Is Sugru the future of fixing?

A review of Sugru, the bizarre rubbery substance that claims to fix almost anything

Throughout the week, Rob Walker writes about technology and culture. Before coming to Yahoo! News, Walker wrote about technology, business and culture for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Fast Company and Wired, as well as the public radio program Marketplace. From 2004 to 2011, he wrote the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, addressing consumer culture, design and marketing. His most recent book, co-edited with Joshua Glenn, is the collection “Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.” He is also the author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” and “Letters From New Orleans.”

by Rob Walker

New gadgets, new games, new apps: If you read about tech stuff much (and the fact that you’re reading this suggests you might), the endless gusher of the new can get old. But what about a new material?

Sugru bills itself as a “new self-setting rubber,” devised for everyday people to make routine fixes and improvements to material goods. The little packs of Play-Doh-like stuff can be hand-molded to patch frays and cracks in a variety of objects, or even sculpt ergonomic add-ons like grips and tabs onto things made of plastic, wood, glass and so on. This rather amazing demo video suggested an intersection of high-tech form with workaday function, and sounded interesting enough to explore in the Yahoo! News Test Kitchen. So I got some.

First, here’s the background. Sugru’s roots go back to 2003, when a graduate student in a product design program began experimenting with material that started out hand-formable, would “cure” into something more solid and could be used to fix and improve existing objects. Years of experimentation, iteration, consultation and investment-seeking followed. Eventually the product made its way to market, and continued to evolve via user feedback. Now it has a devoted cult following in the DIY/maker world, and in the UK has begun to make inroads into more mainstream settings like brick-and-mortar stores and home-shopping TV.

When I received my batch — eight five-gram hunks of the stuff in various colors, each in a sealed packet — I was a little uncertain how to proceed. The packaging offers some suggestions for first fixes, but the directions seemed willfully vague. Perhaps I’m used to products that more or less dictate how I’m supposed to use them; in this case it was up to me.

Finally I settled on two obvious problems. First, the cracked corner of an iPod Touch, which I’d disguised with electrical tape. Second, the end of a charging cord that our dog had elected to treat as a chew toy. I busted open two packets, mushed the stuff onto my damaged goods and made an attempt to prettify my clumsy molding with an X-acto knife. This took maybe 20 minutes. Reasonably satisfied, I set my Sugru-ed objects aside. By the following morning, the stuff had hardened, as promised, into something like a medium-heft variety of rubber.

I was quite happy with the results, particularly with the iPod Touch, which now seems better protected from further damage than it did when it was “protected” by tape. Then again, my wife indicated (by way of chuckling) that my patch job on that charger cord was effective but, aesthetically speaking, pretty crude.

Rob Walker uses Sugru on a broken iPod cord and his broken iPod Touch.

Obviously I’ll have to take some personal blame for that. But it’s fair to make the point that the slick-looking Sugru deployments highlighted in the product’s packaging and online marketing require more genuine hand skill than most of us possess. That’s why I would have appreciated something more than the minimalist instructions: While I don’t particularly care about the styling of this charger cord, I’d want some solid lessons on, say, not leaving thumbprints behind before I’d use Sugru on anything that others might actually scrutinize. (And actually, giving users explicit practice exercises to experiment with spare Sugru isn’t a bad idea: The packs “stay fresh” for six months, or 14 if you freeze them, and I’m wondering if I’ll come up with enough uses for my initial batch before it expires.)

That said, Sugru is weirdly impressive. And I love the ideology that this material represents: It is wildly easy to use, and certainly more effective in extending the life of objects teetering on the edge of becoming garbage than my previous solutions (a combination of electrical tape and denial).

I’m all for the idea of something new — that’s all about saving something that isn’t.


You can follow Rob Walker on Twitter.

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