Do It Yourself, Together: How maker spaces & tool libraries are building community

MPLS Make is a community woodworking shop in Northeast Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A squat, unassuming building of beige-painted brick and exposed cinder block sits tucked behind some of the great restaurants of Northeast Minneapolis’ Central Avenue. A red, hexagonal sign reads “MPLS Make” in white letters. It’s 4pm on a Thursday. A sign on the back door reads: “KNOCK LOUD! We’re rocking music and power tools  in here.” I knock loud—or so I think—and knock again, the second time clubbing the door with the bottom of my fist. 

Theo Knaeble, founder of MPLS Make, offers a hand and a great, beaming grin. His jeans are flecked with sawdust, faded, streaked with dark patches, and his orange nylon vest is equally marked with work. Knaeble introduces Jake Hemstad, his “unofficial assistant” perched at a table saw. Hemstad is in the middle of building a new table for the drill press.

Theo Knaeble, founder of MPLS Make // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Sounds—from the intermittent shriek of a table saw to the hum of a planer to the flutter of someone’s tape measure—echo throughout the 2,800-square-foot space. Cage The Elephant’s “Too Late To Say Goodbye” reverberates from a stereo set high in one corner. The air carries, as you can imagine, a heavy whiff of sawdust, a little metallic tang, and smoke, and fresh-cut wood, and the faint pungency of varnish floating out from the much smaller finishing room, which has its own heating and air filtration system.

It’s a busy night for the shop. “Five members at a time is typical,” Hemstad says. Over the course of the hour, seven members becomes 10. At one end, Sam Miller, a coffee importer by day, is building a booth to bring to trade shows. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this project without this space,” he says. “Everybody here—I’ve asked them for something and they’ve all been super knowledgeable. And I remember their names, which I’m normally really bad at.”

At another end of the shop, Chad Anderson, cabinet-maker and resident “grill master,” is tinkering with a new project. He uses the drill press to bore a hole through the top of a wooden vase made from cherry.

MPLS Make is only 18 months young, but they’ve reached capacity with 35 members // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A few members, like Andy Mosca, work in the shop full time. “I need this space,” he says, chewing on a matchstick. “I’m here seven days a week, 30 days a month.” Mosca has been woodworking since the early ‘80s, but still considers himself an amateur. “I don’t think anyone here is afraid to ask a question and I don’t think anyone here is afraid to stop their project and go help somebody.”

In the far corner, small stacks of lumber lean against the wall and on individual shelves. This is the storage area, where projects-in-limbo wait for their makers to complete them. A great variety of projects are produced under this roof. One member makes guitars. Another is in the middle of making a clock. Hemstad designs and builds furniture. Recently, he built a shelf out of bookmatched black walnut. He tells me about a newer member who had no experience, but a lot of ideas. “He’d never woodworked before, and he came in and wanted to make a bed frame from black walnut—a really ambitious project.” Knaeble interjects, “Which is crazy if you ask me.” He shrugs, “But he did it! He just used the other members as resources, asked questions, poked around on the internet and used SketchUp to do it all. It’s pretty amazing.”

Members at MPLS Make are given 24-hour access to professional-quality woodworking tools and machinery, a heated space, and an atmosphere of other like-minded makers // Photo by Daniel Murphy

MPLS Make began with loneliness—or rather, with Knaeble combating loneliness. He’d been woodworking with a friend in a small shop in the Northrup King Building half a mile up the road. When that friend quit to pursue chiropractic medicine, Knaeble was left yearning for connection, so he put out an ad on Craigslist. That was 18 months ago. Knaeble mimics a typing gesture, “Like, who wants to come make stuff with me?” he says, recalling the day he made the ad.

Hemstad was among the first to reply. They hit it off, but quickly realized the 400-square-foot space wouldn’t do. They started a membership program, moved into this current space—which was a poorly maintained, vacant rental property replete with graffiti skulls and black paint over the windows—and transformed it into the impeccable workshop it is now. MPLS Make is still only 18 months young, but they’ve reached capacity with 35 members (garnered without a lick of advertising) and have eight people on the waiting list.

MPLS Make isn’t the only maker space in the Twin Cities. Just six minutes away is Nordeast Makers, which has similar philosophic goal as MPLS Make: to provide members a (heated) space, regularly-maintained machinery and tools, 24-hour access, and a community of other like-minded makers with a wide range of skills. Nordeast Makers, though, isn’t solely a woodworking shop; their equipment catalogue also includes CNC routers, liquid-cooled laser cutters, and high-resolution 3D printers.

In South Minneapolis, the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC), housed inside the historic Nokomis movie theater, focuses on “fine and industrial art forms that are produced using heat, spark, or flame—collectively known as ‘fire arts,’” according to its website. CAFAC members have an array of interests from welding to jewelry-making, but focus remains on fostering a sense of community, through classes open to the public and its youth program, SPEAK.

The newly opened Saint Paul Tool Library, while not a makerspace per se, empowers DIY-ers to tackle home projects by renting out a wide array of tools and equipment. They also have workshop space and access to some larger, in-house-only equipment, like table saws and belt sanders. A colorful mural of a handsaw by local artist Erin Sayer (who collaborated on the massive Bob Dylan mural at 5th and Hennepin) dominates one wall.

John Bailey, chair of the library’s local advisory board, says, “Frugal Midwesterners, DIY-ers, and the environmentally minded—those three kinds of people work together here.” Bailey and a team of seven others collaborated for a year before the tool library opened with a bang on March 4. They were expecting 100 people to attend to the reception; they got over 300. “The place was jammed,” he says. “But the enthusiasm is wonderful.” The Saint Paul Tool Library is the second chapter of the Minnesota Tool Library (Northeast Tool Library was the first), and although there aren’t any others officially in the works, Bailey says there’s a lot of chatter.

Here’s how Minnesota Tool Library chapters work: $55 a year gives you access to all the tools in the library—garden tools, staple guns, levels, and drills, as well as larger mechanical tools during open shop—and offers reciprocity with the other location. Tool checkout lasts seven days, but like a book library, you can renew if no one’s on the waiting list. Currently, the St. Paul space has 800 tools, while Northeast has 3,000. Like the makerspaces, the libraries host workshops but with more of a home improvement angle—from patching your drywall to building a raised bed for your backyard garden.

Projects range from wooden spoons to guitars to complex cabinetry // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Back at MPLS Make, Theo Knaeble does a beer run every Thursday to keep the workshop fridge stocked. To celebrate their first year in the current space, they threw a party, complete with a pinewood derby competition and goodies from Chad “The Grill Master” Anderson. They expect to grow out of this space soon and are currently hunting for another that would accommodate upwards of 85 members. Indeed, you can picture it. Their enthusiasm for learning and for craft, their kindness, their willingness to share knowledge (and beer with yours truly)—all of it brings to mind an aphorism for a writer who tries his damndest to steer clear of them: community is contagious.

Next page: Community Workshop & Tool Library Directory

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