As a part of San Francisco’s dot-com workforce, I often yearn to make something that actually exists in the “real world.” I mean, when the zombies attack, I’m not sure how well my HTML skills will play out in the postapocalyptic economy.
I also find that making things keeps me sane by balancing my online self with a healthy dose of practical, old-school skills. In fact, I suspect that the recent explosion in San Francisco craft culture is largely fueled by a subconscious backlash against the growth of virtual worlds. So, when I heard last year that TechShop was planning a facility in San Francisco, I waited with eager anticipation for the doors to open, which they finally did at the beginning of this year.
TechShop was founded in 2006 in Menlo Park (San Francisco is its second location) and it’s basically like a gym, where it’s got a ton of large, expensive machines for members to walk in and use. But instead of treadmills and bench presses, it offers awesome power tools: lathes, welders, mills, table saws, and the sort. Unlike a gym, TechShop doesn’t try and coerce you into any sort of contract – membership is a flat $125 a month, and you can pick up or drop payments at any time.
I’ve been wanting to sharpen my maker skills in general, and the allure of working with industrial machinery is hard to resist. I also have a specific project in mind. My younger brother is getting married this year, and he has asked me to be the best man. This means that I have the all-important job of planning his bachelor party. Since I have the big event all mapped out, I thought it would be nice to make some cool gifts for everyone attending. Now that TechShop is open, I have a perfect vehicle with which to execute my plan.
Located at Howard and Fifth, right next door to the Tempest Bar, TechShop fits neatly into the progressive, industrial fabric of the neighborhood. Where else would you find 17,000 square feet of open warehouse space in the city?
As I wander up to the front door, a uniformed security guard is playing chess with a scruffy-looking opponent on the sidewalk outside. Inside, the space is abuzz with quiet, brainy activity. Two bespectacled, bearded men are sitting at a table like the ones I remember from high school physics lab. They peer intensely into an aluminum contraption that looks like a cross between a lawn sprinkler and something from Lost in Space. It’s a robot, they explain.
I wander around, fascinated by the wide array of machines. I was expecting the typical stuff that you’d find in a workshop, like band saws and such, but TechShop has a dizzying selection of what can only be described as industrial fabrication tooling: injection molders, 3-D printers, quilting machines, and laser cutters. Growing up watching The New Yankee Workshop on PBS, I used to be quite envious of Norm Abram’s seemingly endless quiver of tools and machines.
Norm, eat your heart out.
To use Techshop's machines, you first have to take a Safety and Basic Use (SBU) class. This ensures that you don't end up breaking the expensive machines, hurting yourself, or burning the entire building down.
I sign up to get certified on the laser cutter. They really don’t dick around with the naming scheme of these classes. Looking through the course catalog, I feel like I’m back in college again. I’ll be taking LAS101: Laser Cutting and Etching SBU (and later, LAS201: Laser Engraver Rotary Attachment SBU, so that I’ll be certified to etch cylindrical objects). After the class, I’ll be qualified to use the Epilog Helix computer-controlled 45-watt CO2 laser. Besides being a fun mouthful to say, it’s also the most popular machine at TechShop, and I want to find out why.
My class is scheduled on a Wednesday, and four other students join me for the afternoon session. Aaron, our instructor, hands us a packet that describes the proper safe usage of the machine. I leaf through it quickly; there are lots of warnings about not setting things on fire. Yah, I get it. It’s a laser, so things can get hot. I’ll try and avoid flames. Aaron reiterates to us that fire is the number one danger with this machine.
The Epilog looks like a really boxy washing machine. The laser itself sits safely deep inside the contraption, so by pointing it at a small, moveable mirror, you can aim the beam without moving the delicate, expensive laser.
We learn how to properly set up and focus the heat on our first victim, a piece of scrap cardboard. In cutting mode, this machine is able to slide through materials like wood, acrylic, and leather. It can also etch those same materials, in addition to glass, tile, and anodized aluminum. PVC is forbidden, helpfully listed on the laminated list of what not to put into the Epilog. Looking to etch your girlfriend’s name on a slab of dark chocolate? Go for it. Luckily, it’s among the accepted materials.
Attached to the Epilog is a computer that controls the laser. We use it to upload an image of Dr. Evil, and before we know it, the Epilog awakens and begins to whir with a sound reminiscent of a hive full of robotic bees.
It’s pretty amazing watching a laser being controlled at 600 dots per inch. In a cloud of light and smoke, it turns our cardboard into an exact reproduction of what is on the computer screen. Dr. Evil would be quite proud of our work. In subsequent passes, we push past the recommended laser settings to practice what to do in the event of a fire.
The class is very hands-on, so we each get a turn driving the laser. After a few hours, we emerge triumphantly with our own personally etched aluminum dog tags. Satisfied that his students know the proper operation of the Epilog, Aaron signs off on our certifications.
With my paperwork in hand, I can now etch and cut to my heart’s content. Suddenly, every surface looks ripe with laser opportunity. I stare down at my feet and wonder if I could etch my name into my sneakers. Or, perhaps I could make some brass knuckles in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge . I look over to the next machine for inspiration, and find someone making a whole sheet of sheriff’s badges intended as gifts for this year’s Burning Man.
Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, tells me about some of the projects that have been made here. He explains that there’s no such thing as a “typical” endeavor. Amongst the alumni, as he calls them, are people who have extremely intricate pop-up books , the first prototypes of the DODOcase , an iPad case modeled after the popular Moleskine notebooks, and Giraffe , a telepresence robot.
For my first project, my aspirations are decidedly simpler. Laser-etched beer glasses would be a perfect gift for my brother and his bachelor party henchmen.
Using Photoshop and a picture of my brother from our last camping trip to Steep Ravine, I whip up a classy design at home that I think will look good on a pint glass. I then head over to TechShop, where I’ve reserved an Epilog for two hours.
Although the machine seemed fairly easy to use in class, it’s a bit nerve-racking setting it up for the first time by myself. And just to ratchet up the pressure a bit, the TechShop floor manager, Terry, informs me that a brand new laser was just installed this morning – staring at me as if to hint that I really should be extra careful with it. Great.
I push through my trepidations, recall my training, and set up the Epilog, preparing to etch my first glass. Loading my artwork onto the computer, I instruct the machine to begin its handiwork. As the laser zips along, spikes of intense, bright light shoot upward, like a miniature aurora borealis. Seven minutes and 36 seconds later, I can see my brother’s smiling face permanently etched into the surface. Success.
A few hours later, I leave TechShop with a dozen grinning pint glasses, already brainstorming the next project that would necessitate my return.
If you want to make something, but don’t have the proper tools, visit TechShop to see if it has what you need. A full list of equipment, including CNC mills, quilting machines, and table saws, is available on its website .
Not sure what to make yet? Take one of the many classes and get inspired. Afterwards, enjoy a drink around the corner at the Tempest and share your torrid tales with fellow makers.