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How to Start a Neighborhood Tool Share

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Why buy tools you don’t use often? A ‘tool share’ saves you money while reducing your environmental impact.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Sep 6, 2016

Tool Sharing

Do you have a garage, shed and/or workroom filled with tools you got for a project and then never needed again? Do you and all of your neighbors each have your own lawn mower, snow blower, leaf blower and extension ladders? That’s a lot of stuff, which takes up a lot of space, and costs quite a bit of money! Before you buy more equipment for your next house project, consider whether you might share with your neighbors. You’ll save money, avoid clutter, and shrink your environmental footprint while building community.

Less Buying, More Sharing

Tool sharing can range from the very informal, where you share tools with a neighbor or two, to a formal membership in a tool “library.” How much or little you want to share is up to you.

Small-Scale Tool Sharing

To start sharing tools with others in your neighborhood, begin by talking to those closest to you. Mention some of the tools you have that you might be willing to lend, and ask what they might have. Perhaps you own a snow blower they’d like to use in heavy snows, while you’d like to borrow their extra-long extension ladder for some high-up painting. Once a few neighbors get involved, you’ll find that you’ll need to buy less equipment and won’t need to replace some of your tools when they wear out.

A small group of families in my neighborhood heated with wood stoves and longed for a wood splitter. Five families went in on the purchase and got together to help one another stockpile wood for winter. Several of them also shared a trailer hitch they used to haul logs as well as brush headed out to the city’s compost site. Each family used these tools maybe a few times each season, so sharing the expense and storage made far more sense than each household buying their own.

Neighborhood Tool Shares

If you want to cast a wider net, you can set up a borrowing group with a larger number of neighbors. This can work in a couple of different ways. You might have all the participants list things they’re willing to lend and keep it in a master document, or you might set up an electronic group with Facebook or an email list.

The simplest model relies on electronic communication to find things when they’re needed, rather than coordinating and continually updating a master document or finding a space to house all the available tools and work out access to them. Kim Urig of Youngstown, OH, got the idea for a neighborhood sharing community three years ago when she borrowed supplies for a high school graduation party. She realized that lots of other people would need these supplies as well and thought it was wasteful for everyone to have their own.

Now 88 members strong, the Youngstown borrowing group has used those party supplies over and over again, and also shares ladders, carpet cleaners, staple guns and cartop carriers. They even lend prom dresses and Halloween costumes! Urig set up a Facebook group where people can post requests and offer up what they have. They also share links to articles on finding ways to buy less and share more. Urig notes her group is “building a lot of community and getting people talking to their neighbors as an added benefit.”

If you want to set up this sort of sharing group in your neighborhood, you can start a Google or Yahoo email group or a group on Facebook and invite friends and neighbors to join. Create a document that lays out the expectations for borrowing, including timely returns and caring for the things borrowed. Let others in the group know some things you have to lend, and the next time you find yourself in need of something, put out a call to see if anyone has the tool you’re looking for.

If your neighborhood or community already has an email list, you could talk to its administrator about reaching out to participants to find others interested in setting up a neighborhood tool share. Local Freecycles would be another way to reach people interested in starting a sharing group.

Offline Tool Sharing

Joey Robison, now of Asheville, NC set up a toolshare in her neighborhood when she lived in a small community in Minnesota. When her lawnmower broke, Robison had an epiphany: “Everyone on our street had one in their garages, but I was likely going to have to purchase a big machine to use once a week for three months of the year. It made me wonder why we didn’t share more, and how we could.” She realized there were numerous tools many households owned but rarely used and longed for “a system to share with our neighbors, so we wouldn’t all have to go buy our own and contribute further to mass production, manufacturing and packaging waste, and the need for bigger houses to fit all of our stuff.” She also didn’t know many of her neighbors, and thought it would be a great chance to build community.

Joey wanted to make sure elderly neighbors felt comfortable participating, so she chose to keep the group offline. She wrote a letter and distributed it to neighbors explaining the toolshare concept and inviting them to participate. She created a form with spaces for names, contact information, tools to share, and tools they’d be interested in borrowing. When the forms came back, she photocopied them and made them into booklets, which she delivered to participating households.

Robison explains, “We wanted everyone to be able to participate, even if they didn’t have a lot of ‘stuff’ to share, so we asked people to be creative with what they could offer. We mostly wanted to share tools, but we had neighbors who offered to share board games, a sewing machine, babysitting services, a juicer, horseback riding lessons, violin bow repair, even a pickup truck.” She noted that people tended to borrow mainly from those they knew already and suggests setting up regular get-togethers for group members to encourage community building.

Tools in garage

Tool Lending “Libraries”

A number of formal “Tool Libraries” have sprung up in recent years. Most keep an inventory and charge a membership fee. The Asheville Tool Library, for example, maintains an extensive tool inventory that includes categories like automotive, bicycle, home maintenance, and carpentry. There’s an annual membership fee, but no limit to the number of tools one can borrow.

More than 80 tool libraries now operate in the US and Canada. You can check if there’s one near you using the interactive map maintained by Localtools.org.

If you want to set up a central tool-lending site for your neighborhood, there can be a bit more work involved than in the systems where each participant keeps their own tools. An organization called Share Starter has an impressive starter kit to help those trying to launch their own tool shares think through the process, including financing, staffing, outreach, and legal issues. The National Tool Library Google group was set up by tool library organizers to provide a nationwide forum where those interested in founding tool libraries could get their questions answered.

Could you be sharing more and buying less in your community? Would you like to get to know your community better by starting a service that benefits everyone? Ask around to find others in your neighborhood who might be interested in starting a local tool share. The old-fashioned values of neighborly sharing have also become the way of the future.

Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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