Restoration practitioners adopt a multiplicity of approaches that range from basic trial and error, and site-specific efforts, to complex experimental designs that test cutting edge theoretical hypotheses. We classify these different strategies to understand how restoration is planned and executed, and to contribute to the discussion on certification and evaluation. We use Aldo Leopold's notion of “intelligent tinkering” as a basis for a typology of four different approaches to restoration based on four parameters: motivation, general strategy, method of inquiry, and temporal and spatial scales of the expected outcomes. We argue that efforts to restore a damaged ecosystem in a skilled and experimental manner should be called “professional intelligent tinkering” versus “amateur intelligent tinkering,” and “careless tinkering.” We compare these three types of tinkering, and a more formal “scientific approach.” In professional intelligent tinkering, interventions and adjustments are done in a logical and careful manner, and with a methodical, experimental mindset. In contrast to the scientific approach, intelligent tinkering does not necessarily follow a formal experimental procedure, with replications and controls that allow extrapolation, nor is it driven by the motivation to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Rather, it is primarily driven by a desire to solve site-specific problems even in the absence of sufficient ecological knowledge to apply previously tested knowledge and techniques. We illustrate three approaches with three on-going restoration projects in southeastern Brazil, two of which are small scale, and one of which is very large scale.