Creators, tinkerers thrive at Milwaukee Makerspace
There is a hive of creative activity inside an inconspicuous red brick building on Potter Street near the library. Budding metal workers, woodworkers, ceramics artists, electricians, garment makers, silk screen artists, and others are intently at work. They savor the challenges of problem solving, the joy of accomplishment, and the teamwork required to bring projects to fruition. In short, they are satisfying our deep human desire to tinker and create.
Milwaukee Makerspace (MM), 2555 S. Lenox St., is a not-for-profit social club that provides shared workspace for creators, inventors, and tinkerers, encompassing all ages and skills. It is a place to access tools, machinery, materials, and most importantly, knowledge and experience shared by other members. The 16,000-square-foot space, open to the 200-plus members 24/7, provides access to equipment and space that one may not have in a home or garage.
The building was constructed in 1962 for a Krambo Food Store and later housed DataShield, Inc. It is divided into several well-organized work areas, each resembling mini-industrial shop floors. There are computers, 3D printers, a table saw, a welding equipment; a metal forge and casting area. There are mills and lathes and a room dedicated to computer numerical control (CNC) machines. “CNC machinists work with computer numeric controlled (CNC) heavy machinery from setup to operation to produce parts and tools from metal, plastic or other materials. Computer numeric controlled equipment is precision machinery that cuts, grinds, or drills into the material,” according to snagajob.com.
There is a ceramics section with potter wheels and a kiln and a section where T-shirts are printed by silkscreen. In a separate dust/grease-free section of the building, there is a sewing lab.
Countless tools, supplies, and spare parts abound, supplying makers with elements they need to transform projects from an idea to reality.
Part of MM’s mission is that its members bring in their machinery and tools to share with other members. “Almost any tool you can think of, we have here at Makerspace,” said Carl Stevens, communications director and MM member. Some tools and supplies have been donated to MM.
Each work area has a “champion,” a member who stepped forward and volunteered to be the leader of that area. Champions ensure the area stays clean. Many have professional experience in their craft—the welding area champion is a welding inspector by trade.
“Champions are also in charge of checking people out when they use tools in their areas,” said Stevens. “For every tool that plugs into a wall, there’s a checkout process.” Champions make sure other members who wish to check out a tool are trained and capable of using the tool safely.
Introductory classes are also offered for the work areas.
During the weekly Tuesday evening meetings, there is show-and-tell session and a tour of MM that is open to the public. The tour offers a view of members’ projects. The night the Compass toured, there was an in-progress meticulously handcrafted wooden canoe; metal trivets and knives forged from scrap metal, robots and other radio-controlled vehicles with different functions, restored vintage Girl Scouts uniforms, mobile phone stands, a concrete and metal end table, and a poker chip wheel.
“The forge is a really active area, with people becoming interested in blacksmith art,” said Stevens, as he pointed toward neatly arranged railroad ties and scrap metal that would be transformed into makers’ projects.
MM president Lance Lamont said he has a smattering of skills. He showed the Compass an MM sign he crafted from metal and wood, using a CNC router and welding to make it. Lamont first became aware of MM in 2011 and has been actively involved since 2013. He’s in his second term as president and enjoys the interaction with members and educating those interested in joining.
Lamont explains that MM has a loose organizational structure, with a seven-member board of directors. Membership dues are $40 per month, which entitles the member to a key fob so that they may come and go as they please. “We have a very trust-based culture,” he said. “We trust you to be safe and understand the proper operation of a tool before you use it.”
Lamont added that MM values transparency. It posts its member handbook and rules on its website.
MM’s big event, Milwaukee Maker Faire, is held annually at State Fair Park on the last weekend in September. They partner with the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and other sponsors to showcase members’ creations and explain how the items were made. The fair is not exclusive to MM members. Any individual is welcome to show off projects.
Members also volunteer for other maker fairs in Wisconsin and the Midwest and at community events such as Bay View Gallery Night and Doors Open Milwaukee.
The camaraderie among members is evident as they joke around, give advice, and applaud each other’s accomplishments in a noncompetitive atmosphere. Members sometime use their skills to help one another if someone’s car or bike breaks down.
MM members have backgrounds in computers, electronics, machining, fabrication, theater, and design. There are many jacks-of-all-trades who want to learn new skills.
Jon Hughett is champion of the jewelry-making area. He began a long-term project to break the Guinness World Record for the highest numbers of Daleks together in one place at one time—in Milwaukee. The British currently hold the record. Daleks are the fictional extraterrestrial villains from the Doctor Who television series. There are three nearly completed robotic Daleks in Hughett’s MM Dalek factory.
“Before I started making these, I had none of the skills that went into this,” Hughett said. He and others in his club, Dalek Asylum Milwaukee, used the CNC machine to make the fiberglass resin casing. The built the motorized controls found inside each Dalek that allow users to move them around.
Stevens said other groups have also formed within MM to collectively focus on a project.
Karen Pauli has a degree in theatrical costuming from UW-Milwaukee. She works on several types of sewing projects, including restoring historic Girl Scout uniforms for local troops, for display and Scout fashion shows. She will also help out MM members whose backpacks split or who need to repair torn garments.
“People join Makerspace for the equipment and the workspace, but then they discover the brain trust they have bought into,” Pauli said. “It is a collaborative mindset. I have a sewing area with all the tools and facilities I need at home, but I didn’t realize that I missed being around other people.”
Tom Gralewicz, a co-founders of Milwaukee Makerspace, was a member of robotics clubs throughout the country. His education and background lie in computer science and physics. When he lived in Dallas, Texas, he was a member of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group, where he enjoyed its casual, social ambiance. When he moved back to Wisconsin, he wanted to join a robotics club but the closest one was in Illinois. He and some fellow Wisconsinites made the drive, and they eventually decided to start a club in Milwaukee.
Gralewicz said the club members originally met casually at his home. Royce Pipkins, another MM co-founder, eventually discovered the NYC Resistor hackerspace (a term often used interchangeably with makerspace) in New York. Gralewicz and Pipkins were led to hackerspace.org that provided advice about starting a makers club in one’s own city. In 2009, MM was born.
They met at Culver’s restaurant in West Allis for a year and brainstormed about how to attract more members. To get the word out, the club built motorized pot-of-gold parade floats for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2010, Gralewicz said. Soon another project developed that converted toy Power Wheels cars into racing vehicles.
That same year the group leased space at Chase Commerce Center. In 2011, its growing membership and other reasons prompted the group to look for a new location. Eventually Gralewicz’s real estate agent discovered that the Lenox Street building was for sale. Some of the members invested in the purchase of the building, forming the Milwaukee Makers Investors Group. MM moved into its current space January 2013.
“Within six months of moving into this space, membership grew to 140 members,” Gralewicz said. The move to a larger, cleaner space also attracted a new demographic to the group—women. “Until then, we had no women members,” he said.
He noted that while some MM members are aspiring entrepreneurs, most don’t aim to become millionaires or change the world. “They have a passion. It doesn’t matter what you want to do, Gralewicz said. “If there’s a skill you want to learn, and somebody here knows how to do it, they’ll do it with you.”
Other Creativity Hubs
The concept of a makerspace is international. “You can find makerspaces in most cities that are university related, or large enough,” Lamont said. “Some have fun names—Arch Reactor, and some are just Makerspace, but the common thread is an interest and passion for creativity.”
Makerspaces are independent of each other, with no overarching organization that controls them. They vary in size and uniqueness.
2555 S. Lenox St.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to the Bay View Compass.