Digital DIY: Web Helps Do-It-Yourselfers Share Ethic

Eric Wilhelm

Instructables CEO Eric Wilhelm: The DIY aesthetic, at least sometimes, is about the subversive joy of making a prefab product "do something that it wasn't intended to." Julie Caine hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Caine

Beer Bot? Jet-Powered VW?

If you can imagine it, someone's probably hacked it.

Tape-delay diet: A VCR-driven cat feeder remains a favorite project for Make magazine's Phillip Torrone. Courtesy 'Make' hide caption

See the 'Make' How-To Article
itoggle caption Courtesy 'Make'
Joel Sprayberry's Dachshund Wheelchair i i

Joel Sprayberry's Dachshund Wheelchair project — its off-the-shelf parts include tent poles, wagon wheels and an ordinary dog harness — generates "a continuous stream of comments" at Instructables.com. Courtesy Joel Sprayberry hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Joel Sprayberry
Joel Sprayberry's Dachshund Wheelchair

Joel Sprayberry's Dachshund Wheelchair project — its off-the-shelf parts include tent poles, wagon wheels and an ordinary dog harness — generates "a continuous stream of comments" at Instructables.com.

Courtesy Joel Sprayberry
Jay Baldwin

Former Whole Earth Catalog editor Jay Baldwin: "When you make things by hand, it's yours; there's no mystery how it got made." Julie Caine hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Caine

There's a corner of the Internet now that functions like an old-fashioned general store, where farmers might swap advice on how to fix an ailing tractor. A host of highly interactive Web sites cater to a growing number of do-it-yourselfers who want to do everything from hack cell phones to make their own furniture.

Take 35-year-old Joel Sprayberry. His kitchen countertops are made from granite he salvaged from discarded billiard tables. When Sprayberry's beloved dachshund became disabled, the Dallas musician gathered some aluminum tent poles, some webbing and some wheels, and made a mini-chariot to immobilize the dog's hind legs.

"It was less than $50 that I spent," Sprayberry says, estimating that the doggy-wheelchair took him two hours to build. "And it didn't really take any special tools other than a drill and some normal tools you have around the house."

Sprayberry posted his step-by-step building plans on Instructables.com — where, according to site CEO Eric Wilhelm, it's generated plenty of reaction.

"That project ... gets a continuous stream of comments," Wilhelm says. "People saying things like, 'My dog hurt her back last night, and we thought we were going to have to put her down because we just didn't know how to help her recover, and we found this site, we've built this wheelchair, and now we have hope for our dog recovering.'"

'Making It Your Own'

Instructables.com is part of an explosion of online resources for do-it-yourselfers. This how-to hub offers step-by-step instructions — with text, photos and sometimes video. Sample projects? Making boxer shorts out of old pillowcases. Building a stool made out of crutches and bike parts.

What's the appeal? In our consumer culture, Wilhelm says, "the accepted norm is to go out and buy everything you need — and you only use it in the form it comes [in]." He says it is satisfying to take a product, or a part, and make it "do something that it wasn't intended to, to make it your own. You sometimes feel like you're getting away with something."

One video on Instructables.com shows how to use a piece of pantyhose in place of a broken fan belt. Yes, it works.

Another important player in DIY media is O'Reilly Publishing, which puts out a quarterly magazine called Make.

"I think my favorite project in Make is one of our early ones, and it was the VCR cat feeder," says senior editor Phillip Torrone. Yup: timers, motors, all cannibalized and repurposed to dispense food for Fluffy.

Torrone says one aesthetic that DIYers embrace — in a big way — is re-purposing objects from every day life, often by modifying (or "modding") them. For this crowd, hacking involves hardware, not just electronics.

"If you just Google anything in your home, there's probably a hack or a mod for it," Torrone says. "And there's probably someone who's completely obsessed with it, there's probably someone who has completely taken something apart, completely tweaked it out, made it better."

Making a Living from Making Something Unique

Once a month, there's a meet-up at Make's New York office. The January get-together drew 42-year-old Dave Giancaspro, who showed off a charging station for iPods and video-game gear. He'd made it out of plastic packaging from his kids' toys.

The slogan on his T-shirt: "I void warranties."

"I've been taking stuff apart since I was a kid," Giancaspro says. "I took apart an 8-track player to try and figure out how I could add more speakers to it. Ever since then, I've always been trying to see what's going on inside and what I can make better out of it. And once this movement started, it was like 'Hooray!'"

The Internet isn't just enabling people like Giancaspro to share projects by giving away the knowledge of how to make things. It's also providing a global market for people who want to sell stuff they've made by hand.

Tens of thousands of small entrepreneurs do just that at Etsy.com, which reported $26 million in sales last year. Etsy's CEO, Rob Kalin, says those sales came from handmade jewelry, clothing, bags and accessories.

In the spacious Brooklyn workroom known as Etsy Labs, Kalin runs the numbers during Etsy's monthly open house.

"In 2007, over 50 Etsy sellers made over $30,000 on the site, and our top seller made over $125,000," Kalin says. "Our big mission for 2008 is to show that you can make a living making things. There's a whole world out there for doing something you love."

A Quest for Balance in a Busy World

Some see the DIY urge as a reaction to a world that's increasingly packaged, increasingly industrial, increasingly corporate and increasingly virtual.

"I think the whole do-it-yourself thing is driven by people being made nervous by being dependent on organizations they don't trust or like," says Jay Baldwin.

Baldwin is a 75-year-old maverick industrial designer. In the 1970s, he was an editor at the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication that championed the ethic of achieving independence by making things yourself.

"What's important about this making stuff is that it's a balance to what I call 'digeritis,' which is having everything virtual and electronic," he says. "When you make things by hand, it's yours; there's no mystery how it got made. If you get an idea and you make it yourself, there's something about that that is really good for you."

That feel-good experience is attracting growing numbers of people. One of the recent "Maker's Faires" sponsored by Make magazine drew more than 40,000 people in Northern California.

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