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Tales from a Modder’s Garage

Date: October 15, 2008
Author(s): Craig "Tech-Daddy" Tate

Over the course of the past few years, PC modding has exploded into a hobby enjoyed by many, and for good reason. I’ve been building mods for a while now, and if I can say one thing, it’s that it can be one of the most rewarding hobbies you can have. Read on as I tell you why I enjoy it so much, and what it takes to become a modder yourself.



Introduction, Building for You

“You do what to what?”

This is the typical response to my hobby… so welcome to my world! Quizzical looks… that is usually what I’m greeted with when people begin asking me about my beloved pastime. Granted, talking about computer modding to a regular “Joe” can be about as daunting as nude cactus jumping (don’t attempt this! We’re not responsible for your actions if you do, but send pics if you do anyway!), but there is a bit of a reward when, after being hit with 5 minutes of trying to explain, I simply say… “Here, lemme show you…”, and open up a web browser…

*click*

“Ohhh… OHHHH!!! Wow! That is really cool!”

Then the flood of questions start that are usually more animated, and in-depth, because now the person is thinking about what they would want to do, given enough time/materials/skill/inspiration.

Pictures open up a completely different energy and comprehension for the causal viewer. It evokes emotion. This part usually gets me to really smile, because now they are talking about their computer and wondering what they could do it, and are also getting excited. It’s an awkward moment when they realize that they just got very excited about their PC… and then I allay their fears by patting them on the shoulder and stating, “Welcome to my daily world…”

That is pretty much a cookie-cutter conversation for everywhere I’ve gone. For those that have never been exposed to modding, verbally explaining the passion can be a fruitless task. But throw out the pictures… well, that’s a whole other ball game! People latch onto visual elements better than discussion and mental interpretation. It’s an emotional trigger that will leave a larger impact than that of a simple explanation. And, in my world and style of modding, I’m a visual guy!

That’s the point right there, why modding is so much fun. It bridges the gap between a virtual world that the computer produces, and gives us a tangible, physical item to touch and experience.

I have always been a “picture-driven” guy. If I cant see it, I have a hard time working on it. Geometry – got an A! Pre-Calc & Trig… well, that weeded me out of college! Should have been a big ol’ clue right there. Working in virtual spaces help, but give me wood, paper or clay and let me mock up… that’s how I roll!

For me, modding was a near-perfect fit. My ever so petite size (6ft 8in, 275lbs), lends itself perfectly to working in tight spaces! *rolls eyes* I have a great time working on the lil’ bitty stuff like PCB’s and LED’s… go figure! Small and dainty… I am not. May I be an example for people out there thinking about getting into modding. If I can do this… so can you. Trust me on that. In the coming articles and “how in the heck do I do that?” explanations, I hope to remove some of the mystery and hesitance out there regarding modding.

Everyone can do it. You may not have “Cover Girl” model upon completion, but you will have a completely unique extension of your persona. It will be something nobody else has, and that should always be your end goal. Not to make others like your mod (and I’ll explain that in a minute), and not to win contests. You mod… for you, and you only. It is a perception issue that I have learned over the years, and it is one that I would like to instill in anyone that I lead into this hobby, “Mod for you…”

If you build for you, you will always end up with a machine that you can appreciate. If you build for others, and you keep the machine, you may end up with something that will be like a splinter in your eye. A nagging reminder to design decisions that you incorporated into the mod that you “wish you had not”. Now, you go around mad that you “listened to that person”. Or that you “did it their way”… there is never a good ending from that situation.

The one way to insure that does not happen is to perform the design and build… yourself. Take ownership and responsibility for your mod. If something goes wrong, you can eat it as an “experience builder” and not carry a grudge around against anyone. There is much more to modding, even on the simple side, that you can learn from and grow as a person. It teaches you responsibility for your actions, it teaches you to think through something before doing it (“measure twice, cut once”), it will build confidence (especially when you successfully pull off alterations on hardware) as well as the maturity to own up to a mistake that you made on the build or when something breaks.

Inspiration from anywhere…

Truer words could never be spoken about this hobby. It can draw from whatever you like. Video games? Cars? Hobbies? Sports? – the sky’s the limit! You want a computer that is covered in clouds because you like cloud watching? Do it! School alumni? Done! Favorite band? This work is limited only by your desire and imagination.

That’s appealing, but it can also be overly daunting. There is such a thing as “scope creep” and I caution people to set attainable goals. If you go too aggressive on a mod by planning too many  changes and you fail, you are less likely to want to do another mod, as the first one will have left  you with a foul taste of the experience.

But… if you stick to relatively simple mods and reach those goals, you’ll enjoy seeing the changes and be more apt to want to move up the ladder in complexity and difficulty. You gotta walk before you can run, as they say.

The “why” is a bit more difficult part to quantify. Why would a person take a perfectly functioning case and hack it to bits? Why would a person take a task (building a computer), that can be nearly compared to the stress level of an air traffic controller…why make an already potentially stressful experience even more difficult? Well… it definitely takes a different breed  (read: short on common sense, long on pride) of person to repeatedly dole out healthy heapings of this kind of self-inflected heartache. But, here is a test for you. Read the below phrase and see how you fare:

“Do you enjoy the journey or the destination?” – Ok… got your answer? It’s a pretty simple question that can be applied. You ready? Let’s see what you got!

Inspiration & The Journey

I have a theory, and that is that people who “enjoy the journey” will be more apt to do this  hobby continually. It is the “journey” of the build that is exciting to people like this – the planning and execution of the mods that brings enjoyment. Watching a build unfold in front of you, design decisions that come to fruition, learning to build something you’ve never built before, working with new materials or new tools, scratch built fabrication of unique items… that drives the “journey” person. That is appealing to them.

The other answer, in my opinion, leans a person toward the end product. They have their eyes on the end goal, and the path  to that goal is not the focus.

Neither is more right than the other, but I feel that the first type of response will garner a person that is more apt to take their time, and remain patient through the build process, as well as have a better chance of building again. “Destination” people may get put off by the “journey”, if the path is too difficult.

So, depending on how you answer the question, it will change how I respond to people that ask for advice. “Journey” types will be more open to a layered implementation, a longer process or a more complicated solution. The “destination” just wants a solution.

I will be frankly honest in that I fall squarely into both camps… depending upon how much sleep I’ve had! I’m a 90% journey guy… but there are times when my impatience gets the better of me and I want to “get there already!” (My brain is in the back seat yapping at me, “Are we there yet?”)

So, the “why” for me falls into the fact that I enjoy having a rig that no body else will have, and I enjoy the journey that modding gives me while I build it. The more complicated the build, the more experience I gain, and the more patient I can be on my next build, and the better it will look. I love that. I love looking over my history of rigs and seeing how I’ve progressed and grown. I love hearing people talk about how “this rig” inspired them to do something.

Guess what? Someone else’s rig inspired me to do something that I built! We feed off of each other in this kind of creative orgy of inspiration. It not a pr0n reference, so stay out of there! Everyone brings a different set of inspirations, different techniques… that we will continue to see fresh new mods and techniques so long as people are willing to ask themselves if they like the journey or the destination…

As a note, I would like to take this time to impress upon you another bit of wisdom. Don’t mod for popular opinion, mod for you. I’ve seen many new modders build a machine completely guided by the decisions of a forum. Sometimes those mods work out, but I’ve seen many train wrecks too. Usually the end result of the builder not having enough confidence in their abilities, or putting too much weight in the acceptance of others.

So, intrepid readers, future modders, etc… I’ll be writing articles for Techgage that will introduce you to some of the various techniques and inspirations that I have found while modding. Everyone will have opinions on implementation and execution, so take my instructions as a guide. Some people will do it differently, and that’s fine! My articles will be to offer up baseline knowledge that is sound that you can implement and build onto with your experiences.

I hope you’ll enjoy the future entries as much as I have in putting them together, and I look forward to all feedback!

Mod on! -=TD


Craig “Tech-Daddy” Tate has been building drool-worthy mods out of his garage for a number of years, and has been featured in numerous online and paper publications. He aims to put the “personal” back into personal computing, and is so far succeeding. You can read more about Craig and his mods on his website and peruse worklogs for all his mods in our modding forum.

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