The Maker Movement: The Dawn of Something Big

By Doug Wallack

On June 18, 2014, President Barack Obama hosted the first White House Maker Faire. Part science fair, part cultural showcase, that day’s event bore witness to a 17-foot-tall robotic giraffe ambling around the grounds, a working piano keyboard made from touch-sensitive bananas, a wealth of 3D-printed objects—including pancakes in the shape of president’s face—and more. In his remarks on the day’s proceedings, Obama hailed the ingenuity of ordinary citizens made possible by increasingly accessible technology. 

Obama located the inventors gathered there at the vanguard of the grand sweep of American innovation: Americans had realized dreams of a transcontinental railroad, networks of telegraph lines, the lightbulb, the Internet. What would come of this current frenzy of discovery and invention was anyone’s guess. “It gives you a sense that we are at the dawn of something big,” he said.

The White House hosted the event again in 2015 and 2016, but more than the later iterations, that inaugural event represented the validation on the national stage of a movement that had been brewing across the country for about a decade. That movement, the “maker” movement, is something of a catch-all term for independent manufacturers, craftspeople, hackers, and artisans. Infused with DIY spirit, this 21st-century update to the Arts and Crafts movement is a friendly meeting of garage scientists with Etsy nation. The maker movement owes its cohesion in part to Make magazine, first published in 2005, and in part to maker faires like the ones held at the White House (There are now over 100 such events held worldwide each year). But perhaps most important are the sites for this democratized industry, the places where the work of making happens: makerspaces.

Makerspaces, sometimes called hackerspaces or fab labs, are collaborative work spaces that house a variety of equipment for members’ use—anything from sewing machines to laser cutters, welding equipment to 3D printers, all depending on the particular location. And as the movement itself has grown to encompass the Garden State and its surrounding areas, the makerspaces have come too.

Access to tools

The DIY Joint is among the newest of these. This woodworking studio and instructional space opened in Hoboken in June of 2016. Inside, rows of work benches run into a lounge area at one end of the space, outfitted with homey, modern decor—some of which was made in house. Earmuffs, goggles, and all manner of hand tools hang in abundance along one wall. Students at the DIY Joint can take classes to learn how to build pieces such as bookshelves, side tables, and cutting boards. These classes not only introduce beginner students to new woodworking skills, but typically also serve to certify them to use the facilities on their own during open studio hours.

Justin Wertz has been going to the DIY Joint since this past summer. His fiancée runs a small jewelry boutique, and Wertz is in the process of building up his own home goods and aromatherapy business. He was drawn to the DIY Joint in hopes of building both of their storefronts. Now, after months of improving his craft, he says he has learned enough to do far more than the basic shelves he first envisioned. Beyond what he’s gleaned from his formal classes, Wertz also learns a tremendous amount from the other people working in the studio. He says that “a really nice mix” of backgrounds and skill sets contributes to a culture of sharing there that he values.

This was part of what founder Priscilla Van Houten had in mind when she established the DIY Joint. Three years ago, while fixing up a residential property, she became frustrated by her near-total lack of construction skills. “I was nervous to hang up a picture frame,” she recalls. So she set out to change things. Initially, she took a few classes for hands-on instruction, but she largely taught herself woodworking through reading and online learning. Years of practice paid off as she gradually honed her technique and developed an enduring love for the craft. Eventually, realizing that others might benefit similarly from woodworking, Van Houten decided to start up the DIY Joint. “It’s invaluable to be a part of a greater community you can bounce questions and ideas off of,” she says. It’s something that she feels would have served her well when she was just starting out, and something she aimed to facilitate by building a designated space for it.

Van Houten says that woodworking benefits her in a number of ways. First, she finds the the work itself has a sort of therapeutic value. “You spend so much time consuming information,” she says, but woodworking is one way to cut through the digital noise of modern life. Whether you are working a table saw or a drill press, “all you can think about is woodworking. It brings you into the present,” she says. Indeed, students register for classes at the DIY Joint through MINDBODY, an online health and wellness scheduling platform primarily aimed at yoga studios and fitness classes. And though Van Houten says this is largely because it is a good platform, she also sees the DIY Joint as an appropriate fit, if not an immediately obvious one. Many of her students are “looking to decompress,” and like her, they find working with their hands in this way to be a productive outlet. She also finds that, through woodworking, she developed “a newfound awareness of everything around me”—a sense of wonder and recognition of the work that brings the built world into being.

Finally, Van Houten says that process of mastering her craft has been incredibly empowering. Though she continues to be challenged by the need to prove her credibility as a young female woodworker, she finds that her gradual realization that she could navigate and contribute to what has traditionally been such a male-dominated craft is something that drives her forward. Now, she says, “My goal is to help all people—regardless of their gender, age, or background—foster the maker spirit within them.”

Workshop of the World

In Philadelphia, there is a makerspace of a different kind. NextFab, established in 2009, has locations in North and South Philadelphia, and a third studio opening soon in Wilmington, Delaware. NextFab bills itself as a “gym for innovators,” and has a broader focus than the woodworking-centric DIY Joint. Like the Hoboken-based makerspace, NextFab holds classes and offers a co-working space, but in addition to woodworking, they provide facilities and instruction in metalworking, 3D printing, laser cutting, and a host of other tools amenable to small-scale manufacturing. NextFab also runs start-up incubator and accelerator programs.

NextFab’s founder Evan Malone went to the University of Pennsylvania and considers Philadelphia his adopted home. After earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cornell—where much of his work involved developing 3D printing technology—he came back to Philly, viewing the city as an ideal home base for a makerspace. Philadelphia has a history of diverse manufacturing, Malone explains, and he saw an opportunity to help revitalize  that through NextFab. By the late 19th-century, the greater Philadelphia area boasted thousands of firms in sectors ranging from textiles, to glass-making, to ship and locomotive building, earning the city the moniker “the workshop of the world.” While NextFab does attract its share of hobbyists, it’s this re-emergent industrial spirit that Malone aims to seize upon and encourage. “We really view ourselves as a partner in economic development,” he says.

If NextFab is any indication, the future of industry in Philadelphia will be multiple and heterogeneous in ways that echo its history, albeit more refined. NextFab has played host to businesses as disparate as Philly Love Notes a one-woman operation making woodcut maps of Philadelphia, and to Noria, a start-up manufacturing lightweight smart air conditioning window units that raised over $3.5 million through crowdfunding campaigns. The activities of NextFab’s members are as divergent from each other as NextFab itself is markedly different from the DIY Joint and other makerspaces.

And maybe that sort of variety should come as no surprise. If, at some level, the maker movement aims to create whole new worlds, it stands to reason that it will contain worlds as well.