Laser cutters, 3D printers, sewing machines, injection molders, welders, notchers, planers, lathes, hand tools, computers. Enter TechShop, San Francisco—three vast floors of every kind of maker’s tool imaginable.
TechShop is a community based workshop on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation.
“Any given day its a mix of hobbyists, artists, people who have invented things they’re trying to get to market or to prototype,” says Blaine Dehmlow, General manager for SF TechShop. “Today I saw a guy making a bicycle rack here in the welding department, another person making jewelry on the laser cutter. And there’s a group here making a medical device for prototype.”
“There’s a folding kayak,” interjects Jesse Harring Au, the Maker Advocate for Autodesk, the software company that partners with TechShop providing free programs for makers. “It folds up into a suitcase so anybody can take a kayak out. And there’s Type A Machines. They make their own 3D printers from scratch in house.”
There are three TechShops in the Bay Area.”A member can come in with an idea, take a class and three hours later they can be cutting stuff and making amazing progress,” says Blaine.
“So many people come in with just that napkin on a bar sketch,” says Jesse. “Just to see something physical come out as soon as possible, I think that’s where the software side of it comes in.”
Jesse’s the Techie…Blaine is Old School
“I’m an analog guy,” says Blaine.
“The ‘hammer’ of Tech Shop,” interrupts Jesse.
“We’ve missed a whole generation of inventing, of working with our hands, taking shop in school,” says Blaine.
“All that stuff just got passed away in the last 20-30 years. I think it was probably a liability issue. Remember when that whole thing came in? Everybody decided that if you couldn’t guarantee absolute safety you couldn’t do it.”
“No. I disagree,” Jesse counters. “With the advent of the internet and the advent of the home computer, as a whole country we said ‘let’s stay on top of the new technology.’”
“I don’t think you’re right!” Blaine shoots back, “Because nobody ever lost interest in woodshop…”
“But if you’re a high school…,” Jesse argues.A gigantic water lathe fires up next to us, drowning them out.
The two are a comedy team, playing off each other from opposite ends of “the making” spectrum. They’ve actually started doing a weekly podcast together which they record on their lunch break live from TechShop SF. It’s called Safety Third.
“My dad was a gold and silver miner,” Blaine recounts. “We grew up out in the middle of nowhere. When we got a piece of equipment or a toy you had to learn to repair it and alter it. And there was never a point in our life when we weren’t making a sling shot or a deer rifle or a go-cart.”
“Personally I was sort of so so on the hand skills,” says Jesse. “Blaine was never really interested in CAD, but just through our relationship working here together, we’ve built a car…
“A roadster,” corrects Blaine.
“We built a roadster,” says Jesse. “We’re making watches. We call it CAD to craft.
The two ran a guitar making workshop at TechShop. Thirteen people each made a guitar in six days. At the end of the sixth day everyone had to play their guitar.
“We had a father come in with his two sons and they all built guitars so they played a song together,” says Jesse. “And we had a woman who was making a guitar for her fiancé. She didn’t know how to play. She makes this gorgeous guitar, sits down and starts strumming and he plays the notes.”
Their solution was fiberglass orthopedic tape, the kind the doctor uses to make a cast when you break your arm. It hardens quickly and it’s cheap.
“We were criticized almost instantly,” sasy Blaine. ‘It’ll never work … it probably won’t hold up.’ So we thought, ‘Well, let’s do some destructive testing.’”
They took the first bike up on the TechShop roof and threw it off — eleven times with no failures.
“We only stopped because security came by and told us to stop throwing things off the roof,” says Blaine. “Then we made a jig so anybody could walk up and make a bike in six hours. Whole project — we can get it out the door for about $45.”
In a side building next door to TechShop, there’s a quiet, clean space for meetings and brainstorming with large paper pads on easels covered with ideas and maker mantras: play, reuse, subvert, challenge, question…
A large installation covers one wall. Blaine walks over and presses a button. “These are actual Tibetan gongs but they’ve been mechanized. It’s called a Gamelatron.”
The piece is a robotic gamelan orchestra created by conceptual artist and composer Aaron Taylor Kuffner. After studying in Bali Kuffner created the piece as part of a residency at the TechShop.
“He’s made six of them around the world now,” said Jesse. “He came into TechShop to build the bent tubing and all the welding.”
“When people come in they’re really putting it all on the line,” says Jesse.
“Maybe they’re in between jobs,” Blaine says,”or maybe they’re taking money out of their budget and they don’t know if they should be putting time or money on this deal. It’s a really risky, tender moment for people.”
Arc from Tradition to Technology
“Jesse makes fun of me because I come from that old side of the tradition and I make fun of him because all he does is double click on a little mouse and thinks that he’s made something,” says Blaine. “But the truth is that when we’re done fighting, I’ve been able to work on projects like our car. I already knew how to build it, but I couldn’t complete the design phase of it without the software and the modeling side.
“So now I’m a believer. But I just need someone who’s twenty years old to do it for me and I just buy him pizza or beer.
“I think building this arc from tradition to technology is going to be how this whole maker movement gets really well founded.”