Grady Hillhouse’s journey to full-time YouTube creator has been an unusual one. Through passion and persistence, he’s taken Practical Engineering from a hobby channel about woodworking and converted it into a resource for educators around the world — all while nabbing a book deal along the way. We recently chatted with Grady about being a YouTube personality and why he still feels like he’s learning as he goes.

Practical Engineering

Practical Engineering
Subscribers: 3.11M
Uploads: 156
Video views: 266,201,831
Content type: Education

User created: Feb 18th, 2007

Early origins 

Grady Hillhouse had been immersed in the engineering world long before he had thoughts of starting a YouTube channel. His fascination with the topic found roots in his childhood. Grady explains, “When I was younger, I definitely went through a lot of engineering phases. I was obsessed with circuits for a while, remote-controlled airplanes/cars for a while, and also got obsessed with writing code in high school. Still, I went to college for geography for some reason [laughs]. Luckily I found my way back to engineering.”

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Grady got his master’s degree in civil engineering. From there, he built his career. “I am a licensed professional engineer in Texas, and I practiced engineering for nearly ten years at a private consulting firm. My specialty is in dams and water resources.” In short, his credentials on the topic are impeccable.

Funny enough, engineering wasn’t the original focus of his channel, which wouldn’t shift into the Practical Engineering we know today until 2016. You could say he stumbled into his niche. “I got interested in YouTube because I was given some woodworking tools [from my father-in-law] and wanted to learn to use them. I noticed there was a community of creators around woodworking on YouTube and wanted to be a part of that.”

Making the jump

As Grady toiled away on his woodworking, he was also giving engineering presentations at his wife’s school. “When the teachers were interested in my presentations,” Grady explained, “I realized that not very many people have a lot of exposure to the field of engineering. So I made some videos about engineering to see if people would find them interesting. They did [and] I just kept going!”

Practical Engineering found incredible success by shifting the focus of the channel to engineering. It filled in a seemingly niche yet crucial knowledge gap. We asked Grady about how he found his audience for engineering when he initially made the switch. “Reddit was a big help early on in the channel in driving traffic to the videos,” Grady explains. He emphasizes the importance of collaborating with other YouTubers. Collaborating with others helped him build a name for himself. “Another big help was producing a guest video for Tom Scott’s channel.”

In the years since, the channel has amassed nearly three million subscribers. They’ve worked with universities and museums on various collaborations and have been featured on both the Science and Discovery Channels. Grady has even leveraged his YouTube channel’s success and unique approach to education into a new illustrated book, Engineering in Plain Sight.

Engineering is something Grady has a deep passion for. That passion made Grady debate whether he should turn his YouTube channel into a full-time job. Grady emphasizes how much he loved working at his regular job. For him, YouTube fame wasn’t a goal but an unexpected side effect. As Grady said, “For most of the life of the channel, it was a hobby I did after work and on weekends. I have only been working on the channel full-time since February 2021.”

Grady and the Practical Engineering team go beyond Ad Sense to make things profitable. “Sponsorships are the primary revenue stream for the videos,” Grady reveals. “This year, we released a book as a way to branch into physical products and merchandise as a revenue stream… On the merch/book side, I’m partnered with an e-commerce company who manages my store and fulfills orders.”

Staying practical in engineering

Here, Grady demonstrates how spillway gates work. Image courtesy: Practical Engineering

Even among all the success and ability to transition Practical Engineering into a full-time job, Grady insists on keeping their process much the same. The core focus of using handcrafted models to break down complicated topics has never changed, nor has his team’s approach to producing content. 

“We produce two types of videos on the channel,” Grady says. “The first Tuesday of each month, we release a video on some fundamental aspects of engineering. That usually includes a homebuilt model as a demonstration. The third Tuesday of every month, we usually release a video on a more journalistic or newsworthy topic related to engineering.”

There’s no shortage of topics to cover, either. Grady explains that topic requests from viewers frequently flood his email inbox. Then there’s Practical Engineering’s Patreon, which also gives fans of the channel an outlet to suggest things. All of these contribute to Grady’s ever-growing list of potential ideas. “We are on all social media platforms, but most of the interaction happens through email or YouTube comments.”

Grady continues, “For choosing topics, we usually do that as a brainstorming meeting each month. I’ll bring a few topics that I’m interested in, and we’ll discuss potential titles, thumbnails, demonstrations and script framing/details. We often write videos that go together in a series. Since a lot of engineering topics are too complicated or nuanced to cover in a single 12-minute episode.”

Production process

Grady reveals production on a video could span up to an entire month. “We spend the better part of each month researching a topic and coming up with a demonstration that can make [it] more interesting and engaging. We often shoot the talking headshots in batches. Then all the post-production happens in the few weeks leading up to each release.”

Of course, there are times when certain topics take even longer to produce. Due to the nature of the experiments and the models built, some videos take a bit longer. Regardless, the production schedule remains tight, but they’ve worked things out to a science. It’s an impressive feat for such a small team, considering also they had zero production experience when they started this endeavor.

“Right now, my team is Wesley (editor), Ralph (script editor) and Josh (production assistant). [There’s actually] a production company that does my motion graphics,” Grady mentions. But, in true YouTuber fashion, they learn as they go. They utilize trial and error as they fine-tune every step, from scriptwriting to filming to post-production.

Staying consistent

YouTube’s algorithm can be a fickle thing. Depending on who you talk to, how the algorithm decides which videos to boost for viewers can be a source of great joy or severe frustration. For Grady, however, it’s not something his team considers when crafting content for the channel. In short, Practical Engineering doesn’t “chase the algorithm.” 

They would rather let the channel’s content speak for itself. When speaking on YouTube’s algorithm, Grady says, “This is kind of like asking a plant what they think about the sun. I know that no algorithm is perfect, and the way YouTube chooses which videos to suggest is likely problematic in some ways. It sometimes even feels capricious. But, when it really comes to making decisions, I ultimately just have to trust that if we make good videos that people will enjoy watching, YouTube is going to find a way to connect that content to an audience.”

That’s not to say they ignore things entirely. Grady doesn’t feel there’s any “secret sauce” to Practical Engineering’s success. The key factor in Grady’s mind has always been the content they produce. Despite all he’s learned over the years with Practical Engineering, he wouldn’t change the journey that led him to this point. 

“I’m really not sure if there’s much I would do differently,” Grady said. “I feel very fortunate that this silly idea of making videos about infrastructure is somehow pulling the viewership that it does. I suspect that has more to do with being the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Less to do with any conscious decisions I made about growth.” 

Staying true to yourself

Along this same train of thought, we asked if Grady had any advice to offer other YouTubers looking to take their passion to the next level. “It’s tough to offer advice to others since I still feel like I’m stumbling my way through it. I could type for hours about important lessons I’ve learned over the years. I think my advice to new people wanting to start a channel is to set deadlines for yourself, even if they are arbitrary. 

“One of the most important things I continue to learn about YouTube is that viewers will let you get away with a lot. You don’t have to have perfect production quality, color-graded footage and the best music tracks. You do have to have a tight script, great audio and a good story to tell. Setting deadlines for yourself forces you to get something published, even if it’s not 100 percent perfect in every way. Then, slowly, you learn that a video doesn’t have to be perfect to be successful.”

Consistency and genuine passion are all important elements of being a successful YouTuber. Grady has leveraged his years of experience and ability to educate into something truly special with Practical Engineering. With the transition to making the channel a full-time gig, and more sponsorships and opportunities on the horizon, Grady and his team are just getting started.