Vermont-based freelance reporter and maker Bob Parks has been contributing to the pages of MAKE since Volume 01. He’s profiled makers as diverse as special effects innovator Glen Derry and synthetic biologist Drew Endy, and is the author of the very first MAKE-branded book we published (in 2005), aptly titled Makers: All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things in Garages, Basements, and Backyards. Bob is also a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek and Runner’s World, a correspondent for Wired, and Outside magazine’s online Gear Guy. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife and two kids, and is always up to a good project or two.
One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. Arduino-Controlled Solar Pump. I was looking for a way to push water slowly up a tube to a tank 20 feet in the air. That way, a person could use a very small amount of power to store water that they could later use at their convenience. I tested at least a half dozen battery-powered pumps, but none could pump water far uphill. It was exciting to finally find a pump inside a $35 WaterPik, and then an even better one inside a $10 Super Soaker. These days, engineers design amazing components inside the most mundane consumer products.
The idea came from one of the most fascinating makers I’ve ever met, Stephen Friend. While interviewing him for a story, Friend told me that we’d save more energy by designing “time-shifted” technologies, which build up a resource slowly during a time you don’t need it, so that it is plentiful and available when you do. Friend built a solar-based system that makes hydrogen all year long and banks it away so he can power his vacation home one month out of the year. The solar pump I’m working on uses 3 watts of electricity for 8 hours to move 50 gallons of water to a gravity tank on the second floor of my shop.
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. It was New Year’s Day 2012, and I decided to cut down a tree. I had felled small ones in easy spots before, but this was a mammoth white pine near the house, heavier than two cars. I lashed the tree with strong ropes at three points in the intended path of travel, and tightened everything down with a come-along. I notched it on one side and began to wedge it on the other, but the wedges weren’t doing their job. Nothing was moving the tree in the right direction, and it was now leaning closer toward the house than ever. Then I heard a crackle, and it jumped off the hinge, lunged for the house, strained the ropes, hung for an awful moment, spun 90 degrees, and landed safely. In the interim, I imagined the loss of my house vividly (and quite possibly my marriage). That day, I learned that some projects do not tolerate an iterative approach. With tree felling, household electrical, and propane plumbing, I now invite a buddy along from the profession that day.
2. According to neighborhood kids, our family’s pool is too cold to swim in. So last summer, my 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son decided to build a pool heater. I knew of a plan, because I had interviewed some makers in Arizona named Todd Harrison and his daughter Veronica. They built a heater using a propane tank, some copper piping, and a barbeque grill. But Todd warned me that you need a lot of energy to heat a swimming pool. On a cool September day, we rerouted the pool pump through a long coil of steel pipe inside a metal drum. We fed the fire inside the metal drum all day, and monitored the temperature of the water coming in and out. Even with the hottest fire, though, the temp coming in (63 degrees) was no different from the temp going out. Despite all the wood we burned, it wasn’t enough. We should have listened to Todd and his daughter.
Three new ideas that have excited you most lately:
1. The 80-20 Rule. This is an old, unscientific ratio once used by economists to describe real estate. But the rule of thumb applies to many things. I think the 80-20 ratio should be applied to certain people. There are some great people I know who spend 80 percent of their waking hours making lots of mistakes. These 80-20 people typically drive everyone crazy with their tendency to transpose phone numbers, miss appointments, and conflate simple ideas. But then, once in a while, they hit us with an idea so heart-stoppingly beautiful that it reminds us that we’re lucky to know them. That 20 percent is the stuff that makes the world go around. I think that our schools need to be better set up to nurture the 80-20s.
2. Experience Design. Many industrial design firms have moved beyond product design and are now trying to fix the “experience” of commercial spaces like airports, restaurants, and car showrooms. It makes sense. Many consumers walk into a beautifully designed new store, but they find out it’s a complete mess to get anything done inside. It takes someone with a lot of empathy to study these spaces and understand what it’s actually like to be a customer there. Learning about experience design has helped me think about everything from writing up online descriptions of my projects to improving our family’s morning routine before school.
3. Outsider Tech. As described in Jack Hitt’s 2012 book, Bunch of Amateurs, non-professional projects have done a lot to improve America throughout history. When I started renovating my house 10 years ago, I got the same clichéd advice: “Do it right the first time.” That’s not true at all. Sure, if you want to save time, hire a pro. But amateurism is the best path if you want to dig into a project and explore new ideas. You’ll go down wrong paths, but the end results will fit your needs better.
Four tools you can’t live without:
1. Black & Decker TLD100 Thermal Leak Detector. This thing is cool, and for $40 it’s a lot cheaper than an industrial thermal imager. Pull the trigger and it casts a little spot on the wall or ceiling, then displays the exact temperature of that spot, down to a tenth of a degree. I use it all the time to measure the efficiency of my insulation, as well as test whether a motor or circuit in a project is overheating.
2. Homelite Super XL Chainsaw. A friend gave me this heavy old saw from the 1960s, and everyone who sees it calls it a “widowmaker.” But I operate it with slow caution, and it’s never kicked back. Chainsaw makes great quick-and-dirty plunge cuts in projects involving wood.
3. Hose Clamps. You use them in so many ways to hold together parts that need to set, or create a quick-and-dirty anchor for a motor. Lately, I’ve been using hose clamps attached to a board to yank out nasty invasive bushes in our backyard.
4. Reciprocating Saw. Demolition is the best. I’ll never be a finish carpenter, but I’m an artist with the Makita.
Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. Ted Selker, an inventor and professor from California. One day he was visiting our house, and saw a broken latch on my wood stove. Ted has this thing about using whatever materials are available in one’s immediate surroundings to spark ideas and solve problems. In under 10 minutes, he built a new latch using broken pipe, copper electrical wire, and a length of rope.
2. Adam Savage. Years ago, I got to go with the Mythbuster to the Silicon Valley Electronics Flea Market in Cupertino. It was so much fun to watch him pick up a piece of old gear from a table and show me what was cool about it. Adam has so much enthusiasm, it’s infectious.
3. Farmers. We live near two busy farms that produce beef, dairy, vegetables, and maple syrup. It’s been great to find out what new tools they use. For instance, to make syrup, one farmer just bought a huge modern vacuum pump that pulls sap out of trees for better yields.
4. Hardware Store Guys. After going to my local hardware spot for years, I’ve built a rapport with the guys on staff there. So now I can go in and ask the absolute dumbest questions on Earth, and they look me in the eye and tell me the right answer every time. Their word is the best available anywhere. I think that says a lot about small, independent stores.
5. Lester Dunklee. There’s a cluttered, one-man machine shop in town, and there’s always a line to talk to the 60-year-old proprietor. I just go in to mooch free advice. Lester always knows exactly what I need. It’s eerie, like an old Twilight Zone episode. On one occasion, he told me to fix my broken treadmill by hammering small shards of razor blade into the union between the treadmill’s main roller and its flimsy plastic drive pulley. I’ve been running on the thing for three years since without trouble.