Years ago, wannabe engineers might have sat in a garage tearing up VCRs to concoct homemade electronics, pounding can after can of Tab to fuel their DiY compulsions. That's still happening today — except with DVD burners, cans of Red Bull, and with millions of people watching the mad scientists on YouTube.
Functioning lightsabers. Mini rocket launchers. Homemade carbonated ice cream. Solar USB chargers. Just a few of the projects you can tackle in a weekend, thanks to a growing community of scrappy, curious, smart YouTubers who like to work with their hands — and like to blow stuff up.
The maker movement's been around for decades, but social media has driven the niche's popularity to new heights: Google searches for "DiY YouTube" have skyrocketed over the last few years, and "DiY" is among the 30 most-subscribed subreddits.
And while classic woodworking how-to's have made real-life Ron Swansons out of YouTubers like Steve Ramsey and Matthias Wandel (who've each racked up around 400,000 subscribers), sci-tech DiY has emerged as a viewer-amassing powerhouse genre of its own.
Drake Anthony (the "DiY Laser Guy"), for example, has a video in which he showed off an original red 250 milliwatt-laser made out of scrap computer parts, and it's hit 4 million views. Grant Thompson ("The King of Random"), meanwhile, scored 15 million views with his lesson on how to "self-freeze" cola into a slushie in milliseconds.
The best part? These videos are largely geared toward the interwebs' average joes and janes, who might be big MythBusters fans but who don't have electrical engineering degrees from Stanford. They empower folks to make shit that I didn't even know actually existed in real life, like Iron Man's stun gun glove.
In a way, YouTube — a site that started 10 years ago as a home video dumping ground — has a DiY ethos of its own that makes it the perfect platform to empower the maker movement in the digital age.
We've rounded just a few of YouTube's most insane, highest octane channels with DiY tutorials that could only be brought to you in the Internet age. This kinda stuff would have just been too nuts for '80s public access.
Read on and be amazed. (And wear goggles when firing lasers, please.)
110,945 subscribers, 54,731,188 views
Death rays, lightsabers and beams of all stripes built out of broken electronics and scrap goods. You're not going to find this dude's projects in your average McGraw-Hill chemistry textbook.
The "DIY Laser Guy," Southern Illinois University junior Drake Anthony (who's triple-majoring in chem, physics, and maths), started uploading videos onto YouTube when he was 14, but was fascinated by zappers since he was a kid. He's planning on pursuing a PhD in chemistry or physics. Ideas usually strike him out of the blue, while rummaging through piles of junk.
One of his more popular videos is "Homemade Death Ray Laser DRONE BOT!!! Remote Controlled!!" which features a foam disc-shooting robo-spider called an Attacknid. But Anthony outfitted the toy with a 2W blue laser that sets stuff on fire on command.
"I usually get positive reactions from viewers, with a lot of people calling me crazy for the stuff I do," Anthony says. "I can't disagree with them there."
277,435 subscribers, 29,423,435 views
Greek-American Paul is a normal guy who likes to make video game-inspired weapons on YouTube, but was hesitant at first: "For a while, I lived this double life where I was totally secretive with my channel," he says. "I didn't want my creations to define who I was, some of them being a bit taboo — like, flaming swords and taser gloves."
But, no surprise, his badass inventions have rallied a sizeable, supportive audience. He calls DiY "improvised technology." One of his favourite projects is the "Shishkebab v.2," a flaming, gasoline-dripping sword "to attack predatory creatures of the post-apocalyptic world," he says. (It's made out of a motorcycle hand brake, motorcycle gas tank, lawnmower blade, shower piping, and an oven mitt.)
Nerd culture features heavily in his work, from his Iron Man 3 Stun Glove to the Phantom Assassin Dart Gun. (The Shishkebab flame sabre was inspired by the video game Fallout 3.) "People see a cool gadget or invention from a movie or video game and think, 'I wish I had that!'" Paul explains. "Sometimes I stop wishing and motivate myself to make it come to life."
882,724 subscribers, 112,963,132 views
NightHawkInLight — aka, Ben — has always been interested in science, but "really I just enjoy doing things myself, in general." Now, maintaining his science experiment channel on YouTube is his full-time job.
Ben definitely feels that the Internet has helped galvanise this sprawling legion of sci-and-tech DiY enthusiasts. "Often I'll promote smaller channels if I feel that they're doing a great job with their content and need to be seen," he says. "I think that really does a lot to build great interaction between everyone in the genre."
One of his most popular vids is "How to Make Giant Bubbles" — "Like, school bus-sized bubbles," he says. His "How to Scramble Eggs Inside Their Shell," released Easter 2013, generated 4 million views and was the most-watched food video on YouTube that year.
Internet fame has its downsides, though: Apparently a popular Russian channel decided to test his egg-scrambling method, but messed up, and declared Ben's video bogus. "This resulted in a tidal wave of Russian YouTubers coming to lay siege on my comments section," he says. "This was two years ago. To this day I still get a few Russian comments per week: 'ФЕЙК, Fake! Russians checked!'"
3,552,771 subscribers 344,972,689 views
Grant Thompson is known to the Internet as "The King of Random." A look at his video roster shows why: He's a purveyor of awesome scientific miscellanea like styrofoam-turned-aluminium, mined batteries, sugar-and-kitty litter-fuelled rockets, and Ninja Turtle green slime. And like many DiYers on YouTube, he's self-taught. He's also addicted to making these videos, and is fuelled more by the passion than anything.
"Even if I try to go on vacation, it's only three or four days before I'm itching to get back to making projects and seeing what kind of response they get," Thompson says. (He uploads a new video every five days.)
But he says he doesn't feel part of a YouTube community, per se. "I would be doing what I'm doing regardless of what platform I was operating on," he says.
2,242,121 subscribers, 542,979,833 views
Billing his channel as "the most amazing hacks, pranks, and how-to videos in the world," this former DJ has reinvented himself as a DiY guru on the interwebz.
Since he's found success among do-it-yourselfers on YouTube, he's launched his own website that offers downloadable schematics to projects like 9-volt LED torches, confetti canons, homemade FM radios, burglar alarms, beat boxes and paintball rocket launchers.
There's also a range of accessibility in his projects, so you can jump in whatever your skill level, be it total noob or space shuttle operator. His catalogue includes laser trip wires, but also more softball fare, like light-up drink coasters. He's got a penchant for pranks, too, like staplers that zap and computer mice that stink.
539,489 subscribers, 72,544,694 views
This channel (run by professional scientists with PhDs in inorganic chemistry) focuses on experiments that debunk and delight. Bored with the fifth grade science fair-level experiment videos on YouTube a few years ago — like how to make a baking soda volcano — the NurdRage team was "pissed off that YouTube chemistry sucked."
So they came up with stunty videos that rake in millions of eyeballs from not only science nerds, but also regular Internet dwellers looking for cool viewing material. In one video, a NurdRage host dunks his bare hand in molten sodium acetate trihydrate, which instantly crystallises around his hand like a jar full of mutant marshmallow Fluff.
Another video came in response to a bogus claim that asserted glow sticks could be made with Mountain Dew. The folks at NurdRage knew that as actual chemists — and as proprietors of a popular YouTube channel — they could explain how the rave trinket is actually made: "Interestingly enough, it was hard for us to get TCPO, a key chemical in making glow sticks work. So we had to synthesise it ourselves." As you do.