‘The shed’ has traditionally been a free-standing backyard workshop where the necessities for maintaining the home are kept. This could include wood-working equipment, paint and salvaged objects waiting for repair. It could also contain gardening equipment if the household did not have a dedicated ‘garden shed’.
Blokes & sheds
Writer Jim Hopkins and photographer Julie Riley created a best-selling book when they interviewed and photographed men in their sheds in 1998. Blokes & sheds sold more than 60,000 copies. ‘The shed is so woven into the warp and weft of our character,’ says Hopkins. ‘New Zealanders never had a lot of money so you had to make it yourself or keep an old one going by fixing it up. Then add that extraordinary male passion for fixing things, pulling things apart and putting them back together again and you’ve got that whole shed culture.’ 1
A male domain
The shed is traditionally a male domain. Historian Jock Phillips has said that when faced with the restrictions of domesticity, ‘[t]he man’s response was to cordon off from the domestic environment certain exclusive male territories’.2 The shed was seen as one of these territories, although in the 2000s sheds and their tools are often also used by women.
The DIY tradition
In the workshop, fathers and sons carry out the practical do-it-yourself (DIY) traditions of New Zealand manhood. The shed’s activities showcase a man’s ability to be practical, economical, innovative and ‘handy’. In his shed, he might turn wood and build furniture, mend broken objects or mastermind painting and decorating or landscaping projects. This contributes to the household economy as money is saved on buying replacement parts or employing skilled labour.
Sheds get smaller
Later in the 20th century workshops tended to be condensed into a spare corner in the garage. This was mainly because properties were smaller, with less room for a separate shed, but also because there was less need to fix items as replacements could often be easily and cheaply bought.
The Anglican church in Invercargill began what it called ‘Shed Ministries’ in 2008 after a man said he did not feel comfortable in church – he preferred being in his shed. The church describes the concept as ‘a bunch of blokes head off to see what other blokes are making in their sheds, followed by a BBQ, preferably in a shed or similar, during which a short talk is given on faith in Christ.’ 3
Many inventions have sprung from work done by New Zealand men in their home workshops – including Richard Pearse’s aeroplane, John Britten’s racing motorbike and William Hamilton’s jet boat. In his Invercargill home workshop, Burt Munro converted a 1920 Indian motorcycle into the machine in which he set world speed records in the 1960s at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He made many of the parts and tools himself.