The MacGyver of Duct Tape | Lance Akiyama uses it to create amazing stuff.
For most, duct tape is an essential part of any emergency repair—a leaky pipe or ripped car seat or recliner always looks a little classier with a touch of the gray stuff. But for Albany resident Lance Akiyama, duct tape is far more than just a common fix-all. He uses it to create everything from catapults to queen-size beds and hammocks. Recently he designed and built a geodesic greenhouse at the Laney College garden with the stuff. Akiyama's appreciation of the versatile adhesive's potential stems from his work as an educator and author of such books as Duct Tape Engineer and Rubber Band Engineer. Akiyama works for Galileo, a innovation summer camp for kids on projects designed to get them interested in science and engineering. That's where the jobs not gobbled up by robots will be. I tracked down Akiyama recently to see if he could get me motivated to take on a duct project of my own—like building a guest house in my backyard. Or maybe something a little smaller.
Paul Kilduff: What's the most challenging thing that you've ever made with duct tape?
Lance Akiyama: One was a backpack made almost entirely out of duct tape. What was challenging about that is that creating large sheets of duct tape that behave like fabric was really difficult, especially since I don't know anything about sewing. The other is a garden seat swing. You know, those two-seater benches that are suspended above some kind of frame that a couple of people can sit in?
PK: Like something you might have on your front porch?
LA: Yeah. Like those swinging benches.
LA: I made one of those also entirely out of bamboo and duct tape that was pretty challenging, just because you need something that can hold the weight of a couple people; so you're looking 300 pounds-ish. And it has to look nice if you're going to put it in the front of your house, too.
PK: And you've made a kayak out of it, right?
LA: Oh, yeah.
PK: Is it seaworthy?
LA: Yeah. I took it out to the San Pablo Reservoir, successfully paddled around for half an hour. Didn't capsize. I'm not into kayaking at all, so I suspect it was somewhat reasonably easy to maneuver.
PK: How many rolls of duct tape did it take to make a kayak?
LA: Oh, gosh, maybe 30.
PK: How did your love affair with duct tape begin? Were you one of these kids who made wallets out it?
LA: I was definitely someone who made wallets out of duct tape and used them in life much longer than I should have. But I think it's not so much a love affair with duct tape, but more with a persistent interest in creating things from common household items. That's been something that's been going on pretty much my whole life. I remember I went through a phase where I kept an assortment of objects in my pocket when I was in fourth grade, just so that I would have handy materials at my disposal should an occasion arise in which I might need to craft something to solve a problem that arose in the moment, like MacGyver.
PK: How permanent is a duct-tape build?
LA: There's not a hard answer to that. It depends on the application. The backpack—I've been using it pretty much every day to stress test it. I bring it to work. It's what I put my laptop in. It's in great shape. I can see myself using this for years. Other things like the garden seat swing, if that's going to be outside in the sun and the rain every day, it's dealing with a load of people on it every once in a while, something like that's going to deteriorate a lot faster.
PK: Can you use duct tape to fix a leaky car radiator hose?
LA: Yeah, I have. In my heart, I want to say that duct tape can be used to put a house together for a hundred years, but I think again, depending on the application, it can last anywhere from a week to a decade. It really depends what you're using it for. I don't know that I would trust duct tape to hold a radiator together for long enough other than to get to the auto shop.
PK: Maybe just to the nearest freeway off-ramp.
LA: I think for a lot of applications, like if you need to patch up the backseat of your car or maybe something in which your life is not in danger, it can last a long time.
PK: So, we're not at the point yet where there's duct tape surgery—arteries held together with medical- grade duct tape. That's reassuring. When you tell people you're a duct tape engineer, what's their reaction?
LA: When people ask me what I do, it's always a little bit challenging to give them a nice memorable sound byte. I'd say that I identify as an author but also a curriculum writer and tinkerer and maker. I've authored two books, but I also have a full-time job developing curriculum for children in grades K through eight. When I tell people that, I feel like people are very appreciative and interested, but also not quite sure what that means. I typically have to follow up with a couple examples. It's like teaching kids about physics by making bridges.
PK: What are you trying to accomplish in getting kids interested in engineering and science projects?
LA: It's a degree of personal growth. When you make something out of nothing, you have pride for yourself. Your self-image of what you can do and who you are changes for the better. There's benefit in that. Also, our public school system focuses heavily on academic learning—very cerebral learning. A lot of kids are great at that and love it. Some kids don't. I think learning with your hands, learning by building things, learning by testing and failing and doing and succeeding is what resonates best with a certain population of kids that I feel is underserved in our public schools. I want to supplement their learning and education with that. In our school system, there's a heavy emphasis on pass or fail and the whole grading system and not so much rewarding effort or mindset for some of these soft skills that we're learning that are really important to success and personal development. I feel like these kinds of projects offer kids those opportunities to experience failure, but to then have the chance to redesign what they've built and try it again in a different way and continue to go through that cycle until they're able to succeed. It supports the mindsets of determination, grit, and other skills that are really important to a child's development.
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Astrological Sign: "I am a man of science."
Motto: "Almost perfect is perfect."
Book on nightstand: Don't Worry, Be Grumpy by Ajahn Brahm
Favorite curse word: "Bollocks"
Watch the video on Lance's geodesic dome here:
Duck or duct tape? It's an age-old question. Here's the answer: First created for the military in WWII to keep moisture out of ammo cases, it took on the name "duck" tape because it was waterproof, just like a duck's back. During the post-WWII housing boom, another use for the tape was discovered: joining heating and air-conditioning duct work. That's when it took on its second name, "duct" tape. Either is appropriate. The "Duck" tape brand sponsored the geodesic dome project, but Akiyama uses "duct" in the title of his book.