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DIY My Way

Jan. 17, 2009
There are a lot of DIY project plans out there, and some of them are very good, but exactly duplicating something can get expensive, especially when you have to buy all the parts new, one at a time, at retail. I very seldom do any project that way. Instead, I am always looking for ways to save money and labor. Being a stubborn old cuss, I prefer to "DIY" my way.

I like to tell people that there are two approaches to creativity. The first approach is to carefully develop your vision in every detail, then move heaven and earth and hang-the-expense to exactly realize that vision. The second approach goes something like this: "Let's see now... I have a claw-footed bathtub, a feather duster, an electric motor and a Sousaphone. What can I make from them?" The first method gets you exactly what you want, but often at a very high price. The second method may not get you exactly what you want, but it is often a lot less expensive, and sometimes the result is more satisfying than you expected.

My Material World

Well, I don't have a claw-footed bathtub, but I do have a fairly extensive "junk box" (actually a number of boxes and some tall shelf units). I try to be at least a little bit selective about what I keep, but then I am never exactly sure about what I am going to need.

Naturally I keep a fair number of small parts, like resistors, capacitors, transistors, opamps, tubes, etc. When I have to buy small parts, I try to buy at least a small quantity of a given item, enough to get a price break. A lot of small items get cheaper if you buy 25 or more at a time. A friend of mine once bought some transistors he needed for upgrades to his console in thousand-lots. One part that cost 63 cents each came down to 14 cents each when he bought a thousand.

I also keep some old junk equipment around. Boxes are surprisingly expensive. Just about any old piece of gear has a box and a power supply. Having the box saves me money, and not having to build a power supply can save me both money and time. Old rack-mounted stuff is often built in a way that lets you pull off the old front panel and replace it with your own customized panel.

I tend to take the long view about projects. I have a list in my head of things I might want to build, and I keep comparing that list against the materials I have available. Eventually I will find that I have most of what I need for a project, only needing to buy some of the parts, and that is when I get started.

Naturally, it is difficult to build anything if you don't have the right tools. It took me some years to build up my lab/shop as I have it now. Most of the tools and equipment I have I bought used. Almost the only test equipment I bought new is my DMM and a small signal generator. My scopes, signal generator, distortion analyzer were all used and available at good prices. I always have my eye open for the next good garage sale. That's how I found my drill press, table saw, router, and a few odd hand tools.

Designing vs. Tinkering

An engineer friend of mine taught me that, in developing a new device, you only "engineer" on paper until the design is about 90% complete. The last 10% is done much more efficiently at the test bench. I find that sometimes I have to go back and forth between "design" and "tinkering". Some of this is because I may not have the exact "right" parts available, which makes me look for a solution that fits the parts I do have. At other times, I will get results I didn't expect that will send me back to the "drawing board".

I once was afraid of making mistakes. After all, a mistake is a failure, right? Well, not exactly. I now realize that a mistake is a learning opportunity. That doesn't mean that I don't try to think things through. After all, I would rather avoid mistakes that might result in fire. Still, in order to "tinker" an idea into shape you have to be willing to risk mistakes, and then you must have the patience to fix them.

Doing It Yourself is apt to be quite expensive if you only do it once. Early on, you will be surprised how expensive it gets, because of how often you discover you need a tool you don't have, or because of the cost of parts that you don't have on hand. To be at all cost-effective, DIY has to be a pattern more than a project. The more projects you do, the more your "expensive" tools begin to pay themselves off. As you collect a stock of materials, your parts cost comes down, too. Perhaps one of the best benefits of developing the DIY habit is that when you build, you learn.
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