John Plant might be the most popular YouTuber who has never spoken a word on camera. In the four years since the 36-year-old Australian started his channel, Primitive Technology, he’s attracted 9.8 million subscribers and racked up over 775 million views on his 48 videos. What does he do to capture such a large audience? In each video, he goes out into the bush near his home in far north Queensland, with nothing but his now signature pair of blue shorts, and silently creates handmade shelters and tools using only what’s available to him in nature. That’s it. “Primitive technology is a hobby, where you go into the wild bare-handed and make things from scratch without using any modern tools or materials,” Plant says. “That includes making the tools you need to make things. You can, in theory, with enough time, make anything that exists in modern times.”
In the channel’s very first video, Plant builds a primitive wattle-and-daub hut, complete with a bed, fireplace, and chimney. But before viewers see the final structure, they watch Plant craft a stone hand ax to chop wood, burn the wood to create a fire, gather material to fire clay pots, use the pots to carry water from a nearby stream, pour the water into dirt to make mud, and finally use the mud to insulate and support the walls of the shelter. In other videos, he shows his audience how to make clay and mud bricks, how to build a freshwater-prawn trap, and how to master an ancient spear-thrower.
Plant graduated from James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and then worked stints in soil testing, at a pottery shop, and at a powder-coating factory before leaving the nine-to-five world to mow lawns and spend more of his time in the bush. In 2015, he launched his YouTube channel and soon gained a large enough following that he could focus on building primitive dwellings full-time.
He was more surprised than anyone that so many people wanted to watch him painstakingly construct things in nature. But his videos give viewers a pause from modern life. Amid all the noise of social media, there’s a shirtless man in rural Australia spending his days scouring the forest for the perfect clay deposit or a proper tree for a thatched roof. And it’s refreshing to watch someone work in silence, without nudging viewers to subscribe to his channel or sneaking in mentions of corporate sponsors. His quiet demeanor is a source of regular quips in the comments. “I just realized the reason he doesn’t speak is because he hasn’t invented language yet,” wrote one viewer on a recent video titled simply “Hut burned down, built new one.”
After getting constant questions from viewers who wanted to build from-scratch shelters in their own backyards, Plant decided to put all of his Stone Age knowledge into a guide. Primitive Technology: A Survivalist’s Guide to Building Tools, Shelters, and More in the Wild ($20, Clarkson Potter), out October 29, aims to be a wilderness resource for experienced craftsmen and newcomers alike. It comprises step-by-step instructions on a variety of ancient practices, from starter projects like digging sticks and hand axes to complex structures like updraft kilns and pyramidal huts. Ahead of the book’s release, we spoke with Plant about how he came to have this hobby, his wildly popular YouTube channel, and his next project in the woods.
On How He Got Started: “I first got into primitive technology when I was 11. It wasn’t strict bushcrafting but rather what kids do naturally. Back then it was building paths, bases, hideouts, and traps with other kids my own age. What got me into this hobby is a lack of computer games and material possessions. My parents could afford expensive toys for me but didn’t want to spoil me—better for children to be active anyway.”
“I used modern tools like machetes and ropes to make things. Then I suddenly decided that that was cheating and made a self-imposed rule of not using any modern tools or materials to make things in the bush. I can vaguely remember my first project, at age 11, was a simple hut with a low rock wall and a dome roof made of sticks, covered with sheets of bark and leaves. It’s not still around—it was below the water level of the creek in the wet season. But it was fun to build this first hut. It was a small home away from home.”
On Why He Started Sharing His Work Online: “I made videos to show friends and family, and they started saying I should put it on YouTube. The first video (“Wattle and Daub Hut”) shows the progression of a hut over nine months, with many components to it. I just kept editing new things into it to show people I met. Before that I only took photos of my projects for my own interest.”
On His Reading List: “When taking on a project, you must research it thoroughly—how much material was used, dimensions, weights, etc. Then you try to create the thing, see how it goes, and then try something else if it doesn’t work. Trial and error plays a big part after the research phase is done. I’ve read the SAS Survival Handbook, by John Wiseman, for shelters and bow making and The Mastery and Uses of Fire in Antiquity, by J.E. Rehder, for furnaces and pyrotechnology. But mainly internet research.”
On the Most Difficult Skills to Learn: “Fire making and metallurgy. In learning fire making with the hand drill—spinning a stick in the socket of another stick—many blisters were had. I was 18 by the time I got my first fire. It would have been earlier if I had a teacher to learn from or today’s internet at least. With smelting iron, I had to learn many different skills and made up some by myself.”
On Staying the Night in One of His Shelters: “I’ve stayed in the tiled-roof hut. It had underfloor heating, which I tested at night in winter. I put palm fronds on the sleeping platform, and it stayed warm all night. It rained a bit, but the roof kept the rain off, and I had a fire and bed made from wood and moss, quite comfortable. I ate yams and sweet potatoes from the garden in front of the hut. It lasted three years before termites ate the wooden roof and the tiles came down. The walls dissolved in the rain after that.”
On How Popular His Channel Became: “I was surprised when my videos started to pick up in popularity, to be honest. There was already a well-established bushcrafting community on YouTube, and I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near as popular as the outdoor and camping channels that used modern tools and materials. I thought that, at best, there would be a niche audience who was interested in making things completely from scratch in the wild. I think there’s a lesson here for people reading this: if you have an unusual hobby that you’re interested in, but think others may not be, then put it out there for a larger audience to see. Chances are, if you’re interested in it, there will be at least a few thousand people in the world who are also.”
On Being Silent in His Videos: “That was originally by laziness rather than by design. I showed my first video to two different friends initially, and both said the video needed narration or no one would watch it. I had edited the video already and couldn’t be bothered to narrate it. Though some people complained about the lack of narration, most preferred it to other channels that talked excessively. To compromise, I added subtitles that people could turn on in their YouTube settings for more in-depth, real-time explanation.”
On How Engrossing the Work Is: “When I’m immersed in a task, I don’t think about anything else outside of it. That’s a good way to be. Sometimes I wonder what ancient people did, and how my work would compare to theirs, and what they’d think if they saw the way I do things. Most things they’d think I did worse for sure, but some things better also.”