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

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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.


11 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Making Something You Could Buy?

  1. Ross Hershberger says:

    Howdy Gareth. I make stuff for the sheer pleasure of fooling around in the shop. But I make things that I would actually use, and most of them I do use. On my living room coffee table is a laughably shabby wood and ceramic trivet that I made in Junior High in the early ’70s. I enjoy resting my coffee cup on it every evening. On my desk is a prototype of Squelette, the Bare Bones Amplifier that I created for Make. When I listen to music on my computer, that’s what I use. Not just because I built it, but because I designed it exactly the way I wanted it to feel and work. An off the shelf amp from China would do the same job but I’d enjoy it less.
    A few months ago while packing my mother’s desk I found the oldest surviving thing I ever made: an acrylic letter opener from 40+ years ago. It’s a pathetically shabby piece of work that barely functions but I keep it in my desk drawer now as a reminder to keep trying and keep learning.

  2. julia8meireles says:

    That thing that we buy things that cost nexto to nothing is one off the
    biggest lies ever! i havent read everithing had to coment right away:

    we buy things, someone made them, if they are soooooo cheap, usually
    things were made with cheap underpaid work, at the cost of sacrifice,
    with water that becomes polluted, with resources that will run out, in
    places were people can be tortured to work 20 hours a day, often
    children. Those things have to be moved by boat, plain,train or truck,
    and the people who move them also are underpaid and overworked, and lets
    not forget the oil use to move those things and pollution produced.
    Finally at those big stores the workers, again are underpaid and
    overworked and people happilly buy another disposable thing that soon
    enough goes to the garbage because it was cheap, no love there, and the
    cost of garbage is huge, so huge i would write and write.


    we make things or buy to the person who made the thing we will love it
    and stop this stupid cycle that just burns everithing in its way…

    So yes, humans are sopposed to mke their own things.

  3. Andrew Terranova says:

    Right on all points, Gar! Here’s another: Once you’ve made a thing, you will be a better consumer of similar things. If you know how to build a wooden box, you can identify quality (or lack thereof) when you see it. This makes you a better educated consumer, which will help drive up quality, if you don’t accept crappy products in your life.

    1. Leslie Bath says:

      Till I saw the draft which was of 8135 dollars, I accept that my friend’s brother was like really generating cash in his free time with his pc. . His aunt’s neighbor has done this for only 9 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new Car .Look here for details …sxfvd


  4. safyrejet says:

    I’ve made a lot of crochet sweaters, jackets, & skirts off patterns and in recent years as I learned the shaping techniques I’ve been adapting patterns to fit me better to outright making up my own patterns. Believe me, I see that machine knit sweater on the rack in the store in a whole different light. I think making is a great way to combine all my artistic & engineering tendencies.

  5. schadenfreudian says:

    I hang with a crafty bunch that appreciates the hand made / home made ethic. This year they are getting hand made glass pieces. This will be a limited edition design for this Christmas only and for these people only. You can do that when you are Making your world.

  6. John Daniels says:

    Why buy something you can make? Do we not value money and hard work any more? Consumerism is a disease. Find the cure: make something.

  7. Irene McHarg Coey says:

    Because I can. :-)

  8. Steve Pocock says:

    When faced with the same question, I often use the fisherman analogy; why spend all that time and money on fishing gear and then sitting on the river bank, lake, sea shore or wherever to catch a few fish that you can buy ready to eat at any supermarket? For the sheer pleasure, skill building, camaraderie (if you have friend with you) or the pure solace of the outdoors. It does not matter what the reason, we do it for enjoyment and pleasure, and along the way learn how to do some things and maybe learn a little about ourselves and what we can and cannot achieve.
    To see a little of my hobby making, go here:

  9. EngineerDog.com says:

    What better way is there to assert your independence than by producing the things you need and want in life? Making things is an empowering experience. Great article.

  10. Kilah Hayden says:

    We have a built-in need to problem solve. When we make things, even simple things, we manipulate materials and tools to create. So much of what we do when we make is transferrable to the next problem we may have to solve. We need more of these skills, not less. Kids need to make their own toys to truly appreciate them, but also to build skills that will transfer to bigger tools later. People who can make are good problem solvers. These are essential skills for the 21st Century learner. Bring on the duct tape and cardboard boxes, people!

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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 garstipsandtools.com.

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