There’s a story (and song done most notably by Harry Belafonte) about John Henry.  It’s where our discussion of 3D printing this morning springs from…

Song dates back to the 1870’s and the building of a mile-long tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  Big Bend tunnel, also called the Great Bend Tunnel.

John Henry, says legend, swung a mighty hammer –  and in a race with a steam-powered Machine?  Well, you see, that’s one of the great debates in this this stuff called “making.”  Recently, we talked about my all hand-made paper towel holder  (last week) but it has now been bettered by reader Larry R.  And a machine…  Here’s how he did it…

(Continues below)


Came as an email – shared with his kind permission:

Maybe it wasn’t really a challenge, but I did want to see how my techniques compare to yours.

A few years ago (pre-retirement) I was thinking of setting up a typical shop, but funds and space were limited.  Then I found 3D printing.  The choice was obvious – one device to replace a room full of equipment.  Sure, I’m limited to plastic, but that is fine for the majority of my projects.

Anyway, here’s the paper towel holder I made recently.

?I know you are interested in the numbers.


  • Finding and downloading the design:  10 minutes

I used this one:

  • Setup and machine startup: ~55 minutes  (3 parts = 3 cycles)

This includes a fat finger mistake on part #2 that required a restart.

Call it ~15 minutes labor per cycle.

If this was for production I’d print all three parts at once, reducing my labor time.

Machine Time:

  • ~12 hours

Material cost:

  • ~$3

Electricity cost:

  • ~$0.36 (est)

You have me beat on these numbers, BUT…

My front end costs were quite low.

  • The printer was $600 (used)
    Add a little for repairs.
  • The laptop was $50 (used)
  • All in, I’m about $700.

What value to you put on space?

This setup fits on a small desk.

Supplies fit in the drawers.

No, I won’t be making furniture but this works well for me.

Thanks for the idea to run this comparison.

Thanks also for your work on Urbansurvival.  It is the most enjoyable of my few daily reads.


I gotta tell you, that’s the kind of reader contribution (and photos!) we love around here.

Anyone can spout off (especially academics) but this is a front-line report on some first-class experience.  From a real maker.

This really got me to thinking about “what is the right approach” to making these days?

Seems to be a matter of what more than anything.  If I was making smaller items, no question, 3D printer is the way to go.  But they do have limitations to them.

For example, I have a new ham radio (the ubitx HF radio transceiver) I mentioned some time back.  There’s a fellow out in California, I think it was, who for $27-bucks would custom print a front and back panel for a standard equipment box.

Mine were done, alright, but if you look closely, you can see the granularity of the printing if you zoom-in close.

This is where we get into a LONG discussion about all the trade-off in the design process.  I’m pretty sure reader Larry’s machine is more dialed in, but the material graininess of 3D printing is still something of an issue.

On the other hand, it was worth it for me to print (and paint) my front panels because the marketing and cutting of plastic is not one of my strongest skills.

Also, the guy on eBay is a pioneer on the front of the “custom mass manufacturing movement” that has really been spearheaded by people like my friend Jim Lewis of which literally invented the space.  Go there, download their software,. and they will made anything you need.  Need a milled stainless steel part?  Coming right up…

All of these new – and exciting techniques are differentiated in a number of ways.  Some emachineshop orders can take a while (weeks) while the home shop or 3D printer is a “right now” deal.

On the other hand, the emachineshop parts will be to spec.  So will the 3D printer outputs, but unless you have access to a high-end metal-printing machine (oil patch, anyone?) forgetaboutit. Doing it at home?  Don’t know how good my milling of stainless would be on my Harbor Fright (sic) mill/drill platform, but I assure you it would take oodles of set-up time if I were to need closer than 50-thousandths.

Larry’s right on with space, too.  My shop is expansive.  In all, there’s 45 feet of counters, and that’s NOT counting the tops of tool roll-arounds or the table saw (which also has a wood cover for projects).  But, when you have 1.25-million square feet of land to play with and the shop/office is 40X40 to begin with, there’s no real size constraints.

On the other hand, if you don’t have all the room on Earth, then Larry’s going to be able to do a lot more “making stuff” because there’s just no way to put a machine shop in a desk in the rec room.  3D printer?  Sure, you betcha.

Some of “the call” depends on the kind of world you want to prep for.  In one version of the world, the post apocalyptic one-second-after EMP world, the no microprocessor tools will have incredible value.  Especially, if there is solar (protected with transient protectors) to run it.

On the other hand, banking of the End Times has been a bad bet for 2,000 years (so far) and if silly humans keep grinding ahead, then Larry’s approach is way smarter than mine.

Best option?  (lowest cost, highest return)?

Get to know someone like Larry – and some one like me.  Then if you ever need something, for a few bucks we’ll be glad to help…time and other commitments notwithstanding/.

Best part of that option?

Doesn’t require any upfront cost in time or equipment.  And that leaves more “treadmill time” to plot how to make more money,  lol…

Write when you get rich (or “make” it)