An exclusive peek inside the lab of Canadian engineer James Hobson, whose latest inventions include working Captain America shields, Wolverine claws and Iron Man thrusters.
Every Little Boy is a Superhero. The sign hangs in engineer and YouTube star James Hobson’s tricked-out garage. As he presents his latest inventions to the public, the words appear to sum up his mission statement.
Hobson, a 26-year-old living in the sleepy town of Kitchener, Ontario, about an hour and a half west of Toronto, is known as the Hacksmith. What he and his team do is nothing short of remarkable: They create weapons and devices from superhero films, TV shows, comics and video games. Their goals? To see if they can create these one-off prototypes, and to demonstrate that building cool gadgets from scratch isn’t impossible.
“If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll learn how to do it,” Hobson tells me from his Kitchener garage, which features every DIY project the Hacksmith team has crafted so far. Walking into the space, I see why that superhero sign in the garage so closely reflects Hobson’s hobby-turned-profession: he’s built Wolverine claws, grappling guns, a Captain America shield and electromagnetic brace, a pneumatic-based exoskeleton, a sword that glows with blue fire and a rocket hammer from the video game Overwatch, and he’s currently building an Iron Man flight system.
Hobson documents the process of creating his latest inventions on his YouTube page, which has so far amassed over 830,000 subscribers and 48.3 million total video views. Hobson has dedicated himself so intently to Hacksmith that he has no regrets about leaving his comfortable job at Christie Digital in 2015. “I wanted to do the fun stuff and just the fun stuff,” he says, referring to how making one-off designs, as opposed to focusing on mass manufacturing, is where engineers get the most kicks.
Speaking to Hobson, and learning about his short-ish stints in various engineering jobs, I get the sense he gets bored easily and needs to be constantly challenged. The Hacksmith products fit perfectly with that need — one month he’ll be designing swords based on Psylocke from the film X-Men: Apocalypse; the next month he’ll be tweaking a football player’s shin guard to act as an electromagnetic brace for a Captain America shield he cooked up just before Captain America: Civil War hit theaters.
“We want to get as close to the comic or movie as possible,” says Hobson. That means having the tools available to weld, laser-cut and 3D-print, and Hobson’s garage is outfitted with all the necessary technologies. What helps his company is having brands advertise and sponsor some of his videos, such as Tormoch offering Hobson one of their milling machines as long as their logo and name are shown in some footage. His garage also includes a 3D printer where many parts are produced for his latest inventions.
What makes his YouTube videos so accessible is how he includes the building process within each Make It Real video, ensuring Hacksmith fans don’t see only the finished product but the ups and downs of making such complex items from the start. Hobson will include mistakes and duds and inform us what went wrong, what he can improve for the next video. “Failure is just another way to learn from your mistakes,” notes Hobson.
Some of the info in the videos can be heady, especially for non-engineers, but it can still be enlightening to get a faceful of technical info that you can parse at your leisure. And it’s clear Hobson knows how to break down figures and jargon for a non-geeky audience.
For example, he explained to me how the Iron Man flight system has progressed. “We got these EDFs, these electric-induced fans found on RC planes,” he says, showing me these fans connected to boots. “They spin at 38,000 RPM. To relate that to something else, a jet turbine spins at 100,000 RPM.”
Hobson is also quick to demystify the Hollywoodization of the many tools used by the likes of Iron Man and Batman. When I check out his grappling gun and hook, he says the films never really show the physics behind stopping someone from falling from a great height with a grappling gun. “At that speed with that sudden stop, you’d rip their leg off,” he says bluntly. With his grappling gun, decked out with Kevlar rope he bought off eBay, Hobson hopes to add a winch in order to create a high-powered pulley system, allowing a 200-pound person to scale a building 50-feet high.
You would think with all these camera-friendly weapons and tools being made by just a handful of twentysomethings, TV networks would come a-knocking. A Canadian MythBusters, perhaps? And they have proposed ideas to Hacksmith, but Hobson isn’t interested in their stringent policies. “They wouldn’t want us to continue our Hacksmith YouTube page, and we can’t afford to do that. If that page remains inactive for a while, we’d suffer from subscriber burn, lose a lot of fans, and what if that TV show doesn’t work out? We’d be left with a really bad situation.”
The Hacksmith inventions on display, including the Wolverine claws, Captain America shield, and boots outfitted with Iron Man–like thrusters/fans. Photo by Jacklyn Atlas.
Hobson and his team have also entertained pitches from those who want to commission private items, but once the buyers learn of the true price of producing the gadget, they decline. Hobson smiles. “I don’t think people realize how much goes into what we do,” he says, adding how YouTube revenue and the sponsorships are fueling the creation of his latest inventions.
Hobson’s fascination with tinkering with tools began when he was a student at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener, especially after he won a national Skills Canada robotics challenge. He then got an engineering degree from Conestoga College in the mechanical systems engineering program and fine-tuned his welding, electrical and machining skills.
James Hobson left his job at Christie Digital to work on Hacksmith and his YouTube page full-time. Photo by Jacklyn Atlas.
He expressed his frustration with today’s universities, which he says are “pumping out degrees that may not be useful for graduates. But in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields, all these people are getting jobs, finding success.” Hobson is grateful his work is inspiring a new generation of makers and hackers: “I often get feedback from kids who say, ‘I didn’t know this was engineering! I thought engineering was all math.’”
Hobson tells me his original business card for Hacksmith included a statement that almost runs parallel to that superhero sign in his garage: “Sometimes we do things for shits and giggles.” He smiles. “That is part of our mission statement, part of the ‘Why not?’ philosophy we believe in here.”