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At TechShop, hobbyists and inventors find the only limit is their imagination

Adults at play

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Durham TechShop is housed in a nondescript, low-slung brick office building on the outskirts of Research Triangle Park. Past the gear-shaped reception desk in the well-lit, airy work area (no dark corners or piles of oily rags here), people wrestle with wood, metal, glass, cloth or plastic. The air is tinged with the scent of sawdust and vaporized cutting oil, evidence of the elements brought to heel.

It's been suggested that the developed world's modern, passive lifestyle—in which we're fixated on computer screens and tethered to our desks—squelches our instinctual drive to make things with our hands and contributes to depression. Since it opened in March, TechShop has provided an antidote, gathering a devoted core of builders, hobbyists, artists, tinkerers and crafters of all skill levels. Here, the light-industrial standbys familiar to those old enough to remember shop class (table saw, drill press, welding equipment) meet 21st-century technology: a 3-D printer, ShopBot, laser and plasma cutters, computer-aided design stations and various computer-controlled devices. In this collegial, lively scene, TechShop has become an incubator for art projects and inventions, a fabricating plant for trinkets and toys to full-scale airplanes.

"When I went through school we had wood shop and metal shop, and a lot of the guys took it," says TechShop founder and manager Scott Saxon. "They don't have it much anywhere anymore, it's all going away—you know, insurance, the cost to run the stuff. We want to bring a lot of that back."

In some ways, the timing of TechShop's arrival is propitious. Since the sour economy has forced many Americans to change their career plans, some fundamental assumptions about work are being questioned. A recent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, makes an eloquent case for earning a living by the manual trades. Written by Matthew B. Crawford, who earned a doctorate in philosophy only to ditch academia for a career as a motorcycle mechanic, it's been lingering in the lower reaches of The New York Times best-seller list since it was published in May.

TechShop Durham owes its existence to a chance meeting between local founder Scott Saxon and Jim Newton, who started the original TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif. In June 2007, Saxon and his wife were living in Durham, in a 1968 GMC 49-passenger bus he'd bought on eBay and converted to an RV. A career jack-of-all-trades, he had recently completed a yearlong civilian deployment in Afghanistan, flying radio-controlled surveillance aircraft for the U.S. military. He was in Redwood City taking care of family business when he ran into Newton at an RV parts store.

Their conversation turned to the tools Saxon needed to work on his bus. "I've got this place up the street called TechShop, where people can come use our tools," Saxon remembers Newton saying.

"I thought he meant mechanics' tools and stuff," Saxon recalls. "I needed stuff like mills, lathes, welders. I said, 'What kind of stuff you got?' He says, 'You know, lathes, mills, welders...'

"I took the tour, laid down a hundred bucks and said 'I'm in for a month.' The next day, I was back in Jim's office saying, 'Don't think of me as competition, because I'm all the way on the other end of the country. But I am going to build one of these. I want to work with you, for you, pick your brain, I don't care. But I want to start tomorrow.'"

Saxon's peripatetic work history has given him a depth of experience to draw from. A Bay Area native, at age 18 he followed his grandfather into the aviation mechanics trade. He learned about electrical systems during a stint in the Navy (in the waning days of the vacuum tube), then returned to civilian life and followed his mechanical and entrepreneurial interests into a head-spinning variety of trades.

"I built houseboats, speedboats, worked in motorcycle shops," he says. He owned an auto repair business, a hobby shop, machine shop, sold and serviced generators. He got involved in audio production, working at and later buying a recording studio in San Mateo, Calif. He rechristened it Mantra Studios, and in 1975, a young carpenter named Will Ackerman picked its name out of a phone book. Saxon helped him record his first three albums there, which established the phenomenally successful Windham Hill record label.

Saxon later quit the recording business and moved to Hawaii, where he lived for 24 years and raised a family. During his various careers, he worked on his own projects as well: model planes, RVs, a spec house. He calls himself simply a "maker," and part of his impetus for starting TechShop was in response to the dearth of instruction in the practical, creative arts in the schools.

Shop Class as Soulcraft laments the phasing-out of shop classes in the 1990s in favor of computer labs. The shift was well intentioned: For decades, manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, most never to return. But training in the trades—lumped in with factory work as undesirable, low-paying and outdated—suffered as well. We've been led to believe, Crawford writes, that the future belongs to the "information economy," with its promise of high salaries and rewarding careers for an ever-expanding class of "knowledge workers."

Crawford argues persuasively on the discontents of the white-collar workplaces toward which we've steered our children in ever greater proportion. He opens a chapter titled "The Contradictions of the Cubicle" with a compelling thought: "The popularity of Dilbert, The Office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life."

For TechShop member Jon Danforth, working with his hands has been a way to balance his job as a user-interface programmer. Though he enjoys his job, the upshot is that "I sit in front of an admittedly gorgeous glowing LCD screen for eight hours a day or more, and when I get home, same thing," he says. "Here, rather than pushing pixels around, I can actually make sawdust, and fit things together, and do real things that it seems like a lot of people have lost touch with."

A round-faced South Carolina native in his late 20s, he's achieved some renown in the world of photography for his work with daguerreotypes, a precursor to modern photography developed in the first half of the 19th century. He's been featured in Craft magazine for this work, which exposes images directly onto a polished silver surface, requiring expensive materials and great patience.

Danforth was aware of the original TechShop in Menlo Park before the Durham branch launched. "I signed up before it was built," he says. He wasted no time taking advantage of the new tools available to him. For instance, he built a small wooden castle for his 3-year-old nephew, using the laser engraver to etch the walls with a stone pattern made from a photograph he took of a real stone castle in England.

His latest project is an MP3 player in the style of a Victrola phonograph, which he dubs the "Digitrola." He found a double-curved horn at the swap meet of an antique radio society near High Point. At TechShop, he built a beautiful rosewood box for the base, with fittings and a volume knob of shiny hand-machined brass.

Like his series of daguerreotypes of modern objects, such as Xboxes and iPods, the Digitrola speaks to his abiding interest in combining the old with the new—"modern things with an antique feel," he says. To take the conceit one step further, he plans to digitally manipulate the sound files of songs by modern artists, "like Coldplay, or Crystal Method, or Snoop," to add pops, hisses and warbles, like you'd hear on an old record or wax cylinder. As he explains it, "I like the idea of taking modern popular music and making it sound like it's coming out of the butt of a time machine."

For Danforth, TechShop's shared equipment freed up space in his house as well as his conscience. "I got into woodworking as a necessity for making daguerreotypes," he says. "I bought tools, slowly, but I can't afford really great tools. To really take it to the next level, you really have to start looking into upgraded tools. And I didn't have the space to do it.

"And I didn't like the solitude," he goes on. "As I learned more about woodworking, I read more and more books, talked to more and more people through online forums, and realized that all of these people are solitary workers. And there's a ridiculous redundancy of equipment. If my neighbor across the street has a $1,000 table saw, why should I go buy a $1,000 table saw? Because unless he's using it 18 hours a day, it doesn't make any sense. So I really wrestled with that. Do I really want to go out and buy this top-of-the-line tool, and feel this sinking feeling that it's not being used to its maximum potential, because it's sitting out in my workshop, unused, 23 hours a day?"

Another TechShop stalwart, Raleigh resident Mark Plaga, is a systems engineer at Durham Regional Hospital by day and an artist and "idea man" by night. A tall, lanky father of two with what can be described as attention surplus disorder, he seems to have a half-dozen projects going at one time and another half-dozen in the works. TechShop's work area is decorated with his intricate, geometric cardboard mobiles.

Plaga has been a tinkerer since his childhood in Pueblo, Colo. His projects attest that he's still very much a child at heart. One Halloween, he made a 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex out of plastic sheeting and set it in his front yard, to the delight of neighborhood kids. In 2007, he taped a Wii remote to the hindquarters of a spring-mounted hobby horse, then videotaped his boys using it as a controller for a PC driving game. He posted the clip to YouTube and it quickly went viral, winning them 77,000 hits' worth of Internet fame. (You can see it at wiimotehorse.tumblr.com.)

He first heard of TechShop when, in the grip of a particularly audacious project—an automated sculpture that would pack varicolored cubes into a grid, where they would function as the pixels of an image—he sought out a local robotics group for advice. The group met at TechShop, which furnished his introduction. "I've actually dreamed of a place like this," he says. "Two years ago, in one of my notebooks I sketched out what it would be to have a community that could help each other with their projects. I wasn't even thinking about all the equipment."

Since he joined six months ago, he has worked at Techshop three times a week. "It's funny," he says. "It stresses me when I go on vacation, because I can't come to the shop." He has mastered the use of computer-controlled cutters to create objects that blur the boundary between art and craft. But no one technique can satisfy his expansive imagination: He recently learned to weld and cast aluminum. "I really hadn't been working on my art seriously until I started coming to TechShop," he says. "It's one thing to have ideas, it's quite another to make them real. Ideas just flow out of me. But here I can implement them like that," he says, with a snap of his fingers.

Ken Potts may have the distinction of undertaking the most ambitious project at TechShop: He has started building a small two-seater airplane from scratch. ("Yes, this is my first airplane, and no, I have not been diagnosed with any mental illness," he wrote in an e-mail message, by way of introduction.)

A soft-spoken mechanical designer for a robotics firm based in Apex, Potts hails from St. Louis. He bought plans for the Zenith "light sport utility" aircraft online for $495. Tellingly, he's had only one flight lesson, but he's confident in his skills as a builder. "I'm not that brave a person. I wouldn't do something if I didn't think I'd have a reasonable chance of surviving," he laughs.

Over the years, he's constructed a number of powerboats out of plywood, fiberglass and cloth. He prefers the contemplative space carved out by time-intensive, large-scale projects. For him, the reward is in the process, rather than the finished product. He estimated his last boat would take six months to finish. It took him three and a half years.

For the plane, he's aiming for a final cost of $20,000, by his reckoning roughly a third the typical cost of kit planes. He's completed a piece of the tail section. After the frame takes shape, he'll install avionics and an engine. (He's looking for a salvageable Corvair engine.)

But building the airframe from the ground up, starting with cutting, bending and riveting raw sheets of aluminum, is less about saving money than about immersing himself in as much of the hands-on work as possible. "So far I've mostly been planning and purchasing materials, which is not fun," he says. "Now I'm cutting materials, which is fun. That's the whole point."

At the outset, he joined the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, who'll help ensure his plane is airworthy and compliant with federal regulations. He also joined TechShop, because "I knew I'd have access to any tool I'll need," he says. "But it hasn't turned out to be what I thought it would.

"I thought I'd come in, use the tools and go home. But I've met people I wouldn't have met any other way—physicists, engineers. And I'm always learning something I didn't know I didn't know. It's hard to describe—things come up that I didn't even know I was interested in."

It's a common refrain in the TechShop community: Come for the tools, stay for the fellowship. The esprit de corps is fostered by the meditative spirit that arises when a busyness of hands stills the mind, and engagement with the physical world directs the attention outward to peace and purpose, rather than inward to anxiety and doubt. As Crawford writes in Shop Class, "The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on."

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