Thursday, May 10, 2012

Whatever Happend to Do It Yourself?

Boat plans from Popular Mechanics Magazine
Whenever I am giving a kayak building demonstration somewhere in a public space, some guy in his sixties or seventies will come up and say, "Yeah, I remember building one of these in the Boy Scouts."  The point worth mentioning here is that it is never a forty or thirty year old or even a fifty year old that comes up and says, "Yeah, I remember building one of these in the Boy Scouts."  My statistical sample isn't very large, but it seems to me that sometime in the post-WWII era, people built stuff and then they stopped.

So what happened? 
I have some theories. 
One of the factors that encouraged the do it yourself movement was prosperity and the high cost of wages.  Since most things consumed in the US were made in the US rather than imported, manufactured goods were relatively expensive because of the cost of labor.  So if you made something yourself, you could save on the cost of labor. Also, since manufacturing was still a big part of the US economy, the skills to make things were still valued and encouraged.  Schools were still expected to turn out graduates that could enter a job market where manual skills were valued. 
Folding kayak built from Popular Mechanics plans
And there were magazines like Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated to cater to do-it-yourselfers with plans and instructions. It seems like the golden age of  home made projects.
The other factor working against home made boats is the invention of roto-molded boats. This process eliminates most of the human labor from the making of a boat.  Kayaks and canoes can be made in a mold.  A little clean-up and some trim is all that needs to be added to make a finished boat.  The cost of these boats is so low compared to making your own that the effort hardly seems justified from a cost perspective.
Still, various plywood boat kit manufacturers seem to be making a living turning out kits for home builders. But a kit is not the same thing as making something off a set of plans out of a magazine.  I suspect that kits are popular because the general level of confidence to make something by hand has declined considerably since the middle of the twentieth century. 


Chris Matechik said...

I have noticed the same thing, but I never thought of those theories. However, have you also noticed a resurgence in do it yourself projects. My observation is probably biased because I surround myself with people that share my hobbies. However, my friends and I have built our own boats (SOF kayaks), brewing equipment, and wine presses and now we are working on simple musical instruments (banjos and cigar box guitars). I think Americans are finally starting to realize that they aren't helpless people destined to but manufactured goods. I see a bright future in this new generation of DIY'ers.

By the way, keep up the blog. One of my theories is that the vast amount of information on the internet is catalyzing this DIY enlightenment.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Chris, I hope you're right about the DIY resurgence. I make stuff because I like to, not because I need to and I imagine there are others out there who feel the same way. There's no better way than making something yourself to find out how stuff works or doesn't.