Making it Happen

11/23/2016

Winter 2016

The Maker Movement is About More Than Just Making Things

I stood in a rental house in Portland, aptly named the Maker Flat, admiring a particular item that stood out to me. It wasn’t a kitchen magnet or a shiny set of knives, but a unique lighting fixture hanging from the ceiling: a slab of wood tastefully carved, polished, and intentionally raw on one side, with a hole cut out in the exact shape of the lightbulb that filled its space.

Kayla Burke Photo: Erik Trinidad
Kinetic art by Eric Hagan. Photo: Erik Trinidad

The functional piece of art was like nothing I’d ever seen in a store, and I realized that someone had made it by hand – in fact, everything there was handmade. The specific someone, in this case, is Missouri-born Kayla Burke, just one maker across America who excels in the craft of, well, making things.

From Cynthia Shevelew and her porcelain creations in New Jersey to Mark Kercic and his wooden bowls in Dexter, Michigan, to Kelly Conner and her handmade cuff bracelets in Kansas City, Missouri, there are thousands of people in today’s maker movement. The movement is essentially a burgeoning subculture of crafty, creative and quirky DIYers. More traditional crafts aren’t uncommon, but projects range from practical pieces, such as handmade straight razors, to the whimsical, such as a life-size Mouse Trap game, to electronic games. Some ventures are for profit, some for the fun of it. Some makers work in groups, some solo. Not all, or even most, participants, have a background in design, pottery or carpentry. In fact, many lacked the skills to make anything at all when they started – but did possess ideas and the drive to make those ideas realities.

“Basically, you can do it,” says maker and kinetic artist Eric Hagan of the The Makery in Brooklyn. “The information is out there on the Internet. Even if you’re not sure exactly how to approach a project, you’re going to learn a lot more from just trying stuff.”

Work-trade member Abbey uses the bandsaw in ADX Portland’s shared woodshop to shape a piece of plywood for a shop project. Photo: Aaron Lee.
Work-trade member Abbey uses the bandsaw in ADX Portland’s shared woodshop to shape a piece of plywood for a shop project.
Photo: Aaron Lee

A Little Help from Your Friends

Trial and error may be a great way to learn techniques, but a maker doesn’t have to do it alone. Luckily, the movement has “makerspaces” or tech-focused “hackerspaces,” where makers of all kinds come together to share space, tools like 3D printers or laser cutters, and, above all, new ideas. 

“It’s also a social club,” says Stephen Lynch of Hack Manhattan, a hackerspace in New York City. “You come in, talk the tech news of the day, get help with your project, see what other people are working on, nerd out, whatever.”

Bladesmith Hunter Lea performs initial grinding on a straight razor blade at Portland Razor Co. Photo: Erik Trinidad
This custom straight razor was hand forged by Portland Razor Co.

Making it Big

“I do most of my work [in a makerspace] because it’s so much fun to be around so many creative people,” says Bill Wessinger, a wood furniture maker at ADX in Portland. “I’ve got all these skills in one place, people exchanging ideas, and there’s so much to be learned.” A former boat builder whose “work truck” is a Subaru Impreza, he turned to building midcentury Danish-inspired furniture with the help of master upholsterer Jonathan Prince, who works in the adjacent room. 

Wessinger has sold a few pieces of his handmade furniture and hopes his hobby continues to be profitable enough for him to achieve his dream of doing it full-time. Some makers have already achieved this goal, like Scott Miyako, Alex Pletcher and Hunter Lea of the Portland Razor Co., who outgrew the makerspace and established their own workshop and office. There, the sparks fly – literally, as steel is honed by hand. The trio’s mission is to make straight razors fashionable again − with the bar set high enough so that this razor will be the only razor customers will need to buy in their lifetimes. 

“We’re pretty confident the razor will outlast us,” says Miyako, an advocate of hand-craftsmanship. “We feel that doing the sharpening process by hand and not doing it on a power grinder is critical in giving a perfect razor edge.”

Bill Wessinger working at ADX Portland.
Wessinger's Hilltop Lounge Chair is built from Oregon white oak, which he buys directly from a family-owned sustainable forestry project.

The Next Level

Some makers with an entrepreneurial spirit take it up a notch and hire other makers to build their product. “A lot of people come to us as a maker and then they have the realization of, ‘I can’t keep up with the demand anymore,’ or ‘I don’t want to hire employees,’” says Subaru Forester owner Dana Hinger of Spooltown, a factory that makes goods the old-fashioned way for dozens of designers and makers across the country. “We’re here to help them get to that next level.”

The owners of Spooltown, Dana Hinger (left) and Sara Tunstall (right).
The owners of Spooltown, Dana Hinger (left) and Sara Tunstall (right).

For Hinger and her business partner, Sara Tunstall, it’s important to bring the philosophies of maker culture to American manufacturing. “We see ourselves as social change agents,” she says. “For us, it’s really important to show people the process of making, to train a new generation of skilled artisans. Because that’s the only way that the public will pay the prices that need to be paid to have things domestically produced. For us, it’s just a different game, and I think that’s what separates the maker movement from old-school manufacturers.”

Spooltown’s factory in Portland, Oregon. Photos: Aaron Lee (aaronleephotography.com)
Spooltown’s factory in Portland, Oregon. Photos: Aaron Lee (aaronleephotography.com)

Just for Fun

 Maker culture, however, isn’t always about selling products. In fact, many makers produce pieces for the sake of art or simply to have fun. For example, makers in Milwaukee Makerspace have built a huge army of daleks – the robotic creature from Dr. Who – simply because they’re not going to let competitors in London keep the world record. Justin Levinson and the folks at Hack Manhattan created a giant electronic game of pong, aptly named Brain Pong, because the paddles are controlled by brainwaves captured by EEG headsets. And Mark Perez of San Francisco created a life-size version of the classic Mouse Trap board game – a Rube Goldberg machine made with a real crane and a real bathtub.

Perez’s Mouse Trap, along with many other crazy and inventive projects, are showcased at Maker Faire, a network of festivals produced in conjunction with Make magazine, held in New York, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Milwaukee and California’s Bay Area, as well as at international cities like Taipei and Berlin. These fairs embody the essence of maker culture – a wild fusion of education, ingenuity, creativity, technology, collaboration and the slightly absurd. 

Mark Perez’s life-size Mouse Trap. Photo: Erik Trinidad
Mark Perez’s life-size Mouse Trap. Photo: Erik Trinidad

Above all, maker culture, whether it’s entrepreneurial or artistic, is about taking initiative and just doing it. The folks at Hack Manhattan call it a “do-acracy,” which means what gets done is not determined by a hierarchy of people with instructions from the top. To be a maker, you simply have to have the desire to be one – and remember, with the help of the Internet and the collaboration of like-minded people, anything is possible. 

Launched with a single fair in the Bay Area in 2006, there are now dozens of Maker Faires across the country each year.
PinBox pinball at the World Maker Faire 2015 in New York. Photo: Becca Henry

Robot Dance Party at the Maker Faire 2016 in the Bay Area. Photo: Becca Henry

Robot Dance Party at the Maker Faire 2016 in the Bay Area. Photo: Becca Henry