The tinkerer's mindset

Published on 2023-10-03
The current consumer landscape is filled with cheap garbage and you should stop buying broken stuff and learn some engineering skills. Learning the trades to solve your problems does not just make economical sense, it’s also a great morale booster and gives you valuable skills in the workplace!

When I talk to people about 3D printers I get a lot of the same reactions: those who haven’t dipped their toes yet go “I don’t see why I would need this” and those who bought one on a whim and used it sparingly left it collecting dust after printing a couple gizmos that didn’t impact their life.

I was left without a 3D printer after moving to a smaller place where I couldn’t fit my old one and tried to play it as not a big deal, I pivoted to sewing and other hobbies for a while and started learning the more old-school practical arts like using EVA foam and cardboard. In the end I bought a Prusa Mini that I could fit in my small room and I can’t go back to not having a functional part-spewer with me.

Why can’t I stay still? Is it the knack? I think it’s more of a revelation I suddently experienced.

Everything in your life is inherently broken

What is the best usually does not match what is available for sale. A lot of modern consumer products focus on appeal and convenience.

An example is the portable air conditioners. Here’s a video on why they are bad but the gist of it is that an ideal unit would have 2 hoses instead of 1 to prevent huge cooling inefficiencies. However most units on sale are the single-hose variety because they are the most convenient to the average consumer’s eye and therefore get bought more often.1

That’s not the only thing: you will have surely heard that computer keyboards are using an obsolete layout and there are multiple communities dedicated to building more comfortable designs, the whole world runs on convenient but inefficient technology.

We depend on companies churning out products for us and as they will try to focus on what the end consumer prefers, we’re getting stuck with a lot of inefficient garbage with not much for alternatives.

I argue that for a lot of thing we can do better ourselves. If not make entire products from scratch like keyboards and microphones at least fix what’s already in our homes to suck less.

Programming and engineering are not career choices

Creating and tinkering requires skills, usually engineering skills like mechanical design, soldering and coding if not just proficiency with power tools.

There is a perceived notion that engineering is a career path and therefore you can’t approach it without dedicating your life to it but I think that notion is toxic and a big contributor to our current problems.

Think of it like cooking: if you study and dedicate your life to it you could become a top chef but you don’t need a degree to learn even complex meals. You can learn enough engineering skills to do projects that will fit and better your life but you’re probably not going to build a fridge from scratch without some serious studying and resources.

You can learn a lot from online resources! If having trouble with something remember that you can always try asking around (on Reddit/Lemmy/etc). I learned my first programming language with online guides and with the help of online friends and now coding is my day job.

Tools are also very affordable nowadays! You can get cheap drills and rotary tools for like 50$ each and even good soldering equipment is affordable2.

A word of warning: while there are a lot of people trying to help there will be those who will try to gatekeep you and tell you that these subjects are too complex, pay no mind to them! You are not “too stupid” for math and they’re just desperately trying to keep people out so they won’t have to work harder to stand out.

Obtaining freedom

There is joy to creating stuff out of thin air and it really goes for every craft like art and music, however I feel making tangible things is also incredibly liberating.

If you ever felt annoyed by something in your home not being quite right, imagine being able to say “I can fix this and it will not bother me again”. The reality is a bit less rosy than that (you’ll spend time designing, building, maybe finding issues and iterating) but the end result is usually something that feels more yours and when looking around you’ll get a feel of your room starting to become a playground to experiment with. This guy organized a shelf to keep everything he needs in their place and you could too!

Another pro of learning to manufacture is that you’ll spend less time adapting other designs. During my times without a 3D printer I have often looked at pre-made solutions for all sorts of things from cable management guides to other small pieces of furniture and between hunting for the product that fit best and finding ways to make it work with what I had in mind I always ended up spending a lot of time while still having to make many compromises. My 3D prints on the other hand are built to my preferences and requirements and are very cheap to boot!

Accepting failure

It is in our nature to fear failure and a popular life lesson is to accept and learn from it. This might feel like one of those stock phrases you might read on a horoscope that’s easy to say and hard to apply in everyday life but it’s actually very routine in engineering.

You will not succeed on your first attept at almost anything, your designs won’t fit and your soldering jobs will be awful, it’s all very normal even for professionals who’ve been doing it for years, the only difference between you and them is that they’ve already failed way more than you, so you’ll just be playing catch up.

Learning to make stuff will also slowly teach you how to properly cope with failure and learn from it. There is no tutorial for this, it comes natural with experience.

Tools are enablers (if you let them enable you)

To tie everything back to my first paragraph I think people should stop asking “why would I need a 3D printer” and start thinking “what does having a 3D printer enable me to do”.

The next time something in your life will bug you, maybe something that doesn’t fit properly or some problem that makes you go “why does no one else feels like this is worth addressing?!”, ask yourself what would you need to be the one to address it, and maybe sometimes you’ll find out that it’s not that hard!

  1. There is an entire scene about converting single to dual hose with even official kits from manufacturers, otherwise you can check guides like this one littered across the web. ↩︎

  2. Check my buying guide for electronic gear here: Buying guide: Electronic gear ↩︎