How to Perform Amateur Surgery on a Phone

The nerve-wracking process of repairing your own electronics.

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Jul 3 2015, 3:49pm

Modern America is not really huge on repair; we're more into planned obsolescence, excuses to buy new stuff, and things that are cleaner because they're disposable.

This aversion to fixing things is strongest when it comes to our electronics, which are extremely valuable, extremely mysterious little black boxes. Camera, computer, career, family, passwords, secrets, everything. How does it work? No idea.

I'm willing to change a tire on my bike. When it comes to my phone, I want a professional.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy to find someone to fix a phone. The options are basically 1) send it back to the manufacturer, which will charge an arm and a leg and send you back something that looks suspiciously like a new phone anyway, or 2) find a repair person who charges something reasonable but will sketch you out in some way—like he has a Craigslist ad but no Yelp page.

There is a third option, which is to call on one of your hacker friends. That's what I did when my phone—my precious, pretty teal-backed Sony Xperia Z3 compact, the only high-end smartphone that's small enough to fit in my hand—received a crack in the back cover, endangering its waterproofing.

Last weekend, said hacker friend (Evan Rodgers, you can find him on the internet and occasionally in the pages of Motherboard) and I set out to do the unthinkable: repair a $500 device on our own, using common household tools and a $7 piece of glass that came from China and says SONY but was probably not made by SONY. (Or was, and fell off a truck. Who knows. The Chinese manufacturing process: another black box.)

This is my phone, pre-surgery. At this point, I have had it for six months.

The only real crack is that deep diagonal cut from the camera to the northwest quadrant. The other cracks are in a thin tempered glass protector that is shockingly durable. I drop my phone a lot.

Oh, hello broken phone. You may be cracked, but you're still pretty.

Supplies: Q-tips, rubbing alcohol, guitar picks, pry tool, suction cup, razor, new back. Not pictured but essential: hair dryer.

Step one: remove that cracked-ass protector.

You served honorably, soldier. (Note: You can baaarely see the actual crack in the actual back of the phone in this photo, but it's there.)

Step two: heat that motherfucker up. This is done to loosen the adhesive holding the back on.

Step three: pry that shit off using the pry tool and razor.

In case you were wondering why we had the guitar picks, they make for excellent wedges.

More hairdryer. Phone makers do this with industrial heat guns and soldering ovens, so no worries about melting the phone.

Naked and vulnerable, the phone is cleaned with rubbing alcohol to make sure the new cover actually sticks. You won't get all the adhesive out, but do your best. The razor will come in handy.

This process should be done as quickly as possible. The longer the phone remains open, the more microscopic dust finds its way in. You do not want dust in your $500 phone.

Fun fact: Much like brain surgery when patients have to stay awake in order to double check that their brain functions haven't been disrupted, we did not turn the phone off during this process.

Even repairing things requires throwing some stuff out.

Prepare the new cover. Pulling back the plastic film exposes the adhesive.

This part requires precision.

Press it in place. Hope you lined it up right.

Quick! We need weight!

More weight! The new cover needs to set under pressure for about 15 minutes.

Good as new.

I can't believe we did it!

It's been five days and my phone is still functioning normally. It looks flawless. I feel like less of a scrub (even though some claim cracked phones are chic). More than that, I feel empowered—not that I really did anything. Speaking of which, special thanks to Evan Rodgers for supplying the know-how, the camera, and most of the tools.

The only thing left to do is keep it safe until the new protector comes in the mail.


Wish me luck.

Photos by Adrianne Jeffries and Evan Rodgers.