Workshop Mastery with Jimmy DiResta: A Guide to Working with Metal, Wood, Plastic, and Leather - Jimmy DiResta, John Baichtal (2016)

Chapter 1. The Making of a Maker

I’m Jimmy DiResta and I’ve been making things my entire life, literally since I was old enough to stand in front of a saw. When I was a little kid my dad kept putting tools in front of me, my brothers, and my sister. I had the most curiosity about how tools worked and my dad kept nurturing it. He put me in front of a saw and I stuck my thumb in it right away. In the beginning I’d get cut here and there, and I still get cut once in a while.

Growing Up DiResta

I basically grew up in a workshop environment. Some kids see something they want and wish they could buy; I just went and built it. I wanted a crossbow, so I made one. The trigger mechanism was a challenge to figure out. I tried a bunch of different mechanisms until I perfected it. While most kids want to play basketball, I was developing a dart gun that would puncture the skin of the ball.

Making a mechanism like this requires thousands of tiny decisions, and trial and error experimenting with the spring tension in the trigger, or the strength of the projectile bow or rubber band. I learned things in this process that I still think of and use daily. As a kid I was not aware of the lessons I was learning.

I worked at a sign shop in high school, starting as a helper. At home I would cut letters on my band saw. One day I proved I was good enough to cut letters on their band saw. Eventually I would sit most of the day cutting all the letters for all the signs. I was 18 at the time; the next best-skilled guy was 50. Thirty years later, I use a CNC machine to cut most of my signage.

About a year after high school, I met a friend who was going to the School of Visual Arts. He encouraged me to check it out. I started going to SVA for graphic design, but pretty soon I realized all of my solutions were three-dimensional. I was making things and shooting them with a camera, and that was my graphic design solution. I switched to the 3D Illustration program, which was a much better fit.

Just when I was about to graduate, I took an elective called Toys and Invention. I’ve always been a person with a lot of creative ideas, and the teacher encouraged me to be an inventor.

Toy Building

From 1990 through around 2008, I designed toys. I have about 25 patents in the toy business. Most of them involve slime and other gross things kids love. You can see an example in Figure 1-1, the drawing for US patent # 5846116, which is a hollow rubber baby dinosaur. It comes in an egg that kids squeeze to make a gurgling noise.

Figure 1-1. What’s not to like about a toy baby dinosaur?

Another of my creations is Gurglin’ Gutz (Figure 1-2), which consists of simulated brains, hearts, and so forth, inside a plastic sphere of colored slime. You squeeze it to make gross noises.

Figure 1-2. As a toymaker I specialized in gross-out toys like Gurglin’ Gutz

While I enjoyed designing toys, I had some freelance projects I worked on. One of the most fun was modifying electric guitars.

Guitar Making

About the same time I started making toys, a friend introduced me to the owners of a guitar shop. I made a few guitars for them. One of the owners knew guitarist Steve Vai, and I ended up making my first celebrity guitar for him—the flaming skull design you can see in Figure 1-3.

Figure 1-3. I built this guitar for Steve Vai

Steve played it on David Letterman the same day I gave it to him. It was 1990, I was out of school for five months, and I felt like a pro! My girlfriend was working at a store as the register girl. There was a rock and roll guy that would flirt with her. She told him about me and that I made guitars, and she showed him the photo of the Steve Vai guitar. He had seen it the night before on the Letterman show and immediately wanted to meet me. His name was Adam Holland. He was a professional guitarist and had an endorsement deal with ESP guitars. So I began to make him a few guitars, developed a relationship with ESP, and added a few nice pieces to my portfolio.

At this time I was working on a bunch of projects, gaining experience, and developing a foundation to one day be able to raise my day rate. I still take jobs for free to learn new things. I do this to keep my problem-solving skills sharp and in tune. When I first purchased my CNC router last year, I needed to learn how to use it on real jobs. I made anything my clients needed simply to use and learn the software. Staying humble and looking for the lesson in any situation always helps me.

Making Television

My brother is a former NYC transit cop who did standup comedy. He did a one-person show that got turned into a television series and moved to L.A. A few years later he was between shows and asked me if I could film him picking through the trash and making a table from what he found. It was 2002, and I had been experimenting with video editing using Final Cut. So I went out to record him and put together a seven-minute tape for a show called Trash to Cash.

His agent was pleasantly surprised that the tape and edit were actually good. Because of the tape, we got a meeting at FX Networks. I put together a presentation of ideas for a full TV season. I was hoping to get a job on the show as a behind-the-scenes designer/producer. I had my portfolio with me and a big book of ideas: hand-sketched and Photoshopped images of various ideas for episodes. The producer we met with at FX asked me if I wanted to be on camera, which was very unexpected. I said yes, of course—he liked the idea of me being the “designer” brother and John being the “funny” brother. We ended up shooting seven episodes, including one where I pimped out an old caddy (Figure 1-4) with crushed blue velvet, carpeting, and gold-painted detailing.

Figure 1-4. Making “Trash to Cash” restoring this sweet old car

We went on to make a show called Hammered. We made the pitch tape on our own without any network or production company. My friend was a hairdresser; one of her clients was a network executive at HGTV. She told her friend about me. I sent in a tape…and 12 months later Hammered was being made for HGTV. It aired 28 episodes in ’06–07. I made another guitar for this show—a guitar with flames carved into it; you can see it in Figure 1-5. You could see preliminaries in my woodshop videos, showing the way the project came together, which involved a lot of planning and sketching before I touched a tool.

Figure 1-5. The flaming guitar I built for “Hammered”

Another popular build from the show was a classic doghouse (Figure 1-6) made from scraps found in an actual junkyard.

Figure 1-6. A junkyard doghouse fit for a junkyard dog

In 2010, a friend asked me to visit him at the new production company where he was working. They needed new signage, and I agreed to make it for them. While there, I asked if they took submissions for ideas. I sent my friend the YouTube link for Lord of the Fleas, an idea for a show I had shot in 2004 but which had never come to anything.

Lord of the Fleas is about finding trash and reworking it for sale at the flea market. Everyone loved the tape, but no deal came of it. So I just put it on my YouTube channel. It was getting some hits; a few people loved the idea, but it still was not getting any traction.

The owner of the production company called me one evening and asked if he could show it around. He showed it to Discovery Channel that week. Ten months later we were in production. Discovery aired the show with a new title, Dirty Money. In the summer of 2011 we aired one season.

One of the notable builds from the show was a gramophone restoration (Figure 1-7).

Figure 1-7. This gramophone now sports a restored trumpet

Another of the projects, a set of wrench pulls (Figure 1-8) harkens back to a favorite category of projects: modifying tools, restoring them, and repurposing them in unexpected ways. You’ll get to see a lot of modified tools in this book!

Figure 1-8. These drawer pulls are fashioned from junked wrenches

Another fun project was a prop replica, the signature bike from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, seen in Figure 1-9.

Figure 1-9. I restored this bike and made it look like Pee Wee’s bicycle from the movie

Although it doesn’t sound like it, I never was able to get much traction in the TV business. People ask why I’m not working on another show. It’s not because I’m not interested. It’s because they’re not interested.

In the meantime I’ve found something better: making my own shows and posting them on YouTube.

Uploading My Own

I started putting up YouTube videos in 2012. There was a guy who got two million hits with a video of his truck running. I put up a video of my truck running and it didn’t get any hits. At first I developed my channel as a way of attracting viewers for my next TV project, but eventually I stopped caring about TV and focused on the shows for their own sake. I recorded myself building projects, mostly sped up and without subtitles or narration.

After about 15 videos, Make: noticed and asked me to do some videos for them. It’s been three years now, and I’ve done over 80 videos for them. My Make: videos include some fan favorites, like “Ice Pick 2.0,” “Birch Slice Table” (seen in Figure 1-10), and the “Pallet Toolbox.” (You’ll find the latter in the pages of this book.) I’ve done tool restorations, furniture and sign projects for clients, as well as storage and tools for my own use here in the shop.

Figure 1-10. I’ve done a bunch of videos for Make:

The most important thing about YouTube is being able to talk directly to my fans, without the filter of a TV station or production company in between. Sometimes it’s a bad sort of communication, with nitpickers disagreeing with my techniques or wringing their hands over some customization I made to a tool.

Most of the fans I have dealt with, however, have been excited, supportive, eager to learn, and happy to watch my videos purely as a source of inspiration. People sometimes ask why I don’t explain things in more detail. The answer is, I’ve never intended my videos to be exact how-tos. I don’t like to be preachy about what I do. The making experience is totally personal. I’m not trying to teach you the right way to use a band saw or hold a drill. I’m just trying to inspire you to try it yourself.

Welcome to my workshop!