On Building Things




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One of the great joys of my life has been building things.

Things I have built, over the years include, but are not limited to:

Plastic model cars, planes, ships, spacecraft of all sorts;

Rockets (small, solid fuel);

Ham radio gear;

Audio electronics;



Piano housings (wood, for electric piano);






Some of these things I have actually made, or at least come close. The bed and piano housing probably come closest.  The first was made from 2x4s and 2x8s for my oldest child when T and I had very little money; the second, I made to house T’s first ever piano, an old electric stage thing originally covered in Tolex that I bought because our 2nd-floor apartment on Hattie Street couldn’t support the weight of a real piano (and because real pianos cost more than $50 in those days).

But I do want to distinguish making and building.  I think it’s a bit of a continuum.  The bed I made because I designed it from scratch.  I bought and cut to size the wood, I purchased the bolts and screws I used to assemble it, and the stain I put on the wood.

But most things I built out of existing parts.  My rockets are the closest to “made” in that sense–aside from the one on the left, which came as a kit (the MPC Moon-Go), I designed and built the others, sometimes cutting fins from balsa stock, or taking bits of other kits and assembling them with Estes rocket parts (e.g., the Little Joe sitting in front of the empty engine housings).

My bike was definitely built.  Much of it came from one seller, but other parts I purchased or adapted.  I guess I pretty much finished it four or five years ago…the only recent change was to change the type of mudflap hanging from the front fender a year or so ago, because when I used the same long type I had on the rear, it got torn from being brought up and down the basement hatchway stairs.  Most of the work there was assembly.  But for all that it’s unique.  The odds that anyone else in the world has built quite the same bicycle are vanishingly small.

Likewise my guitar.  I had to adapt a few things, but they already existed.  I didn’t have to carve the neck or body, even though they came from different donors.  Just a little adaptation.  The circuitry is of my own design, but not at all radical, and it’s likely that at least a few dozen people have the same switching system that I do.  It is unique, I daresay, but all the same, built, not made.

As much as it’s a continuum, I still think the distinction between making and building is important.  Our ancestors made things.  Houses.  Barns.  Horseshoes.  Knives.  They began with raw materials and went from there.  I remember reading the story of a ham radio operator back in the 1920 (IIRC) who made his own vacuum tubes!

In contrast, building is a process of assembly.  You don’t make things out of Lego; you build things.  That’s not bad; I do, however, want to observe here that it’s different.  You’re constrained by the parts available to you.  If you make something, you’re not.

There are still many of us who build things (see above) but we are diminishing in number.  Instead, we admire the work of industry.  The perfection of the factory.  It makes life less costly, it means that we have an expectation that things will just work.  It makes our lives easier.  But there is a price.

Still fewer actually make things.  I don’t.  But then, most of us don’t go out and chop down a tree, dry it, slice it, plane it into a board so that we can build a house or a bed.  We get our lumber at Home Despot, our fences come made in sections.  Houses are easy to build now, because roof trusses come prefabricated.  The price, though is high.  And as we slide along the line from make to build to–well, to buy, that price comes more and more into view:


That’s not to say sameness is necessarily bad.  But it’s certainly different.

Do you build things?  Or make things?  Are these better (or worse) than buying?


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