Makerspace Workshop
Making a Safer Makerspace
This article appears in Make: Vol. 76. Subscribe today for more great projects and tutorials.

It was Friday, March 6, 2020 and our new public makerspace in Bristol, Rhode Island, was on target to open in just a few weeks. Nearly three hard months of designing, making, and building furniture for the space, researching, writing and developing policy, building websites, getting people excited on social media, and setting up tools had us anticipating the opening in just a few weeks. The end of the work week came and it was time to go home. We turned off the lights and locked the doors for the weekend. Monday came along much too quickly (the weekends are never long enough!) when, due to the new and rapidly spreading Covid-19 virus, the Governor of Rhode Island declared a state of emergency. Businesses shut down, schools went remote, and workers all over began a massive shift to working from home. We too decided to cancel the upcoming makerspace opening. It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was the responsible one.

The spring and summer were bumpy for everyone but Narwhal Labs finally opened to the public in October 2020. For many makerspaces and hackerspaces around the world, unfortunately, the story doesn’t have the same happy ending. Some doors have shut indefinitely. Others have closed permanently or struggle to make rent. Many of these wonderful local communities of like-minded tinkerers, hackers, and makers still aren’t sure they’ll have a physical space to return to, or tools and equipment to use. For those still operating, engagement has declined, and access is limited.

Holding the fort

For the months following the cancelled opening, the crew at Narwhal Labs focused on content — making entertaining and educational videos to start our new YouTube channel, and making new content for the space’s sponsor, TotalBoat (Narwhal Labs is located at their facilities). We made arrangements with some friends to help make videos and social media posts. We even hired a full-time videographer. I see our facility as a test kitchen of sorts — developing techniques and learning, and using digital media as a way to share what we learn. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a cake, resin art, or a mobile guitar stage and store — there’s still testing to be done, recipes of some kind to be perfected, and lessons to be learned to achieve success with a project. Our crew has been able to work with local friends and those passing through like Xyla Foxlin (IG: @xylafoxlin), Tim Sway (@timsway1), Jessie Jewels (@jessiejewelsart), Paul Jackman (@jackman_works), Troy Conary (@arbortechie), as well as Phillip and Elizabeth Danner (@dannerbuilds and @dannerbuildswifey) on videos. We’ve also collaborated on live-stream videos with our friends Sami and Cory at AvidCNC, and for the virtual Catskill Mountain Maker’s Camp weekend.

Keeping an open mind on how the makerspace gets utilized has given us more reasons to keep pushing forward even when we couldn’t open. The tools and equipment at the makerspace were crucial for making 3D printed and laser-cut PPE, as so many other makers did when the pandemic broke out and supply chains were struggling. Our backing and expanded multi-function purpose gave us the flexibility to take our time and ensure we made the right decisions when it was appropriate. TotalBoat has used our space for product testing and development, marketing, product photography, and even as a socially distant meeting space. A few months in, we also began to pilot the idea of opening Narwhal Labs by holding “shop nights” — inviting our sponsor’s employees to take classes on digifab equipment and learn to use the tools and supplies around the shop.

The Narwhal Labs Crew Left to Right: Jeff — Director of Narwhal Labs, Skip — CIO of TotalBoat, Graz — Narwhal Labs Videographer, Kristin — Social Media Coordinator

Opening safely

We came up with some basic safety protocols to allow our makerspace to open and finally give back to the maker community as we intended. Of course, masks that cover the nose and mouth are required for anyone in the building, regular hand washing is encouraged, and hand sanitizer is made available. Members are given their own safety glasses to keep so they aren’t being shared. The makerspace is open by appointment only, and is limited to four members in the space at a time. This keeps us under half of the maximum gathering size under the state of Rhode Island’s mandates and guidelines as of the writing of this article. Booking appointments also helps us keep track of attendance for contact tracing. Not coming in when sick and alerting staff if a member tests positive for Covid-19 for sanitization and contact tracing are common sense rules. We provide an alcohol sanitizing solution in spray bottles, and ask that anyone in the shop sanitize tables, workbenches, touch surfaces on tools, and loaner laptops before and after use. We also sanitize these items when members aren’t around. Our work tables are currently set up for only one person per table, and spaced out for a minimum 6 foot distance between any seating position. Membership is discounted during this time to help make up for these challenges. When weather permits, we open the garage door and windows to our workshop to keep air flowing. These changes are working well for us and were reasonable and simple to implement.

Nurses and staff at Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island wearing face shields and ear savers manufactured at Narwhal Labs.

We believe that through these process and policy changes we’ll be able to remain open through the end of the pandemic and beyond. We’re grateful to our local community and partnered brands for their patience and support that have enabled us to take our time to make informed decisions to safely open our makerspace. After the bulk of this article was written, new temporary state orders for recreational facilities have caused us to shut our doors for a couple weeks, but we’re confident in our ability to safely operate when we welcome our members back. The spaces I mentioned before — the ones that might not be doing so well right now: they need your help. If you represent a business in the maker community, consider sponsoring and supporting local makerspaces in your local area that need it — content partnerships and equipment can provide a valuable marketing opportunity, potentially a tax write-off, and help keep these local spaces alive. To individual makers: Find your local, community makerspace or hackerspace and ask how you can help. Making a donation is great, but consider becoming a member to contribute and help keep our local communities of makers going for a future generation.

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Jeff Shaw

Jeff Shaw (@ideal_grain) is a maker generalist and director of Narwhal Labs, a makerspace in Bristol, Rhode Island.

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