MachinePix Weekly #28: Laura Kampf, Maker Extraordinaire

Laura Kampf talks about starting a massively popular Maker YouTube channel, why trash is amazing, and staying weird. This week's most popular post was a pistachio harvesting machine 🌳⚙️

This week’s interview features Laura Kampf, a Germany-based Maker whose YouTube videos on upcycling scrap into useful tools has inspired tens of millions of viewers’ side projects.

The most popular post this week was a tree shaker system for harvesting pistachios (and other tree nuts!) by Custom Orchard Equipment.

I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?

Kane


Interview with Laura Kampf

Your first video is a DIY walnut lamp from 2015; what were you working on before that, and what made you start documenting your work?

It’s a bit weird, because with my career, looking back, it makes sense—but going forward I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Right before I made that video I’d quit my job as a display artist at Urban Outfitters. It was a great job, but I kept hearing I was “over-motivated” and should “slow down and take a break,” that “we’re just working,” I was “too serious, calm down.”

I felt that if I was hearing that from my boss, I should work for myself. That’s why I quit my job and found the Maker community on YouTube. I’d had a weekly blog but somehow had never gotten into the scene. My blog had 12 followers I think. Because I had more time and was watching a lot more YouTube I began to understand the channel structure and comment sections, and seeing the same few people and realizing they were doing it as a job.

On my blog I was just taking pictures of my projects’ final results, not showing how it was done. Back then I was working with a lot of trash in my projects, and I realized the process was a lot more exciting than the end result.

I just decided to give it a try, and I had a few motivations: I just wanted to document how I did my projects for myself. The walnut lamp, it looks really simple, but there are a lot of choices that go into it. How I cable it, how I hung it: I wanted to document it. I also wanted to give back to the community instead of just being a consumer.

What inspires the projects you choose to work on?

I got into a weekly rhythm, so I know I have to make a project each week. In the end, my product is the YouTube video, not the actual project—so it has to have an interesting narrative and story. It has to be financially okay for me to do—I can’t build a walnut bed every week! Because of the big time constraint, some weeks are really busy as a result. Those are all factors that narrow the field for me.

It usually takes one spark that piques my interest. A new tool, a new technique, a piece of metal I found, or a need—I needed a new desk—it’s just taking the ideas that are there and using the constraints to filter. I build so much, I'm building every day—sometimes it doesn’t even matter what the specific idea is. For example those things that cats play with, the furniture, what are they called?

Scratching posts?

Cat scratching posts—I don’t even have a cat but think there’s just some interesting ideas there.

Where do you make all these videos?

I’m in Germany outside of Cologne a little bit, in an abandoned mill. It’s creepy as hell sometimes but the neighbors are very interesting. I traded with a neighbor for an old Russian troposphere helmet. I posted it on my Instagram and people lost their minds. I traded an old camera for it.

What is your favorite project in the portfolio?

My favorite project is the one I’m working on at any given moment. That’s what’s most exciting to me. When I’m done I usually forget about it. When I built a BBQ I accidentally left it outside for months. The actual things rarely matter to me, but I love the process.

But the thing I remember most is this tattoo gun I made from trash in design school. I wanted to be a photographer when I graduated and before I worked for a TV studio for 3 years but then went to design school for a broader understanding, but that’s where I discovered I really wanted to work with my hands, building things—like sculpture and furniture. The tattoo gun sparked everything.

Any side projects you’re working on right now?

Actually, I started painting! You can see a little bit in the background. It’s not intended to be shared. My studio as well—it’s more of a curation of other people’s work I like. My work needs to feel like a hobby, if it becomes just a job I don’t know how I’d feel about it. I need to keep it as unprofessional as I can.

What’s the best advice you have for people that are tinkering and exploring their own side projects?

One thing that really changed how I understood everything, with the internet, is that you have access to all the people that are just as weird as you are. For the longest time, growing up and not knowing about these communities, I thought I had to find the biggest common denominator and just go along. Now that I have the career that I have, I appreciate all the things that make me super weird. When you find someone that’s excited about a shitty tattoo gun as much as you are, you have so much to talk about. That’s your friend. It’s so much more than finding someone that likes the same mainstream movie.

Being ok with being weird, different, really helped me find the right community and focus on the things that make me happy. I could have just copied the most popular designs or styles. Embracing the things about you, won’t necessarily bring you the biggest audience, but they will be the truest, the most meaningful.

I see a lot of people getting sad or frustrated because of views and likes—it almost feels like getting naked on a table when I post a video: so much of my personality is exposed. But it’s important to know that Mainstream and special interest are so different. You can’t compare these numbers.

What makers or channels are your favorite to follow? Who do you think is under-the-radar?

Everybody is under-appreciated! There are a couple people that have inspired me over the years. There’s a guy in Portland, super young dude, Make With Miles, I met him at Maker Faire when he was 14. He’s still at it! That really inspires me, makes me think “where would I be if I had that passion so early.” Thinking about where he would be when he is 37, that just makes me happy.

It makes me happy to see there are people so much younger than I am, better than I am: there will never be a lack of content! That said, just because someone’s not sharing online doesn’t mean their work is not excellent, so I'm motivated to keep looking.

Any favorite books or books you’re reading right now?

That’s actually one of my very very few regrets about being self employed. Ever since I quit my job I haven't read much. I don't know what it is—I think it takes a lot of capacity, but I don’t have much energy left after my work. I want to read but fall asleep. There’s rarely a weekend where I just read. This Christmas is the first time in years I finished a book, it’s terrible. I keep ordering them but I never finish them. I finished Steven King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool or hack that you think is under-appreciated?

That’s a tricky one. I think one of the best tools in the shop is a cold beer or a good coffee with someone you want to trade stuff with. Or someone that works on something you can’t do—connecting with people on a personal level is an underestimated tool. I use it all the time. 

I’m in this abandoned area, there’s only weirdos like me and this guy I traded the helmet with. There’s a guy that collects and trades scrap metal. We’re very different, we wouldn't talk about many things at all—but we both agree that scrap is valuable. We’re like the bird that picks the crocodiles teeth, I take my scraps and trade for stuff off his truck. I have access to the coolest stuff that I wouldn't be able to afford otherwise. I recommend everyone work with recycled material. It’s much cheaper. It teaches you a lot. I made a coffee grinder from trash. I got a windshield winder motor from the scrap guy. The espresso machine I use is off the guy’s truck too.


The Week in Review

This machine brings me joy. I hate bubble wrap where you have to pop every bubble to pack it down effectively—these long bubbles are much easier to pop. What’d be even better is a void fill process that didn’t use so much plastic!


Thanks to some eagle-eyed followers, we were also able to identify the walking excavator as a Menzi Muck.


The full academic paper is titled An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb.


Postscript

I’m just a manufacturing dilettante, but I have the privilege of working with some real bad-ass professionals, including those at Instrumental. They are hosting their annual Manufacturing Optimization Summit remotely this year, and if your job is involves getting your hands dirty with design or supply chain, I encourage you to check it out.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to friends (or interesting enemies). I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out!

—Kane