A few weekends ago, I found myself taking stock of our outdoor furniture and noted that time and weather had taken their toll on our steel mesh chairs. After 20 years of use, they were desperately in need of re-welding. My own do-it-yourself experience is limited to re-gluing broken ceramics (a skill I honed through motherhood) and some occasional spray-painting (a.k.a. how to spruce up tired furniture on a $10 budget)—but this clearly wasn’t a tube of glue or can of paint kind of project. Thankfully, one of the great joys of working with the Arts Council is that business and pleasure are often the same: I loaded the chairs in my car and went to MakeIt Labs in Nashua to get some help and take a tour of New Hampshire’s first and largest makerspace.
The first stop was the welding station, where Rob Taylor, a long-time MakeIt Labs member, handed me a welding mask and proceeded to explain the process and methods of welding, as he demonstrated on my rusty chairs—essentially melting metal on metal to create a bond even stronger than the original. I’m a sucker for new experiences, and the opportunity to have a front row seat to something akin to a giant sparkler made me feel like a kid on the Fourth of July.
Like all makerspaces, MakeIt Labs is a model of resourcefulness—repurposing tools, materials and spaces as needed. In FY2016, a CDFA tax credit award allowed MakeIt Labs to relocate and expand. Its current 20,000 sq. ft. facility is comprised of two connected buildings: the newer building houses the majority of MakeIt Labs’ equipment and programs, while the older building (once home to a woodworking business in the mid-1800’s) has been undergoing significant improvements, including a new roof. As the work nears completion, the lines of the interior are taking shape. During my visit, board member Marc Hebert pointed out the spaces that will soon provide private offices and a co-working area, a conference room and community lounge. Shifting these functions to the rehabbed building will allow MakeIt Labs to use its existing space more efficiently to create an audio-visual studio, an art room and other areas for creative making.
As with most makerspaces in New Hampshire, the pandemic has left its mark at MakeIt Labs. An electronic check-in station identifies members and guests as they enter the facility and takes them through a series of health screening questions; visitors answer the “yes” and “no” questions using foot pedals. Signage explains facility protocols for cleaning, mask use and social distancing, while cameras monitor activity in all the various work areas to ensure members are using the space and equipment safely. At the advent of the pandemic, when protective face shields were in high demand for exorbitant prices, MakeIt Labs became an overnight mask-making enterprise. Acquiring more than 30,000 pounds of PET plastic sheet on rolls weighing up to 2100 pounds each, they manufactured and distributed more than 48,000 face shields throughout their region. They also enabled makers and manufacturers throughout the country to make face shields for front line workers by distributing literal tons of PET plastic sheeting to New York and other critical areas.
Like many makerspaces, MakeIt Lab has seen a decrease in member use in recent months. Members are loyal and most have retained their memberships, although fewer of them are using the facility these days. With COVID-related closures in the spring, MakeIt Labs put a pause on the once steady pace of new member sign-ups; only recently have they resumed accepting new members. Advance registration for time slots to use certain tools helps keep foot traffic distributed throughout the day, ensuring that users can observe safe social distancing.
MakeIt Labs is part of the New Hampshire Makerspace Network, an affiliation of the state’s community-based makerspaces. The Arts Council facilitates monthly meetings with representatives from 14 makerspaces spread across all NH counties. Since COVID came along and changed everything we know about—well—everything, the Network has functioned primarily as a peer learning exchange, making space for conversations on a range of topics from safety to sustainability. Ventilation and air exchange is a frequent discussion as makerspaces investigate different methods and equipment to ensure their buildings are safe for the return to all-indoor programming. Some are experimenting with online trainings, classes and workshops as a way to continue to serve their communities. Admittedly, the benefit is limited: trainings to teach safe use of machinery and workshops that require the use of on-site equipment cannot be adapted to online platforms. And since most online programming is offered at no charge, it doesn’t help makerspaces meet their bottom lines.
While some makerspaces have gratefully taken advantage of the New Hampshire Nonprofit Emergency Relief Fund (NERF) awarded through the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, the increase in expenses to adapt their facilities, combined with reduced revenue from the lapse in new memberships, is a shared concern. All are exploring various ways to get the word out. Here’s what they want you to know: Come. Makerspaces are open and they’re doing what they always do—they’re providing a safe space where community can gather to explore, invent, repair and create—even for people who need to fix rusty patio chairs.
My chairs, it seems, will need a bit more care. While sufficiently repaired to weather one more season, they’ll need new seats to endure the next 20 years. Marc and Rob are prodding me to put on my DIY hat, telling me where to source supplies and introducing me to their tools and equipment so I can template, laser cut and weld new seats. It’s a whole new adventure for a woman whose default is to call the pros when something needs fixing (light gluing and spray-painting aside). And you know what, I think I just might do it.
At the very least, it will give me somewhere to go this winter. And come next spring (and after a fresh coat of spray paint), my chairs will be as good as new.