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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph

    Experimenting with a piece of glass, Paul Hardin works on a laser engraver at Make It Labs in Nashua Thursday evening, July 7, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph

    Prospective members tour Make It Labs in Nashua Thursday evening, July 7, 2011, during an open house for the shop.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph

    Members have access to a lounge and meeting area, electronics, and large shop for big projects at Make It Labs in Nashua Thursday evening, July 7, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph

    With large tools, a lift and a large floor space, members bring in projects as big as a car at Make It Labs in Nashua Thursday evening, July 7, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph

    Electronics testors sit on a workstation at Make It Labs in Nashua Thursday evening, July 7, 2011.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Big bad tools, creativity most important at lab

NASHUA – Philosophy may be an abstract thing, but in the city’s newest and oddest nonprofit, it has produced a 9,000-pound vehicle lift, a laser cutter that can vaporize glass, lathes and drill presses and saws of all sizes, topped off by a sprinkling of geeky decorations with no obvious purpose.

“Before there was a finished floor in this space, there were blue LEDs in the window, because we like LEDs,” said Paul Hardin of Lowell, Mass., an electrical engineer and one of five board members for Make It Labs.

Make It Labs just moved into 6,000 square feet of grubby but useful factory space, a former foundry in Nashua’s Crown Hill neighborhood, next to the railroad yards. Despite the name, it’s less a laboratory than a club for people who want to work with expensive and potentially dangerous tools in imaginative ways.

Is your goal to launch a business, learn new skills, emulate the “MythBusters” TV show, fool around with like-minded people? At Make It Labs, it’s all good.

“You can describe it as gym membership for engineering professionals,” said Adam Shrey of Hudson, another board member (and another engineer, as are they all). “At times it feels like a bunch of roommates: You ate my cereal, you go and buy some more!”

Make It Labs has a clean room – well, a clean-ish room – loaded with computer equipment, white boards and projectors for brainstorming, plus a much larger space full of heavy machinery of all types, including a kiln and welders.

An old Triumph TR6 lacking most of its innards sits over here; a scorpion assembled from laser-cut Masonite sits over there; a homemade computer-game console beckons from a corner; well-stocked tool cabinets await you here and there. It’s not messy; more like cheerfully semi-organized.

The philosophy behind all this goes by the name of “maker,” and places like Make It Labs can be called makerspaces (or sometimes “hackerspace,” although that confuses people who only think of hacking as a bad thing).

Maker is a cross between the serious attitude of the do-it-yourselfer and the playfulness of the computer hacker, maker is an amorphous movement that believes the point is not to use stuff but to create it first, or at least tear it apart and try to change it – preferably in the company of like-minded friends.

The maker movement has arisen partly in reaction to a world where it’s hard to understand the workings of devices around us. You can examine the wheels of a clock and see how it works, but staring at the circuit board of a digital clock won’t tell you much.

Modern technology has left many of us disconnected from all the things around us. The maker folks want to change that.

“Most of this is retraining ourselves to interact with the physical world, returning to the idea that we can touch things, work with things,” said Christian St. Cyr of Lowell, another board member, and another engineer.

The maker movement has launched a magazine and TV show called Make, public events called Maker Fairs, and a lot of places where like-minded folks can get together and fiddle around with tools that are too expensive or large for them to own. Those places can be as serious as government-funded incubators for start-up companies, as commercial as The Tech Shop of San Francisco, which has franchises around the country, and as loose as Make It Labs.

Make It Labs was started by guys – this is largely, although not entirely, a male world – who wanted a nearby makerspace. All of the board members have “real” jobs and realize that nobody’s going to get rich running this.

Membership in Nashua costs $75 a month, which gives 24/7 access via RFID card, storage space, and access to training. There’s also a “hobbyist” level at $40 a month, which means you shouldn’t show up until after 7 p.m. – unless somebody lets you in, that is (rigid rules aren’t a specialty of the maker crowd).

Make It Labs has room for about 50 active members, which would generate enough revenue to make it solvent, if not exactly rolling in riches, say board members.

It started a year ago in a dangerously tiny space in Lowell – “We had couches four feet from angle grinders,” says St. Cyr – and moved to Nashua last month because they could find a relatively cheap location with power, good floors and a drive-in door. “The mills in Lowell were converted to condos,” said Hardin.

The location has certainly avoided being gentrified. It is reached via a gravel road and surrounded by circuit-board printers, body shops and graffiti-covered box cars on a rail siding. The advantage is that nobody complains when a member comes in to try out a brainstorm on a drill press at 3 a.m. They can also fire off wicked-looking potato guns and July 4 fireworks as the whim takes them.

The equipment, not to mention the desks, chairs and other corporate detritus, has been accumulated through a variety of means. Some is on loan from board directors, some was bought through “awesome Craigslist deals” from failed companies or discouraged home workshop owners, some was outright scrounged.

“There’s so much interesting stuff lying around,” Shrey says happily.

Make It Labs has avoided woodworking, partly because those tools are more easily available and require special ventilation, and also chemistry, because its board doesn’t have the expertise. Otherwise, have at it.

One key component to the maker philosophy, borrowed from the computer-hacking world, is intellectual property. If you make something at Make It Labs, it’s yours completely.

“It’s in the contract – we have no right to your IP (intellectual property). We’d love a donation if you’re successful, but that’s your choice,” Shrey said.

Expertise is key to the maker world and to Make It Labs – but only as long as it’s shared with anybody who asks. The movement, in fact, is sometimes called “do-it-with-others,” a play on “do-it-yourself.”

“When there are 20 people here, chances are one of them will know something you want to know, or need to know,” Shrey said.

Spreading that knowledge around is the fun part, they say.

“I’ve seen people teach a 5-year-old to solder,” St. Cyr said.

A gaggle of teens from the Innovation Academy in Tyngsborough, Mass., descended on Make It Labs before it was even officially open and got help using various equipment, including the welder, to manufacture go-karts.

The site would like to host more school projects – it’s perfect for FIRST Robotics teams – and plans to have classes for members and hopefully the outside world.

Right now the outside world enters during twice-a-week open houses, when the doors are thrown open and the tools put on display. Among other things, these have shown that the maker approach has great appeal to the Free State Project and other fans of libertarian philosophy. But there are no philosophical limitations.

Except one, maybe: “We want people who are interested in being creative,” said St. Cyr. “The rest is up to you.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or