Introduction: Gadget Repair 101
My name is John, and I love to fix things. Anything. It frustrates me when I see perfectly good stuff going into the trash, especially when there's so much satisfaction (and sometimes savings) to be gained with the investment of a little confidence, observation, logic and good fortune.
This being Instructables, I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir for the most part, y'all are some smart, crafty individuals, but I've gotten to learn so much on this site, I thought I'd put my process in writing and see if I can't help a couple of you resourceful people back.
And maybe win some tools! Please consider giving me a vote in the fix-it challenge if you like what you see!
Two notes right off the bat though:
1: This instructable is maybe more of a class than a simple build, it's going to be pretty wordy, I hope you find it worth your time.
2: This guide is really just an inspirational jumping off point. There are a million ways things can break, and twice as many ways to fix them. It's an art and an opportunity for a lifetime of learning. I won't even begin to scratch the surface here. This guide is here to inspire those who might not have known where to start to dive in and start the journey. We all start somewhere!
This instructable is meant to read like an order of operations. There are always many paths to success, but my goal is usually to find the one that solves the problem with the least amount of blood, sweat, tears and most importantly least risk of making the problem worse than I found it. What that means is that some of these early steps will seem especially obvious and boring, but stick with me, we'll tear some stuff apart eventually!
This guide is very broad and very superficial. Sharp things are sharp, hot things are hot, electrical things can cause shocks, burns, fires etc. Any time you do or do not do anything anywhere you increase your risk of injury or death. Do research, exercise common sense and listen to that little voice in your head. I'm not responsible for your health, happiness or possessions. But then again, every instructable should start out with that paragraph, right? Onward then.
Step 1: Tools
I'm a tool junkie, I admit it. On this site, I'm sure I'm not alone or remarkable either. The way I see it, any tool is an investment as long as you are on the lookout for ways to use it, and everything you fix is money in the bank... that you can put right back into more tools! I may have a problem, but one day I'll find the tool to fix that too, I'm sure.
What I mean to be saying, though, is that just as the number of ways to fix something is endless, so is the number of tools you might be able to find to help yourself along. But don't worry! You can, and should, start small and work your way up from there. Buy (or borrow, just ask around, someone has got a driver set tucked away somewhere!) what you need for the job at hand.
Here are a few early essentials that you might want to have around for your first teardown though (I'm picturing you tackling some kind of in-home appliance as I write this list. You could apply the same process to a bicycle or chainsaw, but the beginner tool list will look very different).
-A small multi-bit screwdriver set (bonus for security screw bits!)
-A cheap multi-meter
-Some type of grease or lubricant
Step 2: Define Your Problem/External Inspection
Ok, lets start with the most obvious: Finding the obvious.
The first thing you need to do is actually figure out what the problem is. Is your gizmo turning on at all? Does it look/sound/smell/feel (/taste?) like it's even trying to turn on? Does it buzz? Hum? Light up? Heat? Beep? All of this is important guiding evidence for future steps.
Once you've pinned down what your thingy does and doesn't do, it's time to take a good hard look at it.
UNPLUG ANY POWER CHORDS!!!
Pick it up, if you can safely, look at all sides for scratches, dents, signs of smoke, leaking fluid or grease, melted plastic etc. Try gently moving all the moving parts. Parts that don't move at all aren't necessarily conclusive, but parts that do move should be moved through their paces as best as you can. Listen for scraping, feel for grinding sensations, give everything a gentle wiggle, see if parts feel loose or wobbly. If you have another one, compare anything you find.
After doing all this wiggling, put the thingamabobber back down and try to turn it on again. I can't tell you how many times this manipulation has been enough to bring something back to life. It's bittersweet to never find out what went wrong in the first place, but working is still working, I don't overthink it and I don't fix what ain't broke.
Step 3: RTFM
Or, Read The ... Free ... Manual
I'm also an owner's manual geek.
When my dad bought me my first new bike he sat me down and told me that before I could ride it I had to read the manual that came with it cover to cover. That was over 25 years ago now, and I've read every manual since. And kept most of them. Pictured above is a small part of my collection. Nowadays of course, you can find most of the manuals for your things online.
I know this sounds like a waste of time, and often times it is. Especially now, when manufacturers have low expectations of (or interest in) our ability to solve our our own problems before chucking our things, manuals have gotten pretty sad. But every now and then there's a real gem to be found for the home repairman.
Maybe there's a fuse somewhere that you can swap out? Maybe there's a safeguard you can reset? Maybe there's a hidden backup battery that needs replacement? There are all kinds of odd 'features' in everyday products that can cause a 'failure' that is as simple to fix as flipping a switch.
Step 4: Google It
Here we go with the obvious. I know, you know. "Google is your friend." It's a cliche and a half. Seeing as I don't have to explain to you how the internet works I'll just add a couple thoughts:
1: Be Specific!
Typing "my toaster is broken" might actually lead you to the right answer!... But you already tried that, and you're still here. So. Come up with some more key words. Brand, model name, model number, "doesn't turn on" vs "doesn't heat" vs "is smoking" vs "makes my breakfast taste like loneliness" may all lead to different results. Everything you found in the external inspection is a potential search term.
2: Be prepared to dig
You are not the first person with this problem. It's been asked dozens of times by dozens of people, but I bet you it's only been answered correctly once. And I bet it was on some farming forum in 2012. And all the links they referenced are dead. And they misspelled the brand name. That's how it goes. But again, you already know that, and there's a reason this instructable needs to be written.
I want to add a quick plug here for repairclinic.com (I have no affiliation, I promise). If you've got a home appliance that isn't working, this site has a wealth of information and orderable parts for getting the job done right. I love them. And my two year old loves the magnets and stickers that come with the orders! Bonus!
I'd love to hear of other similarly awesome online resources in the comments, by the way.
Step 5: Call the Manufacturer
This is getting to be a pretty crotchety instructable. I'm really not that old. But we never talk to anyone on the phone anymore! Manufacturer service rep quality certainly runs the gamut (Gamut: Noun. "The complete range," from the Latin 'Gamma ut') from extremely helpful to absolutely useless, but I have to say, I've had mostly good experiences, once I've managed to get someone on the phone.
And don't rule out customer support for older items, either! Lots of companies (Sears, Black and Decker, Kitchenaid) have been making small variations of the same product for decades and have that spacer nut for your 1968 mixer just sitting in a box in Toledo, ready to ship right to your home. It's kind of amazing.
The photo above is a mountain bike rear suspension. I wasn't getting pressure, I rebuilt it according to the manufacturer instructions in my manual, followed all the youtube videos too, and got no improvement. Put it on the desks of three local bike mechanics, nothing. Called Fox customer support, it was identified over the phone as having an external housing from a 12 year-old specific bike that I didn't get it with (bought it used, just like everything else). $30 part and a few days shipping (and some assembly) later, and I had a shiny new rear suspension that would have cost hundreds to replace! The system works!
Email can be helpful too, and I recommend a two-pronged attack generally, but more often than not I find that the real customer service starts with a phone call.
Step 6: Open 'er Up!
Alright. We've done our due diligence, we've tried to reason with this thing, no one can say we didn't do our best to avoid this but.....
Now for the fun part. Disassembly.
Disassembly is as much an art as it is a science. Don't get me wrong, there is definitely a *right* way to get your gadget apart for inspection. Catch is: You don't know it, and unless you've got a factory service manual, there's no way for you to find out. So time for an adventure.
There are lots of cool tips and tricks for optimizing your chances of getting this job done right.
-Make sure you have a large, clear workspace
-Take lots of photos (they're useful for reassembly and sharing on instructables!)
-Lay your parts out in order
-As soon as you have a part off, drive any screws you took out back into their homes
-Look three times for hidden screws, especially check under labels and stickers, feel for cavities beneath stickers where you can poke your screwdriver through and find a sneaky screw
-Use permanent marker to mark the direction something sat in
-Be firm! Push, pull, pry, don't be too afraid of cracking a little plastic. It happens and you'll get a better feel each time for how much effort you can put in the next time
I'm sure you can find more advice out there, as well possibly youtube videos of teardowns of your specific item.
A few precautions:
-Always always always unplug and remove the batteries from anything before working on it.
-On a related note, beware capacitors. Anything that uses large amounts of electricity in short bursts, for example TVs and Stereos, can have devices called capacitors that can retain dangerous levels of electricity long after their power sources are disconnected. Check online and with customer service before any teardown and always be cautious.
-Be similarly cautious about liquids and pressures. Drain any fluids responsibly and discharge any compressed gasses before attempting any repairs on an item
-And finally, especially as you're learning, don't take apart anything unless you can bear failing to get it back together. Even to pro's fail at repairs on occasion. Deciding to take something apart involves a risk/reward analysis and an understanding that failure is a possibility. The upside to all that is the fact that, if you're reading this, your stuff is already broken, right? So not a whole lot to lose!
Step 7: Clean and Reinspect
So, assuming you've managed to rule out operator error by reading the manual and calling tech support, there are really two major categories left for the problem to lie in: Mechanical and electrical. This step is all about diagnosing mechanical problems.
You should have an idea of whether you are suspecting mechanical problems from your findings in the External Inspection step. If your gadget powers up and hums or grinds, if you can hear things moving when you push buttons but nothing is happening, if you felt grinding or other odd sensation when moving parts you should strongly suspect mechanical issues.
Mechanical issues are great because you can see them, you can understand them, and at the end of the day, at least you walk away thinking you know what happened. Which is nice.
The best way to start, if you're suspecting mechanical issues and you don't see anything 'obviously' broken at first glance (or even if you do), is to lay everything out and give it a good cleaning. Start with a wipedown with a paper towel, then get some degreaser, or isopropyl alcohol and really polish everything well. Then, inspect each piece carefully. Look for cracks, bends, wear patterns. If a piece is actually broken, you have options. You can call the manufacturer again and attempt to order replacement parts. Or you can try to fashion the part on your own, or you can attempt to model and 3d print the part, or you can even look to see if you can triage it out of the system (more on that last bit in the electrical section).
More than half the time though, in my experience, the problem is as simple as old grease and miscellaneous debris clogging up the works. High-torque machines like mixers, can-openers, shredders are all appliances I've resurrected doing this. Polish the pieces, give them some fresh grease, reassemble and you've got yourself a new machine. It's amazing how often a simple disassembly, cleaning and reassembly gets a gadget back in service!
Step 8: Visual Electronics Inspection
Ok, you've read the manual, you've called the company, you've poured over the forums and you've serviced the guts. Still no-go. Bummer. It's time to start checking out the electrics.
I don't mean to sound so sour about this situation. I'm bringing my own biases into your project. It could be that electronics turn out to be your forté! Never know until you try, right? Well then, here's my process to help get you started discovering your hidden gift.
First, visually inspect the circuit. Look for broken wires, burn marks, corroded connections. Got that multimeter? Chase everything! Start at the power cord or the battery terminals and check connectivity everywhere (this instructable is wordy enough without me getting into the operation of your multimeter, there are many online resources for that, but very basically, set the dial to the mark with the speaker picture on it, then touch two ends where a wire is supposed to connect and see if it beeps. Fun, right?).
Time to use logic now. If you can't get a beep where you think you should get a beep, look for something broken or corroded in that section of the circuit and get to soldering! My daughter was handed down a bag of Thomas the train toys. They're awesome, but about half the engines wouldn't start. I opened them up and, being kid's well-loved toys, they all had tiny little wires with cracked connections. An afternoon of tearing down and resoldering and the full set was chugging away. I was probably more excited that she was.
Again, how to solder is beyond the scope of this instructable, there are a million tutorials out there, but I will say that you should not be intimidated by soldering. Get a GOOD soldering iron and just give it a try. Be patient, it's slow, but it is so satisfying to see your little lead wire suddenly transform into a shiny glob of molten metal and rush to solve all your problems. You gotta try it.
Step 9: Electronic Component Inspection
If nothing turns up on a physical inspection, I like to focus next on the switches. In a professionally built circuit board, again in my experience, the little resisters and whatnot usually aren't what fail. It's usually the mechanical aspects of the circuit, the switches or speakers or something else like that.
I start closest to where the problem is symptomatic. Machine won't turn on? Start at the power switch. Not making noise? Start at the speaker. Turns on but won't perform one of it's functions? Start with the switches/servos etc that seem connected to that function. That kind of thing
Again, with the multimeter, test the switches. Connect to two wires on the switch, you should have continuity (beeping) in one switch position, and not in the other. Some switches have many positions and many little leads extending from them. Depending on your devices needs, many of these positions and leads may be redundant or even functionless, so be sure to try lots of combinations of leads and positions and then think about your findings before declaring a switch dead. Servos and motors are a little different. See if you can isolate them. If they're battery operated, try taking the same batteries and hooking them to just the motor or servo, see if it turns. If it runs off home voltage, don't try that. Do not mess with AC (wall plug) power directly. Ever. Ever.
Once you've decided a component is dead though, it's time for some more creativity. Your choices become
-Find a replacement component
-Eliminate that component from the circuit
-Install a new, different component elsewhere
All of these are valid strategies and dependent on what you want to accomplish. Earlier I mentioned 'triage.' What I meant by that, is that sometimes a component, like a switch, is dead and there's no good solution. The repair is cost-prohibitive or too technical or otherwise un-fun-looking. One strategy is to decide whether that component can be 'sacrificed' for the good of the device as a whole. The previous step shows the guts of a toaster oven (one of the first things I fixed of my then-girlfriend-now-wife, take note woo-ers). It turned out to have a broken door-sensor switch. So I eliminated it. I took the two wires going into that switch, disconnected the switch and reconnected the wires to each other. The whole oven still does everything it was designed to do, it just keeps doing it with the door open. I can live with that (and am still using it daily six years later). In the washing machine above, I found that the circuit board with a dead switch had an extra switch on the board accomplishing nothing. I removed the dead switch, replaced it with the 'extra' switch, life went on, a few hundred bucks saved. I've got a beater motorcycle who's ignition lock broke. Generally I'd say that's worth replacing with a factory part, but this bike is so beat I didn't want to bother, so I took the wires off the ignition, hid a new switch elsewhere on the bike and wired it in instead.
I'm not promising that there will always be convenient solutions like these, but if you look, and feel like getting creative, there often are.
Step 10: Reassemble-Pray-Repeat
At this point, you have systematically gone through everything that a casual home repair person can reasonably be expected to repair. Time to put this beast back together and fire it back up.
With ALL reasonable precautions, of course.
What's a reasonable precaution? If it plugs into the wall, I'd be in a flame-retardant area (driveway) with a fire extinguisher on hand. If it has hard or sharp pieces that move fast, I might have appropriate gloves and face protection, all of that just depends on what the object is and what you think is reasonable. I can't be by your side to assess the dangers of the task you're performing. If you're nervous, take that feeling seriously and find ways to be extra safe, ok?
A couple pieces of reassembly advice:
-Remember your pictures and drawings
-If something isn't fitting right, take a step back and look at the whole picture again, there's often a reason
-Feel free to walk away for a bit. Speed is absolutely your enemy
-Look for photos and videos online
Then you hit "go" on your gadget, and... it works! Or it doesn't.
If it works, Awesome! You rule! Seriously, I'm proud of you.
If it doesn't, well, bummer. But don't beat yourself up. I'm still proud of you. If there's one thing I've learned after 30-odd years of attempting to fix every broken thing I ever encountered, it's that some things are fixable and some things just are not, and that's life, yeah? So, you can go back to step one and take another crack at this doohickey, or you can take what you learned (as well as any sweet salvaged spare parts from your new paperweight) and carry on till you encounter the next opportunity to try your hand at taking a stand against planned obsolescence. My hero.
I believe in you!