Project-Making Nirvana at Austin’s New TechShop
Austin’s brand new TechShop is run like a gym for people who love making things. They have over a million dollars in high-tech equipment ranging from four-foot-wide CNC machines (computer-controlled routers) to a waterjet that can cut through four inches of solid steel (!) to sewing machines capable of stitching leather. Even more important, an enthusiastic, well-trained staff of makers is on hand to teach people how to use all the toys.
Inside, you’ll find people making robots, art bikes, quilts, kitchen counters, vinyl window stickers and pretty much anything else they can imagine. The furniture is all hand-built by the staff using TechShop’s own machines. It’s part shop class for adults and part hackerspace on steroids.
“I think most people will tell you, when they first saw a TechShop, what attracted them was the millions of dollars worth of equipment,” said TechShop’s Chief Experience Officer and Vice President of Business Development, Dan Woods. “The replicators and waterjets captivated their imagination. Talk to them six months after they joined and they’ll tell you it’s the community of like-minded inventors and makers who are there and the serendipitous collaborations that happen just from being in the same environment.”
TechShop was born when the people behind Make Magazine and the Maker Faire decided they wanted so-called "making" culture to be more accessible. Creativity may be free, but tools aren’t. They started in silicon valley, where houses are small, apartments are common, and no one has the space for a good home garage. They recently expanded to the Raleigh-Durham research triangle, Detroit, and now Austin.
“I’ve wanted to get a TechShop in Austin since the first Maker Faire,” said Woods. “When we brought [Maker Faire] to Austin, I said my God, this is a community that really gets the convergence of tech and art. They totally embrace it. We’ve got to go there.”
Robert Thomas, Director of Operations for Tech Shop, is the son of a shop teacher as well as being a lifelong maker. “My background is nonprofit art studios. I’ve been through all the different models; the co-ops, the one-offs, the guy who has all the tools and lets the friends borrow it, the group that pooled their resources to buy something they all wanted to share. Tech Shop’s model amortizes the cost and the expenses of over a million dollars worth of equipment over the entire community.”
Thomas said he loves hackerspaces such as Austin’s own ATX Hackerspace. Rather than competing with hackerspaces, he sees TechShop supplementing them. TechShop can afford to buy and maintain expensive pieces of equipment, such as their waterjet, which are well outside the range of most hackerspaces. “The more makers the better,” said Thomas. “This is a movement. It’s not one shop against another. The more makers that there are in this country the better off this country is.”
Much like a gym, TechShop offers both a general access membership where people can use any of the equipment as they please and hundreds of specialized classes for people who want to learn new skills. To keep people from feeling too intimidated by a tool that cost more than their house, they’ve partnered with the adjacent Lowe’s on a series of basic introductory projects. People who have never touched a blowtorch can pick up a gift card to make a barbecue, or people who’ve never touched a table saw can pick up a gift card to make their first wine rack. The introductory projects are mostly priced from $89-$129.
“Walk in with that card and we provide all the materials you need,” said Austin TechShop’s General Manager Brian Hatfield. “You have an instructor standing there and he steps you through the entire process. You’ll learn all these different machines, how they work and the various uses of them. It covers all the basics and sends you home with something you made with your own hands.”
Austin’s TechShop is the first one to offer a Jewelry Lab. “We’re actually planning the equipment itself right now. We hired a jewelry instructor who ended up being fantabulous. We’re working together to spec the perfect equipment to house in that jewelry studio,” said Hatfield.
Kids over the age of 12 are welcome to join their parents at TechShop on a discounted family membership.
“If there’s anything unique to the Austin store, I’d say it’s that Texas parents really seem to get the value that this represents for their children, and man, that just makes me feel so good,” said Thomas. “I’ve been walking around telling the parents that have purchased memberships for their families that on behalf of your child’s future self, thanks. It’s such a great gift to give your child access that really will educate them about how to be entrepreneurs, free thinkers and creative people in the future.”
Hatfield said one of the best things about having kids in the shop was their infectious enthusiasm. “There was a twelve-year-old boy who took the tour yesterday. I walked up and asked him if he was excited about the shop. He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Robot Army Starts Today.’ Alright! I asked how I could help,” said Hatfield.
Woods said he traces the decline in science and engineer graduates to the lack of the kind of fun, hands-on projects kids used to tackle in shop and home economics classes. “You can’t blame the schools. In decades past, we looked down our noses at making physical things and getting your hands dirty. That was something you only did if you weren’t good at school. There wasn’t an encouragement to work with your hands. Now, if you talk to professors at elite universities, they say they have these brilliant students coming in who are afraid of a lathe and have never welded anything before.”
Thomas said there’s a pent-up demand for people to get back to physically creating unique objects with their own hands.
“The pendulum of consumerism is swinging back in the other direction. People are sick and tired of Walmart. People really desire to surround their lives with intimate objects that mean something,” said Thomas.
“The Maker movement wouldn’t have happened if what we were talking about wasn’t fun,” said Woods. “The reality is, when people returned to it, they found it’s just a blast. You go to Maker Faire, everyone has a grin on their face the entire time. Little kids who would be screaming by three at Disney are having a fun time. It’s wonderful.”