Meet the makers at community workshops

  • Article by: PETER FUNK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2012 - 6:17 AM

Two Twin Cities area community workshops offer tools and training for ultra DIYers.

Riley Harrison holds up his favorite bow. "It's got red oak on the belly and hickory on the back and the handle is layered of walnut and red oak," he said, barely audible over the grind -- saws splitting wood, hammers bouncing off anvils, drills pressing through metal sheets.

The bow Harrison holds is one he shaped with his own hands. The hours of work it took, however, to bend, smooth and laminate the wood were not spent in his garage or basement, but at the Hack Factory, a community workshop in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood.

The Hack Factory is what's known as a "maker space." Operated by Twin Cities (TC) Maker, the Hack Factory is a community-shared workspace that offers a cornucopia of tools and machinery for members like Harrison to take their do-it-yourself urges to the extreme.

TC Maker is one of two such operations in the metro area. The Mill, in northeast Minneapolis, opened early this year.

The two organizations are part of a larger maker movement, a broad term that refers to individuals from varied creative and technological interests who are united by their insatiable desire to create -- anything.

"There is this drive among makers to always be kind of creating something," said Brian Boyle, president of the Mill, "making something better, tweaking it for their use. Whether it's a bit of computer code. Whether it's a footstool."

The movement is growing nationwide. The first Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., where people from around the country congregate to learn techniques and showcase their work, had an attendance of 22,000 in 2006. By 2011, attendance had reached nearly 100,000, according to Make Magazine, the quarterly publication that puts on the event.

People who make things have always been around, according to Michael Freiert, development coordinator for TC Maker. What's new is the creation of spaces where these wild minds are set free.

TC Maker started in January 2009 as a website about developing a maker space within the Twin Cites. As the site's popularity grew, speculation soon turned to reality. TC Maker eventually combined forces with the like-minded Hack Factory, which was looking to secure workshop space. The two groups signed a lease together in December 2009, deciding to call the community TC Maker and the space the Hack Factory. Doors officially opened in January 2010.

Membership has been growing steadily since then. TC Maker began with about 20 members, quickly doubling within the first six months. The nonprofit organization currently has about 120 members.

The Mill is Boyle's brainchild. It opened in February as a for-profit operation offering members an avenue for selling their wares.

Despite having different fiscal structures, both organizations charge members a monthly fee in exchange for access to all the tools they are certified to safely operate.

It's similar to a gym membership. "Except instead of elliptical machines, we have table saws," Freiert said.

Both shops offer classes on safe use of specific tools, such as a laser cutter class or a 3-D printer class. And both have a vast array of tools for woodworking, machining, welding, electronics, robotics, sewing, leather working, mosaics, sculpture, plastics forming and everything in between.

Andy Coffman, 26, came to the Hack Factory a couple of weeks ago after winning free armor-making lessons. He is now thinking of becoming a member.

"To have a setup like this on your own would take thousands of dollars," Coffman said. "Let alone the space needed to actually do it. Here you get not only a whole array of different tools and machines, but also people who know all the different techniques."

Boyle visualizes a future where this sort of shared access is the norm. "It's my belief that a place like the Mill will be sort of the infrastructure of communities," he said. "It will be looked to similar to a library, where it's a community resource that people can access."

Maker spaces blur traditional boundaries that once existed between disciplines such as technology, crafts, engineering and education.

"The electronics guys wanted to work in wood, and the wood guys wanted to know more about electronics," Freiert said. "It's facilitating multidisciplinary interaction."

Micah Roth, a cardiac care nurse, taught himself how to build and operate 3-D printers, devices that print whole objects from computer files.

He now teaches the Mill's 3-D printing class and works on prototyping new printers for students and members.

Brigette Mathiason, a stay-at-home mom, comes from a long line of crafters and teaches a Monday night sewing class at the Mill. She is baffled by the diverse knowledge of fellow members.

"It's weird. I don't know more than half of what they're talking about," Mathiason said. "I don't understand, but I love the hum of everybody in this place, talking, throwing stuff at each other."

For Boyle, that's the essence, a community built upon creation and collaboration.

"You have somebody that's an artist. You have somebody that's an engineer. You have somebody that's a stay-at-home mom or dad, and they come in here and they're all interacting," Boyle said. "It's the soul of the place. It's everything."

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