Makerspaces: Free Community Spaces to Hone a Skill and Launch Your Gig

A young man explores new technology.
Jayden Harris, 17, explores the Magic Leap, an augmented reality tool, during a visit to the Innovation Lab at St. Petersburg College’s Seminole Campus. Harris was visiting the lab with the YMCA/SPC Learning Academy. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Using an Oculus Rift headset to experience a day-in-the-life of an aerospace engineer at the International Space Station. Testing a cross-stitching technique on an industrial-sized sewing machine. Designing a blueprint of a panini-slinging food truck.

Projects like these and more are likely happening in your community, right now, in free-to-use workshops built to cultivate creativity, invention and even spark entrepreneurship.

Ever wanted to try your hand at selling crafts online but didn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars in overhead costs? There’s a solution for that.

Makerspaces, they’re called. And hundreds of them are popping up around the nation.

What Is a Makerspace?

A makerspace is a community workshop space where you can make things. Hand-crafted things. Digital things. 3D-printed things — it’s really up to you and the equipment your local makerspaces have to offer.

“That movement has been around for a long time,” says Bob Anstett, the coordinator of digital initiatives of Broward County, Florida’s library system. “Used to be that you were called a knitter or a carpenter or a woodworker. Now, you’re a maker.”

A man scans a teenager's face using an iPad.
Chad Mairn creates a 3D scan of Danny Clark, 15. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Besides the fancy new terminology, public access to such expensive equipment on this scale is also a novel idea. But the concept is simple: Walk into a local makerspace, which could have high-tech gadgets, computers with audio and video editing software or machinery like table saws and sanders. 

You can use the equipment on your own time — typically with some guidance from trained staff — or join a group workshop to learn alongside your neighbors.

In this sense, makerspaces provide a crucial method to test the waters of a moneymaking project. If you’re interested in woodworking, for example, you can use makerspace equipment to craft your first coffee table, without having to buy an $800 table saw.

The origins of makerspaces as community-focused workshops are a little murky. Modern iterations of this idea sprouted in 1990s Germany. Early versions focused on sharing and building computer software or hardware and were dubbed hackerspaces.

In the early 2000s, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms created the concept of FabLabs (fabulation laboratories), workshops aimed at bringing high-tech equipment to underserved communities.

Both of these concepts are thought of as branches of the broader term makerspaces. And while they have existed for decades, the movement ballooned in popularity with a 2014 Obama Administration initiative that shone the spotlight on the maker movement.

Since then, FabLabs, hackerspaces and makerspaces have been popping up in colleges, schools, libraries and rec centers in a push to make them more widely available to the public.

Here are a few ways to find them:

The Role of Libraries and Community Colleges in Makerspaces

A teenager explores virtual reality.
Barbara Ozorio, 15, explores virtual reality at the Innovation Lab. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Public libraries across the nation are undergoing a radical transformation, and they’re changing faster than public perception. They’re no longer just places of dusty tomes and Dewey Decimal. Need a lawn mower? Check it out at the library. A 360-degree video camera? Library. Fishing pole? Library.

“Maybe you want to make a cow-shaped cake. You don’t have to buy that cake pan,” Anstett says. “You can check it out from a library.”

Thanks to expanded intra-library loans, most public libraries offer a host of unexpected things — from yard tools to electronics to musical instruments. If your local library doesn’t have a specific item, they can request it from a library that specializes in that type of tool.

For example, Broward County’s Creation Station features cutting-edge technology, but the Kansas City, Missouri, library system has robust baking equipment. Through these loans, almost every library can pool their resources. That way Broward isn’t limited to only tech, and Kansas City isn’t limited to only baking.

Used to be that you were called a knitter or a carpenter or a woodworker. Now, you’re a maker.

Libraries are also transforming into hubs for hands-on learning. They’re furthering the maker movement by providing the public on-site opportunities to tinker with tech, to hone new skills, and in some cases, to launch new businesses.

Libraries, in other words, are the perfect hosts for makerspaces.

“We’ve always done that sort of thing,” Anstett says. “What’s expanded now is that we’ve made more well-defined spaces.”

Community colleges are also major players in providing the public with free access to makerspaces. They have the benefit of robust career programs and have relationships with local employers. Much like the mission of community colleges to help more people achieve higher education, their makerspaces broaden access to innovations, technology and ideas.

“I want it to be equitable and want everyone to have access to this stuff,” says assistant professor and librarian Chad Mairn, who manages the Innovation Lab at St. Petersburg College in Florida. “There’s so much that we get to do because we do have a college connected to us.”

A librarian teaches a merge cube
Chad Mairn discusses the Merge Cube, a tool that allows people to interact with 3D objects using augmented reality technology. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Most public makerspaces and FabLabs are free. But, as Anstett and Mairn both note, they have some downsides: strict operating hours, membership or residency policies and spatial limitations.

That’s where private makerspaces come in.

These makerspaces often specialize in equipment the public versions may not have, offer 24-7 access or are located in more convenient areas. But that convenience comes at a cost: Private makerspaces typically have monthly or annual membership fees, which vary by location.

Each makerspace, Anstett says, “has a distinction, for the most part, because it’s tailored to your community.”

FROM THE MAKE MONEY FORUM

How Makerspaces Help Develop New Skills — and Jobs

Think of makerspaces as testing grounds for locals to hone new skills. These new skills can then be applied to a side gig or a start-up business.

“My mission and my main goal is to show people what is actually possible,” Mairn says.

“Then they see what’s possible and want to take that to the next level, and they got my space to experiment and to try things out.”

Maybe you’re interested in launching a hand-made Etsy store but don’t know where to start.

“If you’ve knitted all your life,” Anstett says, “you can come in and take a basic class at Creation Station and use our sewing machines.”

Besides free access to equipment, both Creation Station and Innovation Lab have programs in place that help locals land jobs or get their passion projects off the ground.

“If you have a good business idea,” Mairn says, “let’s help you with the research, let’s talk to a patent attorney, let’s take it to that next level.”

Pair that with the additional free business classes, career fairs and other perks from local libraries and community colleges, and makerspaces can transform your idea from “I like to sew. Maybe I can style some clothing” to launching a small business.

“And you’ve done it all for free,” Anstett adds.

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.