Advice for People Who Work on Physical Projects

Gareth Branwyn
Mar 14 · 15 min read

Project Planning

Have you ever heard of the “hassle tax?” Years ago, when I was running a graphic design business, I was talking to a friend about an upcoming job that I was dreading because the client was a royal pain to deal with. I questioned whether I should even take the job; it wasn’t worth it. “Add a ‘hassle tax’,” he said. A what? He explained that, when dealing with particularly difficult clients, he added a percentage onto their job quote that took into account having to deal with the additional difficulties. “Charge what you need to get to feel OK about working with them. If they go for it, then the extra hassles are paid for,” he said. I instantly added the hassle tax to my job quotes for particularly difficult clients, and my design business lived happily after.


Learning with the Feynman Technique

I have a confession to make. Before I wrote my book, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots, I had actually built few robots. But I was writing about robots for Wired and elsewhere, I got asked to do a DIY robot book by a publisher, and I really needed the money. So, I said yes. I would study heavily, do a lot of trial-and-error building, come up with something that worked, and then write about it. I ended up with a book that one newspaper said set “a literary standard for how tech books should be written.” It became a book that was used in high school and college tech courses and that inspired many a high school science fair project. A UK professor was using it in his class and wrote begging me to write a companion guide to AI.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically applying the learning technique used by celebrated American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Basically, the idea is that, as you learn something, you mock-teach it back to yourself by explaining it in writing and out loud, as if you were teaching a class. By doing this, you not only improve your retention of the material by reinforcing the concepts, you find the holes and weaknesses in your understanding so you can go back and study those parts again. I think this is also what made my book work so well. My understanding was fresh; I had a beginner’s mind. Because experts know their subjects so well, they often make a lot of assumptions about what people already know, or fail to identity basic things that need to be covered. For a newbie recording his or her journey of discovery, all of those things are fresh and still visible.


Due Diligence (and Asking Mom to Fix)

My dad is not really a maker, but he did inspire me to work very hard at what- ever task I set my mind to, and for that, I’m grateful. Teaching someone a good work ethic, teamwork skills, and diligence are just as valuable as showing someone how to use a drill press or a soldering iron. Oh, and he also taught me that mom was probably the better person to go to when things got broken.

–LIBBY BULLOFF

“Pre-making” Mistakes is a Good Idea

Well-known YouTube maker Andy Birkey does a lot of historical architectural restoration, without a lot of room for error. He can’t afford to fail, scrap the piece, and try again. So, what he does before and during a project is try to anticipate (and work to avoid) every possible thing that could go wrong. He calls this pre-making mistakes. He says that taking the time to inventory everything that you might do to mess something up, and adjusting yourself accordingly, should at least prevent you from making the stupidest of those mistakes.

I think this approach is useful in any sort of making. I have always thought that one of the things that separates the reckless amateur from the safe and seasoned maker is the ability to innately understand, anticipate, and react to all of the physical forces, tools, and materials one is working with. When you are beginning, it helps to do this intentionally. For a pro artisan a lot of the “pre-making mistakes” processing is going on subconsciously all of the time.


Implementing the Kenny Rogers Rule

This is one of my “Rules for Roboticists,” taken from my 2004 book, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots: When you’re building anything, especially something as complicated as a robot, the build can sometimes get ugly. If you try to force your way through, you can often dig yourself into an even deeper hole.

So here’s what you do: Put the soldering iron down. Step away from the steaming robot entrails! You’ll be amazed at what taking an hour away, vegging in front of the TV, rolling around on the floor with the cat, or sleeping on your problem will do. It almost never fails. Here’s a corollary: The extent to which you don’t want to drop what you’re doing and take a break (“I know I can fix this, damn it!”) is inversely proportional to the extent to which you need to take that break. Why is it the Kenny Rogers Rule? ’Cause as Kenny “the Gambler” Rogers wisely tells us:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em Know when to walk away and know when to run.


The Universe Is a Collection of Parts

While working at Make:, I met an inventor named Perry Kaye. He had a brilliant approach to prototyping his designs. He didn’t try to reinvent the wheel he just used existing wheels from something else! He called this approach “Frankenstein prototyping.” When Perry came up with a possible new invention, rather than going the conventional route of drawing up plans, then paying a rapid prototyping service or someone else to fabricate it, he’d just head to Home Depot, Toys “R” Us, and the local hardware store. He’d find the parts he needed on existing products (a handle here, a type of blade there, this motor, that gearbox). Then, he’d cut up these existing products, remove the parts he needed, and cobble them together into his new monster creation.

This is an incredibly powerful perceptual shift — to see the physical world around you as a collection of parts that are currently in one configuration, but are just waiting to be taken apart and recombined into something new. Especially with today’s 3D printers, high-performance adhesives, and sil- icone rubber modeling clays like Sugru, “recombinism” has never been easier.

Besides saving time and money, Perry thinks there’s an added benefit. When you’ve spent so much on a prototyped idea, you become literally invested in making that design work, even if it doesn’t. You’re reluctant to abandon it because you don’t want to have to go back to the drawing board. But when you’ve only invested an afternoon and a few bucks on a Frankenstein prototype, you’re more likely to just salvage whichever parts you can, and move on to the next idea. So, this method of rendering your ideas allows you to iterate quickly and gets you to a smarter, more viable design that much faster.

Of course, you don’t need to be an inventor in the classic sense to benefit from this way of looking at the world. You can make one-off creations with this method, or solve vexing design deficiencies on existing projects. We have this perceptual blindness where we tend to see things as they are rather than the potential for what they could become. Frankenstein prototyping is a way of training oneself to look for that potential.


Taking It Bird by Bird

I couldn’t write this book without sharing one of the greatest tips I have ever taken to heart. It is a work approach that has truly saved me from my attention-deficit and procrastination failings. It comes from American novelist, essayist, and writing teacher Anne Lamott. In her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, she tells a childhood story about her family being away at their cabin all summer. Her older brother had been assigned a school report on birds that he had put off even starting all summer long. Now, the night before returning home (and to school), he sat at the cabin’s kitchen table, paralyzed at the sight of a pile of bird books and a stack of 3n5 cards. His dad sympathetically patted him on the shoulder and said: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Lamott was a classic procrastinator, and that idea stuck with her. To overcome any procrastination when she needs to write, she tells herself she needs to at least produce the equivalent of one 3n5 card, one bird, of work. Of course, what happens is she sits down and ends up creating two birds, or three birds, or a dozen. I use this technique every single day. If I collaborate with other busy people, and know that find- ing time to work on our mutual project will be difficult, we make sure to advance those projects bird by bird. I also use the bird-by-bird self-trickery for my daily miniature figure painting (my hobby). Often, it’s hard to peel my eyeballs off of the computer or phone screen long enough to sit down for a painting session. Telling myself I only have to accomplish a bird, a single task, is enough to break the surface tension that motivates me to start painting. Once in the seat, I rarely leave before an hour has passed. So, when you get overwhelmed and paralyzed by the prospect of tackling a task, pat yourself patronizingly on the back, grab that stack of 3n5s, and just take it bird by bird.


Finding Power in the Names of Things

Being a word nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by slang, jargon, and technical terms — the wild west of language. I have applied this same interest as a maker. I pay attention to the proper terminology for different technologies, disciplines, materials, and processes. I’ve come to realize that there’s an incredible advantage in learning and communicating about a discipline if you know its language. In magical beliefs, knowing the true name of a thing or people gives you power over them. I think there’s some real truth to that. Knowing what things are called can greatly accelerate the learning process. Search engines are fairly forgiving these days in terms of allowing you to describe things if you don’t know the proper name, but it’s still a good idea to try to identify, retain, and use the proper terminology.


Build Early; Build Often

I’ve always loved the writer’s adage “Writers write.” Writing is like a muscle that you have to use regularly to improve and strengthen it. The same goes with any building activity. Makers make. If you’re regularly using your tools, and trying out new projects, new techniques, new tools, you will get bet- ter, and you will master your shopcraft. In Make: Volume 50, Jimmy DiResta shared a related tip: “If you want to learn how to use a new machine, start making something on it immediately! Among other things, you quickly learn how to hide your mistakes.”


Getting Out of the Helsinki Bus Station

Have you ever heard of the Helsinki bus station theory of creativity? Well, as the story goes, there is one major road leading in and out of the main bus station in Helsinki, Finland. Regardless of what bus you get on, for the first few miles they all travel down the same route and make the same stops. The theory likens this to starting a new creative endeavor or a new artistic career. For a while, regardless of how hard you try, your work is likely going to be derivative and not very inspired; same route, same stops. People will liken your work to others, which might discourage you. But, like the route out of Helsinki, if you stay on the bus (if you do the hard work, learn from your failures, and perfect your craft), eventually all of the buses will veer off in their own unique directions. To find out more, do a web search for “Helsinki bus station theory.”


Dad Teaches Sound Planning

When I was very young, maybe six or seven, I told my grandfather that I wanted to dig a swimming pool or a fishing pond in his backyard, complete with an underground room with a window to watch the fish (I may not have all of the details right, but it was something like that). Instead of say- ing, “Sure, go ahead” (dismissively) or “That’s crazy,” he said, “That sounds expensive and you need to have a good plan before you get started.” He sat down with me and made me draw up my idea, identify the materials and tools, estimate the costs, and figure out how long it would take. He even added up all of the costs on his big adding machine and stapled it to my drawings. He then said I could refine the plans and start saving my money and get started as soon as I could handle it. It sounds like he was just saying “That’s crazy” or “Yeah, right” the long way around, but he taught me to draw plans, make lists, and evaluate cheaper alternatives (“Maybe you could add the underwater viewing area later?”). He also took me seriously and encouraged me to combine my creativity with basic engineering facts.

— CHRIS PALMER


Learn to Draw Isometrically

Learn to draw in isometric perspective; it can really help you better visualize a project. Isometric drawing — drawing 3D objects in 2D space — is a great way of rendering objects so that you can better understand how they go together. You can get notebooks and pads of paper that have isometric gridlines on them to make drawing in 3D easier.


Buy Extra Parts for a Very Important Reason: Beer!

My friend Tim Slagle shared this tip with me years ago: “Having some extra parts on hand is a great way to help out your fellow hardware hackers. It can also add a social element to what can otherwise be a rather solitary hobby:

“Hey, I need a part for my project.”
“I have extras!”
“Awesome; I’ll come pick them up . . . and bring beer!” Over the years, I have frequently shared the tip of always buying extras whenever you buy parts for a project. Having them in stock to share with others is a great way of being generous and social.


Quote on Twice the Time

Always quote at least twice the time you think it will actually take to complete a project.


Factor Cleanup into Job Estimates

“My dad always says that when you are planning a project, make sure you include time to cleanup.” [Taylor Hill]


Pick Two

You may pick two of the following three — but only two.

  • It can be built well.
  • It can be built quickly.
  • It can be built cheaply.

Order More Than You Need

Always order 10 percent more materials than you need for a project. And if you’re ordering cheap parts and supplies, always order a few extra. [Tip fromTim Slagle.]


Use Acetate Overlays in Your Notebook

When figuring out project wiring or other parts of a project design that might be subject to change, tape sheets of acetate over your design and mark on that with a dry erase marker. That way, you can continue to change things around until you are confident you have the arrangement you need or want. [tip from John Edgar Park]


Nothing More Expensive Than Cheap Tools

My grandfather was both a professional meat cutter and a spectacu- lar wood carver. When I was a child, he and I would spend hours in his workshop talking about his rather large collection of tools. I remember him saying to me on a number of occasions, “Son, there is nothing more expensive than a cheap tool.”

— DAVID STEVENS


Lay Your Projects Out on Paper First

On The Ben Heck Show, in an episode on design tips for electronics projects, Ben suggests that you first draw your enclosure on paper, ideally blocking out the components that will go inside of it. When you’re building a workable enclosure, you need to consider all sorts of variables, such as component placement and needed allowances for screws, stand- offs, wire runs, and so on. Physically placing components onto a piece a paper can help you clearly visualize and think through all of that. Once you’ve worked out all of the placement and measurements, you can transfer your design to a 3D design program.


Plan Your Project Enclosure First

Chris Akiba Wang shared the following tip: “When working on an electronics project, a lot of people jump directly to the printed circuit board (PCB). The first thing I do when approaching a PCB is to think about the enclosure in which the final project will live. If you want your product to look professional when it’s finished, it needs an appropriate enclosure. Choosing an enclosure requires that you think about the end user and how your product will be used. Is it portable? Does it need to be waterproof? Will it be low cost? The enclosure you choose will put boundaries on PCB size and shape. Once you select your enclosure, you can go to town on the board itself.”


The Maker’s Checklist

Here are some words of wisdom to bear in mind when designing and executing a project.

K.I.S.S. = Keep It Simple, Silly. The ideal design has zero parts.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion (Parkinson’s Law). Don’t give yourself too much time for a project or it will never get done.

Past experience is good for a reality check. But too much reality can doom an otherwise worthwhile project.

Look at how everyone else is tackling a problem — what assumptions are so implicit that they’re no longer being questioned. Question them. Don’t listen when people tell you that you can’t. Ignore your critics.

Document everything (in writing, and with pics and video), especially on collaborative projects. The group will forget who did what and it will make going back and changing things that much harder.

Do what you can, where you are, with what you have (Roosevelt’s Law of Task Planning).

Everything is a spring (i.e., in mechanical system, all parts will deform under load).

If it moves and it shouldn’t, use duct tape (or zip ties). If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40.

Design for disassembly. Don’t expect it to work the first time you put it together. And make sure that everywhere there’s a screw, there’s a place for a screwdriver. And a hand to fit around that driver.

Neatness counts. Keep everything organized and tidy. Use quick connectors when you can, use cable ties to bundle related wires together, color-code, and label.

Always use safety glasses, wear proper attire, keep first aid at hand, and use the right tools for the job.

Boiled down from “Skill Set: The Beginning (Mechanical) Engineer’s Checklist,” the “Beginning Engineer’s Checklist,” and Gareth Branwyn’s “Rules for Roboticists,” and community discussions on makezine.com.


Sketching a Concept, Thick to Thin

Industrial designer Reid Schlegel offered this tip in a little video shared on his Instagram feed.

Use the thickness of your pens to assist you in conceptual sketching. Use a thick-line pen for broad strokes, and basic and top-level conceptualizing, and then switch to thinner and thinner pens at each stage of refining your design.


Learning to Swim by Wading in Over Your Head

On one of Jimmy DiResta’s vlogs on YouTube, he showed off the amazing DuPont power hammer, circa 1890, that he had acquired. Jimmy has been learning forging and smithing and acquired this impressive antique as part of developing that skill set. He said he thought he was in over his head with this machine, but that was a good thing. “This is how I learn. I force myself into situations where I have to commit,” says Jimmy.

I, too, have always forced myself beyond my comfort zone in nearly everything I explore. My eyes have always been bigger than my stomach when it comes to learning and what I think I’m capable of. Yes, it can mean that you fail a lot, but you fail faster and you learn a lot in the process. And you always end up much closer to your goal than if you had only tiptoed your way in. When in doubt, dive, dive, dive!


Brainstorming at the Flea Market

Anyone who’s watched a lot of DiResta project videos and vlogs knows that he’s a big fan of flea markets. He does buy a fair amount at these sales, but one of the main reasons he goes is to stimulate his imagination; to see all of the many ways that engineers have mechanically solved hardware design problems over the decades. “Shop with your eyes, not your wallet,” says DiResta. “When I walk through a flea market, I come up with my best ideas.” He says to always go to the market with a notebook and a pen (or write inspirations on your hand).


Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Gareth Branwyn

Written by

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and editor covering tech, DIY, and geek culture. His most recent book is the best-selling Tips and Tales from the Workshop.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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