The Craziest Thing Your Dad Ever Made (or Attempted to Make)

The Craziest Thing Your Dad Ever Made (or Attempted to Make)

Last year we did a Father’s Day post to collect “Tips My Dad Says,” words o’ wisdom from dear ole dad, granddad, or the other father figures in our lives. We’ll be revisiting that post (one of the most popular from last year), and the downloadble “Tips My Dad Says” card, in a few days. In the meantime, for this year’s Dad’s Day celebration, we’d love to hear your stories about the most ambitious, craziest, most magnificent thing the patriarchs in your life ever made (or tried to make). Please tell us a story in the comments below.

My dad was/is a maker (a general contractor by trade), and he is constantly making stuff for around the house: shelving, stools, racks, benches, fencing. But his work is entirely practical. His father, on the other hand, my “gramps,” was a maker mad-man. He was a hardware mash-up artist. He’d go to St. Vincent’s thrift store in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, come back with a box of appliances and junk and he’d invent something with what he’d found. Half of the appliances in my grandmother’s kitchen were one-of-a-kind gramps creations. The one I remember was a pita bread oven he’d made by using door hinges to attach two electric griddles to one another, one on top of the other. In their non-retirement home in Framingham, MA, he basically had a bat cave below it, a workshop he’d chiseled out of the bedrock beneath their house. He was also a police officer, and Santa Claus at Christmas. He was like something out of a Disney film, a magical presence in my life. I wonder how much of my maker ethos I get from him.

Oh, and the craziest thing he ever made? He built a still in his bat cave workshop in Massachusetts to distill Arak, Arab hooch. He was so proud of that thing, built from scratch, and using his own grapes grown in his backyard.

I can only image what gramps would think of the maker movement and how lit up he would be at a Maker Faire. He was a dyed in the wool tinkerer and would have loved to see a growing culture of tinkerers.

37 thoughts on “The Craziest Thing Your Dad Ever Made (or Attempted to Make)

  1. sewinsl says:

    How about a huge 100% from scratch Bowie knife, complete with a handle made from some large animal bone that the dog drug home? Another time, he made a tool for inserting hearing aids….. that one resulted in not one, but two trips to the audiologist to have them removed. During more than one family vacation, Dad improvised parts on the side of the road to repair the family station wagon. We had a wood-grained mid-70’s model that broke down at the same gas station on two different 700+ mile trips!

  2. Jesse Smith (@ericfoxx) says:

    My dad built a Van’s RV-4 experimental aircraft ( over 7 years when I was a kid. I was the “buck boy”, who climbed inside the fuselage to apply counter-pressure to the rivets with a bucking bar while he riveted. He had to learn welding, metalwork, electronics, fiberglass making, and a dozen other things to get that bad boy off the ground. He built it so well, it was certified for aerobatics and he joined a formation flying group! He told me that when he got it certified, it performed just fine past 8 G’s, at which point he almost blacked out! Over the years he’s tinkered with it almost constantly, replacing the propeller with a constant-speed prop, adding auto-pilot, and a lot of other cool projects. Currently, he has it in pieces while he completes a mandatory (10-year? I don’t know) overhaul. At the same time, most of the panels are being repainted and he’s completely replacing all the electronics and avionics with a beautiful integrated one-screen solution that integrates all the data he needs with his map (with weather!) and other goodies. My favorite story from the project was when he built the V1 HUD: he sourced the parts for it, soldered the board, wired it up, and then “tested” it. The test was conducted in our garage, and included freezing it, heating it past 120 Fahrenheit, and vibrating it horribly while running diagnostics. I always thought the garage smelled a little funny after that.

    1. infamousbigjim says:

      At least your dad finished his plane. We’ve had a half built one in the shed for the last 20 years.

      1. The Craziest Thing Your Dad Ever Made (or Attempted to Make) Rachel says:

        My dad also has had an airplane skeleton behind our garage for about 10 years!

    2. rocketguy1701 says:

      Awesome! I’m hoping to start a plane project in a few years, and finish it a few years after that. We’ll see.

  3. Tim W. says:

    My grandpa and my dad designed and built a pontoon boat made entirely of wood. We spent many summers on that boat. My grandpa, in his retirement years, also designed and built a bandsaw-style sawmill from scratch. Then he proceeded to mill up all the trees from his property and other people’s logs he would get for free and he built a 1,500 sq. ft. house and a three car garage from the wood off that mill.

  4. Lyle Kelley says:

    My dad designed and built several machines and tooling for manufacturing muzzleloading rifle barrels. A retired Tool and Die maker, he used his knowledge of hydraulics, machining, and materials to create a hydraulic rifling machine that cuts the grooves in a rifle barrel. The machine is currently over 25 years old and still operating on a daily basis. The machine incorporates a hydraulic pump from a farm tractor, and it can put 3,5,7,9,or 11 grooves, from straight to 1 turn in 33 inches. He also built the machine that drills the bore of the barrels, in 7 or 8 calibers, utilizing a 3 speed transmission from a Ford Pinto, and industry standard gun drill bits. the machine drills about 1 inch of depth per minute, and is over 30 years old and still running. He developed several other jigs and fixtures to further machine the octagon barrels, and my brother in-law and he will produce over 100 barrels per year using these machines.

    1. sewinsl says:

      That is cool. Do they do any work for hire?

      1. Lyle Kelley says:

        Yes, they do take orders for barrels, but they only deal with black powder weapons. The machinery is not up to modern standards of production for smokeless powder modern weapons.

  5. dbarak says:

    My dad tried to make a sailboat once by “attaching” a water ski to the bottom of a small life raft using screws (the bottom didn’t have air). He then tried to make a mast and boom using 1×1 pine wood and a sail using red (cotton?) fabric. He didn’t have a clue about the aerodynamics of a sail (needless to say, I didn’t at that age either). It didn’t take long, once we got it in the water, to figure out it wasn’t going to work. Thankfully his other DIY projects have actually turned out fairly well.

  6. Sten Turpin (@sud0er) says:

    My dad once tried to build an electric fence to keep raccoons out of his lotus pond. He connected chain-link to the 120V line out of an outdoor light fixture. Oddly, it kept shorting out. (That was the craziest thing I saw him build, but he did a lot of awesome stuff, too, like our deck, his new porch, a tiny log cabin out of trees he took down)

  7. chuck says:

    I’ll never forget the time my dad installed a used ceiling fan on our patio. It was out of balance and made noise so he was determined to balance it. Using what was at hand he scotch-taped an ink pen to one of the blades and turned it on to check it. After moving the pen from blade to blade and positioning it just right, he found the sweet spot and it worked perfectly. Then my step mother walked out and said ‘What are all these tiny black spots all over the wall?’ The centifugal force of the fan had flung ink in a cool pattern on the patio walls. To this day he swears this never happened.

  8. Sam says:

    My father had a pretty large retaining wall to pour (as a base around the garage he later built), so instead of going out and renting a cement mixer, or buying one, he made his own from a collection of a 50 gallon barrel, an old boat-lift gear assembly, a treadmill motor, and an engine stand. He taught himself how to weld while doing this project, which was awesome as a “come along and learn” for myself and my brother. Once he finished the main device, he reinforced here and there and added mounts so that he could hook it directly to the front end of his tractor’s bucket-loader. It’s an impressive sight, if somewhat ridiculous, but it does the job.

  9. Karel K says:

    My dad attempted to make a turbo on his rather old diesel car, using a vacuum cleaner for increasing pressure :-) With the car stationary it appeared to work, but due to (or thanks to) my mom this was never tested (as far as I know) on the street.
    In another project, he made a 1.5 meter cast for large parabolic dishes out of concrete.
    Besides the bigger projects, he is always tinkering and making something.
    I got that inspiration from him, and hope I’ll pass it to my daughter and son :-)

  10. Ken Norris says:

    My grandfather built two tool chests out of solid pine back in the 1950’s. I got one of them and my cousin got the other (firstborn’s privilege). No power tools, hand cut, assembled, sanded and finished. When my son announced they were expecting, I decided to try my hand at re-producing mine, since my firstborn (his sister) had mine. Using power tools, I built what I thought was a pretty good copy for my soon-to-be first grandchild, until someone decided to step on the lid and broke it. So much for modern short cuts. I’ve since fixed it properly, and have a greater respect for the tried-and-true methods of 60 years ago.

  11. Tommy Phillips says:

    My dad has been an on-again-off-again maker his whole life. He built my first “computer desk” out of a single sheet of plywood, a chicken coop for my mother, and a number of other things.

    His craziest project was customizing the interior of a Chevy van in the late ’70s. He bought the barest possible interior (a driver’s seat and a front passenger seat, just metal through the rest of the interior.) Then he built a transverse bench seat (Mom did the upholstery) just behind the factory seats, for my brother and me. In the back, he put longitudinal benches over the wheel wells that doubled for storage. In the back, there were removable bars for hanging clothing samples (he was working as a traveling salesman at the time, visiting stores all over the Mountain West.)

    The whole interior was covered with what would now be considered an unfortunate brown shag carpet.

    The bench seat was attached with door hinges. When he needed extra cargo room, it was easy to knock the pins out and leave the bench seat in the garage.

    The only seat belts in the whole thing were on the factory-installed seats in front, of course.

    But, that bench seat was a pretty comfortable ride.

  12. kellyschrock says:

    My dad is a maker from way back. He’s a farmer, with a Master’s in music. When I was 5, he made a “dart thrower” out of a stick, some string, and some darts he carved out of cedar shingles (sort of like lawn darts, but they flew much further and weren’t heavy enough to do much damage if they hit you). One Christmas, he locked us all out of the basement and made all of our Christmas presents. My younger brother’s gift was a wooden barn with sliding doors, a folding roof, a loft with a sliding ramp for running toy tractors up and down it, and windows. He still has it 35 years later.

    Some of his more recent “work” projects: A self-leveling mechanism for a 70 ft.-wide sprayer so it could go over irregularities in the ground without swaying. He has a large scraper (“earth mover”) that is quite old (he refurbished it when he bought it). Someone borrowed it from him once and damaged it by pulling it with a giant tractor. The “neck” on the front of it was cracked. He fixed it, but did so in a way so the crack was still prominently displayed. When people would come by later to borrow it again, he would say “Sorry, the last guy to borrow this machine damaged it”, and point to the crack.

    He employed my son last summer to help him rebuild his cedar deck. It took 3 months to build, and it’s a masterpiece of odd angles (every board cut and shaped to match the angle it’s set on, whether it’s visible or not). He used 3700 screws to build it. I expect it to last at least 100 years before it needs to be rebuilt again. My son said “Wow, your dad is just like you, except he doesn’t write software, and he’s better at building stuff.” Kind of a back-handed compliment. I’ll take it.

  13. Tony says:

    My Dad cut off the back end of a Mini car and removed the bodywork. Built a frame of angle iron and bolted it on. Framed it out with wood that he had painted with polyutrethane Yacht varnish and made up a towing bar from steel that he welded together. The result was a trailer small enough to be towed by a car, but big and strong enough to carry an enormous load. He refused several offers of a great deal of money for it, eventually swapping it for a caravan!

    He was a quick learner, the first thing I ever remember him making was a bed heater from an industrial hot air fan. He put it under the bed to dry it out when it was damp (think London Pea-Souper fogs in the 1960s). The problem was that he did not diffuse the hot air enough comming out of it and in the cramped confines underneath the bed, there was restricted airflow also. That lead to a massive over-heat and a neat square hole burnt right through the bed and all the blankets, plus a small fire…

  14. JackJack in TN says:

    In the early ’70 my Dad made and tried to sell ‘Aquasavers’. Being a west Texas boy, water was very important, and flushing it down to toilet made little sense.

    The ‘Aquasaver’ went inside the toilet tank, and allowed ‘partial flush’ for liquids, and ‘full flush’ for solids. The toilets at the time used about 10gal/flush, and the liquid flush only used a gallon or 2 to get a clean toilet bowl. … The market wasn’t ready. … These days folks pay big money for new toilets that use less water, and several have the ‘two flush’ options.

    … My dad was a man before his time. — other things he did included design of a monorail for Dallas Market area, several internal things at Bell Helicopter to make manufacturing more efficient, and many more. The best thing was he was a great Dad.

  15. Mr Busyhands says:

    My dad grew up on a dustbowl farm in the 1930s, where recycling and repurposing were mandatory.

    He had a Golden Age in the mid-1960s when our back yard and shed were full of his creations. The most successful was the lapidary shop. The rock saw was built on a Formica table, with the diamond blade (the only bought part) installed in the gap for the extra leaf. The bottom of the blade sat in a coolant bath made of a cut-down 5-gal can filled with diesel fuel. The rocks to be sliced were held in a bench vise. The vise was guided past the blade with a cable, to the end of which was tied a big rock hung over the end. He would set it up, turn it on, drop the big rock over the edge and come back a couple of hours later to pick up the slab he had cut. It made an incredible racket.

    To finish the cut stones, he built a tumbler out of a length of 12-inch cast iron pipe, which I believe was a piece of oil well casing. He plugged the ends with wood and sealed them with roofing tar and filled it with cut rocks, sawdust and grit. The cylinder was supported on one side by a driven rod wrapped in rubber inner-tube strips, and on the other by a row of old roller skates, all on a base of scrap 2×4 lumber.

    The project that failed most memorably was the fishing boat. This was constructed from a sheet of plywood, to the bottom of which were tied two tractor inner tubes, each about 4 feet in diameter. In the opening of one of the tubes, he cut a circle out of the plywood, to which he mounted a 5hp lawnmower engine, driving a table fan blade below the deck. The engine mount was also supported on roller skate wheels, so it could swivel and, in theory, turn the boat.

    He finished it, but it never got past the testing stage. It was up on sawhorses for the engine test and my brother, more inquisitive than cautious at the time, stuck his hand out to feel the air from the fan blade. Instead, he felt the blade itself, necessitating a trip to the emergency room. Although it looked like it might work at that point, my mother decreed that it be dismantled.

    He did all this with the most primitive tools. The only tools I inherited from him is a ball-pein hammer with a split handle and a big glass jar full of miscellaneous screws, nuts and bolts. But I also inherited the ability to see everything as raw material for complex projects.

  16. robbsadler says:

    My dad definitely fits the maker model. His 25 mile ride to work in the NY winter nights was a motorcycle with a handmade sidecar welded from angle iron. It got him on the news. He also attempted a solar heater and filled a shed with about 15 yards of stone and two huge panels made from tin cans which he mounted on the roof (to my mom’s slight chagrin). It wasn’t airtight enough I think, and probably needed some help with storage and ducting and would have worked – the panels got plenty hot. In the end the stone ended up paving a new (bit rough) driveway :).

    My youngest memory is that he made me a toy table saw using an erector set motor drive and one of the gears as a blade that i sat at for hours and cut paper. He also built me a cool console made of steel and thick plexiglass that had open sides and wired up 120v switches and motors and lights inside. I also played with that for hours. It wasn’t that safe, but it was a lot of fun. I am thinking of doing a 12v version maybe with the kids this weekend.

    Love you Dad!

  17. Marylew says:

    My dad has made a lot of things. When he was in high school he made a row boat with a trailer to tow it. The trailer converted from hauling boats to having sides to haul things. We still use that trailer today. 71 years later! We’ve made chicken houses, rabbit cages, welded a aviary & dog houses. We’ve made smoke bombs, underwater bombs & deconstructed fireworks to make our own. We did an experiment on malatov cocktails on which bottles work best. We’ve filled soap bubbles with gas & lit them with candles. We dug a cave in our backyard with a tunnel. He build the deck off the cliff by his house. He taught me how to do all the repairs on my VW bug. He bought me my first PC in 1983 & we upgraded it every few months untill we had to buy a new one. he still works on his computer Monday we built a theremin & he had to do all the soldering. I know I’ve forgotten hundreds of things we’ve built over the years. He’s 89 now & is doing these things with his grand kids. He uses his iPhone & texts, emails, facebooks, & okcupids on it. I never knew this was called being a “Maker” I thought this was just being normal. I do the same thing with my kid & now she makes her own stuff. I use things my grandfather made to this day. I come from a long line of makers we don’t know any better.

  18. Ben says:

    I recall three major projects my Dad did when I was a kid:

    1. In 1961-62 he built a canoe from … pre-stressed steel reinforced concrete! It was not as heavy as you’d think – two people had no problem carrying it to the water. We have a home movie of him paddling it on a river

    2. In 1964 he made a custom prescription scuba diving mask (he’s prescription at the time was about -8) and an underwater enclosure for an 8-mm movie camera out of plexi. We have a lot of underwater home movies from that period.

    3. In 1972 together we built a portable sailing raft out of a bunch of inflatable pontoons (about 4′ long x 12″ OD) and a collapsible wooden platform (3/4″ x 3.5″ x 48″ pine). The free-standing sailing rig was pretty high-tech: Al alloy tubing mast, boom and gaff, light Nylon fabric sail. The oars, rudder, and daggerboard were wood with Al alloy fittings. Between the two of us, we could carry it taken apart, then put it back together and sail it.

  19. Ben - phenoptix says:

    My dad wasn’t much of a “Maker” so we were surprised one day, in my mid teens, when it seemed that he’d had inspiration to build an arc. A flurry of activity commenced and his arms threw hammers and saws in a blur for about three days. When the smoke cloud cleared my father was sat on his new HUGE “Buster” style flower stall, that he was going to push three miles into town – somehow find a cheap distributor for flowers – which he could then sell on to make his fortune.

    Unfortunately the stall was too large to fit through our garden gate and was appropriated by my mother to stack plant pots on. Wonder if that’s what inspired me to become a Maker…

  20. Eric Hart says:

    When I was a kid, my brother and I were really into He-Man and collected the toys. We really wanted the Castle Grayskull playset, but our parents were hesitant, probably because of the cost and the fact it was a big hunk of plastic.

    We kept begging, and finally, my dad went down to the basement and set up a small shop, where he emerged a few days later with a completed Castle Grayskull. It was far larger than the plastic version and much more interesting. He made it out of wire mesh which he bent and formed into the shapes, than covered in plaster to make it look like it was carved out of rocks.

    It was pretty cool.

  21. Political Orphan says:

    My dad was the consummate craftsman carpenter/contractor. My mom was a oil artist. Between them I learned that the world was made of parts. Being his oldest child I was his designated go-fer… and ultimately became an electronics engineer.

    Dad came home from working all day and went straight to the shop he built and tinkered until dinner time. He had to buy the basic tools… hammers, saws, shovels… but with the low wages he earned in that era (1950s) he had to build the “extras” himself… like workbench, cabinets, etc.

    He had just built a trailer frame out of the front axle of an old Chevy pickup truck and some really rusty steel channel he salvaged from somewhere. He wanted to sandblast the steel, paint it and rig it for his construction trailer project.

    To do the sandblasting, he had to build a sandblaster from plans he found in Popular Mechanics or some such mag. To operate the sandblaster he had to have an air compressor to power it. To build the air compressor he needed to build an arc welder to put the metal together.

    So, we started by winding the coils and stacking the E-bar core laminates inside. Built the movable iron core mechanism to adjust the welder’s current (a bit temperamentally) and put it in a wooden box he built with casters to roll around on.

    We built the tank for the compressor out of an old steam boiler tank, welded into shape with the arc welder we just built. Adding a pipe handle, Radio Flyer wagon wheels, a washing machine motor, a jury-rigged compressor unit from who knows where and valves and gages, we had a working air compressor.

    Then dear ole dad swapped something of his for a length of 12″ diameter super high-strength steel pipe (probably way over-margined for our compressor). We sawed and filed on that chunk of steel for a week or more before we had it ready to proceed. He welded end caps, a funnel for pouring in carbide sandblaster grit and a clever little valve for letting the sand come out at high pressure and speed without plugging up. The weakest link was that we had to keep replacing the hose from the sandblaster to the nozzle on a regular basis.

    We finally got around to the trailer frame again and worked on it for a couple of weeks before he could pull the finished trailer out of the yard and onto the highway for the first test drive.

    All in all, it took several months from start to end but in the end he had a construction trailer, a sandblaster, an air compressor and an arc welder. Pretty cool, I’d say.

    That’s why it seemed natural for me to become an engineer… girl and all.

    1. Dianna Dearborn says:

      I apologize to everyone here… I did not mean to bring politics to this great Maker site. I am so sorry. Makezine should always be politics free!

      I accidentally logged in with the wrong account… the reason I hate these auto login thingies! Now I have to be doubly aware of which account is which. DANG!!!

      Staff… can someone help me change this for me???

      1. kellyschrock says:

        Sorry, I guess I don’t see the “political” part of your post. Are you referring to your tag (“Political Orphan”)? If that’s it, I wouldn’t expect it to be a problem for any reasonable person.

        Your dad sounds like a DIY superman. I thought *my* dad was into making his own stuff. He just went out and bought an air compressor. :-)

        1. Dianna Dearborn says:

          Yes, I didn’t mean the PoliticalOrphan moniker here. In real life I am Dianna Dearborn and in my coding life I am coderjoy…

          And yes, despite his faults, my father grew up tearing apart old Ford Model Ts and As and putting them back together to make a working car. Since he lived on a farm with tractors and machinery it was a cinch for him. He drove the back country roads but got into trouble one time when he was barely a teen for driving into town… a wee small farming know in the road.

          His very last project before he died was rebuilding an old Model A to almost new condition with very few modernizations (like hydraulic brakes) and running lights.

          My dad would have liked your dad.

        2. Dianna Dearborn says:

          I ended this so raggedly I thought I’d polish this up like any good project. That summer of 1958 was unusual for my dad only because of the sequence of events makes a great tale.

          While we kids were growing up dad bought 3 different lots, put up garages for us to live in while building the houses to then move into, finish up and sell… only to move on to do it all over again. Unfortunately, it didn’t make us rich ;)

          My dad could build anything out of anything made of wood… also of metal if it could be done with hand tools… and his welder. At the time I don’t think you could buy a home-shop air compressor.

          Dad considered himself a “man’s man” and he really enjoyed talking to other men about the things they made. He was most relieved when mom dragged us to the home of some friend of hers and dad was unexpectedly whisked out to the husband’s garage to look at tools and talk projects.

          My dad really was a super-maker. I have never met another like him.

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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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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