Makers have a space of their own where they can build and create

Everybody's a student, and everybody's a teacher, at Kzoo Makers.

The Kalamazoo maker space -- a place that provides tools and talent to encourage innovation, creation, and basic open-ended tinkering -- has finished its first year at 1102 East Michigan Ave.

A couple of buildings, last used to store refuse from property foreclosures, now house "zones" of creativity and collaboration.

Ron Schubot, the maker space's electronics zone mentor, has been tinkering with electronics since high school, but at Kzoo Makers, "I have a place to do it and share it with other people, help other people, and learn from other people, too. They're learning something from me, and I'm learning something from them." 

He shows off the space's electronics room, full of oscilloscopes, stacks of Radio Shack electronics lab kits, ham radio parts, soldering equipment and other boxes of components that would make any wirehead happy. 

Next door is the crafting zone, where fiber arts such as quilting are practiced. Stacy Belinsky drops her experiment making snowflakes with a glue gun and nail polish to show what a square of quilt art on the wall can do. She manipulates it, and various lights shine. 

Wires, batteries, and LEDS are embedded in the quilt. It mixes efforts of the electronics and fabric specialists -- Belinsky says the makers are planning a frame, to get the wood zone of the space involved.

If quilts and computers could be united, the makers have that ability -- in the same hall is the Raspberry Pi zone. The Pi is a $35 computer, made for learning computer science, tiny so it's easy to plug into robotics projects or security systems. The Pi room has eight attached to keyboards and screens.

In the center of the complex is an area with a meeting space, workbenches, laser etching and 3-D printing equipment.

An ornate clock of carved wood sits in a corner. A closer look shows the wood is actually 3-D printed plastic, created by Jason Preuss. On a table on the other side of the room is an 88mm German World War II flack shell. It's a replica built for display at the Air Zoo, Chris Czarnik says. 

Spelling out his name, he adds, "One of those pesky Polish names. The irony of building German munition replicas does not escape me." 

Czarnik, who specialized in sheet metal while serving in the Air Force, is at the space "just trying to expand my skill sets and build ridiculous things." Next to the shell he's got a large wooden sword out of a fantasy cartoon. Near the large expensive laser etcher are maps of Kalamazoo and polygonal globes Czarnik burned in wood. 

Kalamazoo's Own Dream Garage

Czarnik says of the space, "Since I can't fit a table saw in my apartment, this just makes sense. Nor can I afford most of this stuff." 

New members (dues are $50 a month, with package deals at $35 a month) do get some training on "things that are easy to break, or easy to hurt people with," Czarnik says. For example, he points out, wood and glass are fine to put in the laser etcher, but plastics can produce toxic smoke.

Down at the other end of the space is the wood zone, just past where the raw planks lay, waiting to be turned into tables or German munition replicas. Tools range from the usual table saws to a $16,000 CNC (computer numerical control) router that can whittle down an all-day job to a matter of minutes. 

Wood zone mentor, Dr. Don Batts, was a professor of medicine at MSU's Kalamazoo campus. Now he's teaching people how to cut wood. 

"I did 40 years of highly technical teaching. And the surgeons got to use their hands, I didn't. When I retired I wanted to make things," Batts says. "Mainly wood, but I'm learning plastic, CO2 laser, welding, etc."

"Think of it as your dream garage," Dan Wilkins, Kzoo Makers project director, says.

It's a dream garage with a wide range of tools, and a wide range of talented people ready to make something interesting, or to simply help out.

Around 55 dues-paying members help fund the operation, overseen by the nonprofit Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative. Members have ranged from minors (who must have parental or guardian supervision) to 80-year-olds.

They welcome anyone interested to take a tour, or just hang out, Wilkins says. "We really don't want people to become members until they really want to do something down here." Once a dues-paying maker, the focus of their experience should be on "getting their project done." 

In the past year projects have ranged from quilts and wood maps to 3D printed audio-enhancing speaker enclosures and "automotive prototypes for exhaust stuff," he says. 

The Right Tools

Wilkins says they're hoping to expand with a metal zone, and are shopping for lathes, mills, grinders and CNC machines.

"You'd be amazed if you give the people the right tools, what they'd come up with," he says, quoting a tagline of the makers movement

Kalamazoo has had similar spaces, though they called themselves a hackerspace. There have been maker spaces in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Chicago.

But for the most part, Kalamazoo makers had a long drive to other cities if they wanted to tinker with like-minded makers. It took about three years to get their their own space, Wilkins says. Now makers "can get access to over $100,000 worth of equipment in this facility," he says.

Mark Peters, one of the founders of Kzoo Makers and a 3D printing specialist, says "The social aspect of a local maker space may be even more valuable than the equipment." 

Before the space local makers held "meetings where people like myself could go to have their faith in humanity restored by talking to other makers about their current projects. Creative people often are isolated." A space for makers "to share, brainstorm, get help on your current project or just chat is a life-giving oasis."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in Southwest Michigan since 1992. At the age of 12 he managed to tune to local AM stations by making a radio with a Radio Shack electronics kit. 

Photos by Mark Wedel
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