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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

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Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Friday, April 17, 2015

Musings on the Economics of DIY

Crossed the Atlantic...
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If you don't build your dreams, someone will hire you to build theirs.
-- Tony Gaskin

In fact, most home projects are impossible, which is why you should do them yourself. There is no point in paying other people to screw things up when you can easily screw them up yourself for far less money.
-- From The Taming of the Screw by Dave Barry

Musings on the Economics of DIY

I've been trying to wrap my head around some of the big picture economics of DIY. It's fuzzy. My head hurts. Here's what I got:

Okay. We face the question of where we lie along a spectrum between Do It Yourself (DIY) at one extreme, and Throw Money Around (TMA) at the other.

Pure DIY would be a neo-plastic (vs neo-lithic) venture... bootstrap ourselves up and into a vessel using only found materials. Living, as we do, in the Age of Waste, found materials cover a lot of ground not available to our ancestors. With large enough doses of time, ingenuity and skill, one can clearly bring a vessel into being from our wilderness of natural and unnatural abundance without dropping a single penny.

Pure TMA is entirely a market transaction. We sell our time, ingenuity and skill out to the highest bidder, or for the highest return in Money. We then hand said Money over for a turnkey vessel. 'Course, there's the little matter of overheads along the way.

Most of us lie somewhere in between. We scavenge and improvise, stay flexible and open to windfall, lavish our very own labor on DIY. Yet we TMA for tools, for uniform or exotic materials (e.g., plywood and epoxy), for hardware (forged and galvanized anchors), for rent and utilities.

Insofar as we TMA, theory goes that our time is worth more traded for Money than in direct application to the job at hand. We go on to trade Money for materials worked by specialists (or specialist processes). Theory goes, we get a better return on our time if we TMA than if we DIY.

But that's a shaky assertion. Those overheads - and the little perks we use to carrot our way through the misery of the marketplace - have a way of eating up a paycheck. If you add in all the prep time, energy and $$$ (gone to apprenticeships or education) required to command a decent wage... well... Money doesn't seem so efficient. Matter of fact, relatively few find their way past making it to living their dream.

One of the things I love about looking at boats built with early technologies is that all those boats were viable, DIY vessels! Not a stick on them was manufactured, bought and paid for, at least in the modern sense. Hulls were usually built by their owners in wood stopped with home-brewed pitch. Anchors were hand-made and they worked. Ditto capstans and winches. Ditto line and blocks. Sails were woven by hand and loom before machines could do it for us.

Not an inch of those vessels was out of reach of any one of us, today. What's more, we can now cross-pollinate ideas from cultures that never met. What's more, we have modern understandings of physics which inform our solutions. What's more, we have the material advantages of abundant, cast off plastics, composites, metals, line and fabrics. All overflowing dumpsters, junkyards and landfills. Smothering the once pristine beaches of the world. There are folks who will pay you to haul their unwanted materials away.

DIY is an education; a crash course in all the skills and knowledge that comprise your vessel. Design and lash up, weld or forge your own anchor, and I guarantee you'll know more than the sailor who paid for theirs. Knowledge which may well come in mighty handy in some far and lonely place. TMA can't by ya love, Baby.

So the impovisational path is a Low Road I much admire.

For various reasons, Anke and I have talked ourselves out of this approach. We've always wanted to go sailing (not spend forever building). And we've done okay. But looking back, I'm not so sure we made the best bargains.

We build quickly with the help of Money. But, if you count what goes into earning that.Money - hours on the clock, overheads, perks- it could well be well into net loss. Worse, the Money Economy is slowly shutting down the world through which we would sail. Our participation grinds a little bit more away.

I look back and count up the years gone for Money gone to 'speed' the process of getting on the water. Five year plans for six month boats. Hmmph.

Mighta shoulda just gone dunnit.

PS. On one of our first boat jobs, I was sanding away with a random orbital. Being a skinflint by nature, I was running each round of sandpaper into the ground. To save Money, of course.

Our employer observed this for a bit, then said, "You need to change that paper every three to five minutes."

"But won't that burn through sandpaper like toilet paper?", I sputtered, incredulous.

"Dave, materials are cheap. Labor is expensive."

And it's true.

That's the economic good of DIY... we don't have to pay for our own labor, beyond righteously sore muscles, here and there (work safe, though, or all bets are off!).


  1. Very logical marine version of "Your Money Or Your Life" and hopefully a legion of youngsters will wake up and hit the salt DIY style. You never know how a well written piece like this will manifest righteously in some kids life. Or cause a quick 90 degree jaunt for some near suicidal investment banker.

    1. Hi Robert,

      We're definitely living in an Age of Opportunity!

      And having the info well of the internet at our fingertips - while it isn't an apprenticeship with a Master - gives us access to Masters. AND to the invaluable trial-and-error of us mere mortals.

      Dave Z