Digital DIY: Web Helps Do-It-Yourselfers Share Ethic Highly interactive sites cater to a growing number of life-hackers who want to do everything from modify cell phones to make their own furniture.
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Digital DIY: Web Helps Do-It-Yourselfers Share Ethic

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

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

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There's a corner of the Internet that functions like an old fashion general store where farmers might swap advice on how to fix an ailing tractor. It's a place where you can find a host of highly interactive Web sites for a growing number of do-it-yourselfers. From those who want to hack cell phones, to those who want to make furniture. Jon Kalish checked out the Web's verging(ph) DIY scene.

JON KALISH: Thirty-five year old Joel Sprayberry is a musician in Dallas, Texas. His kitchen countertops are made from granite he salvaged from discarded billiard tables. When Sprayberry's beloved dachshund became disabled, he got some aluminum tent poles, webbing, and wheels and made a mini chariot to immobilize the dog's rear legs.

Ms. JOEL SPRAYBERRY (Musician): It was less than $50 that I spent, and how long would it take to build it? It would probably take two hours maybe, and it didn't really take any special tools other than a drill and some normal tools you have around the house.

KALISH: Sprayberry posted his step-by-step building plans on the Web site Instructables.com. Eric Wilhelm is the site's CEO.

Mr. ERIC WILHELM (CEO, Instructables.com): That project on the site gets a continuous stream of comments, 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.

KALISH: Instructables.com is part of an explosion of online resources for do-it-yourselves. This how-to hub offers step-by-step instructions with text, photos, and sometimes video for such projects as making boxer shorts out of old pillow cases and building a stool made out of crutches and bike parts. Again, Eric Wilhelm.

Mr. WILHELM: In a mass consumer culture where the accepted norm is to go out and buy everything you need and you only use it in the form it comes, it's satisfying to take something and do something that it wasn't intended to, to make it your own. You sometimes feel like you're getting away with something.

KALISH: One video on Instructables.com shows how to use a pair of pantyhose in place of a broken fan belt and it works.

(Soundbite of Instrutables.com's video)

Unidentified Woman: Ken is going to start the car.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

Unidentified Woman: The belt is actually moving around in there, working admirably. We get the multi-meter and put it on the negative terminal and the positive terminal.

Unidentified Man: The meter tells us that there's 12.3 volts there.

KALISH: Another important player in do-it-yourself media is O'Reilly Publishing, which has a quarterly magazine called Make and a Web site makezine.com.

Mr. PHILLIP TORRONE (Senior Editor, Make): I think my favorite project in Make is one of our early ones and it was a VCR cat feeder. You know, I didn't even need to tell you more than VCR cat feeder. You can imagine that the VCR was taken apart, the motors inside were used and eventually this thing with a timer to turn on to record was used to feed the cat.

KALISH: Phil Torrone is a senior editor at Make. He says one aesthetic that DIYers embrace in a big way is re-purposing objects from everyday life, often by modifying them or modding as it's known in the DIY scene. For this crowd, hacking is done with hardware as well as electronics.

Mr. TORRONE: Because of the Internet now, you can really get information about anything. So if you just Google anything in your home, there's probably a hack or a mod for it 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.

KALISH: Once a month there's a meet-up at Make's New York office. The January get-together drew 42-year-old Dave Giancaspro(ph) who showed off a charging station for iPods and video game gear he made out of plastic packaging from his kid's toys. Giancaspro was wearing a T-shirt that said, I void warrantees.

Mr. DAVE GIANCASPRO (Do-it-yourselfer): I've been taking stuff apart since I was a kid and I took apart an eight-track player to try to 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 can I make better out of it. And once this movement started it was like, Hooray.

KALISH: The Internet is not only enabling people like Dave Giancaspro to share projects by giving away the knowledge of how to make things, it is 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 furniture, jewelry, and clothing. Kalin was in the spacious workroom known as Etsy Labs at the Web site's Brooklyn headquarters. Etsy was holding its monthly open house for crafters to exchange ideas and instruction.

Mr. ROB KALIN (CEO, Etsy.com): In 2007 over 50 Etsy sellers made over $30K on the site and our top seller made over $125K. Our big mission for 2008 is to show that you can make a living making things and there's a whole world out there for doing something you love.

Mr. JAY BALDWIN (Maverick Industrial Designer; Former Editor, Whole Earth Catalog): I think the whole do-it-yourself thing is driven by people being made nervous, by being dependent on organizations that they don't trust or like.

KALISH: Jay 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.

Mr. BALDWIN: 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. 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.

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

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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