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How to Be a DIYer Without Time or Talent

This article was written by in Frugality. 11 comments.

This is a guest article by Gerri Detweiler. Gerri is the host of Talk Credit Radio and serves as Director of Consumer Education for She is the author or co-author of five books, including Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights. Her next DIY project is to (finally!) roast coffee beans.

Mark Frauenfelder makes his own yogurt and sauerkraut. roasts coffee beans, and has raised chickens. He’s also tricked out an expresso machine and built his daughter a guitar out of a lunchbox. And he’s managed to complete all of these DIY projects — and many more — while contributing to the very popular blog BoingBoing, and serving as editor of Make Magazine. Oh, and he’s also written a book about his experiences: Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throw Away World.

My DIY projects, by contrast, are often utter failures. My homemade sauerkraut probably would have given me food poisoning if I had been dumb enough to taste the foul-smelling concoction, and the popcorn popper I bought on eBay to roast coffee beans has been sitting untouched on a shelf for a couple of years now. Oh, and my homemade yogurt tasted like the cheesecloth I used to strain it.

It would be easy to dislike Frauenfelder, except for the fact that he’s a really nice guy. So instead of getting annoyed every time he writes a post about one of his successful projects, I decided to interview him on my radio show, Talk Credit Radio, in the hopes of gleaning some wisdom that could help me become a more successful DIYer. Following are some his best tips (edited and excerpted) from that interview:

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Gerri: Tell me a little bit about what you learned from your DIY journey?

Mark: I think the most important thing I learned was that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you can learn a lot from mistakes. In fact, a lot of research has shown that people learn fast when they do make errors because it really sticks in your mind.

As Editor-in-Chief of Make Magazine which is a technological project magazine, I hung around a lot of people that I call “alpha makers,” people who are just committed to anything and they do a great job of it. I found that it isn’t so much their skill level that’s important but the fact they have gotten over their fear of screwing up. And that is like the most important thing that I learned, otherwise you’re going to be frozen with fear.

I make tons of mistakes all the time but I hopefully learn from them so that every new box guitar I build is a little bit better than the one before. Then you can raise the bar and challenge yourself to try something a little better. It’s a fun way of looking at the world.

You do have time to for DIY projects

Gerri: Mark, let’s talk a little bit about the time factor. You’ve got two daughters, and a full-time job as a writer and editor. How do you fit in these DIY projects? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just go and buy a spoon (rather than carve one yourself)? Or go and buy espresso rather than try to figure out how to trick out your espresso machine?

Mark: Absolutely, it would be easier to go out and buy something and time is really precious, especially when you have small kids and you have to work for a living. And that is one of the reasons I wrote this book. I read all those books about going back to the land and making things yourself, they kind of assumed you lived in this ideal world, you have infinite time to do all this stuff.

So I took a much more realistic approach: What if I gave myself 15 minutes a day to get away from the computer and work on a project? And I think almost anybody can give himself 15 minutes a day. But it really adds up and after a month or so, that’s a considerable amount of hours that you’ve been able to devote making things.

There was a guy I was reading about in the 1700’s whose wife was 10 minutes late at the dinner table every minute so he took those 10 minutes to work on a novel and he ended up writing 3 very successful novels that way by squeezing in those 10 minutes. I think that’s the trick is giving yourself that time and scheduling it in.

Gerri: In your book, you talked about how when you were making your wooden spoons, you discovered that you could actually do that while you were on a conference call, for example, and concentrate better. So maybe there is some synergy between being able to accomplish other things whether to clear your mind, or find the relaxation that you need if you take on some of these projects.

Mark: Absolutely and you’ll see that with knitters. People who knit say that they are able to really have a much more pleasant conversation while they are knitting and I found that also that when I do work conference calls, if I just sit and carve a spoon it puts you in kind of a slow state or something and I’m much less fidgety and I can really concentrate one that conversation. It’s a pretty cool effect.

You can do this anywhere

Gerri: You aren’t living on a ranch in Montana or out of the woods somewhere. You’re living in a Los Angeles suburbs, is that right?

Mark: Yeah, I’m about a six-minute drive from Hollywood and Vine. So I’m right here in the city, basically up in the hills.

Gerri: You’re doing these kinds of projects in a very urban environment. Do your neighbors, do people think you’re crazy?

Mark: They’re amused by the chickens. When I had the chickens, they got out and were running around on the street and one of the people who lives on the block, he was one of the producers of The Waltons and he was, “hey this is just like The Waltons!” And he got hold of a cam and started snapping some pictures – he loved it.

It’s not always about saving money

Gerri: Some of these projects may involve specialized tools, or they may involve specialized materials. What have you found in terms of the financial payoff or the financial cost in your DIY projects?

Mark: That’s a really good question. It’s kind of a yes and no thing. No, it’s not going to save you money compared to something that you would buy. If you were to build your own television set it would cost a lot more money to buy the part than it would to buy the TV off the shelf. It’s usually cheaper to buy in almost every case.

But, if you look at making as a hobby that is really rewarding and a way to spend time, it’s going to be less expensive than going out at night and spending a lot of money at a nightclub or taking an expensive vacation or something like that. As leisure activities go, you can make it pretty inexpensive. If you wanted to become a wood carver, you could buy an improvised wood carver set under a $100 and it would give you a lifetime of enjoyment. In the end I think it’s an inexpensive and rewarding way to spend your time.

Gerri: And some projects like some of the food projects you’ve done, you may have an initial investment, like building the chicken coop or getting the yogurt maker if you decide to go the route. But it sounds like that in the long run, they can end up saving you money.

Mark: Yeah, definitely, one thing that I’ve started doing is roasting my own coffee. And there’s a way that you can do it using an air popcorn popper. There are tutorials online that show you how to do it and the cool thing is that green coffee beans, unroasted beans are a lot cheaper than roasted beans. They’re about $5 a pound that’s comparable to, comparable roasted beans would be about $15 a pound. And green beans will stay fresh for about a year or two so you can keep them by yourself, 10 pounds of beans and then roast a batch whenever you need fresh coffee and you will have the freshest coffee ever and you’ll save money.

Gerri: I really appreciate your book and recommend it. I also love your blog at Can you give us more places that you recommend that anyone who’s interested in DIY should visit?

Mark: Sure, well I think has a lot of really good recent resources that will show you how to make different projects, lots of tutorial videos that can help you get started, information about Maker’s Fair, which is our twice annual fair, that has a 100,000 attendees who come to see this giant-like science and creativity fair. It’s really fun.

And another really good website is and that’s where people upload instructions on things that they’ve made, all sorts of gadgets from beer coolers, built-in wagon to really neat kind of kites, all kinds of projects. I think those two right there will keep you busy for at least a couple of weeks.

Listen to or download the complete interview with Frauenfelder here: download

You can also listen to or download an interview with Consumerism Commentary’s Flexo here: download

Editor’s note: I’ve been a fan of Mark Frauenfelder since I discovered BoingBoing many years ago. He was a guest on the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, as well, in 2009.

Updated May 9, 2012 and originally published April 9, 2012.

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About the author

Gerri Detweiler is the author of five books, including Reduce Debt, Reduce Stress: Real Life Solutions for Solving Your Credit Crisis. As a consumer advocate, Gerri has been interviewed for more than 3,000 news interviews/ She is also an international speaker and has testified before Congress on consumer credit topics. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 shellye

My hubby is a very talented photographer, but doesn’t do much of it anymore. I wish I could get him to just take 10 minutes every day to dabble. I’m creative all day at work, so I don’t really want to create stuff at home. Although I’ve been thinking of creating my own greeting cards lately…hmmm…maybe I need to rethink it.

Great post!

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Sounds like it could be a good project for the two of you – he photographs and you make the cards.

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avatar 3 Donna Freedman

I make yogurt in a bowl wrapped in a towel set atop a heating pad. It’s really simple and MUCH cheaper than commercial varieties. I make jam, too, which is also simple: Boil crushed fruit and sugar for a while.
I think that if people start with small projects they will gain confidence and try more complicated ones.
Bonus: People are so excited when you give a jar of jam. They think it’s alchemy. And you look so competent and clever.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

So true! I am determined to figure the yogurt thing out after I roast the coffee beans. ;)

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avatar 5 Anonymous

OK Donna – you’ve convinced me. The yogurt making project comes right after I roast those coffee beans. ;)

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avatar 6 Anonymous

It sounds like an awesome book and definitely something I would recommend. I try and do a lot myself when it comes to food especially. I tend to move around a lot so can’t acquire too many tools however most of the time, for a one off, you can usually borrow what you need.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I really enjoyed the book. Fun read and lots of inspiration.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

Great interview. Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to check out the book.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Awesome tips for having fun and saving $$$! Financial and work stress sucks so I love your suggestions for relaxing on a budget

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avatar 10 Anonymous

I like the fact that being a diy you can take risks and if you fail. That is when you can call in a professional. I would always have the additional money set aside incase you were not able to complete the project to your satisfaction.

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avatar 11 qixx

Not all projects need or should have the professional as a fall back plan. Plumbing, sure. Building shelves in your closet, not so much. Some DIY projects are things you live with, learn from, and improve on later when you have more experience under your belt.

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