Man Power: Men In Sheds began in Australia more than a decade ago but has since spread across the world - Neil Hudson and Ryan Baulk visited the only one in West Yorkshire
The Holbeck-based Men In Sheds workshop is a warm and welcoming light in the otherwise dull industrial landscape dominated by grim buildings in pebble-dash concrete and functional, completely unremarkable brick.
As you round the corner onto the business estate, the street is lined by 10ft tall wire mesh fences and bright yellow vehicle height restriction barriers, standing guard at every unit’s neat little clutch of prized car parking spaces.
You may have passed this place yourself, although you wouldn’t have known it, because it lies just behind the cut-through road which many use to make a sneaky dash onto the link road between the Armley Gyratory and the M621.
Even before we reach the door, it’s clear the place is a hive of activity. The gentle hum of conversation is suddenly cut off by the teeth-clenching gnaw of an electric saw blade slicing its way through something solid.
Step inside and it feels like walking into your old woodworking class at school - there’s the smell of sawdust and benches with thick wooden tops, bashed and bruised, with vices and other machine tools clamped to them and piles of wood slung underneath. Milling around between them, paying hardly any heed to the new visitors, are a bunch of men, each busy a project.
One or two glance up but it’s Will Gore, manager of Men In Sheds in Leeds, who approaches us with a welcoming smile.
Will works for Groundwork, the environmental charity which has pioneering the project and secured funding from Leeds City Council. Men In Sheds addresses a specific need: that of offering support to men affected by social exclusion.
Will explains: “Men In Sheds started in Australia in 1995, born out of the fact that men tend to die younger and there was no way of accessing them to talk about health issues. The idea was to start some kind of workshop. They appeared in the UK about five years ago and there now about 100 in the country. Ours was number 56 and we’re the only one between Newcastle and Sheffield.”
The 36-year-old revealed he came to learn of the project during a recent divorce.
“I was going through a hard time myself, a divorce. At the time, I thought ‘where do you go for something like this?’ I didn’t want to go to counselling and I didn’t want to go get drunk down the pub. None of my friends wanted to talk about it because they didn’t have the experience and, to be perfectly honest, most of the time I didn’t want to talk about it. What I did want is some kind of distraction. I needed something like Men In Sheds
“From a male perspective, distraction is sometimes better. It helped me build up my self-esteem, coming here gives you a positive feeling because you are actually doing something at the end of the day, you are making something physical and there’s a satisfaction in that.
“This project is aimed mainly at men over 55, although we do have younger men coming here but men from that age bracket in particular can often find themselves with a lot of time on their hands, not a huge pension and maybe living in a small house - they need some direction to get through.
“If you have nothing to do, then over time your health slips and this leads to a shorter lifespan.”
The workshop is littered with completed or semi-completed projects, from the pile of part-made model boats piled up in one corner to the miniature reindeer and a small Santa’s sleigh being carefully cut out in detail at the other end and hanging on one of the walls, made entirely from wood, is a working clock.
The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, there’s a smell of sawdust and a quiet sense of purpose in the air. This could be a factory from times past - except now the model is being used to promote hobbycraft.
Will adds: “Men do not tend to go on facebook. Most men have a core group of friends they keep for a long time. I find it harder to make new male friends and so do a lot of other men. The norm is they have large groups of friends from work but all that goes when they leave. It’s the thing they miss.
“While it’s not counselling, it is called ‘shoulder to shoulder communication’. So, people are here to work but while they are working, they will have a bit of banter, it’s just how a lot of men socialise.
“The idea being that we would like people to talk about an issue - the woodwork draws everyone in but sometimes people just come in and have a cuppa and a chat.
“If someone comes through the door and says, ‘This just happened to me’, they’re guaranteed a very bloke-ish response.”
Denis on board with Men in Sheds idea
Denis Cryer, 66, has been attending the group since June and is making a chess board for one of his grandsons.
The retired prison service instructor and former engineer said: “I saw a little article in the newspaper advertising Men in Sheds and checked it out online. I came along to have a look and it really suited me.
“I used to work with metal and get quite a lot of pleasure from working with wood, it’s much more forgiving. I go on eBay and look for timber, often getting it from a seller in Halifax and just take whatever he has (mahogany, oak) and make something according to that.
“We have also previously had an allowance on timber from Men In Sheds and Will took us to a wood mill off of the A1 to purchase some materials.
“I have two teenage grandsons that live with me as my daughter died when they were four and five. The eldest is a corporal in the Royal Marines Cadets and I have recently made trophy for the cadets. It’s actually getting presented to the individual that has made the most effort and I made it here.
“I’m making a chess board for the youngest, using five or six coats of finishing oil.
“I’m also making a trivet (table thing) next for my daughter and then I’ve got a bowl to make out of zebrano, zebra wood.
“I have always been active and thought I had planned for retirement but the two lads [grandsons] aren’t quite old enough to leave yet. It’s a good laugh down here, we have a bit of banter and it’s quite good. We all get on with our own stuff but have to work together because we only have one of everything and every job needs a bit of each machine.”
Men In Sheds started in Australia in the 1990s - there are now 50 projects in the UK
The Leeds Shed is open every Monday and Thursday from 10am–4pm for older men to try their hand at carpentry, wood turning, carving and whittling. It’s completely free to attend, all equipment and materials are provided, and no previous experience is necessary.
Although aimed at over-50s, there are some younger members in the Leeds group.
The idea is to give socially isolated men something constructive to do and also to promote ‘shoulder to shoulder’ communication.
Find it at Barkston House, Croyden Street, Holbeck, LS11 9RT.
Contact Groundwork on 0113 238 0601 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com