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David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

The holidays. There’s nothing like a little time with family to give you an honest assessment of yourself. My experience this past week was especially illuminating.

Having lived across the country from my family for many years, the holidays always involved a lot of explaining of what I was up to. This year, I had the unique challenge of trying to explain my quest to start making things. I realized the complexity of this when, in reference to the Zero to Maker column, my younger brother asked me, “So, David, how’s your writing going?”

“It’s going pretty well!” I replied, genuinely excited that he’d taken notice to what I was doing, “I’m really learning a lot and enjoying the process. Have you been reading the updates?”

“Yeah, they’re really good,” he replied. He had a pleasantly surprised and slightly impressed tone to his voice.

“Wow. Thanks, bro. Did you read the last one about the side project I was working on?” I asked. I was really curious. I don’t get that much feedback on it, especially from people outside the MAKE community, so I really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.

“Uh… No I didn’t actually read that one, yet.” He replied.

The confidence drained from his voice. I sensed he may have been bluffing with his enthusiasm for my writing, so I pressed him, “I see. So which ones have you read?”

“Well… to be honest, I haven’t read them recently. I try to read them. It’s just that, well, sometimes you start getting all technical and you lose me.”

Interesting. Too technical? I hadn’t really thought about that. Of course, he could have just pulled that out as an excuse, but I thought it was valid enough to investigate further. I asked my mom what she thought and she, too, that there was too much maker jargon to follow along.

This was a bit of a blow. Not a huge one, though, as I’m getting fairly used to being the least informed person in the room, but I thought this might be something I could work on. As a new-maker who’s had the privilege of getting such an intensive, whirlwind tour of the maker world, I should be doing a better job of translating this experience to other new-makers.

I thought back to my journey over the past few months. I looked at my first post and then compared it with my most recent. My brother and mom were right. My tone and word choice had changed. Things that are obvious to me now – what “CAD” or “CNC” stand for or that I can vector-cut acrylic with a laser cutter but needed a water jet to cut metal – are the same things that the pre-maker me would have gotten tripped up over. I wondered how much of what I’d learned could be attributed to understanding more of the vocabulary.

Before I started this column and my crash-course in making, I had still been paying attention. I had been to a few Maker Faire’s and read the MAKE website. So even then, I was starting to get comfortable with the lingo. I thought back to when I had first heard about Maker Faire in 2009 – to the specific conversation and recommendation to attend. I didn’t understand what “Maker” meant. I had to ask twice. And now I’m the one repeating, explaining what a Maker Faire is. No matter how many times I try, I’m never able to capture the magic of it. It’s still something I think you have to see to understand.

It turns out that “make” is the 69th most common word in the English language. The word means something completely different to me than it did in 2009. I need to do a better job of explaining that new definition to other.

So, my question to all of you is: How do you define “making?”

Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey

David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!



  1. Steve C says:

    “Dad, when you are building a cabinet – you are making it right? You imagine what the end product is going to be. You select the materials you are going to use, you put it together in your head and sometimes during construction you change it a bit, you modify your original design somehow… you are a maker”

    “Mom, when you are making clothing – you are making something right? You sometimes use a pattern. You select the materials, and you might even change things a bit… you are a maker”

    “I played with Lego; I took things apart to see how they work and sometimes put them back again; I take things that are meant to be one thing and put them with something else to come up with a totally different third thing… I am a maker”

  2. Ellis says:

    a ‘maker’ is one who creates. or tinkers. or tinkers to create…. yeah, good luck with that :D

  3. Nick Goodenough says:

    Making is the process of stripping apart the basic concepts of how something works and piecing them back together with the satisfaction of deep first-hand understanding. Greater satisfaction comes when you stop actively holding that knowledge and begin working intuitively from ‘mental muscle memory’. And greater still, when you’re able to apply what you’ve learned to help others. That’s what a maker is.

  4. Sam Ley says:

    This may be a bit dippy for your first explanation to someone, but I see “making” as the act of imagining what you want the world around you to look like, then acting in such a way as to cause it to resemble your imagination. This would be in contrast to viewing the world as it is, then modifying your view of the world to fit what is already there.

    Applied to real situations, a non-maker buys a thermostat at the store – whatever they have is what they get. A maker imagines a thermostat – then works to achieve something that matches the imagination – by acquiring components, writing software, and assembling something.

    It also includes repair – I imagine a world where my smoke alarm cover doesn’t keep falling off and banging into the floor. A non-maker would either accept the annoyance as a fact of life, or purchase another smoke alarm, of whatever variety the store offered at the moment. A maker would make the world fit their imagination – use silicon to glue it up, or print a new mounting tab, etc.

    “Makers” include a lot of different kinds of people – kids with electronics kits, programmers, LEGO enthusiasts, hackers, programmers, traditional wood or metal craftspeople, engineers etc. The disciplines are extremely varied, and in some cases may have almost 0% overlap, but the core philosophy has some common aspects – a refusal to accept the physical world as presented to them, and a desire to mold that world to their imagination.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I like what your getting at. I hear: “Those who take action to shape the world around them, opposed to going with the flow or status quo.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’d adapt the definition of Hacker from the jargon file:

    MAKER  n. 1. A person who enjoys learning the details of building systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs/builds enthusiastically, or who enjoys programming/building rather than just theorizing about programming/building. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value (q.v.). 4. A person who is good at programming/building quickly. Not everything a hacker produces is a hack. 

    I left in the programming in that much of present day Making has a strong software component.

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