late 40s, he’s almost housebound by fear. Several years ago he was given a severe beating in the street which left him with a head full of trepidation and metal plates. 

His attackers got probation: he had to leave the community they all lived in and ended up near Kirkintilloch. Single, he is a skilled craftsman who taught others and used to go dancing, but he has not worked since the attack.

Telling his story, there is a shadow on Jim’s face, in palpable contrast to the informal atmosphere of the workshop, which seems to let his mind step out into the sun. “I have been reading and watching telly and not much else; I have visitors but mainly close family,” he says. “It’s been bad, but with the shed I’m hoping I can get a bit more confidence to get out the house.”

He says the shed makes him feel like an apprentice again. “It’s just like a workplace, a similar atmosphere. These guys have a wealth of experience. I feel comfortable with them. They’ll want to make fun of you and you start to see the funny side of things. The stick they give you, if you don’t laugh you cry – and I’m done with that.”

Kent is a retired electrician and was founding chairman of the Kirkintilloch shed. The first meetings to discuss it were in autumn 2014, after a local initiative to help older people placed an advert suggesting the idea in the town’s newspaper. 

Kent brought a can-do attitude to the project. “I said, let’s concentrate on getting premises. East Dunbartonshire Council was trying to find a place, and they showed us this. It was dry, had an upstairs and had potential, so we just went for it.”

Like many shed projects it was up and running within a few months. Kent ran wiring; members who are joiners, plasterers or have DIY skills installed a comfortable social area, a workshop with benches and other facilities. It now has 50 members aged from 40-odd upward.

Kent says the shed must have rules, especially with woodworking machinery, but he also knows informality, a bit of anarchy, is the key. “You have to have a good sense of humour,” he says. “If you don’t then this isn’t the place is for you. It’s the chat that’s important. And if we were to sit here po-faced and say you need do that and this, then you wouldn’t come back.”

While health and social services agencies want clients to go to the shed, he tells them not to put pressure on people to attend. “Show them the leaflet and see if they’re interested," he says. "If you say, ‘I want you to go there at 3pm sharp and do this and do that,’ there’s a built-in resentment and they won’t do it.”

I sign up as a shed member at Kirkintilloch on the spot to get a taste of it, and it allows me to fulfil a small dream: to turn a piece of wood on a lathe. Fred Longrigg looms over me, gently instructing, prodding me to stand in the right position so I can see the work, getting the bevel of the tool set on the spinning wood before firmly but gently bringing the cutting edge into play to produce a shower of pine.

I am engrossed, and Longrigg is amused by and tolerant of my ineptitude. I create a crippled furry candlestick, but I also get to know and like Longrigg.

He is a gentle, funny man with a huge fund of stories, a man who has done every job and pastime you can think of. He enjoys passing on his knowledge, and I am grateful for his time.

Next stop is Westhill, an affluent dormitory community just outside Aberdeen. Many other sheds have copied its pattern of social area and well-equipped workshop, funded by lottery grants, local councils and firms, charitable foundations, cash-raising events and selling handicrafts and repaired items.

Even if premises are free, as they are at Westhill, it can cost north of £20,000 to equip a shed workshop, and more to fit out other areas. Running costs to open three or four days a week can hit £7,000 a year, with electricity, insurance and maintenance.

Inside the unprepossessing 1960s structure it is warm and welcoming, with free tea and small knots of men about the place. All over 60 years old, they sit or stand, talking and eating, all animated and engaged in what they are doing and in the company.

At a table with six or seven others, Alan Hawkesworth, a burly, white-bearded IT man, says they’re eating cake donated by someone’s wife – she comes in, leaves it and goes. Nobody says “thank God” but they don't have to.

Hawkesworth provides a tour. First up is a detailed model train layout. Hawkesworth explains the small specialist techniques used to create the miniature world: a strip of closed-cell foam is poked with a screwdriver and painted to provide a perfect miniature facsimile of a dry-stone wall.

In the workshop he points to a jumble of old lawnmowers. The men repair and sell them to raise money. There’s a vast cast-iron pump being restored, and a tiny steam boiler to be fixed.

John Stewart is building a model of a tall ship. “The main thing is company,” the retired oil man says. “Model-building is my hobby but I was at home doing it on my own, and my wife said: get out and about.

“The positives are a bit like the workplace: you get the company and you learn a lot from other people. Mainly it’s doing things with other people, with the advantage over work that there aren’t the bad bits: you don’t have to do it.” 

Dave Oakey, a plumber aged 77, worked until a year ago. He says: “You miss the humour at work. There were always jokes and laughs ... When you retire you don’t get that the same. Look how those people over there haven’t stopped talking all morning. When you’re at home you just sit in a chair and watch TV.”

Most of the men have similar stories, whether they’re committee members, supervisors or just footsoldiers: ex-oilmen and janitors and tradesmen and business people, they’re retired and their wives, friends and relatives encouraged them to come along because they stayed at home alone. Here they’re not ex-anything but repairers and fettlers and fixers: one man’s the expert on electrics, another on wood.

Not everyone is there to use tools. There’s a bridge club. Retired IT man Nick Pilbeam, the Westhill chairman, says, “What do I get out of it? I do like organising things and sorting things out. I try to bring things here to do but I never get them done because people talk to me about other issues.”

The men tell stories of real transformation from among members, those who have faced deep isolation or drink problems and for whom the shed is a lifeline, but mostly it enriches the lives of ordinary men who admit something is missing from their lives.

Talking to them there is a pattern. They talk about what they are doing in a technical, serious way but when it comes to explaining why they are here they make jokes and are amused by their own vulnerability.

Jason Schroeder, a driving force behind the shed movement in Scotland and chair and founder of the SMSA, helped set up Westhill. He works for the charity Aberdeenshire Voluntary Action as the men’s shed development officer.

At the SMSA launch, the slim, bearded, long-haired South African seemed an idealist – with a “dream” of men’s sheds all over Scotland. At Westhill he’s down to earth and lively, throwing a “ninja” move to emphasise a joke. I think for a second it’ll be awkward but the older men laugh.

On the way to a new shed in Inverurie, Schroeder, who is 51, explains his involvement. He came to live in Scotland 19 years ago with his Scottish wife and became a development worker with young people for the council.

“In 2009 I had a teenager on my hands and was looking for older men to mentor me, advise me how to be a better dad, and couldn’t find any," he says. "There were none in community centres – lots of women but no men – so that started me trying to find out where the men are. Are they extinct? Are they dead?”

Then he heard a talk about men’s sheds. “I was like, OK, this is a no-brainer. I spoke to my boss who said there were concerns among GPs in Westhill about men’s mental health, and the local Citizens Advice Bureau had statistics saying more older women were enquiring about divorce, and we started seeing if we could create this.”

Separately, a council officer was working on the idea for Aberdeenshire Council after seeing a shed in England: the two came together and Westhill Men’s Shed was born.
Schroeder is keen to get younger men involved, but knows that sheds can play a vital role with men living for much longer after retirement than they did 40 years ago. “Your identity as a worker is gone – that can [happen] overnight – and that isn't a healthy thing for men. Men need to have a list of things to do and places to go and be needed, and the shed delivers that.

“The community benefits because the things men make in the shed help the community. And if it helps give you healthy fathers and healthy grandfathers then you’ve got a healthy community, you’ve got healthy marriages and the impact of that on your children and grandchildren is immense.”

The banter, the craic, the tangential expression of affection is vital, he agrees, but it revolves around doing things. That, he says, leads to conversation, and communication with others are bulwarks against depression and withdrawal.

“Women do face-to-face, but men do things shoulder-to-shoulder. Working like that is not confrontational, so they’ll drop into a place to do something, and then they drop into conversation, and after a while they’ll say, 'Let’s get a cup of tea.'”

Like Kent, Schroeder says it’s important that the streak of anarchy and the structure of the shed don’t cancel each other out. "When he comes into the shed whatever happens in the shed is up to the man. It’s not a service-led project: you come in and you can do what you want, or do nothing. There’s no structure – as long as you’re safe and you’re not doing crazy stuff you can do what you like.”

When we reach Inverurie, shed secretary Alastair Smith shows off the spacious workshop, double the size of the one at Kirkintilloch, and the fully equipped blacksmith’s shop. The semi-retired research scientist grimaces over the amount of admin and tells me he’s not really interested in making things. I wonder why he’s involved but then he lights up at the shed’s polytunnel. 

Already, he says, they’ve had a tremendous harvest of sweetcorn and potatoes. He loves gardening, but it’s the social aspect that is essential. “I have a musical pal and every week he has a decision to make whether to go to his accordion club or the men’s shed, and he says the men’s shed always wins simply because it’s great for having a laugh and a chat.”

My shed visits convince me it’s the way forward for my community centre, and a few weeks later on a nasty winter’s afternoon I call in at Shettleston Men’s Shed in Glasgow, on the ground floor of a tenement block. 

I pick the committee’s brains about levering funding from Glasgow City Council, then meet Sam Houston, an 84-year-old working on some stained glass. What brought him to the shed, I ask. He says he needed to get out: he lost his wife of 62 years last May.

He looks briefly into the middle distance, then we move quietly on, talking about types of glass, stretching lead canes to stiffen them, solder, flux, the fusing temperature of fired glassware – practical stuff, sharing knowledge and experience. As I tell him I’m about to leave, Houston invites me for a cup of tea, and we sit and talk and laugh. 
Afterwards I think about how the sheds let men return to feeling useful, the way they want to see themselves, and it brings to mind the last word my dad said to me. It was “shellac”, the old-fashioned varnish. 

He was lying, gravely ill, in hospital. I didn’t tell him I loved him or lie about the potential of his recovery. Instead, I communicated with him in the way I always had, asking him the best way to restore the gloss to a wood-framed 1970s armchair I had acquired.

His answer was one word but while he was saying it he wasn’t a mortally sick old man. He was being my dad, advising me, and I was happy to hear it. Communicating through tools, materials and practicality, the language of doing things, we were back in the roles of our lives. As much as the banter, the sheds can give men that back.