Exploring the creed of “Built not Bought”

WARNING: What follows is a longwinded essay on the concept of “built not bought” as it applies to the overland community.  It is an indirect response to an article posted on another blog.  It is not meant as an attack which is why it is indirect and why no names are named.  If you’ve read that article already you know what it is, who wrote it, and what-not.  That’s fine.  If you haven’t read it, don’t worry, you’re not missing much.  I’ll hit on any necessary references to get my point across because what was espoused in that article transcends that article and predates their blog by many many years.  The debate around “built not bought” has been a common topic in the 4×4 community since there have been 4×4’s.  Please understand my goal is, always has been, and shall remain to help educate, encourage, and inspire members within the community.  It should also be noted that the following opinions are my own and should not reflect upon any of ECOA’s corporate partners… although I’m sure most of them would agree with me.

Built not bought
And damn proud of it!


Recently I came across a controversial blog article that was shared on Reddit’s /r/overlanding that criticized the expression “built not bought” and those that embrace it.  I’m not sure if the author was being sincere in their beliefs or if they were just rocking the boat (i.e. trolling).  Either way I was not too impressed.

If they were sincere, then their self-righteous indignation is a manifestation of the pretentiousness common in those with deep pockets and no talent.  They can’t rely on skill so they rely on their wallets to buy their way down the trail.  When they can’t back up their rig with talent they run their mouth in an effort to make themselves feel better or seem superior.  These types are commonly called web-wheelers, keyboard warriors, or bench-racers.  All of which spend more time in their heads than on the trails.  As the saying goes, “all talk, and no action.” On the other hand, if they’re not serious, then their efforts to stir the pot are either a misguided grab for attention or the product of an underdeveloped and immature sense of humor.  Regardless of their intentions, the feelings espoused their article echo an all too familiar sentiment that is not new to the 4×4 world.  It’s something I’ve seen countless times on the trail, something I’ve seen on the rock crawl courses, something I’ve seen on the track, and something I’ve seen on numerous forums and facebook groups (which is why I usually avoid them).  It’s sad to see such an argument making it’s way into the overlanding scene.  Pitting one “type” of enthusiast against another only serves to divide and bring harm.  Nothing good comes form that kind of article.

So… why am I writing about it?  At first I wasn’t going to say anything (discretion is the better part of valor after all).  Even as the lead mod on /r/overlanding I’ve stayed out of the topic thread there.  I’m just monitoring it make sure it doesn’t degrade into a train-wreck.  On a personal level I’ll admit after my first reading I was a bit offended.  I consider myself a “built not bought” guy. I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into my rig.  I didn’t just throw money at it and pay some shop to build it for me.  I built it and I’m proud of it.  To question that, let alone insult an ideal I live by, was offensive to me.  Then I thought about all my friends that are fabricators, welders, mechanics.  Some are outright professionals, others are like me and more amateurish in our pursuits.  That got even more riled up.  I’ll never claim to be the end-all-be-all of mechanical knowledge but as I always say, “I know enough.”  I know enough to fix most problems; I know enough to find the answers to the problems I can’t fix right away; and I know enough to throw in the towel and hand my heep over to a true professional.  That last part doesn’t stop me from trying though <cue flashback to PCM fiasco in fall of 2014; shudders>.

At any rate, as I said my first inclination was to get offended.  Then I realized, regardless of their sincerity, that was probably the author’s ultimate goal.  I sat back and checked my ego for a second and tried to look at the article a little more objectively.  I know as an author I never waste time writing something unless there is a point (hard to believe with this article, but it’s true).  We live in a society of texts, tweets, blogs, facebook posts, and the such.  We’re inundated daily with 100’s of 1,000’s of words.  It’s so easy in this information age to give anyone and everyone a voice and a platform to shout their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs from.  The only thing that I can do to separate my writings from the rest of the “noise” out there is intention.  A goal.  A purpose.  That’s why one of the first things I did with this blog and ECOA in general was establish a mission statement.  I wanted to make sure everything posted here had a purpose, a constructive purpose at that.  Not just mindless hot air for the sake of seeing my own ramblings in print (I have a separate blog for that).  My goal is to help people.  Specifically, my goal is to help you – the reader – prepare for your next adventure.  In the process I hope I can save you some time and money and help you learn a new skill or two.  That’s why the DIY “built not bought” approach is so appealing to me.

I know it’s probably misguided to apply my own lens to someone else’s work but everyone has their perspective; I’m just willing to admit what mine is.  My measuring stick for other authors in the industry is, “does this article help the community?”  It’s something I ask myself every time I sit down to write whether it’s here on the blog, on Reddit, in a forum, or on the ECOA or NHT Facebook page.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask, nor do I think it’s too high an expectation for anyone who is trying to be a professional.  Never the less, I’m going to do it and that’s why I ultimately decided to write this article.  My goal is to help defend the creed of “built not bought” and, per my mission statement, encourage and inspire others (hopefully you) to take up that creed as well.

That said, what I’m not going to do it attack the author or nit-pick their article with a series of counterpoints of my own.  They have their platform and it’s their’s to use as they see fit. While I may disagree with them it’s no my place to outright attack them.  That’s why this article isn’t so much as a direct response to their article but more a response in general to those like them who echo the same sentiments.  This is much bigger than their blog and reaches much further.  I know I made a little speculation above as to the why behind this particular article, but that’s the extent of it and I’ll do my best to pay it no more mind than I have to. I don’t know what their ultimate goal was with that article.  I’m not sure if their intentions were for humor/satire or not.  I honestly don’t care.  All I know is the fallout from that article has rippled its way through the community and I have seen both positive and negative reactions to it.  I could just have easily written this article without referencing it, but since it’s out there and I’ve read it, I might as well say so.

Built not Bought

There are three things you should know about me before we delve too much further into this.  First, I watched a lot of MacGyver when I was growing up.  Not the shitty reboot that is on TV today but the original series staring Richard Dean Anderson.  Second, I love to cook.  I’ll bake the best chocolate chip cookie you’ll ever taste and I am an absolute god behind the grill.  Lastly, I played with LEGOs when I was a kid.  Okay, that last part is a lie.  I still play with LEGOs.  All three of these will play into my interpretation of the “built not bought” creed.

Why pay someone else to play with their tools when you can spend the money on tools for yourself?
Even if you don’t know how to use them right way, over time you’ll develop skills that will last you a lifetime.

One of the major critiques of the “built not bought” creed is that no matter how much a given person may have put into the individual parts of the vehicle (bumpers, roll cage, etc), the base vehicle was still bought.  There’s even a meme on Instagram making the rounds right now of a completely disassembled car with the caption, “Unless you started with this you bought it not built it.”  This is the first wrong assumption made about “built not bought.”  It’s not an absolute.

Probably the most common anti “built not bought” meme out there.
Like the one below it entirely misses the point of what “built not bought” means.

How reductionist are we going to get?
I’d make a Reductio ad Absurdum argument…
… but this is an overland blog not a philosophy blog.

When I bake my cookies I take pride in the fact that I baked them from scratch.  No break-n-bake or tub of pre-made dough for me.  I start with the raw ingredients of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and what-not.  I take the time to mix them according to the recipe, with a few modifications of my own, and bake them. If someone were to tell me that I didn’t really bake them from scratch because I started with purchased ingredients I be so aghast I wouldn’t know what to say.  Can someone really insinuate that I didn’t make those cookies because I didn’t mill my own flour, raise my own chickens for their eggs, or churn my own butter?  How much of a reductionist are we going to be?  The same goes for “built not bought.”  Just because I started with some finished or semi-finished ingredients doesn’t mean the final product is any less “built” than had I started with a pile of raw iron ore I planned on forging myself.  Yes, in some cases some people literally build their rig from the ground up.  I have many friends that have built tube chassis race buggies and rock crawlers.  I admire them.  However the vast majority of the people I know start with something and build off that foundation.  This kind of criteria is absurdly arbitrary and is a byproduct or an elitist “all or nothing” attitude (and something some “built not bought” types have used against other “built not bought” types which is also uncool).

At this point we could start a semantic argument about the appropriateness of the “built not bought” creed verses a more accurate “self-modified not shop-modified” creed.  I say we could, but we won’t. The reason being is the definition of the world “build” is pretty ambiguous.  We’d go blue in the face and die of old age long before we’d ever agree on whether or not the word “build” implies “only from raw materials” or not.  Simply put, this is the definition of build most everyone uses whether they admit it with this clarity or not:

  • build | bild | verb : construct (something, typically something large) by putting parts or material together over a period of time
There is no specification in that definition as to whether those parts are unfinished, semi-finished, or can be finished.  If a building is built from all off-site pre-fabricated sections where was the building built?  The building itself was built on-site.  Parts of it were built off-site.  The final product wasn’t built off-site, was it?  It’s the age old question of, “Do the sum or the parts equal the whole?” That’s where the LEGOs come into play.  I buy a LEGO set and put it together.  The pieces were bought, but the final product was built.  When I say, “I built this LEGO model” there is no implication that I drilled for the oil, processed it, refined it into plastic, and then molded the various individual pieces.  Hell, I’m not even implying I came up with the design myself.  Most of the builds on my desk right now were simply built by me follow directions someone else wrote.  That brings up the next wrong assumptions made about “built not bought.”  It’s not all inclusive.
Most everyone I know who uses the phase, “built not bought” or tags their vehicle with a “built not bought” sticker is referencing the final product of the vehicle as a whole.  My 2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, as it sits now as an overland rig, was built by me.  I can lay claim to the vast majority of the work done to build that rig from the stock condition I bought it in having been done by my hands or under my expressed oversight.  I could just as easily build it into a rock-crawler and it would look very different.  Even thought the starting point was the same, the build process would go in a very different direction with a very different outcome.  Either way I can say that my rig was “built not bought.”  This is in stark contrast to someone who takes their rig to a 4×4 shop and hands over their keys and a credit card and sits back while someone else does all the work.  Their money went toward parts and installation therefor, in their case, the rig was bought not built.  That’s not a judgement by the way, and I’ll get to that in a second, for now I’m just drawing a distinction.

“Built not bought” can also mean saving money on installation and putting it toward better parts.
Bad battery cables are known to cause a lot of issues on vehicles.
It’s not rocket surgery.  Just some time and effort to replace them.

I could either pay a mechanic to replace OEM parts with OEM parts or spend the same amount overall for an upgrade and did the work myself.
Another notch in my belt and a job well done.

Full writeup here.

To unpack my build we can look a few of its various elements.  For instance, the suspension.  When it arrived it was a box of parts.  I followed the directions and installed them myself with a little help from my friends.  Even though I didn’t fabricate the links myself, the suspension under my LJ was built (from its pieces), not bought (as a finished product under my Jeep) from a shop.  In a more pure sense my cargo storage system is totally “built not bought.”  It started as a pile of lumber and through the input of my ideas and those of my friend Jim we built the box from the ground up.  Where things get a little grey is the body armor.  I am not a welder, nor will I ever claim to be.  I can make sparks and melt metal.  I can sometimes, on very rare occasions, even get the metal to stick together.  I wouldn’t, however, call what I do with a welder “welding” lest I insult people who actually know what they’re doing with one.  That said, I know well enough that some things are in fact better off “bought not built” by me.  However, I still installed them myself.  The finished product of my LJ is a collection of complied parts in various states.  The finished product is more than the sum of it’s individual pieces.  Some are finished (like the bumpers), others need assembly and installation (like the suspension), while some started off as raw materials (like the cargo box).  This brings up the last wrong assumption made about “built not bought.”  It’s not permanent.
One of the most brutal critiques of the “built not bought” creed not only attacks the rig but the owner as well.  More often than not the people who attack those who embrace “built not bought” claim that there are limits to knowledge, skill, and experience.  They point to hack-jobs and say that “built not bought” isn’t always better.  In my experience people who resort to such attacks often lack the skill or talent to make anything themselves.  They rely on their wallet to buy the stuff they want and then pay someone else to install it for them.  They then use that as leverage to say that their “bought not built” rig is somehow superior because their money got them more lift, bigger tires, brighter lights, or whatever metric they’re using.  I find this a little ironic because the people they are paying to do their work are often the very same people who, on their spare time, work on their personal rigs and live by the “built not bought” creed in their own lives.

“Built not bought” applies to more than just the finished product.
If *YOU* built it, *YOU* can fix it.
Both rear shocks blew out on me in Utah.  I limped to expo and got new ones.
No AAA.  No mechanic.  No expensive repair bill.
My tools. My skill. My knowledge. My experience.
If I had “bought not built” it would probably have been a different story.

Growing up I always gravitated toward the show MacGyver.  Being a Boy Scout as a kid I was fond of my Swiss Army Knife.  Seeing MacGyver use his knife each week to get him out of one sticky situation after another gave me the motivation to carry one with me everywhere I went, including school (so glad I went to school in the 80’s and early 90’s).  Time after time I became “that kid” who was able to solve a problem all because I had my trusty Swiss Army Knife.  It was also because of MacGyver that I developed a fondness for tape and why I’m a total snob when it comes to Duck Tape vs. Duct Tape… which, speaking of, gives me an idea for another blog article.
Anyway, what I found encouraging about MacGyver was he had skills.  He wasn’t the best at any one given thing.  He was a Jack-of-all-Trades.  He know a little bit about a lot of things and knew just enough to get himself out of trouble.  Most people who consider themselves DIY’ers, gear heads, home tinkerers, and/or shade-tree-mechanics are the same way.  They aren’t an expert at any one thing.  They just happen to have some basic skills that translate across the spectrum of tasks and an aptitude from problem solving that helps them out.  As such, their skill set and knowledge base isn’t permanent. It’s always growing and evolving.  I myself started off with very little skills when I was a kid.  Hell, my mom spend months trying to teach me to use a spoon.  Not even going to talk about potty training.  My point is we all learn skills as we grow up.  Same goes for vehicle skills.  When I graduated high school I knew nothing about working on cars or even how they worked.  Over the course of the last few years I’ve not only learned to change my own oil, but I’ve rebuilt motors, installed transmissions, done suspension installs, and countless other things.  I learned.  I grew.  I developed.  That goes for everyone.  We just have to choose what skills we’re willing to develop (like building a rig) and which ones we’re not cut out for (like me and welding).


One of the reasons this topic hits close to home for me is that I sit on a panel at Overland Expo that discusses this very topic: “Should you build your overland rig yourself or have a shop build it for you?”  One of thing things I talk about is the relationship and balance between time, money, and skills.  It’s very rare that people have an overabundance of all three.  If you’re lucky, you’ll have a lot of two and some of one.  If you’re a little down on your luck you might have one but lack the other two.  During this roundtable I often take the middle ground fully recognizing there is a time to build and a time to buy.  How someone balances their resources of time, money, and skills often answers that by neccessity.  Regardless though, you – as a vehicle owner and the one driving it on an adventure – need to be involved in the process (and who knows, maybe I’ll follow this article with one focusing on how to embrace “bought not build” and do so safely).
People who buy rather than build usually have a lot of money and very little time and/or skills (at least automotive ones).  They are usually white-collar and spend their time indoors behind a desk.  Their value of work is tied to their paycheck.  For them, more money equals better work.  That’s the source of their status.  That then translates into the stuff they buy.  For them buying is almost a necessity.  That’s not a judgement, just an observation.
People who build rather than buy usually have less money than they’d like.  They may not have a lot of time but they often have a lot of skill (automotive related ones in this case).  Builders are generally blue-collar or working-class people.  They don’t value their work based on their paycheck but rather value their work based on the effort it took to accomplish the task.  They are usually simpler and more task oriented.  For them building is sometimes a necessity because they don’t have the money to pay someone else to do the work for them.  Again, not a judgement, just an observation.

This is usually the root source of any debate surrounding “built not bought.”  On one hand are people with a lot of money and very little time or talent.  They don’t get it.  They don’t understand why people would waste their time getting their hands dirty working on their own rigs.  They often claim a long list of obligations (family, work, chores, etc) that take priority over turning wrenches.  I’ve also seen plenty of critics claim they can make more money sitting doing nothing than the mechanic they’re paying to do the labor.  While possibly true, it’s a cognitive dissonance between how they value work and how the mechanic values work.  On the other, those with more skill or time don’t get why anyone would waste money on paying someone else do do a rudimentary task as simple as changing one’s engine oil or bolting on a simple suspension.  They value the process and the outcome of the task.  They take pride in the accomplishment and possibly even a little pleasure.  For some, wrenching is cathartic and allows them to release energy, stress, etc (anyone who’s wielded the occasional indiscriminate B.F.H. knows exactly that I’m talking about).

We’re all human and our skills have limits.
Some pieces of the puzzle are better off “bought not built.”
That doesn’t detract from the bigger picture.
I can’t weld, but I can still build with welded parts.

To wrap things up I’ll finish by saying this, “built not bought” is more than just a quip.  It’s an outlook on life.  It’s a way of taking ownership of one’s life beyond raw consumerism.  Most people that build rather than buy take pride in what they’ve made.  The end product is an extension of who they are and a manifestation of their time and talent.  In many ways it represents a culmination of their life experience up to that point.  Those that buy rather than build don’t have that same kind of connection.  Their “stuff” becomes more of a status symbol and a means to an end rather than an end unto themselves.

Regardless of if someone decides to build or buy, that does not mean it gives them the right to insult the other.  I fully recognize not everyone shares my talents and interests.  If someone needs to pay someone to work on their rig, that’s fine.  I know a few good shops and I’ll give them a recommendation.  If someone is a die-hard DIY’er and is going to build as much of their rig themselves as they can, I’m all for it.  I love seeing the unique and creative solutions people come up with.  That said, I won’t tolerate one side berating or belittling the other.  This community is too small to allow that kind of divisiveness to exist.  In a way that’s almost why I didn’t want to write this article.  I didn’t want to fan the flames and fuel this debate.  I hate – I hate – I hate that this “built vs. bought” debate has made it’s way into the overlanding community.  I breaks my heart.  It is from that perspective thought that I felt like I had to say something to help bridge the divide.


Shortly after I got it I took the LJ to a Jeep social event at a nearby brew-pub.  It was right after I installed the AtoZ Rocker Guards that I had painted in the driveway.  It was also right after I finished the 1″ body-lift and motor-mount lift.  I rolled in on my 31’s and was feeling pretty good about the work my friends and I had done to the rig and I was excited to show it off.  Soon rig after rig rolled in and I started to notice a pattern.  Almost every one of them was on at least 35’s, most all of them featured stickers from local 4×4 shops, and all of them looked like the Jeep parts catalog threw up on it.  As I listed to the idle conversation the owner/drivers were bragging about picking up their rig from the local shop and all the parts that were now bolted on to it.  Bumpers, lockers, light-bars, etc.  To be honest from 20 feet away most of their rigs looked bag-ass.  Big knobby tires, meaty accessories, and bold bright colored accents.  They certainly were eye catching.  At least in the way a Peacock is when he’s prancing about with his feathers in full plumage.  Sadly my Jeep went mostly unnoticed.  It was small, unassuming, and lacked any brightly colored neon accents to draw the eye to it.  It still had stock bumpers at the time and lacked any aftermarket LED lighting.  Hell, to this day it still lacks a prerequisite 50″ LED light bar.  Needless to say it was the first, last, and only official event of that particular Jeep group I attended.  When I ran into some of their members at another small show-and-shine a few months later I had to laugh as I overheard them dis both my Jeep and one of my friend’s Jeep.  While mine had seen a few more upgrades like bumpers, a winch, and what-not, it was still a modest build.  I was starting to promote the 2015 No Highways Tour at the time and I overhead a lot of comments to the effect of, “I can’t believe he’s taking that on a trip.”  Well honey, I did.  It was one heck of an adventure.  Which is more than she could say for her pavement pounding mall crawler.  But hey, those neon pink accents sure do catch the eye.  I digress.

My point is this, more often than not the critic usually has an ax to grind to make themselves feel good.  I personally don’t care if you build your rig yourself form a pile of tube in your backyard or pay a shop to do all the work for you.  What you do with your time, money, and skills is on you.  That said, start bashing other people just so you can feel good about yourself.  Don’t start picking apart someone else’s build just because they didn’t build it how you would have.  I totally understand not everyone has an unlimited skill set.  I can’t weld.  I probably never will.  Why would I learn to weld when I have people like Zach at AtoZ Fabrication who make great bumpers, roll-cages, and other stuff?  I also understand there are people who don’t know the first thing about doing an oil change.  <Insert the ‘710 fluid’ blonde joke here; if you’ve never heard it ask me sometime and I’ll tell it>.

Ten years ago I would never have undertaken a project like the “Poor man’s teardrop”
Such a project would have been overwhelming and nearly impossible for me.
Fear. Indecision. Inexperience.  All of those things would have stood in my way.
Over time I cultivated skills, accumulated knowledge, and gained experience.
Now people come to me for information and insight.
Who knows, maybe in ten years I’ll be coming to YOU for advice.

The aforementioned article bemoaning and berating the “built not bought” creed didn’t add anything to the community. As I said, I’m still not sure if it’s intentional satire or sincere animosity.  Either way, to me it reads like a puff piece designed to insight ire.  In contrast I hope my piece today can help encourage and inspire those of you would like to build rather than buy.  I hope that you’ll see not everyone prefers to buy their way down the trail.  Not everyone is going to measure you by the length of your light-bar, the size or your tires, or how many shitty made-in-china accessories your last paycheck bought.
Personally I champion the DIY’er.  I love seeing home built stuff no matter how modest or simple it might look.  I also know that those skills take time to develop.  If you don’t know how to change your own oil, ask.  Someone like me will gladly show you.  If you’ve never done a lift kit, ask.  Someone like me will gladly help you; just like someone helped me with my first lift kit.  When you start to approach the “built not bought” creed as a lifestyle you’ll find there are a lot of people willing to help you out.  That’s why I love sharing installation write-ups here at ECOA.  I want to educate you on how to do it, encourage you that you can do it, and inspire you to think about what your next project will be.  I love paying it forward.  That said, those that buy rather than build aren’t so generous.  They won’t pay it forward because that would mean turning over the only thing they have which is their money.  They don’t have time to help you turn wrenches.  They don’t have experience from their last build to share.  They don’t have skills to teach you.  The only thing they have going for them is all that hard earned money they’re quick to boast about and lord over you from their 60 hour a week desk job.
So, quit reading and go pick up some tools.  Embrace “built not bought” as more than just a silly sticker or a hashtag on Instagram.  Really think about what it means to take ownership of your overland rig as not just a means to an end but an end unto itself.  If you’re not looking over your shoulder when you walk away with a smile on your face as you look at it going, “yeah, I built that” then I think you’re missing out.  It’s more than just a summation of the parts when you’re the one doing the work.  And if you don’t have the skills today, then start learning tomorrow.  Someday you’ll get there.  Doesn’t have to be right away but when that day comes I think you’ll find the payoff at the end is worth getting your hands dirty in the process.

0 thoughts on “Exploring the creed of “Built not Bought”

  1. I see more and more "mall crawlers" in Jeeps where I live and I just want to puke. Even if you bought it and didn't build it, it's a JEEP!!! Take it out and get it dirty. But the pavement princesses have a stroke at the thought of dirt getting anywhere near their rides.