On an early March Monday night, a few people hammered on stained glass projects in a brightly lit, 16-foot-square workshop in Lyndon Center. In the nearby wood shop, Cub Scouts were shaping wooden cars for race tracks. In another area, a couple was working together on a garden décor project, and someone else was fabricating a recycling cabinet.
Amid the noise, Jim Schenck explained that a community space like this was only a dream a few years ago. Now, he is the president of The Foundry, the first maker space in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The registered nonprofit uses space at Lyndon Institute, where they are open two evenings per week and all day on Saturday, to provide access to innovative manufacturing technologies for both entrepreneurs and hobbyists.
There are other well-known maker spaces throughout the state, like the Generator in Burlington and MINT in Rutland. Though each operating model is different, they all provide a membership-based community space for access to the tools, technology and space for creating. These spaces include all the tools and equipment for artistic and business endeavors, like woodworking, metal fabrication, jewelry making, electronics labs, design software, stained glass and more.
“We’re a combination of artist studio, classroom and business incubator at the intersection of art, science and technology,” reads the mission statement printed on the wall in the foyer of the Generator, a maker space in Burlington.
“Really, we live by STEAM: Science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics,” says Maggie Robinson, the outreach coordinator at the Generator, while standing in the foyer of the space.
“We’re like a gym membership,” she adds. “You pay to come and use the space, but you also pay for the equipment like a padlock for a materials locker. So, you do pay for that, but when it comes to overhead costs if you’re running a business, it’s well worthwhile.”
About half of the Generator’s 500 members are University of Vermont and Champlain College students. On a Friday afternoon, Champlain junior Molly Aldrich was working on one of two laser cutters. She had designed a map of the United States in which each state is an image of her mother and her friends in running races; they recently completed a running race in each state.
“This is my mother’s birthday gift,” she said over the noise of the machines. She created the image files in Adobe Photoshop in the onsite computer lab, and then sent that file to the laser machines to print the images onto wood.
Members like Aldrich have to be trained to use the equipment. Laser printing requires a one-hour workshop, while woodworking requires a four-hour workshop. Working in the maker space is a hobby for Aldrich, and she puts her time to good use. “I haven’t bought a gift in a while,” she laughs.
“You’ll definitely see the laser machines get booked up closer to Christmas-time,” says Robinson. “It’s such a cost-effective thing to do, you spend $5 to make gifts.” Besides, she points out, who can afford to have an electronics lab or woodworking shop complete with a CNC router and ventilation system in their own garage? This is the advantage of membership in a community space like this one, she points out. While we’re talking, she flips on the lights for a course of brackets hanging from the ceiling where once a month, a group comes to race tiny drones.
“It’s just like a game of pickup basketball, once a month they end up here drone racing,” she says.
Many of the Generator’s members are also business owners, though it’s hard to enumerate how many of their members are businesses. “There are members who literally run their businesses out of Generator,” says Christine Hill, a jeweler who moved her own studio to Generator and also serves as the communications director on staff. “Some of those folks are artists who bring in $200 a year, some are freelancers bringing in $100,000 per year, some haven’t made a dime because they’re still in the discovery or prototyping phase of a product-based businesses they plan to launch in future.”
In the metal shop on that same Friday, two local sculptors from Sikora Studios LLC were fabricating a large, several-hundred-pound piece to be installed near the entrance of Champlain College. A number of scale models sat on the half-wall of their studio space, while down the hall in the metal shop, sparks flew as they buzzed along creating humungous cattail reeds with a red-winged blackbird perched on the stem.
Others have used the space to create prototypes on the 3D printers, where an engineer or designer can create a product’s specifications, then ship the file off for production. The space gives creators a place to start small and inexpensively. “Fail cheaply is kind of our motto here,” says Robinson with a laugh.
No matter who you are, Hill says, “I believe that if you have ideas and you’re a proactive, collaborative person, Generator can provide the space, equipment, and community to make those ideas a reality.”
MINT sits in an old warehouse-turned-business incubator space on Quality Lane in Rutland, where 10 members pay $50 per month to access the space from 8 a.m. through 9 p.m., seven days per week. It’s “more than just a shared workshop with all the tools you don’t have space for or couldn’t afford on your own,” reads their mission statement.
It’s also a community. Says Karen McCalla, with MINT, “Our membership gives access to all our tools and equipment, plus all the supplies we provide, like 3D printing filament, stained glass and wood.” She says the most popular things are the laser cutter in a space called Rapid Prototyping, the wood shop, jewelry lab, metal shop and stained-glass lab.
“We have a good distribution of members interested in all kinds of projects, so all of the shops get visitors pretty much every day,” says McCalla. And several businesses use the space, too, including Two Bad Cats, who build implements for small farms in the metal shop. Little Egg Scrubber builds their egg cleaning machines with parts cut on MINT’s CNC router. And Pine Hill Partnership, a local trail management nonprofit, cuts their trails signs on the CNC router, as well. Other members run “side-gig” businesses selling their products on Etsy or at craft fairs.
Back at The Foundry, a woman is creating a unique piece of Vermont memorabilia by cutting out small sugarhouses with a shiny copper pipe on each that serves as a bud vase. “She’s already got orders for 700 of them,” says Schenck.
In addition to providing a space for people to be creative, these spaces create community. “You get people together,” Schenck says. When the foundry is open, “you get 20 different souls, talking, commiserating, working together. That is worth something.”