side by side of a silhouette of Martijn Doolaard and a cabin
Mattia Balsamini
side by side of a silhouette of Martijn Doolaard and a cabin
(Photos: Mattia Balsamini)

Why 500,000 People Are Lining Up to Watch Paint Dry

Meet YouTube’s quiet superstar: Martijn Doolaard, a semi-hermit Dutchman who has turned the slow, steady process of Alpine-cabin restoration into a masterpiece of performance art

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Last winter, laid up in bed with a severe bout of the Omicron variant, I began obsessively watching Martijn Doolaard’s YouTube channel. Doolaard is a 38-year-old Dutchman who, about a year earlier, had bought a set of primitive shepherd’s cabins in the western Italian Alps for less than the price of a decent new car. He had the immediate intent of fixing them up, and a broader, more abstract goal of living simply in nature.

The first video he posted, in October 2021, laid out what might be called the Doolaard style: A Kubrickian drone shot, gliding over a wooded, fog-enshrouded mountaintop, backed by a minimalist orchestral score. The shot then cuts to the back seat of his car, and we see Doolaard driving through the forest, en route to his new adventure. “Hey guys, welcome to this channel,” he says. “My name is Martijn Doolaard.” His first name, pronounced in the Dutch way, comes across as something like “muhr-tine.”

In the year since that humble start, over more than 50 episodes, he has built a feverishly devoted base of half a million subscribers and growing. They tune in to watch Doolaard, who uses a single tripod-mounted camera, the occasional drone, Google Sketch, a suite of power tools, and an almost preternatural sense of calm as he tackles a seemingly never-ending list of tasks involved in trying to make a home from a pair of century-old buildings that lack heat, plumbing, and electricity.

And while the performance of those tasks is shown in painstaking detail, one gets the sense that, for many viewers, this is far more than a home-improvement show. It’s a form of therapy—an antidote to modern life, online and off. It’s a small, carefully ordered world they can return to week after week.

“Every Monday morning I come to my office, turn on my computer, check for Martijn’s new video, and ask myself if I will ever be able to change my life the way he did,” one commenter writes. “We’re all mesmerized,” says another. “You’re quirky but common, quiet but full of expression, alone with a plethora of viewers, brilliant but humble, serious but whimsical and we can’t get enough.” Another fan puts it simply: “This is more addictive than love.”

I am one of those addicts. Bingeing doesn’t quite seem the right word; it feels more like lapping up a slow drip of sweet dew, a kind of IV for the soul. First there’s Doolaard himself. Tall, bearded, and wearing a dark, wide-brimmed hat, he looks plucked from the world of 17th-century Dutch portrait painting. Unlike so many frenetic, teeth-whitened influencers who populate social media, he struck me as a serene old soul—an idea further supported by the Amish hipster getups (suspenders, vests) he wears while sawing planks of wood or hauling rocks up a hill. Then there’s the way everything is shot, like Norwegian slow television with a healthy side helping of ASMR; I never imagined woodworking could be so worth watching or hearing. In line with the current vogue in social media of romanticizing your life, Doolaard has a way of making the most mundane things—polishing his work boots, brewing coffee in a moka pot—seem like reverential ceremonies.

There are any number of YouTubers chronicling the renovation of an old homestead in Alaska or France’s Loire Valley, but none have struck me in quite the same way. They aren’t as good with a camera; their content consists of couples or families, so you feel less like a spiritual partner in the project and more like an invited spectator; sometimes they get professional help for the hard stuff.

Doolaard, meanwhile, is an unabashed aesthete who turns manual labor into visual poetry. This is a man, after all, who admitted to buying a scythe to cut the grass because he saw a character do it in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life. He’s not afraid of the hard stuff, plunging into fields in which he has no experience with a mixture of steadfast resolve and take-it-as-it-comes pragmatism. As he installed the first source of running water on the property—after watching some instructional YouTube videos—he looked at the plumbing line he’d just put in and said, with a shrug, “I hope it’s buried deep enough.” He’s learning in real time, making mistakes, and even these he handles with calm aplomb. As someone who tends to freak out when a screw gets stripped, I found it cathartic, and tremendously inspiring.

“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, famously, in Walden, the totemic 19th-century ode to downscale, off-the-grid living. Thoreau’s simple life in the woods was never quite as simple as he made out—for one thing, he lived just a short walk from his family home, and received weekly visits from his mother and sisters. But the spirit of the thing endures, and I kept seeing parallels between Walden and Doolaard’s YouTube channel.

“I made a study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread making,” wrote Thoreau; Doolaard, during a number of episodes, experiments with baking over an open fire. Like Thoreau, who devoted a whole chapter of Walden to “Sounds,” Doolaard becomes exquisitely attuned to the natural soundscape around him—and learns to deal with his “brute neighbors,” meaning wildlife. And like Thoreau, who wrote, “I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it,” Doolaard seems as interested in the process as the result.

But what does it mean to live a Walden-like life of natural solitude in the always-on realm of social media, where your exploits are followed, in close to real time, by an audience of hundreds of thousands? What possesses someone to trade the comforts of contemporary life for cold outdoor showers and no mailing address, to tackle a tricky renovation amid challenging conditions, in a country where you don’t speak the language—and why would so many find that an appealing viewing experience? I wanted to meet the man behind the channel, so I headed to Italy.

Martijn Doolaard working on a cabin restoration
(Mattia Balsamini)
Martijn Doolaard working on a cabin restoration
(Mattia Balsamini)

Doolaard’s homestead, which lies in the Val Pellice region of Piedmont, roughly two hours west of Turin, is a long drive up a narrow, twisty gravel track. On the way, I see a traffic sign declaring something in Italian that looks like “Destroyed road.” I pass a few houses on the lower slopes with the inevitable Fiat Panda—that humble workhorse of the Italian countryside—parked outside. Laboring through a couple of particularly tight corners, I am forced to shift into reverse to make the turn. When I reach the point where Doolaard has advised me that it will no longer be safe to pilot my two-wheel-drive rental any farther, I get out and walk.

I arrive at Doolaard’s property and immediately feel a twinge of déjà vu, as I now physically occupy a place I’ve inhabited digitally for months. There is the elaborate scaffolding Doolaard built himself! There is the canvas bell tent where he’s been living! There is the cup that holds his toothbrush! And there is Doolaard himself, emerging from one of the stone cabins, his hand outstretched. He introduces me to Rik Wielheesen, an old friend from the Netherlands who’s been staying with him for the past week. Wielheesen, an artist by training, is seated at a stone picnic table (built during an episode of the show). He’s working on a painting of one of the cabins, daubing green on gray to depict moss on the roof. The surroundings, as I’ve come to expect, are beautiful and still. There is faint birdsong, and the hills ring with the far-off, syncopated tolling of dairy-cow bells. Doolaard makes me tea in his outdoor kitchen, and we sit down to talk.

The backstory of how Doolaard came to this remote Italian mountaintop more or less begins in Amsterdam in 2014. A longtime graphic designer who did packaging and branding work for Heineken, among other companies, he was quite successful on the surface. But he felt stuck in the system, earning money to buy things he didn’t need. He played guitar and sang in a moderately popular band called Diesel Disko, but it too was “starting to hit the ceiling of its potential,” he says. He longed for change but was leery of leaving his comfortable life behind.

Inspiration eventually came from that most ubiquitous of Amsterdam objects, the bicycle. He wasn’t a hardcore cyclist, but like most Dutch people, he rode a bike to get around. “We’re cycling all the time,” he tells me. He began to wonder about the bike’s potential—not just for longer journeys, but as a home. He bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker, and eventually embarked on a two-week bikepacking trip to Switzerland. He had found his passion. A year later, he rode from Amsterdam to Singapore, documenting his journey in a book, One Year on a Bike.

Doolaard returned to Amsterdam and threw himself back into work, enjoying both it and urban life. But it wasn’t long before he felt that same itch. So he decided to cycle from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Patagonia. He’d go slower this time, even taking breaks to do freelance design work along the way. In 2016, he set out on the two-year journey, later chronicled in a lavishly illustrated and photo-heavy second book, called, as you might expect, Two Years on a Bike. It’s a freewheeling adventure, filled with Thoreauvian observations—“the ‘good life’ is a mercurial idea rather than a set and secret absolute”—and of course the escapades of Doolaard, who can look like some post-apocalyptic scavenger as he rides dusty and ragged through the Bolivian altiplano.

There were moments, in Chile and Argentina, when he thought of giving up. “The landscape slowly becomes more like Europe,” he says. “And I would always think, OK, what am I doing? I’ve done the deserts. I’ve seen all the culture. I think I’ve seen the best part of it—but then you still have 6,000 kilometers left to cycle.” He kept going, knowing “that the story of the guy who almost cycled to Patagonia is not a story.”

Doolaard is an unabashed aesthete who turns manual labor into visual poetry. This is a man, after all, who admitted to buying a scythe to cut the grass because he saw a character do it in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life.

Returning to Amsterdam at the end of 2019, Doolaard felt that old familiar desire to roam come back even faster. He was done with cycling—three years on a bike had taken their toll—but a fundamental part of the experience stayed with him. “Traveling by bike makes life very simple,” he says. “You have to really think about everything you bring, because when you go uphill, you have to carry it.” At home he felt surrounded by stuff. “If you open your kitchen drawers and make a list of everything that’s there,” he says, “it just weighs you down.” (I’m again reminded of Thoreau. “My greatest skill,” he wrote, “has been to want but little.”) Doolaard started to wonder if he could live a kind of bikepacking life in one place. “Everything you do,” as he put it in Two Years, “affects the next thing you do.”

So he started, the way many of us do in our dreamier moments, looking at real estate websites like Idealista, which specializes in Spanish properties. He didn’t want to be saddled with a loan, so expensive countries like France and Switzerland were off the table. His price range drove him to a relatively obscure corner of Italy. “It’s the least touristy part of the Alps,” he says, “but equally beautiful.”

There were scores of old stone structures around, used by shepherds as temporary living quarters for themselves and their animals. He found a property he liked—two stone huts with six acres and a view of a valley ringed by mountains—that had been on the market for three years. In 2021, he drove to the plot with his brother to have a look. The owner, an older Frenchman who was a veteran of the Foreign Legion, had been, as Doolaard describes it, “living rough” there now and then. There was no plumbing, but Doolaard and his brother eventually located a leaky water-main connection in a forest on the edge of the property. “I made a bid that afternoon,” he says.

In the beginning it wasn’t easy. On the eve of winter, he was sleeping in a tent. His air mattress leaked. To run the power tools he’d need for the renovation, he had to set up a solar-powered rig. There were insects everywhere, dormice in the walls—“in Dutch we call them riot mice,” he says—and many cubic yards of rock and earth that had to be hauled from the lower levels. His bathroom was the woods; to get water, he hauled up jugs. He hired a local surveyor—a geometra, in Italian—who described all the daunting building codes that applied.

But gradually, episode by episode, through a series of small wins, life got better. He met the few neighbors he has, including an Austrian monk named Johannes Schwarz—also a YouTuber, though his content tends more to deep theological discussions, in German—as well as local farmers who traded him cheese and milk in exchange for letting their cows graze on his land. He learned to navigate Italian hardware stores, aided by Google Translate. He was sympathetic to small-business owners, but found that home-improvement chains better suited his purpose, for a simple reason: more choice.

“At the big Home Depot–type stores, everything is on display,” he says in one video. “With plumbing, you can grab a connection and see, Oh, I need that pipe.” He taught himself plumbing in the store aisle. At the local mom-and-pop stores, by contrast, everything was behind the counter. “You ask, ‘Can I get a pack of nails?’ And they say, ‘What kind?’ ” he jokes.

During one of our conversations, he compares the renovation process to previous adventures. “It’s the same as the bike trip—you win terrain for yourself,” he says. “At the start, I was sleeping in the tent in the cold, and then I had hot water—it’s amazing!” But he rarely chose the easiest path. Not only did Doolaard have to renovate the huts, but he had to fashion an immediately serviceable living space for himself. After staying in the tent for a while, he moved into an old camper, then finally built a sort of cabin within a cabin—a cozy wooden enclosure installed within the stone barn, where he could ride out the winter. Then came a primitive outdoor kitchen, a simple shower. But there was still an infinite number of things to do.

“I have too many ideas,” he tells me. But he leaned into Zen. “The goal for me is just enjoying the view, having a coffee, and working the entire day.” He referred to it as a “beautiful trajectory,” at the end of which would be a nice house, one largely subsidized by the advertising revenue generated by his ever growing viewership. (A few sponsors provided equipment, but he notes that he’s “very selective about it, or else I’d have all sorts of junk here I have to review.”) He tells me that the house itself is secondary to the process of restoring it: “Otherwise you just buy a finished house, right?”

When I ask his friend Wielheesen how he would describe Doolaard, he says: “He doesn’t take shortcuts.” Perhaps the most striking example is the crane. Early on, Doolaard realized that taking down, and ultimately putting back, the massive slabs of stone that formed the roofs was going to be exceedingly difficult to accomplish by himself. The standard approach would be to hire heavy equipment and an operator. Instead, like a latter-day Leonardo, he sketched out a wooden conveyance that could be used to hoist the slabs. The locals found it all very amusing. “I went to the sawmill. The guy who’s the owner, he just hit his head like that,” Doolaard recalls, bringing a fist to his forehead and laughing. “It’s a boy thing,” he says. “The old men are like, ‘Yeah, do it!’ ”

He built the crane, and successfully deployed it—the device groaning under the pressure—to hoist some Slav-like roof stones. But in the end, he didn’t need it for much. As it happened, another solution from the far reaches of the internet soon arrived.

Martijn Doolaard working on a cabin restoration
(Mattia Balsamini)
Martijn Doolaard working on a cabin restoration
(Mattia Balsamini)

One afternoon I was sitting on the stone picnic table, drinking coffee with Wielheesen. I was taking a break after a few hours of helping Doolaard, planing and staining battens for the roof, and finding stones suitable for filling in the gaps where the new roof would go. Suddenly, a high-pitched, strangled noise emerged from the valley below, like a cross between a braking freight train and a howler monkey. “That’s the freaky donkey,” Wielheesen observed, smiling. “It takes a long time before you know it’s a donkey.” I’d been settling into the quirky rhythms of the place—the unpredictable weather, the brew-ups at the outdoor kitchen, the clattering passage of goats or cows accompanied by the shouts of shepherds.

Doolaard suddenly appeared, setting up his Sony A7 IV near us on a tripod. He asked Wielheesen to remove a plastic water bottle from the frame. “It’s a film set, you know,” Doolaard said. “It needs to look nice.” This extended to the clothes Doolaard wore, which he admitted were not the usual “trashy” garments you might don to, say, pour concrete. “Because people are watching,” he said. In videos, his look, while not necessarily contradicting his usual style, can accurately be called timeless, a feeling he sought to impart more broadly by stripping out some of the ugly mundanities of modern life in favor of a rural fantasia. (For example, he doesn’t shoot his trips to the grocery store or the recycling center.) Wielheesen joked that, during the week he’d been on the mountain, he’d ruined Doolaard’s aesthetic with his fluorescent technical gear.

Amid the stillness of the mountain, it was easy to forget that this whole experiment was being conducted in front of a large and very engaged audience, one carefully attuned to the smallest developments. Comments for any episode typically number in the thousands. They often include criticism—usually intended to be constructive—of some technique Doolaard is employing. One thread, concerning his failure to use steel to reinforce concrete on the roof, became rather testy: “This episode was about a man making a costly mistake,” a commenter wrote. “Everything he did was wrong and it will have consequences later.”

Doolaard appreciates the comments, often using them as a kind of lodestar, refining his work in a nearly real-time interaction. “I take advantage of the tips, and I enjoy the compliments,” he says. He’ll start private conversations with people who post, like a guy from Germany who’s an expert on masonry stoves. “But the rest I have to keep a distance from—it would just add a level of stress,” he says. Everyone brings their own perspective; indeed, to some Doolaard can look like a Herzogian wildman, flaunting convention and common sense. Take his outdoor kitchen: a ramshackle setup of counter, shelves, sink, and refrigerator under a makeshift roof. People freaked out: What if it rains? “You build right to the edge,” Doolaard told me. “It’s a little bit protected, but not too much.”

You can’t truly experience the beauty of nature, he seemed to be saying, without welcoming some of its danger. “One day it storms, and there’s a mess and everything’s dirty, and you think, I need to be more protected,” he says. “But the next day the sun shines and you change your mind.” The constant comfort of home can be numbing. “If it’s cloudy and I can’t have a warm shower for two days—then the third day, it’s like yeahhh.”

As Doolaard’s first summer on the mountain dawned in 2022, something new, and a bit unexpected by Doolaard himself, began appearing in the videos: other people.

In videos, his look, while not necessarily contradicting his usual style, can accurately be called timeless, a feeling he sought to impart more broadly by stripping out some of the ugly mundanities of modern life in favor of a rural fantasia.

Doolaard got welding help from a local in episode nine, and people had been mailing him stuff unsolicited—a guy from Texas sent a weather station; any number of viewers offered to send seeds for his nascent garden. Prior to that he’d been proceeding almost entirely solo. Now there seemed to be a new set of visitors every week: a keen mushroom forager from England, a Canadian cycling couple, five guys from Alabama doing an “On the Road thing,” as Doolaard called it.

Generally, these were people traveling through Europe who’d decided to make a pilgrimage to the cabin. As viewers began to see people in the videos, Doolaard says, “they think, Oh, that’s nice. I’d like to do it as well.” One commenter summed it up: “Like a thousand others, I want to go to Italy and eat bread and drink beer with you.” There were vague stirrings that the solitary magic had been disrupted, but overwhelmingly, commenters took the appearance of young volunteers helping Doolaard as further proof of the channel’s specialness. In episode 29, four guys, including a CrossFitter from Germany, help him take down the massive roof stones. The crane is rendered obsolete, literally put out to pasture. “The best tool,” Doolaard observes, “is sometimes just manpower.”

Living your life alone, but in the company of others—it’s a fine line, sure to blur sometimes. A few days before I arrived, a German visitor suddenly appeared, unannounced, at the property’s edge. Doolaard stopped and talked. “He offered his help, but he also just wanted to know more about buying property in Italy,” he told me. “But I didn’t need his help, so I thanked him kindly, chatted a bit, and went back to work. He was quite disappointed.” I ask Doolaard, who’s careful on the channel to avoid mentioning specific landmarks, how visitors find him. “If you’re Google Map savvy, you’ll figure it out,” he tells me.

That line between solitude and sharing has played out on the ground in other ways, too: not long ago, Doolaard had to set up a barbed-wire fence to deter mushroom pickers. “I’m showering and having my breakfast here, and people just pop out of the bushes,” he jokes.

Being truly alone in the modern world, or living absolutely off the grid, is an almost impossible task. Doolaard is giving it an honest go, but he has his limits. That scything he appreciated? The sheer scale of his property proved overwhelming, so he hired a few local guys to hack down the rampant summer growth with string trimmers.

But it’s the fantasy that endures, not the unexpurgated reality. Doolaard is trying to fix a house, but he’s also trying to bring viewers along on a journey, something they can return to for an hour every week. “You are building the house,” he explains. “It’s not all about me. You see me working, but it’s about the house, the landscape, the sounds, the ambience, the slow progress.” He can imagine someone coming home from work, eating dinner, and opening their laptop. “This is now my world, I forget the stress of everyday life,” he says.

Doolaard anticipated that the restoration would take about two years. He said he’d keep filming until then, perhaps eventually shifting the content more to the act of living, stuff like gardening and raising chickens. But it’s hard to imagine this Espiritu Libre (his old Instagram handle) staying in one place for too long. Before he bought the house, he told me, he almost bought a boat. A few years ago, while living in Amsterdam, he got into sailing and crewed on a couple of yachts, connecting with captains on websites like Workaway. He thought about going to sea. “I think it’s the last free way of traveling,” he says.

He went to Italy instead. But once the cabin is where he wants it, he may again consider the ocean. “I look for a story,” he says. “Building a wooden sailboat is one of those dreams people have in their minds that they will never do.” He’s trying to make those things you never do into a kind of living—and not just the monetary kind. “If there is an experiment which you would like to do, do it,” Thoreau counseled. “Do not entertain doubts if they are not agreeable to you.” Is Doolaard a master boatbuilder or an expert sailor? No. But sailing around the world, he says, “is a big story—it sort of gives a life purpose.”

From March/April 2023 Lead Photos: Mattia Balsamini