This is a monthly article featuring a chosen ‘HighTechHobbyist’. Some of these guests will be well-known in the tech community, while others will be up-and-coming amateurs. Included will be an interview of the ‘Hobbyist’, along with some of their ‘HighTech’ work. I will also ask the featured ‘Hobbyist’ to give any tips that may help out the ordinary hobbyist.
This month’s featured ‘HighTechHobbyist’ is Grant Thompson, better known as The King of Random. Grant is a well-known YouTube creator with almost 9 million subscribers on his channel, The King of Random. Grant’s channel is best known for its easy-to-follow tutorials on how to build and create all kinds of things. As he states on his channel, “imagine a cross between MacGyver, James Bond, and the Myth-busters”. Some of his more popular videos include making Lego gummy candy, melting cans with the mini metal foundry, how to make a laser assisted blowgun, and burning stuff with 2000 degree solar power. You can check out some of his videos throughout the article.
I asked Grant several questions as well as ask him to give some advice to aspiring tinkerers. He also discusses a little about his past and what his future holds. You can listen to the audio in the YouTube video below or read the text from the full interview.
What was your very first experiment/project that got you thinking of making tutorials? Was it the DIY electromagnetic flashlight or something else that you didn’t post a video about?
That would’ve been the hydrogen generator. I was just starting to tinker back in 2010 and interested with how things work. The hydrogen generator, the HHO generator was the first thing that I built. I actually made it out of PVC, and split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. I used to play with it in front of my house and it was a lot of fun. That’s what got me thinking about the tutorials.
Also, the fire piston was probably one of the next things on the list. Starting a fire by compressing air very quickly. You ask about the DIY electromagnetic flashlight. That was actually after the hydrogen generator. I probably had produced about twenty videos before I did that flashlight. But it appears as the very first video on my channel because I actually went back and deleted a lot of the videos that I had, almost all of them because that was kind of just at home on a handycam (not very professional). I didn’t take the King of Random seriously until about two years after I started posting little Mickey Mouse tutorials. The electromagnetic flashlight video was the only one that I left up out of all those.
Was there something in your background that had most prepared you for your videos?
I’ve always liked making videos. I think ever since I was twenty I applied to go on Fear Factor, the TV show, and they had me put together an application video. So I’d always taken videos of different parts of my life and was very active with parkour, white water rafting, and skydiving. So I made a little compilation video of some of those sequences. That’s when I really enjoyed the video editing. I had used Adobe Premiere and made a fun little video. But as far as these kinds of videos, I’d say watching MacGyver with my dad is what got me really interested in the way a person could think about resources at his fingertips and constitute them in a way that would solve problems on the spur of moment. I really liked that idea, even though it was fictional. I thought it was very inspiring to see if that really could be done in the real world.
What has been the most surprising outcome of one of your experiments?
This is a hard question, because I think all of them have interesting outcomes. I’m going to talk about the backyard metal foundry, because when I was first was prototyping with that, I went in and basically bought back scrap metal from a scrapyard. I was going to try to melt down aluminum. I had seen a couple of videos on the internet of people melting aluminum, but it wasn’t very popular. There wasn’t much information at all on it. I had built a metal foundry, and I tried melting down this stuff, but rather than just turning into liquid metal, it kept lighting on fire, and then burning an extremely bright white light. It looked like looking straight into the sun, and then the leftover residue would be this crumbly ash, not molten metal whatsoever. I did about three different prototypes of metal foundries, and got the same result every time. I was really frustrated until after consulting some pyrotechnician friends and some experts in the field. We did some tests on the metal and found out it was actually magnesium, not aluminum, which is very difficult to tell because they look exactly the same. So my first test with melting metal was melting magnesium, not aluminum. Once I put aluminum in, it was no problem and we got the results I was looking for. That’s when I went on to build my series on a backyard metal foundry. So yeah, I learned about magnesium.
Where do you find ideas for your projects?
Ideas come from everywhere. I’ve got four boys. They’re always very busy exploring life, and when they stumble across something that’s interesting, we’ll see if we can build that out in a way that is interesting to adults as well. For example, one of my kids pulled a piece of PVC tube out of the garbage can once, and asked what we could do with it. To me it looked like a blow gun. So we made a blowgun, and we made some little darts out of sticky notes and nails, and we invented the laser-sighted blowgun project, which I think now has about seventeen million views. So that just came out of the garbage can. Literally. Other ideas are from my childhood. My dad was kind of an outdoorsman. He was a survival man. He would take us out in the woods, and teach us how to use a knife to basically build anything. We’d make our own rope. We’d make our own shelters. We caught two wild horses with a horse trap that we made out of trees and ropes, and so he was always very inventive. He would build skunk traps out of paint cans, and build water heaters with five gallon buckets and some tubing and copper coil. So I had that as a kid growing up. He was also a scout leader for twenty years, so he was always in that frame of mind with being prepared, being self-reliant. Outside of that, ideas that you see on TV, on the internet, and things that people talk about. I’m constantly open to ideas that are floating around, and then seeing what we can do with them. So it really comes from everywhere. And I think where I excel is taking ideas that most people don’t know much about or don’t act on, and then finding ways to modify them and take action on them in ways that really hadn’t been done before. Really out of the box.
Where would you recommend a hobbyist get started with tinkering with things (and which tutorial would you recommend of yours for a first-time tinkerer)?
It depends what kind of hobbyist. We do everything from rocketry to homemade pyrotechnics to electronics and everything in between. I think some of my favorite tools are my power drill, pliers, and electrical tape. Woodworking is pretty safe as well. The way that I started was just to go in the classified ads, and I’d find things that people were giving away, whether it was a VCR or TV, and I would bring that home. A lot of them were for free. You can find them in the free section of the classifieds. I would literally just take them apart, undo all the screws, look at it, and get on the Internet and find out if there are any risks of doing that. Then I’d get inside, and look at the components and just teach myself what the parts were made of. So I think anyone who wants to learn how things work, the best thing to do is just find one for low-cost or free and take it apart and try to figure out how it works while cross-referencing Wikipedia and videos on YouTube.
As far as my videos go, I think a really good one for a first time tinkerer would be making a desktop crossbow. I call it the assassin’s micro-crossbow collaboration with sonic dad that was just using popsicle sticks and hair clips to make a little crossbow that shoots a flaming match across the room. Well… I should say outside. It’s very fun, hands on, and gets you thinking about the mechanical concept to it, but it’s also really low-cost and easy materials to use. So definitely a micro-crossbow.
Out of all the things you’ve made, is there something that you still use on a regular basis?
We use the metal foundries quite a bit. Lego gummies are still a big hit. We have those with the kids all the time, so all the silicone molds that we’ve made, we use quite a bit. I’ve made some different tools like spot welders and arc welders. I do pull those out from time to time when I need them, but I would say the thing that I use the most is the metal foundry. We use that a lot to make new videos. Almost everything in the videos I still have somewhere around my house or in a storage shed.
What’s your favorite gadget/tool to mess around with?
My power drill is a must, electrical tape, and I’d say a hacksaw and a pair of pliers. Not only that, but the whole set of pliers – so you’re Channellocks, your diagonal cutters, your linemen’s pliers, they all have a different purpose. I think you need needle nose pliers to kind of get through everything. And then of course with your power drill you’re going to have your bit set on there as well. That comes in handy when you’re taking microwaves apart. I think those are the essentials.
What programs and equipment do you use to produce your videos?
I use a Mac. I have an iMac, but I think for most of my stuff right now, I have an editing team. They’re all on iMacs as well. We use Adobe Premiere Pro. We’re on the Creative Cloud, so everything gets produced through that. We also use Photoshop, and Adobe Audition for working some of the sound editing.
Is there any upcoming tech that has got you excited?
I’m kind of out of the loop on the tech world. I have a team for that. So maybe there’s things that they’re excited about. I personally love the Mavic Pro. The whole flying camera concept at an affordable price and very portable is super cool, and it definitely serves a purpose. I also like some of the tech that we use – our online services like Dropbox where we can transfer large amounts of data between editors remotely. So just being able to connect the world through a little internet line has been pretty fantastic.
What upcoming projects do you have?
We have a lot. We actually have over 800 projects on our list right now, and it keeps growing exponentially. Ones that I’m looking forward to are making pedal-powered generators (being able to pedal a bike and actually generate electricity) and a biogas generator (being able to take manure and turn it into a bio gas that you can use to generate electricity, warm your house, run electrical generator, and provide light). Biogas is pretty cool. It’s really sensitive though, because they’re living organisms. And here’s one that’s kind of fun. We actually made an Ocarina out of clay. It’s like a little flute or a pipe (from Zelda) that you can play sculpted out of clay, and we’ll probably fire that into ceramics as well. We’re also doing a Heart of Te Fiti candy. It’s a green candy that glows in the dark and it’s from the movie Moana. It looks like the Heart of Te Fiti. We made a mold for Heart of Te Fiti suckers. We also did some fun experiments setting snowballs on fire. So we’ve got a flaming snowball tutorial coming up.
Do you have any other ‘HighTech’ hobbies you do in your free time?
Right now it’s just my family. I’m actually trying to push away from hobbies and just spend more time being present with my family, being a dad of four kids, being a husband to my wife, and just being more available. I’ve actually worked really hard for the last seven years of pushing the channel, pushing the hobbies. So it’s kind of like stepping away from that now and just being more available and having more space. I’m also right now building a seminar that will teach how we’ve created this YouTube channel to the point where it’s at and how we can teach other people to do something similar, because realistically we went zero to 9,000,000 subscribers in about five years. And so we’ve learned a lot of things along the way I think that we can teach. So that’s next step.