Arts & Life


There's a growing community of do-it-yourselfers who want to save money and make useful things out of stuff thats normally destined for the trash heap. In this do-it-yourself community or the world of DIY, as some are calling it, Tim Anderson is a rock star. The 44-year-old has a host of inventions to his name, at least one of which has turned out to be pretty lucrative.

Yet, as Jon Kalish reports, Anderson lives this life of voluntary simplicity.

JON KALISH: Tim Anderson lives in the Bay Area of California, and once a week he cruises San Francisco Bay in a 30-foot sailboat. He got it for practically nothing after the previous owner abandoned it. Anderson has documented for others the triumphs and foibles of restoring what has come to be known as The Free Yacht.

(Soundbite of waves)

KALISH: When I sailed with him in late April, there were 21 people on board, including a guy from Texas making margaritas.

Unidentified Man: Tacking.

Mr. TIM ANDERSON (Do-It-Yourself Guru): We're going to tack, so, get ready. Okay. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go.

Unidentified Woman: Everybody over.

Mr. ANDERSON: Everyone over.

Unidentified Man: Freedom, no king. There's no king here. The land animals dont care what you do out here.

(Soundbite of waves)

KALISH: But even back on terra firma, Tim Anderson's life is a constant quest for freedom. His 1983 Datsun pickup truck runs on bio-diesel. His only income-producing gig at the moment is writing a column for "Make" magazine about forgotten old-school technology. Stuff like using socks as coffee filters and making sandals from old tires. And he's not above dumpster-diving for what he calls "yuppie bread."

But mostly, Anderson works on his own DIY projects.

Mr. ANDERSON: Today we're going to know how to make some noise-isolating headphones better than anything you can buy. And it will only cost $20.

KALISH: At a sprawling industrial park on the waterfront near Oakland, Anderson builds and documents his DIY projects. He has two shipping containers filled with projects in various stages of completion, including a homemade welder and a Kryptonite-style bicycle lock.

Anderson's workshop is a large cement room in what was an air-traffic control tower for a military base. It's cluttered with a sewing machine, computers, power tools and something everyone needs: a robot that makes oil paintings.

Mr. ANDERSON: Here's something I made. Its call a Fro. You can't buy these in stores. There are a lot of things you can't buy so you have to just make them yourself. It's for splitting shingles or splitting wood. It's an old traditional tool.

KALISH: Anderson also made a human-powered paper shredder, by attaching a crank handle to a set of plastic teeth salvaged from a discarded electric shredder.

Mr. ANDERSON: There we go.

(Soundbite of paper shredder)

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I don't know why everyone doesn't have one of these things. You know, it just makes me want to shred everything. And when you've shredded enough stuff, you can put it in a bag. They make a pretty nice mattress. It would also work for making pasta.

(Soundbite of paper shredders)

Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I dont know why everyone doesn't have one of these things. You know, just makes me want to shred everything. And when you shred enough stuff, you can put them in a bag. They make a pretty nice mattress. It would also work for making pasta.

KALISH: On the Web site,, do-it-yourselfers share detailed step-by-step instructions for all sorts of DIY projects. Eric Wilhelm is the Web site's CEO.

Mr. ERIC WILHELM (CEO, One of the terms that Tim taught me was Garbage Santa. You know, Garbage Santa comes and brings you all sorts of materials for your projects. One of his favorite things to do is to go to junkyards or trash bins and just find stuff and then reuse it.

KALISH: It was his ability to repurpose an everyday object that helped Anderson prove himself big time in the high-tech world and earned him, as he puts it, more money than he'll ever need.

In the mid-1990s, after working as a technician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Anderson helped found a high-tech start-up that makes 3-D printers.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: It's the Z printer Z50 from Z Corporation. Full color, 3-D printing for almost anything you can imagine.

KALISH: 3-D printers make three-dimensional plastic models and are used by everyone from carmakers to shoe manufacturers. The Z Corporation's founding CEO Marina Hatsopoulos says Anderson was instrumental in building the company's prototype by, among other things, taking a print head from a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer and adapting it to the 3-D printer.

Ms. MARINA HATSOPOULOS (Founding CEO, Z Corporation): He's got an incredible curiosity and just an innovative streak. He just wants to try things and it is unencumbered by feelings of it not working. He just wants to go and try it and see what happens.

KALISH: Hatsopoulos recalls that for part of the time Anderson worked at Z Corporation he lived at his workspace. Anderson confirms that this is something he has done over the years.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, if you live in a car or stairwell or in a steam pipe somewhere, you'll have a lot of time to study up on things that interest you. So, that was basically my approach to just do what I was interested in.

KALISH: And you have lived in all these places?

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. There are a lot of people who do this. Sometimes they're insane; sometimes they're extremely brilliant and talented and you meet them when you go there.

KALISH: Most who know Anderson says he's closer to the brilliant end of the spectrum. On, Anderson has shared his expertise on everything from how to make a hammock out of drapes to how to use pasta as glue. He has more than 200 DIY projects on the Web site, far more than any single user. Anderson has also hosted a series of DIY Web videos.

Mr. ANDERSON: My sister, who is a very wise woman, gave me some simple rules to live by: don't touch anything and don't do anything. Don't do anything.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Obviously, this is not advice he has taken. In his Web videos, Anderson makes a shopping cart into a chair, puts together a wind-powered skateboard and substitutes pantyhose for a broken fan belt. Anderson clearly relishes creating useful objects out of refuse and teaching others how to do the same. Again, Instructables CEO Eric Wilhelm.

Mr. WILHELM: He's a role model for a lot of people. When you look at how people comment on his instructables, there's kind of a following of people saying, like, yo, I'm really inspired by you.

KALISH: Tim Anderson's current project is meant to help other do-it-yourselfers with a very ambitious project. He's working on something he describes as a giant dimmer switch that controls the speed in homemade electric vehicles. And, of course, he's making the thing out of junk.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

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