Making Stuff

I like to make stuff. All kinds of stuff. Always have. I hope I always will. But this post is not about me, because I have even more appreciation for all those other folks out there making stuff. There is a geeky revolution underway right now, an army of people making great stuff, sharing their techniques, and literally ushering the return of garage innovation, and I celebrate that fact. In my frequent rambles through the geeky side of the internet, I see people solving problems, finding new methods, and generally pushing the envelop of what we can do every day. This post is mostly about one of those people, a man who does it very well, and shares what he does for everyone else to see.

As usual, you’ll have to suffer through the backstory. I’ve been a low level radio control airplane pilot since I was a kid. Never serious – just an occasional dabbler. It started with those little balsa planes you see on racks in lots of stores. When I was in the single digit years, I would do almost anything for a Sky Streak. At some point, I moved up to a Cox glider with rudder-only control. Within hours, it was a mass of duct tape from all the crashes. Later I built up a nice balsa glider with rudder *and* elevator control. I remember the joy of tossing it into the rising air on the grassy slope of Normandy Dam and surfing the currents for hours. It survived for a long time before my clumsy thumbs eventually turned it into kindling. During its lifespan, it went through many modifications. Motor pods, ailerons… Anything I could try to get more out of it. I liked messing with it as much as I enjoyed flying the thing.

Many, many years later, I dipped back into the hobby. Things had changed. Electronics were smaller, electric motors had become good power plants, and instead of painstakingly building up a kits from raw balsa wood, it was possible to buy a plane that was complete and ready to fly out of the box. I bought one of those. Killed it on the third flight. More years passed before I tried it again.

Another innovation came into play. Good accurate radio control simulations on computers. I was able to practice without risking a real model to my numb thumbs. The next plane was a slow flying, kite-like contraption with balsa wings and a carbon fiber stick for a body. It came with a completely inadequate electric motor that would barely keep it aloft, much less let it climb. The modifications began. First I got a bigger motor and figured out how to strap it to the plane. Success! The plane could take off under its own power, climb to a safe altitude and make a few laps of a schoolyard before the battery died. I wasn’t satisfied.

At the time, there was a great hobby shop in Tumwater, full of people who knew their business. That’s when I learned about another big change in the hobby. Brushless motors. These things made the old style electric motors look like those huge original cell phones that came in a satchel. I took the plunge, hacked together a way to mount the shiny new motor to the plane, and suddenly I had a model that could fly as fast as I cared to go, climb straight up, land at a walking pace, and best of all, it would run for at a least 45 minutes per charge. For almost eight years, I felt no urge to change a thing.

The plane would hang on the curtain rod in my office, serving as man-decoration, and occasionally I would take it to the park. Just in the name of time efficiency, I began to combine those occasional flights with our usual dog fetch sessions with Sharon and the pack. That’s when we discovered that Jay, who is not interested in chasing balls or Frisbees, would chase that plane until his own doggie batteries run out. I learned to slow it down and drop down until it was just a few feet out of reach and then fly patterns with Jay running and jumping for joy behind it. It’s great fun, and a surprisingly good combination. In a house with six dogs, anything that wears a critter out is a Martha-Stewart-level “good thing.”

A week or two ago, I crashed the old plane, broke it right in half. The wings and tail were fine, but the carbon tube body was toast. I felt like I had gotten my money’s worth out of it long ago, so I didn’t worry too much. I just began to look for a cheap and easy way to rebuild it. Enter the internet, source of all answers, and Ed of Experimental Airlines.

This guy has worked out a complete system of using Dollar Tree foamboard (at $1 a sheet, of course) to build pretty much any type of airplane you might want. Combined with packing tape and hot glue, this has got to be the least expensive way to build a radio control model ever devised. Ed (my new hero) was not satisfied merely to invent his system; he went to the trouble of creating an entire set of high quality videos to share his method and designs with the world. The videos are clear, thorough, and well produced, making the build system as close to idiot proof as humanly possible. I have no idea what Ed does for a living, but he could teach classes on how to make instructional video. Without ever breaking stride, he manages to to teach a lot of good technique and share his enthusiasm for the pure joy of experimentation with flight – on the cheap. It’s that good.

The end result for me is that I built a new fuselage (body) for the venerable dog plane for less than $10. $1 for foam, probably a dollar’s worth of tape, $2 worth of music wire, and the fact that I needed a new pack of glue sticks at about $5. I test-flew it yesterday. If anything, it’s a better plane than it was before. Thanks, Ed.

The only problem is that Ed has opened the door to a whole mental list of my own experiments, and I keep scheming up new ways to fold foam board into aircraft. Their ain’t no free lunch, I guess…

But the point, at long last, is simply this. What if everyone took the time and care that Ed has taken to share what they know? Yes, I know that the internet is chock full of videos on literally everything, but I’ve watched my fair share, and it’s a rare thing indeed to run across this level of completeness and quality. This is my salute, to the thinkers, the doers, the makers, and most of all, the sharers like Ed. Knowledge wants to be free, and I think we can agree that all of us could use a little more info between the eardrums.

To that end, here’s another good place to start. Lifehacker