Edinburgh Tool Library: improving lives by changing the drill of community sharing

Say the words “Edinburgh Tool Library” in parts of Scotland’s capital city and you’ll hear nothing but praise. For some people, the library has changed their lives thanks to the opportunity it has offered to improve their environment. We chat to award-winning founder Chris Hellawell and two of his members to discover why ETL has become one of Scotland’s most talked about social enterprises.

The Edinburgh Tool Library workshop is located in Spey St Lane, where volunteers are on hand to help members with advice on the right tools for the project.

Following a visit to Canada, Chris returned home to Edinburgh with an idea that would become the first of its kind in the UK. Inspired by the positive impact of the Toronto Tool Library, the former employment co-ordinator founded his own social project following a similar model.

Initially operating from a revamped police box on the city’s Leith Walk, Edinburgh Tool Library has grown from a charitable operation to a successful sustainable business in the space of less than two years.

Chris’ model is based on the same premise as a book library, with members of the local community joining for an annual fee of £20, allowing them to borrow domestic, gardening or car maintenance tools for small or large projects.

The idea proved a success through word of mouth, as Chris explains, “More and more people have got to know about the library and understand its dual principals. The first is giving people access to tools to improve their homes and communities and the second is in sharing in an alternative way which reduces consumption.”

One member who has benefited from her ETL membership is *Carol, having found herself struggling to furnish and decorate her new accommodation following a period of temporary homelessness.

As a high-flying advertising executive she’d previously lived in comfort and expensive surroundings in an exclusive part of Edinburgh. With help and advice from ETL, she borrowed tools and paint to improve her new flat.

Admitting that improving her new home has in turn increased her confidence after facing a bout of mental illness, Carol says, “Chris has been amazing. The difference between the look of my new home before and after is incredible. There’s no way I would have been able to afford tools for the jobs that needed done.”

ETL has also proved a valuable social service for creative projects, as seen by Charmaine Gilbert, one of the library’s first members. She says, “I’m starting out as a prop maker and having ETL means I can hone my skills and increase my employability.”

Images of the balcony ETL member Charmaine built for the short film production “Women in Viaven” using tools borrowed from the library.

Having hired a bench, jig saw and screw gun to help on a short film she was doing the production design for, Charmaine adds, “It’s helped improve my carpentry skills which will help forward my career. I am also passionate about upcycling and ETL really allows me to express my creativity.”

Chris’ ideas for ETL have progressed at speed this year thanks to local support and a move to a new workshop space, which has opened up a host of opportunities for connecting with new groups in the local and wider Edinburgh area.

Sharing some of his forthcoming plans, he says, “We have our second trainee-mentor team starting this week, and are starting a recruitment drive for more mentors to match with the demand for trainee places.”

The program will see a second round of retired tradespeople matched with trainees who have had experience of homelessness or long-term unemployment. Learning new skills, trainees will help design and create practical items and artworks shared to the benefit of communities.

Among the fast-moving success, in particular winning this year’s Buchanan Business Award for Social Enterprise, alongside cementing working relationships with YMCA, Crisis Scotland and Social Bite, Chris remains modest about his role in the far reaching social impact the library has generated.

Leaving the praise someone who has seen his work first–hand, Carol says, “The tool library makes me realise that simple ideas and kindness can really help people who need that wee bit of support.

“I can’t say enough good about how Chris has helped me move forward. And I know am not the only one.”

(*Carol; name has been changed on request).

To find out more about Edinburgh Tool Library or about joining as a member, visit | | Twitter | Facebook