Tim Hunkin: What’s In Your Toolbox?

Engineer and artist Tim Hunkin

This is What’s In Your Toolbox?, an occasional post series where we showcase tools and tips from our favorite fixers. Today we’re featuring Tim Hunkin. Hunkin is an engineer, cartoonist, sculptor, creator of odd and oddly appealing public works of art and science, and former host of one of our favorite shows, The Secret Life of Machines (which Hunkin recently followed up with a Secret Life of Components YouTube series. Jeff Stephens wrote in praise of Hunkin’s body of work in 2012. This time, we’re focusing on his tool set.

First off, explain to our community who you are and what you do!

I’m a 70 year old privileged white male. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living doing roughly what I wanted to for my entire working life. For the last 20 years I’ve been making arcade machines and now have two arcades full of my own machines (The Under The Pier Show and Novelty Automation).

How did you get started fixing and making things?

I’ve always taken things to bits and it’s really satisfying mending things, particularly when the manufacturer has made it hard to get inside.

What’s in your toolbox (or workshop)?

Lots. I’ve been in the same workshop for over 40 years now. I recently received a lot of amazingly generous donations for a recent series of YouTube videos and wanted to spend some of it on a new tool. I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to just replace my saw blades and drill bits more often. It’s been a fabulous luxury for me!

Hunkin’s website has more details on his workspace, including the full panoramic layout.

How do you organize your tools/devices?

I enjoy “workshop improvements,” which usually involves finding better places for tools and components. Then I also like tidying at the end of a day to reflect on the day’s progress—also I have a helper who comes on Wednesdays, so when there are two people in a workshop it really needs to be kept quite tidy.

Facom 507 lock-grip pliers

What are some of your most-used tools?

Facom 507 lock grip pliers (mole grips that can be adjusted single handed), recently sadly discontinued.

Tim Hunkin's Colchester Student lathe.

My lathe, a 1972 Colchester Student – just the pinnacle of mechanical perfection. There are lots of others. Buying tools is my luxury.

Tim Hunkin's Bernina sewing machine.

What’s your most-coveted, yet least-used tool?

Good question. Maybe my 1969 Bernina Sewing machine.

Is there a certain tool or material you use often, but seems unorthodox for your field?

I don’t think anyone else uses Programmable Logic Controllers for arcade machines. I learned to program them ages ago but still love them because they are so incredibly robust and backward compatible. I have about 50 running all day every day in different arcade machines, museum exhibits and clocks—and they hardly ever fail.

Every fixer/DIYer/device-opener has a brutal tool injury or failure story. What’s yours?

I have lots and lots of failures, but I usually enjoy them, as I only learn new stuff when things don’t work. Memorable tool injuries are rarer, but I had a bad one at the beginning of lockdown. I was taking to bits a steel frame that hadn’t worked out and [was] cross that it had wasted so much steel. The angle grinder caught as it cut through part of the frame which was under tension, then jumped and cut my hand badly. I shouldn’t have been using it single-handed. Fortunately my wife rose to the occasion and applied steri-strips so expertly that when I eventually got to a doctor, they said best to leave it to heal—which it did.

What’s your advice for people who want to start fixing or modifying things?

You just have to start and it will lead to more and more.

One thing I find myself doing often now is advising people who want to have a go at mending their stuff. I say try lots of different ways to describe your problem to Google. The process usually leads you in the right direction. While YouTube is a fabulous resource, always try to watch many different videos—it’s fun trying decide who to trust, anyway.

Anything else you want our community of fixers to know? Feel free to pitch any new projects or content you’re working on or recently published!

I spent some of lockdown sorting out a YouTube channel and making a series of new videos about some of the components I use. I guess some of this might be useful for your community of fixers.

But also that YouTube isn’t infalible. My sister was trying to replace her washing machine door seal and I was shocked that not a single video advised lubricating the rubber with washing-up liquid—it’s virtually impossible to do without.