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How far do you go down the DIY Rabbit Hole?

What are your "yourself" limits when it comes to DIY? What do you value when in your project and what are you looking to accomplish when you "do it yourself"?

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Once again I haven't had the time to make any progress on any of my projects worthy of the blog. However, you'll be happy to know that all toilets in my house are once again fully functional! So the conundrum I pose today is how much "yourself" is appropriate in do-it-yourself? If it sounds like a pub-type question – that's because it is. It's a conversation spurred by like-minded DIYers over the usual bar fare.

It all started over a question you may have asked or may have been posed to you: "How do I learn electronics?" My answer is always, "it's not a simple question." I then usually proceed to the down the rabbit hole metaphor. I explain that before you learn electronics, you need to know what you need to learn, which in itself requires some knowledge of electronics.

This then leads to the question, "What do you need to know?" To explain: What processes and concepts do you need to know, and what can just be assumed in a "black box" or "known quantity" aspect? This, too, is a difficult question. It's comes down to a balance of want, need and willingness.

So most people who are reading this hold electronics in some respect as a hobby. I would assume that very few are into electronics for the sake of electronics (Director of Engineering Pete Dokter being an outlier). Your interest in electronics stems from another interest or hobby, be it art, audio, robotics or just about anything else (although sometimes it's the other way around). A do-it-yourself mentality goes together with most hobbies. At some point you're going to want to learn how something is done or made. The reasons for such include having that experience, holding that knowledge, or a myriad of other reasons. But when are you too far down the rabbit hole?

I personally am someone who holds many interests and hobbies. It's to the point where time is at a premium. If I want to work on my car, it's going to cut into the other number of hobbies I keep up with. So where do I draw the line? What level of work do I put into my car and what do I leave up to a mechanic?

Assorted Audi Parts

The timing belt replacement process on my car is almost second-to-none in complexity. I'm happy I did it, but might leave it to a mechanic in the future.

Balancing Resources

The cost benefit analysis of a project – most notably time vs money. When is it worthwhile for you to build something from the ground up, and when is an off-the-shelf solution better? I've seen some knife makers forge their own blades from bog ore.

In other hobbies, is that level of work necessary? If you're building you own PC, would you forge or shape your own heatsink? That's an answer you need to decide. What is your goal for the project? Do you want a solution or do want the knowledge that comes with doing the project (or both)? Maybe you're looking for a custom solution, something that works in the exact way you want it to. It may not be the most cost-effective method, but DIY could be your only way. You need to consider the bigger picture of what you are looking to accomplish with a project.

Sometimes it's about the Journey

DIY isn't always about saving money or getting your perfect result. Sometimes it's about process. Whether the desired result is gaining knowledge, saying you did it, or simply enjoying the experience. My personal view is to give a try at least once. If it works for you, keep doing that part yourself. If it doesn't, you have the knowledge that goes along with the final result, and you're able to make more informed decisions when using off-the-shelf solutions.

To go back to my working on the car example, a few years back I did the timing belt maintenance on my car. At the time it was to save some cash, but I was also eager to learn the concepts associated with it and the bragging rights of saying I did it. It was a bit outside of what I normally worked on with my car, but I was up for the challenge. In the end, it took a day and half, the back of my hands were covered with cuts from the radiator, and due to a mistake on my part I had to have someone with the correct tool verify that the timing was correct. However, it gave me the knowledge I had hoped to gain from the project. In the future, I plan on leaving this to a mechanic, but if need be, I have the ability to do it myself.

While doing it yourself for the experience is all well and good, beware of Yak Shaving. Yak Shaving refers to what you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you're doing to the original task. It can easily derail any project you're working on, should your willingness to complete the project become lacking. I'm personally being affected by Yak Shaving in one of my DIY projects. I'm building a PC and have my components picked out and funds ready to go. But right now I'm working on choosing the right type of pipe to use for desk legs for a desk I want to build to house this PC. So while I'm building a PC, I'm looking at different types of plumbing pipe. My want to make this happen is keeping things moving, but it could possibly cause me to table the project of building a PC indefinitely.

Taking Pride in your Ability

Sometimes DIY is about becoming really good at creating something. It's not a one-time solution or about saving money, but rather an activity that you enjoy and are able to take pride in the final product.

Woolly Bugger artificial lure

At some point, I want my ability to tie flies to be subconscious knowledge. The ability to pull out my tools and the proper supplies and tie a fly from memory. So while there's no time or monetary benefit now, I continue tying my own flies to refine my skill.

The point I'm trying to convey is that there are many directions and approaches to doing something yourself. Nobody can tell you when you're taking too much of the project upon yourself or when it's not worth doing. That's for you to evaluate. Of course, it's good to get advice and do your research beforehand, and listening to those who have done that task before can be helpful.

So what do you guys do yourselves? I admit, part of this is me wondering what other hobbies and activities our customers do. But are there parts of your hobby that you do or build yourself that others might rely more heavily on off-the-shelf solutions? What are your DIY limits? How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go and why?

Comments 15 comments

  • I'm finding that as I get older, things like working on cars or other labor intensive tasks get harder to do, so I tend to pass and let the pros do it. For cars, if I have to jack it up and work under it, I'll start thinking about going to the shop. We plan to dig up 240 sq. ft. of grass and replace with artificial grass. Simple task but very labor intensive, still on the fence about this one. For electronics, a lot of times we build things that don't really exist, at least in the form we want. I recently finished a notifier display that includes caller ID and the status of 2 garage doors. Try finding that at Walmart! :-)

  • This is the best article I have read in my entire life. Not because of its journalistic merits but because it articulates so well a question I ask myself. My take is the journey is the best part and I am a professional Yak shaver(thank you for letting me add that to my vernacular). Here is a brief recap of my Yak shaving side trips. I finally received my photon in August (probably my 20th MCU) so I could water my plants in my office window sil. -Oh I should do it for my rain barrel and my hanging plants outside too - learn about pumps - buy three to find the one with the right head for the hanging plants - find 1/4 tube manfold - learn about aquarium lifter pumps - buy one - learn about diastolic pumps - buy 2 - thanks for Amazon prime - I should try an oled on there so I can display the moisture sensor and ds18b20 - buy some oleds - Oh cool sparkfun has an oled shield for the photon - oh and some photon proto shields get some too - oh the oled is awesome I need to build a menu system - find a rotary encode - learn about rotary encoder - try to build a encoder library for the photon - too hard give up - I think I need an environmental enclosure - spend several weeks and become obsessed with environmental enclosure - add relay tail - drill hole for relay tail - hmm that should be better - spend two days learning about cable glands and buy a bunch of different sizes - now I have run out of storage for the inexpensive things I have amassed - buy Stanley 014725 25 removable compartment organizers - oh cool - design a rolling rack for a bunch of these like Adam savage has - back to moisture sensors... The summer is over and my plants are still being watered by hand. All this does not include the miscellaneous sensors I have found along the way and have palyed with. I am up to my waste in Yak hair but the journey has been great. Pearce I am sending you a case of beer thanks again for the great article.

  • Growing up on a ranch, everything was DIY. If it broke, you either packed it up in the back of the truck (if possible) and drove into town to get it fixed, shooting your entire day, or you fixed it in place. Needless to say, DIY had some major advantages, particularly if your neighbor had some skills that augmented your own. Sharing and teaching was a key part, and I feel the maker movement filled this same void for urban areas.

    Like dksmall, I find it easier to put my car in the shop rather than tinker, but this is a combination of available funds, I am closer to town, getting older with all that that entails, and the way newer vehicles are designed. In a pinch, I still work on my own vehicles, especially in emergencies. It generally takes AAA an hour and a half to respond to anything out here, and in that amount of time, I can bandaid fix almost anything enough to limp home.

    One DIY area that has been neglected until recently is the areas of food production. At this point, our garden has produced a ton and a half of food using simple techniques that will translate well to other worlds. We are developing the breeds and methods to produce the food and recipes to feed the next generation in space, and eating well while we are at it. This year was the baseline, and we expect production to increase next year.

    Finally, we got tired of going to an SCA event (Society for Creative Anachronism http://www.sca.org/) camping in an "earth pimple" modern tent. Not only was it visually jarring, but the little WalMart specials do not work well in the wind and feel like a pillow being fluffed in strong breezes. Campaign tents and pavilions are expensive, and the spousal unit wanted a viking A-frame, but you can't stand anywhere but the middle strip, so TVLH was born.

    TVLH is the Tiny Viking LongHouse, an Open Source Hardware project, is a 10ft x 10ft structure that resembles a miniature 12th century viking longhouse. It assembles in under an hour out of portable modules that fit in the back of a compact pickup. The proof of concept worked perfectly in a week long event with 50mph gusts. Version 1.0 will be lighter, cheaper, and easier to assemble for one person. It will be published at issyroo.org

    The answer to your question of how far down the DIY rabbit hole do we go is as far as we like and as far as we need to. :) This glib answer is actually the correct one... it will vary for everyone, but we do what we like, what we feel the need for, and learn what we need to know along the way.

  • I have two things that continue to send me down never-ending rabbit holes when it comes to DIY projects:

    1) The fact that I have a continuing and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, particularly when it pertains to things that interest me.

    2) The fact that I'm just not smart enough to know that I shouldn't be able to do everything, so I continue forth and do it.

    Very often, what I want is completely custom, which is why I have drawers of components and a 3D printer. (Working on a desktop CNC, which will also help.) Often it's something to be given as a gift, or something required at work. I will generally say that I can create something based solely on the fact that I know that, theoretically, it should be possible, it's just a matter of me figuring out how to turn the theoretical into the physical. A problem I occasionally run into with personal projects is that I'll get a project 85% completed, be able to see clearly the remaining steps needed to accomplish it, know that, in fact, yes, I can accomplish it, and then get distracted by another project. It's a personal failing that I'm working to remedy.

    I will say that I recently found my DIY limit, though. I bought a new DSLR for my honeymoon, and I knew that the camera has an IR sensor for remote triggering. I have everything I need right here at my desk to make one, but I also had only three days to accomplish it. Since I had to work all three days, and an off-the-shelf IR remote was only about seven bucks, I folded and took that route. But I still may make a repeater or two, so I can increase the distance at which I can use the remote. It can't be ALL off the shelf stuff!

  • I can do anything, I tell you! It's always an excuse to get that next tool, or buy it again because I don't remember buying it two years ago in case I need it n the future..

  • I'm sufficiently handy with most things wood and electrical that I find myself wanting to create my own very custom tables, lighting systems, rolley things, shelving arrangements ( Ikea Ivar really helps here ).

    Thanks in part to Sparkfun, My wife grudgingly let me buy a Printrbot simple metal. I quickly discovered that the stool with a board on it just would not do. So... There was the Ivar shelf with white painted shelf bottoms with the special holes on the top for filament and power. Then there was the trip to Home Depot to grab casters, plywood, T braces, screws, power strips. then back to Ikea for clip lights and I already had the Dioder multi color strips. Then there needs to be the bigger power supply for the heated bed. Horray for the PC graveyard! That couldn't be left dangling...So back to Home Depot for angle braces and bumpers... To make a longer story short, several hundred extra dollars later, my printer resides on a rolling stand that includes a low friction filament delivery system using Sparkfun bearings with a PVC pipe Now I'm looking into enclosure technology because I might do better exotic prints with it.... then there is the pile of parts that will become additional telemetry on the printer and its environemt... Oh what fun and learning on the way... I do deep rabbit holes. And so it goes...

  • Ok, now that I've been through the gauntlet that is verifying my verified email address.....

    I have a lot of hobbies. From photography to wood working to electronics to computing to metal work and fabrication. I own my own house as well, so that's yet another something that is always competing for my time.

    I do all of these things because I enjoy doing them. When you take information and experience from one hobby and then couple that knowledge with something completely different, it gives you a different perspective and there's even a bit of pleasure in solving some really hard problems. If there happens to be music playing in the shop, I can spend all day working on projects, just going from one to the next as resources permit. Maybe I have to wait for some glue to dry on that table I've been building, so I'll then go off and maybe learn some verilog.... or try grinding my own toolbits for the metal lathe... or spend some time sharpening those chisels that seem to always need it... or maybe try cooking something new in the kitchen if the weather is cool enough.

    It's nearly October when I try to burn a year's worth of vacation in a single month, if possible. I'm really looking forward to staying home for nearly a week at a time.

  • I fishing pal of mine actually ties his flies in the field. He just looks around at what is in the air and what the fish are biting, finds one, and copies it. Helps that he can tie just about anything in under 3-6 minutes with most taking less than 2 if he has a partly made body that matches close enough.

    He doesn't try to remember the whole fly book to make exact copies from memory/scratch, he just learned it in applicable pieces. He knows to get one wing pattern you do X with Y and to get another you do Z with Y. He keeps three little material kits organized by time in the season and what is "up" at the time. The other kit has generic materials, his neck-worn fly vice attached to a 9" work table, a few bobbins/clamps, and a loupe. All of it takes the same space as my collection of pre-tied stuff that I can't catch 1/2 of what he catches in the same few hours.

    • That is wild. I've heard about people tying flies on the...fly, but never knew anyone who regularly did this.

  • My biggest rabbit hole has been robotics, autonomous robotics in particular. To add to a previous poster's comments, I refused to buy the beginner robot kits because...they didn't teach anything. It was a bunch of parts you assemble and it does a predefined task. I could build those kits all day and still not know anything better than the most efficient way to build THAT kit.

    So years later I finally find myself competent at basic electronics and programming applications that I give building a robot a try. Well first off, programming apps and MCU's are a bit different. Yes the core logic is the same, but setting up the registers, timing, and various things needed to get the compiler to load the code to the chip are rabbit holes that I had a hard time getting out from as the chip I had at the time was a PIC24, but I could only find 20 year old references to a PIC16.

    Eventually I find the arduino, sit on it for a bit as it wasn't deemed "professional" by my peers. But eventually I dig in and the level of support and documentation is amazing. So the sky's the limit, right?

    WRONG! What do you want the robot to do??? This is rabbit hole I have yet to escape. Sure it could go forward and turn around and back...but why does it move forward? Follow a line? Then I always have to have a line. Seek out particular gases or certain color?...why it would want to do that? Then it hits me, what does a robot want to do? Why does it want to move from here to there? And this is where I never invested much time into build/designing one. The rabbit hole in this regard is me being stuck contemplating existence.

    For me, the best way to expand my abilities is to convince myself of an unfulfilled need, and then attempt to fulfill the need by doing, learning along the way. <rant> Although I have noticed something from various friends, family, and coworkers that I find very disheartening: It is what I call they're lack of "try." I may not be able to accomplish a task, but I'll try. It outright amazes me the amount of people who see a problem, and assume they can't do it and don't attempt because of that belief. I'm a maker and my father was a maker. I'm a father now and if I can only teach my daughter one thing in this life it's that she may not know what amazing things she is capable of until she tries. </rant>

    Projects list (my projects usually make it to the point of functional, but never get to be fully polished before moving on): * Tabletop CNC router * Desktop LCD Projector * Animation Halloween decorations * Bluetooth Garage opener/status * 73' Road Runner Front Frame Rail replacement.

  • Like @dksmall as I get older (I'm 53) I find I rely more on professional mechanics. I am rebuilding a VW superbeetle but instead of doing all the work myself like I would've in my 20's I have a trusted mechanic for the engine and trusted people for the bodywork. I still dabble in customizing it, and my electronics hobby fits in well with that.

  • Don't buy is my answer.

    Electronics is basically a couple of college courses and I've already been told that you can't learn it without treating it as such.

    The tutorials on the web are only parts of the puzzle to building a project and a person can't be well rounded by doing them.

    A lot of the tutorials are bad because they expect the beginner to know what to do already which means that few learn because no one wants to tell them.

    So "no" is the answer. If you have a beginner kit, I'm not interested because there are levels of complexity that no one teaches today.

    I also tried to get other college degreed people interested and they say, "no. it takes a lot of money and time" which is true because I've been reading about it for eight years or more and I even have contributed many posts on tutorials on another website; the fact that no one teaches means that most people won't be able to do more than basic stuff and my junk box of starter kits is proof.

    I still have hours of electronic videos left before I can do anything basic.

    So "no". I won't be buying your starter kit because the few dollars isn't going to get me an education in electronics.

  • I joined the electronics game because I always wanted to augment my programming abilities into reality, but I never thought I'd be able to learn. I barely understood the logic of positive and negative voltage wiring. When I started, robotics was still for enthusiasts, but I kept hearing about these arduino things. I'd been meaning to invest in phidgets, but they were very expensive. Searching for a place to get an arduino I came across sparkfun and adafruit, and learned how it all worked. I was surprised to see how high level the coding was, and how the tides had turned for the style of coding that used to be referred to as "kiddy scripting". Things started to become standardized as libraries became more open source and easier to import, so extraneous low level coding to do basic things slowly started to fade away. Nowdays, we have FPGAs and 32bit WiFi SoCs with all those same libraries there by default, and makers have more accessible technology at their fingertips than they know what to do with. All I need now is a way to remove the need for manual soldering between components that is efficient, cost effective, and universal. We're not quite there yet, but we're on the verge of it and we're prepared to flood the world with IoT inventions the second china lets us have it.

  • For most things it really does break down to cost vs frustration. I know one simple thing that I can't stand is SMD components tho that might be changing since I'll probably have to eventually bite the bullet and learn to reflow. Until that day I'll just pay the premium for breakouts.

    Sometimes what you need just doesn't exist. I needed a work box for my desk to deal with fumes, dust, noise and what ever. Not to mention keeping cats out of stuff. It probably would have been a few hundred dollars at least. I think there was about $40 in new materials that went into it. The rest where scraps which thankfully included some Plexiglas. Right now it takes up about a little more than half my desk and has already saved me a ton of stress when I needed a place to put my motherboard while I was applying new thermal paste to both it and my graphics card.

    I think my biggest problem when it comes to DIY projects is a lot of times I run short on materials. Can't immediately source them and by the time I can, I'm either bored or have moved on to another project. Ya know that point where you step back and realize that on top of your current project you also have five or six on the back burner. Good times D:

  • Tying my own flies is so satisfying. Especially when the flies you tied seem to outperform all the ones you bought. It also captures your attention when you observe patterns in the fish as they prefer one form over another. Sometimes that is hard to do when using flies from the store. You can change just one bit, but keep the rest the same. This is really true with custom electronics. You just cannot do that with most consumer products. That is why the hacking community is drawn toward electronics we can "fix".

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