Why Are We Crazy for Kits?


Kits are the gateway DIY project. Words can’t describe the pride a 9-year-old feels when he glues the final piece atop the enormous Apollo Saturn V moon rocket model he built with his dad (Thanks, Dad!) and takes it to show-and-tell at school. I made this!

For many of us, a kit is the first thing we remember making — whether Lego or Erector sets, needlepoint or paint-by-number, or model planes and cars from Testors and Revell. The excitement can be enough to set us on a path of creative making for life. Who knows what doors you’re opening when you put a kit in the hands of a beginner?

Kits teach skills. When you make a kit, somebody has done you a great service — designed it, gathered parts, illustrated instructions — so you can focus on the good stuff: mastering the skills required to make the thing, and understanding how it works.

Handmade beats store-bought. Pink Snuggie blankets come and go, but Grandma’s crocheted afghan is forever. Psychologists call this the Ikea Effect — adding our personal labor just makes the thing more valuable.

Making something is more fun than buying it. Kits quick-start the fun.

Kits are exciting and mysterious. If you don’t know how to make it from scratch, then the kit is your path into the unknown, to new knowledge that’s empowering, maybe even dangerous (just ask Wile E. Coyote about ACME kits).

Like Alice’s “Drink Me” bottle or Neo’s red pill, the kit is a portal to an experience you may or may not be ready for. And if it’s mysterious to you, imagine how deliciously mystifying it must be to those around you. What is he building in there?

Kits are great for sharing. Kids and parents can build a starter kit on an equally clueless footing, learning together.

Kits open up community. Build a kit and you’re joining a group of people who’ve built it too, and are no doubt trading tips and showing off their builds online. You’re smarter thanks to the pack, and you’re meeting makers who share your excitement.

Kits drive innovation. When a kit sells well, suddenly there are people in every town building newfangled TV sets (remember Heathkit? They’re back!) or aerial Arduino robots (check out DIY Drones). Like seeds in the wind, those kits switch on thousands of new makers, who become a community of innovators, excited and hungry for more advanced kits and products, in an upward spiral.

MIT’s Michael Schrage looks into the phenomenon and finds that kit-makers have driven the great technology upheavals, from Boulton & Watt’s steam kits in the Industrial Revolution, to Woz and Jobs’ Apple I kits in the computer revolution.

I remember my dad’s excitement building kit computers in the 1970s, little boxes programmed in hex code via a 10-key pad, no video, just 7-segment red LEDs for a readout. A kit in the mail challenged him to build his skills, raised his expectations of computers, and fired his imagination about what could be done with them. Once he’d mastered a kit, he wanted the next most advanced kit, and then the first home computers (Apples, Ataris, Commodores), and so on.

Multiply that fired-up kit maker by thousands and you’ve got a smart, skilled, hungry community experimenting with new technology, and bringing along their friends (and their kids — my sibs and I were 10, 11, and 13, programming in BASIC).

History repeats. Today we’re watching the same innovation explosion unfold in 3D printing, DIY robotics, and microcontrollers, as skilled amateurs build kits and hack them, egg each other on, and teach those around them.

The next Steve Jobs is out there, building kits.

By Keith Hammond, Projects Editor for Make Magazine

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