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What’s the Point of Making Something You Could Buy?


Last month, I posted a piece here about the confusion over the proper use of the word “hack” as it applies to projects that get posted on sites like Make:. That post was a response to seeing a lot of people reacting negatively whenever the word “hack” was used in a headline. Another negative reaction I’ve been seeing lately concerns the old make vs. buy argument and people summarily dismissing a project because you can buy the same thing cheaply.

Nearly every time we post a project where a comparable item can be purchased, sometimes even more inexpensively than by making it, there are numerous, often snarky or exasperated comments. “Why on earth would you bother to make that? You can get it at Home Depot for next to nothing!” Or, frequently, when we post projects that have obviously taken dozens, if not hundreds of hours to build, there’s the inevitable: “Well, she obviously has too much time on her hands!” Or similar.


Whenever I see such comments, I always think to myself: “Has this person ever actually made anything?” I can only imagine, that if they have, they already know the answer to the question of why the person “bothered” to make it. When you’ve made something with your own hands, something that you then regularly use or otherwise engage with, it has a special quality to it because of the very fact that you made it. The things you make often become special extensions of yourself. They fill you with pride and a deep sense of accomplishment as you interact with them. They make you happy.

Former Make: contributing columnist Mister Jalopy used to give a talk on the concept of the “inspired object.” Inspired objects are things that are well designed and executed, that resonate with your life and the way that you see and interact with the world, or they are things that take on these qualities because they came from your own hand. Most things that you make yourself take on this inspired object status, to some degree or another.

Make: founder Dale Dougherty uses the phrase “the joy of making” to describe the particular type of pleasure one gets from making versus buying. I believe that the more you yourself experience the joy of making, the less likely you are to question the reasons why someone else has made something.

My beloved, homely little wooden box, sloppily but earnestly made in high school shop class 41 years ago. It's played a part in my life ever since.
My beloved, homely little wooden box, sloppily but earnestly made in my high school shop class 41 years ago. It’s played a part in my life ever since.

One example I always think of to illustrate this point is a shabby pine box that I made in high school shop class when I was 15 years old. I still have it to this day. I use it to store all of my specialty rolls of tape. It’s a pretty sad piece of woodworking. It was the first woodworking project I ever did. It’s not perfectly square, I over-sanded the corners and edges, I cut through a knot on one piece, and then I tried to make up for a substandard construction job by slathering on thick coats of varnish.

I think I got a C+ on it. But I bet I have never used that box and not gotten a little rush of pleasure and a whole treasure-trove of fond memories as I use it. I not only remember shop class — my cranky and tightly-wound shop teacher and my ne’er-do-well shopmates — but I also think about what that box has “been” since then (e.g., when my late wife and I had a graphic design business, we used the box to store our line tapes and decorative borders). I can guarantee you that if that box was store bought, or had not been made by me, I would not have such fond associations with it. It would be an invisible and uninspired object.

As corny as it may sound, when you make something yourself, you are not only making an object, you are also encoding something of yourself into that object. Because of that special relationship with the object, it also becomes more susceptible to accumulating memories, like my box. That box definitely holds more than the supplies I keep inside of it.

Then there is, of course, the priceless educational value of making things. The original subtitle for Make: was “technology on your time.” Like technology’s answer to the “slow food movement,” the idea was to become intimate with the tech in your life, to peek under its hood, to understand how it works, to fix it, hack it, and to improve upon it in upgrades and derivative projects. The more you know about the technology in your life and how it works, the more control you can have over it, and the more powerful of a tool it becomes. While my box may not have been such a memorable product, in the process of making it, I learned how to use a table saw, a belt sander, bar clamps, and the entire process of designing, cutting, assembling, and finishing an object, all skills that I still retain today. Making is as much about the process as it is about the product. Here’s a piece I published on Make: five years ago about an experience I had while teaching a residency at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that illustrates this point.

There are obviously a myriad of other reasons to make the things in your life and to identify as a maker. Another is the real innovations that can emerge, from the bottom up, when you give individuals “permission to play,” to learn as they go, and to make mistakes. I’d love to hear about some of the things you have made, the stories they hold, and how you may have experienced the joy of making in creating them. Please post your thoughts in the comments below.



Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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