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You Must Make the Gear

Backcountry Boiler
Backcountry Boiler

You must make the gear you wish to see in the world

“I wish there was piece of gear X.” It’s a lament I had as soon as I got into lightweight backpacking. The piece of gear was a lightweight chimney kettle (http://zenstoves.net/Wood.htm) suitable for hiking, and two years after wishing for it, I had one – the first of its kind and made by my own hand. Two years after that, and scores of my closest friends from around the world now have the same.

But as neat as I think my little device is, the really remarkable part about it is that I had no business making it. I don’t have a background in engineering or fabrication – I majored in philosophy for goodness sake. My mentor in this trade was the Internet, and anyone who is reading this is enrolled in the same program.

I know for a fact that my “I wish there was piece of gear X,” inspiration is common among hikers – particularly lightweight hikers. It has given rise to countless independent (or “cottage”) gear manufacturers in both the US and abroad. But there should be more and they should be more diverse. The gear someone can produce on their own, and on a budget, is by no means limited to what one can make on a sewing machine or with recycled aluminum cans or bottles.

With free software, free or inexpensive instruction, relatively affordable tools, and modern rapid-prototyping technologies, a professional-quality piece of almost any gear one desires can be made for less than what many backpackers spend on their kit (estimated at between $1,000 – $2,000) according to a poll by Backpacking Light). Most can be made for a lot less, and the costs can often be recouped if the creation is shared with others.

Below are a few resources that, if taken full advantage of, can almost entirely enable one to make the gear of their (and perhaps others’) dreams.

Designing

Google SketchUp: A free CAD program that is relatively easy to learn, with good online support. Incredibly useful for visualizing shapes and proportions before committing anything to physical material.  Can also, with some work, create files that can be adapted for use by CNC and other prototyping machines.

Inkscape: A free GNU program for creating vector graphics. Great for designing that logo or creating paths for 2D cutters or printers. Also has robust online support.

Making (yourself)

Smartflix: Like Netflix for geeks. This is where I rented the videos that taught me how to make the Boiler through a process called metal spinning. Has instruction on everything from welding to plastic casting to laying fiberglass.

Hackerspaces: Ever want a place where a bunch of really smart people who love tinkering hang out? They exist and are called hackerspaces. Most metropolitan areas have one, and they frequently have a wealth of knowledgeable people and communal tools.

Mcmaster-Carr: The Amazon.com of materials, tools and equipment. Has a great selection of items that are hard to find elsewhere, wonderful service, and smooth shipping.

Harbor Freight: Tools and equipment for far less than most other places. Many are of marginal quality, but are great for ancillary tasks so money can be spent buying quality tools and equipment for core operations.

Grainger: The place for those quality tools and equipment. They generally deal with businesses, but can be talked into selling to individuals.

Making (by others)

Shapeways: A place that makes 3D printing in both plastic and metal easily accessible. Printable materials may lack some physical characteristics of machined or cast counterparts, but for prototyping the cost is generally far less. With some manipulation, SketchUp files can be used to create objects.

Ponoko: Another place for 3D printing that also offers laser cutting and some electronic components.

eMachineShop: Different than Shapeways or Ponoko, eMachineShop offers more traditional machining, cutting, casting, and fabrication services. It has its own CAD program from which parts and be directly designed and ordered.

Local manufacturers: As great as online options are, sometimes there’s no replacement for the interaction with a real-life manufacturer, and it can be surprising how many are relatively close by. Regardless of one’s views on international trade and manufacturing, closer is generally better for prototypes and short runs.

Sharing

Online Communities: Many reading this are probably already members of one online forum or another. They can provide invaluable feedback, support, and even orders for a nascent piece of gear. The Backcountry Boiler, in fact, was born in a thread on Backpacking Light. One should however be cognizant of the fact that, just like with Facebook, anything published online is effectively going out to the entire world.

Kickstarter: A website based around crowd funding that has been getting a lot of attention recently. It can be used to fund all kinds of creative ventures, including design. Selling an idea to the community there can help fund what are sometimes unavoidably high fixed costs of production runs. Only open to projects from inside the US.

Indiegogo: An alternative to Kickstarter with a slightly different funding mechanism. Also open to projects originating from outside the US.

Protecting (you, your creation, and others)

Despite having gone to law school (or more likely because of it), it’s the legal aspect of creating that I’m least comfortable giving advice on. Here’s why: legal advice is like medical advice – you should really talk to a professional, preferably a specialist. Just as self-diagnosis through WebMD is a bad idea, so is relying on anything you might read online from me or anyone else.

Here’s what I will say, however. The most important thing to do when creating something is to minimize the risk of physical harm to others, so it’s really worth looking into safety regulations and product liability law. It’s also important to give intellectual property rights some consideration – not only if you’re considering protecting what you create, but also to make sure you’re not infringing on the rights of others. Benefits and weaknesses of different business organizations (a sole proprietorship, LLC, etc.) are also worth considering, as are the fundamentals of contract construction.

The Challenge

So if that last legal bit hasn’t totally lost everyone, I lay down the challenge – go and be fruitful. Create! It’s not any easy process, but it is totally doable. And there’s also another word for something that’s not easy: a challenge. If you doubt any of what I’ve said here, seek other resources, or have your own to contribute please just respond in the comment section below. I’m more than happy to share what I know, and eager to hear about the experiences of others.

11 comments

  1. Thanks for the well-organized and informative post- it fits into my current interests. I'd be interested to hear about your approach to sales and marketing, as that seems to be the next step.

  2. Really interesting post – I'll be looking into those links. Thanks!

  3. Thanks guys!

    Jarra – sales and marketing is the next step and what I'm currently working on. When I successfully make more headway on that front, I'll similarly share what I find. :)

    Mark – thanks! There is some good stuff in there.

  4. Devin – I think you've already demonstrated awesome marketing skills with this stove. The crowd sourcing approach you took to finance the effort generated fantastic buzz about the product and your periodic email updates helped build tremendous brand loyalty before the product even shipped.

    I also think that limiting the number of boilers you produced in the first run was a brilliant move, because it's further enhanced the exclusivity that early adopters feel toward their stoves, and made others wish they had a second generation one now, now, now!

    Good job!

  5. Well written and packed with good information. I confess I never actually had the desire to design gear before but knowing there are so many resources out there almost makes me want to just for the challenge of it.

  6. Thanks Philip! Perhaps it's better to say that sales and marketing is an ongoing process. I'm still in the middle of it. :) I really like the way that things have worked out so far. I love the connections I've been able to build with customers, and the limited number of Boilers not only made the first run exclusive, but also doable. :)

    Chris – Thanks! By all means – go out there and create. I don't know that I really had the drive to make something until I found this compelling project, which has taken me quite far!

  7. Devin,

    I LOVE this story. Is there a second run of stoves coming out soon or are you going to tweek the design after getting feedback?

    What I really love about this story is your dedication to the product. You had to step out and learn so many things to even get it off the ground.

    I read your blog last year just before you were going into production. It is so exciting to see all those finished stoves. They are beauties!

  8. I would love to purchase this product. Been following ever since Ryan Jordan posted about. When will we be able to purchase one???

    • They’ve been available for a while – go to theboilerwerks.com. There are also some similar products by other companies that are good for larger sized groups – mKlettle, Ghille Kettle, and Kelly Kettle.

  9. Earlylite, I do not think they are available. I have been going to this web page for quite some time and clicked on the “order” tab and all you get is to sign up for their email to let you know when they will be available. Frustrating!

    • That’s frustrating. Let me contact Devin and see what his backlog is like for you. I got one of the first ones made (I paid for it – got to support smaller guys) and just assumed that he was producing them continuously.

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