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No. 8 Wire

Musings of a self-confessed average handyman.

Words: Nick Walker
Artwork: Trish Cox

Kiwis are can-do people. Need a deck built? Sweet. TV not working? Give us a look. Have I done it before? Na, but how hard can it be?

We’re proud of our Kiwi ingenuity and we’ll back ourselves to figure something out. Like MacGyver, but as a home handyman. We’ll also act like it’s not a big deal – because to us, it’s not. It’s just what people do.

The creation of No. 8 Wire is at the very centre of this attitude. It’s a type of fencing steel which originated in New Zealand back in the day, and we’re pretty proud of it. Not only can you fence with it, but you can do all sorts – it’s as versatile as the day is long.

But the No. 8 Wire phrase isn’t even about the wire anymore. It’s a mentality and an attitude that says we can do anything. From fixing stuff with basic equipment, to really high-level achievements (like climbing Everest or making a jet boat or jet pack).  

It’s about backing yourself, and that’s partly why I’m here, in front of a computer on a fine summer’s day discussing this topic. Because someone asked me if I could. “Sure, no problem”.

I’m a fairly unremarkable Kiwi in a lot of ways; a young-ish, middle class, yo-pro. Growing up, I got used to the sight of my Dad doing things with his hands. He’s a white collar worker, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t fix a chainsaw, lawnmower or a boat motor – all of which gave him more problems than they were worth.

But the lesson was clear – you do it yourself.

A few years ago, there was a TV ad for a home hardware store Mitre 10, about this. Two kids, aged around six or seven were at a playground, and one said he was putting in a retaining wall at the weekend. “You doing it yourself?” the other asked. “Na, getting some bloke in”, he responded. “Come on mate, do it yourself” the first kid urged. They asked a mate for a hand – another kid wearing an Australian rugby jersey. “Give us a hand with a job Saturday?” The Australian, dubbed Jonesy, responded “Mate, you’re dreeeeeaming”.

The lesson here is you figure things out yourself. Get a few mates involved on a job if you need to, but don’t you dare pay someone else.

So it starts small. Before I left primary school it was my job to fill the car up with petrol, mow the lawns and light the fire in winter. That is, until I got the hang of that and I moved onto the next thing – both to keep me learning and to vacate jobs for my younger brothers. There was little tuition, and that helps form an ingrained mentality that even if you haven’t done something before, you can always figure it out.

I’m pumping a fair bit of air into these tyres now – it’s actually not that full on, and it’s here where I need to make an admission.

I’m pretty average at the handyman stuff.

I’m no good with plumbing, engines, electrical wires or pretty much anything else. I know that, but it doesn’t stop me backing myself. The ‘have a crack’ attitude is much more palatable than admitting you don’t know how to do something.

It got really full-on when my wife and I bought our house. All of a sudden I could knock down walls, chuck up a fence, put in a bay window, you name it. Never mind the fact I couldn’t ​actually do these things, but I could try.

18 months on, my DIY-ing is relatively unimpressive. I’ve chopped up and re-fitted the shelves in our pantry so there’s space for a fridge and I’ve tidied up a few tatty old windows and window sills.

"This is another part of the No. 8 Wire attitude in play - not so much the creative inventor, but the stubbornness to refuse to give up no matter what”

The funny thing is, if I was actually qualified to do this stuff (or even knew how to do it in the first place), it wouldn’t qualify as Kiwi ingenuity. It’s only because I’m clueless when I begin, that I can claim to have tapped into the No. 8 Wire ethos.

But while I may be proud of what I’ve done, even if the workmanship is a little dodgy, you always palm it off as no big deal. As impressive (or not, in my case) as your feats are, it’s always no big deal.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mt Everest, is a New Zealand icon, epitomising the No. 8 Wire mentality. That a bee keeper from Auckland could beat the world to its peak is almost bizarre, and shows the can-do attitude Kiwis pride ourselves on.

No-one knew what would happen when man climbed higher than 28,000 feet. There were fears your brain might explode or you’d go blind, but he took the fear of a previously unknown, potentially explosive death in his stride and refused to stop.

This is another part of the No. 8 Wire attitude in play – not so much the creative inventor, but the stubbornness to refuse to give up no matter what.

Whilst Kiwi ingenuity may have contributed to some of our greatest achievements, this probably can’t be said for a New Plymouth resident who recently got caught driving under the influence, whilst riding a self-built, motorised chillybin, reaching speeds of up to 28km/h.

Not all heroes wear capes?

Having said that, Hillary could also find creative ways to solve problems. Working with local Himalayan communities, building schools and infrastructure among the mountains meant many challenges in itself. One monastery was at risk of falling down a cliff, and engineers proposed it be fixed with steel and concrete. But Sir Ed knew having sherpas carry supplies into the location would be a nightmare, so he devised a solution with (you guessed it) No. 8 Wire, strengthened into a mesh.

In the construction of the local airport, he had 100 locals help cut the scrub, dig up the roots and level the ground. But the runway was too soft, so he plied them with the local liquor and had them link arms and walk up and down, stomping enthusiastically to harden the ground.

He’s even helped people from beyond the grave. When NZ Herald photographer Greg Bowker tore a hole in his bike tyre while on a rural cycle tour last year, he patched it with (surprise, surprise) No. 8 Wire and a New Zealand $5 note – on which Hillary’s face features front and centre.

When you step back, it’s actually a little bit rich of Kiwis to claim this as our thing. Because really, without disrespecting any of the incredible things we have done, it’s people inventing a few things, creatively solving problems and doing some awesome stuff.

That happens around the world all the time. The only difference is we cling to our ingenuity as an important nationwide mantra. We don’t claim exclusivity on inventiveness or creativity or humility, but it is the Kiwi way.

So what lies beneath the surface is an underlying sense that, because we come from this small wee corner of the globe, we can’t achieve anything. We’re like the rest of the world’s youngest cousin – we feel like we go a little unnoticed. The response is to link arms and bond over our achievements in the hope that our coming together over something will make it more significant.

The contradiction is, as much as we want to be humble about our deeds, we also want the world to know we’re good for something. If we could be congratulated for any of it, we’d act like it was no big deal, but it would be so incredibly validating.

The whole thing is very old school, and as such is under threat by a new way of thinking. There’s a growing sense that the ‘traditional sense’ of Kiwi ingenuity is no longer the way forward as the world becomes a more specialised place.

I’ve already admitted I’m less of a handyman than my Dad, and many others will be in the same boat.

In the Sunday Star Times in 2013, columnist Adam Dudding mused whether the No. 8 Wire attitude had outgrown its usefulness. In the 2014 book ‘No. 8 Re-wired’, authors Jon Bridges and David Downs argued it’s not just enough for Kiwis in their sheds to do things other people aren’t doing. They said we’ve rested on our laurels and there needs to be more collaboration if we’re going to compete with the rest of the world and the big multinational companies.

So, to innovate innovation – that is the future of the No. 8 Wire.

There is another side to this though, and perhaps has a brighter future.

"So, to innovate innovation - that is the future of the No. 8 Wire"

Suffragette Kate Sheppard fronted the movement that enabled Kiwi women to be the first in the world to have the power to vote in 1893, and since then, Kiwis have taken immense pride in being world leaders in social progression. It’s helped Kiwis do things like protest nuclear testing in the Pacific and champion same-sex marriage. The Crown’s treatment of the indigenous Māori is always a work in progress, but it’s a damn sight better than some other countries. We’re even looking at legalising euthanasia and medicinal cannabis this year.

Is it a stretch to call this Kiwi ingenuity? Maybe.

But it’s Kiwis refusing to accept the status quo and pushing back against the way things were to better the way things are. And that’s part of it. Yes, there’s a conservative sector of the population that mightn’t like too much social progression, but Kiwis still pride ourselves on being able to step back from the norm and see the bigger picture of what is right.

This side to Kiwis has always co-existed alongside people like Sir Edmund Hillary. But there’s fewer things to invent now, and fewer world firsts to achieve. So we’re finding new ways of doing things differently.

Perhaps the best way of understanding the change is to go back to the very beginning – to the wire itself. It’s actually not even called No. 8 Wire anymore. Since 1976 when the metric system was introduced, it’s now known as 4.0 mm gauge wire.

It’s the same thing, and if you asked for it by the old name, you’d still get what you were after. But it’s different in that it’s in the 21st century.

The same goes for the mentality. Kiwi ingenuity will always be close to our hearts, even if it’s in a slightly different form.

"There’s fewer things to invent now, and fewer world firsts to achieve. So we’re finding new ways of doing things differently."