Monday, July 13, 2009

18 Essential Skills for a Maker

@AntonOlsen recently posted an article on GeekDad enumerating 100 Essential Skills for Geeks. As he was inspired to do so by a list of "Essential Skills for Men", so I am inspired to make this list of essential skills for Makers.

His list was a little long (100 items), terse (essentially one line per item, but with links), and slightly biased (heavier on computers than I might have liked, but to be fair, that is the most common geek fetish). I'm going to go for a shorter list, with slightly more verbose entries, and try to cast a wider net. If I get interest from this list, I'll follow up with an article on each point going into more detail.

1. Calculate power consumption and estimate battery life- Most electrical projects will involve batteries of some sort. Having an idea of how long your project will run on a battery can save you a lot of trouble later- that wireless garden soil moisture monitor is probably not going to run very long on a 9V battery. Maybe solar is a better idea?
2. Spot valuable salvage- Not only knowing where to get it, but knowing it when you see it. Finding it isn't too hard- curbs, alleys, and the classic dumpster dive. Deciding whether to keep it is the real trick: can it be broken down? Are there useful things inside (gears, motors, electronics, hardware, salvageable wood, springs, etc.)? Is trying to salvage parts of it a wise thing to do (upholstered items left outside are a great way to get bedbugs into your home)?
3. Spot eminently hackable, cheap Chinese crap- The glut of crap from China occasionally brings some real gems with it. recently sold some rotating LED-based "police lights" for $3, which connect to USB and can be turned on and off by pressing a key on the keyboard.
4. Find "prior art"- In the patent world, "prior art" is anything which suggests that the idea you are trying to patent (or have patented) was developed or described by someone else first. The existence of prior art can break a patent. In the Maker world, prior art is a springboard. Someone, somewhere on the internet did (or tried to do) what you are trying to do. They may even be selling bits of the project which may make showstopping technical challenges mere speedbumps.
5. Stitch a simple and serviceable seam- We're not talking about making your daughter's prom dress, here- just being able to neatly and durably reclose the seam on the Furby you just hacked into reciting the Vincent Price speech from "Thriller".
6. Understand the voltage/current ratings on a power supply- If a battery won't cut it, you should understand at least the rudiments of power supplies: how to get a cheap wall-wart AC adapter, what voltage you can use, and why it's okay to use a 500mA supply to replace a 250mA supply.
7. Know which glue to use, when- Elmer's white, spray mount, Uhu glue sticks, JB Weld, cyanoacrylate, and two-part epoxy all have their uses.
8. Know which tape to use, when- Duct, masking, Scotch, foam-two-sided, and (occasionally) electrical tape all have their uses.
9. Deal with recalcitrant fasteners- Sooner or later, you'll want to remove a screw or bolt that is stripped, broken, or uses a security bit. Owning a wide variety of driver bits is a start, but knowing how to drill out a fastener or cut a notch for a flat-edge screwdriver should be somewhere in your bag of tricks.
10. Use a Dremel- 'nuff said.
11. Find the parts you can't salvage- Locally or over the internet. You should know where local shops are that sell things like nuts and bolts by the pound, simple electronics (resistors, soldering tools, protoboard, etc.)(RadioShack is a poor choice for this, if it can be helped), fabric, paper, artist's supplies, wood, hobbyist tools and toys. You should also be familiar with,,,,,, and, just to name a few.
12. Identify electronics in the zone between too-hot and smoking by smell- When you smell the smoke, it's too late.
13. Strip, splice, and terminate wire- Trickier than it sounds. You should be able to splice wire using a crimp splice, a wire nut, and heat shrink + solder (note: electrical tape is NOT on that list). You should know how to use a wire stripper to strip stranded wire without cutting more than one or two strands. You should be able to attach a wire to your project in such a way that it will still be attached in two weeks, two months, or two years.
14. Create fairly neat holes of arbitrary size and shape in sheet metal, plastic, and wood- Nibblers, step-bits, tin-snips, chisels, awls, drill bits, and the appropriate Dremel bit all play crucuial roles here.
15. Use Ohm's law- V = I*R. Know it, use it, love it.
16. Tie useful knots- Bowline, taut-line hitch, slip, figure-eight, overhand, square, clove hitch, sheet bend. One or another of these knots will get you through most situations.
17. Solder.
18. Program a microcontroller- nothing fancy, just something along the lines of the Arduino. Just enough to make it spin a motor on a trigger or light an LED or sound an alarm.

Did I forget anything?


  1. Your list is better than the 100 skills for geeks, but it's still pretty heavy toward electronics. How about mechanics, steam, wood, chemistry, etc? I can fake my way through most of the electronics stuff but I wouldn't say I qualify to check them off the list. On the other hand I'm building a backyard foundry to cast an aluminum 1-up statue, which I think is one of the geekier things a person can do. (I'll finally get the power up and win the game!)

  2. 1. Use Cooling Fluid-
    Nothing affords greater tool and blade life and cleaner work than keeping things cool. It took me FAR longer to come to understand the importance of cooling fluid.
    2. Build stuff in your head.
    I use lots of techniques to keep projects organized: zip lock bags, sorters, lists, paper layouts etc, but ALL of it, whether I'm taking something apart, or putting something together, is geared towards putting the project in my head. I'll roll projects over in my head while driving, lying in bed, sitting on planes. I take pictures of my work in progress and review them when I'm away from the shop. I've solved complex engineering problems FAR from the shop this way. Once something is completely in your head, the physical work is relatively easy.

  3. Great list, much better than the GeekDad article. You've drilled it down to the truly essential, while their list contains a lot of frippery and false machismo.

    Two possible additions I can think of would be the interrelated "back of the envelope" skills of sketching and estimating; the ability to lay down at least a basic diagram for posterity or communication, and the ability to arrive at ballpark figures without the need for a calculator.

  4. I would combine 7 & 8 with an unwritten #19: Know how to stick two things together. Should you tape, glue, epoxy, screw, nail, pin, band, rivet, weld, or braze? Yes, there are lots of kinds of glue and tape, but knowing when not to use them for is at least as important as knowing when to.

    And its inverse (which takes in #14): Know how to cut anything. Know your knife and saw blades, know your drill and dremmel bits, your punches, nips, awls, files, planes, and cutters--what they're used for, what will destroy them and what they'll destroy. Know how to cut wood, metal, cloth, glass and ceramics.

    - Know how to use your tools safely. Fun is fun, but electrocution, stitches, and metal filings in the eye are not. Yes, I'm a pansy bringing it up, but I only came to that realization after I ran my thumb through a table saw. Be smarter than me.

    - Measure. No only how to use a ruler and tape measure and multimeter, but know how to guesstimate sizes, lengths, weights and angles. Know that 2x4s are not 2" by 4" how to count threads, and the difference between 18 and 12 gauge.

  5. Steve's additions are great. This list can totally be restructured by category -

    1. Know how to take things apart (desoldering, sawzall, drilling out fasteners)

    2. Know how to fasten things together (soldering, tape, glue, sewing, woodworking).

    3. Know how to find parts (salvage, cheap chinese crap, digikey, home depot).

    4. Know how to guesstimate the physics involved (v=ir, pv=nrt, f=ma).

    5. Know how things can fail, and compensate for them (cracked glue joints, overheating electronics, sheared bolts, cold solder joints)

  6. great list, but one detail would definitely help- how do I get there from here? A link to a good resource for each entry would be appreciated. Yes I know I can google it.

  7. I would add

    19. use zip ties whenever possible...

  8. Measure things.

    ie: use a voltmeter, calipers etc.

  9. i agree with christopher completely and wholeheartedly.

  10. Totally excellent list. I'd want to include a couple of other things - they are sort of implied in some of the other listed items but also more generally useful:

    How to identify the properties of various fibers and fabrics (including strings and ropes) and what their uses are: is this wool or acrylic? woven or knit? will this melt if it gets too hot? is it sturdy enough to reinforce something? can I strain liquids through it without adding lint or dye to the liquid? will it stretch to cover the area needing coverage or must it be cut precisely to fit? how degradable is it, exactly? can it be left outside? This knowledge is useful/essential in #2, #5, and #16 as well.

    Also something about simple household chemistry, esp for cleaning/prepping/altering surfaces: e.g., which common items are acids, bases, oxidants, solvents, lubricants, etc., and which combinations are dangerous under what circumstances. Necessary/useful for #2. #7, #8, #9, #17.


  11. The best use I've found for electric tape is holding the handle of a locked door down so that you can close and re-open it without using the key. This only works for lever-style handles, not knob-style.

  12. Knowing very basic trigonometry (and how to use a calculator to do it) frequently comes in handy for design & construction....

  13. knowing how to find information on things you would like to do.
    and then using it, without being overwhelmed

  14. Does patience count as a skill? How about slow, elaborate disassembly or reassembly? I don't even blink an eye when I have to take something apart three or four times until everything is correct. Even if no one can see inside I know what's inside and it drives me nuts if it isn't clean, orderly and well lubed.

  15. use a hammer. use a saw. stick two pieces of metal together (weld, seam, etc). determine which one is it "bandaide" or "emergency room". put out a fire.

  16. I'd like to throw in my support for links or references to each item being added… even if this got turned into a wiki project or something.

    Building on the "yes, I can google it" comment, my contention is that the people who can make this list have access to literacies that aspiring makers might not have, and thus would know "better," "safer," "standard" resources that might not be on the first page of someone's google search.

    Note: My guess is that the best resource might actually be a collection of resources, only some of which are online.

  17. I vote yay on the detailed article

  18. In addition to foofers's recommendations of sketching and estimating would be the ability to document. Or a good memory. Yes, it's nice to be able to iterate and improve on a design, but you have to know what you tried before and why it did or didn't work.

    I'm assuming the ability to critically examine things (designs, junk, etc. both your own and other's) is implicit, though #2 is part of it.

  19. Well, you're on BB now so I suspect the interest will be their to expand the article.

    To add:

    Know your wire! I have seen many a fix go wrong over innappropriate material. Do you need 12 gauge of will 14 do? Is copper-core good for your application of do you need something a little harder to get? Should it be braided/stranded etc? What sort of insulation should you be using?

    Screwing this up tends to equal at best piss poor device performance or more likely FIRE.

  20. A nice list of skills, now let's round it out with some material to help you learn them.

  21. Great list -
    I'd add:
    1 - Build a 3D, conceptual model in Google Sketchup.
    2 - Know when to ignore the "don't try this at home" warning.
    3 - 1st aid - know what to do when you cut, burn, gas or stick yourself together.

  22. I'd like to add that sometimes you need to know when you are in over your head, and you need professial guideance or assistance. I work in Theater, and I have seen plenty of people who try to do things that they are not truly qualified to do (this mostly applies to rigging and pyrotechnics) the saying goes, a little bit of knowlege is a dangerous thing...

  23. Another one would be:

    Reading and understanding a electronic component datasheet, especially the following:

    - what the safe, maximum input voltage and current limits are (so you don't blow the component)

    - what the output voltages and currents are (so you don't blow other components in your circuit)

    - application notes and example circuits

  24. What for? Anyway, all men should know how to knit in case the InterTubes corrode, civilization collapses, your wife finds a live land mine, and your daughter wants a skill to sell that doesn't involve fancy personal bending.

    Really. What for? And Heinlein... DGMS.

  25. And remember this. There is no other more important safety rule...
    ...than to wear THESE... safety glasses...
    ...and also HEARING protection when necessary.

    1. Agreed. One time I was flexing a DVD disk. I had flexed CD's hundreds of time ( to break/destroy them ).

      Only the DVD _EXPLODED_ when it broke.
      Tones of shrapnel like slivers sprayed
      all over my face.

      I didn't have safety glassed, but fortunately, I'm old enough to need
      regular glasses. If not for those, I'd been in a world of hurt!

  26. hi there,

    a wiki or a PDF of a detailed article would help more.

    thank you,


  27. Why the trademarked names for glues?

    Makers (like engineers, which are often one and the same) like standards. So lets keep standards when it comes to naming things. Like glue. Elmers white? Outside the US, no-one knows wtf you're talking about. How about Poly-Vinyl Acetate, or PVA, and everyone can look at the fine-print on whatever brand they're after? UHU? JB-Weld? C'mon...

    You got the right idea with Cyanoacrylate and two-part epoxy, build on that!

  28. Know how to plan things.

    How to do repetitive tasks efficiently and consistently.

    Know where and how to use strain-relief.

    Have a repetoire of interconnects, and stick with your standards (and preferably those others too). And learn how to terminate these interconnects properly.