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An original maker: Paul Elkins, Pacific Northwest polymath

Paul Elkins has always loved to doodle; when he turned 8 years old his mother bought him his first serious sketch pad and he has since filled 25 more books with his designs. Elkins redesigned the world around him with his drawings of mini submarines, backpack helicopters, gas vapor carburetors and turbo-powered skateboards.

Unlike the work of other dreamers, Elkins’ designs didn’t remain trapped on the page. Inspired by a tinkering father, and uncle, he has turned dozens of his whimsical ideas into a reality that defies description. There’s his Mochet velocycle pedal car, 7-pound Coroplast foldable kayak, rapid deployment Coroplast shelter for Ice fishing or Emergencies, bicycle camper, to name just a few.

Today, the Internet has made it easier to become a maker, but when Elkins first started tinkering he had to rely on magazines like Popular Mechanics and Mother Earth News and the occasional library book to find similar concepts to build upon.

Now after decades as a self-taught inventor, Elkins has redesigned many objects most of us take for granted, from boats to bicycles to micro-shelters and those category-defying inventions like a sommersault wheel.

Spotting a recumbent bicycle- as a ten year old at a car show- was a pivotal moment. Since then he’s put reclining seats on mopeds, gopeds, stand-up scooters and even a $45 lawn edger, creating a relatively practical and affordable commute vehicle.

At age 19, Elkins started living in a winterized bread delivery truck and was introduced to tiny homes. Years later, after being laid off from his job, he lived in a stealth camper that he built on the back of his pickup out of ½” plywood and miscellaneous hardware.

More recently, he’s built some of the smallest, most affordable and most well-equipped tiny homes we’ve yet seen. His homeless push cart is just 19.5 square feet (78″ long, 36″ wide and 51″ tall), but it’s outfitted with an indoor shower (fed by rain catchment), a gravity-fed sink, a one-burner propane stove and a toilet bucket with kitty litter.

His homeless emergency shelter, inspired by the books ‘Zero Yen Houses’ by Kyohei Sakaguchi and ‘Fragile Dwelling’ by Margaret Morton, is just  22.5 square feet (40″ wide and 81″ long) and was built for under $100 out of corrugated plastic, AKA Coroplast. Most recently, he built an entire shelter out of old campaign signs (also corrugated plastic).

Elkins has never made any money from his inventions and he calls himself a “conceptual artist” instead of designer or inventor due to his lack of interest in patents or selling products.  With his retirement from Boeing approaching, he is considering releasing plans for some of his designs for sale to help fund his continued design work, but Elkins’ primary motivation for doing what he does will never be economic.

“Anybody can go out and buy something, there is so much satisfaction that comes from something you’ve built with your own two hands.”

* Paul now has plans available for several of his boats and his coro tipi.

**All the inventions shown in this film are covered more in depth on Elkins’ blog ElkinsDIY. Blog entries include: