Maker Spotlight: Joel Leonard

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Maker Spotlight: Joel Leonard

How did you get started making?

I’m the grandson of farmers and coal miners, and the son of a doctor. Boy scout camping trips reinforced our family’s motto of “If you don’t have what you need, improvise to make the best of what is available.”

My grandfather built a wonderful home in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, utilizing local lumber, rocks, and terrain, and built his potato barns, hog sheds, storage sheds, barns, and many of his own tools. My dad was famous in medical circles for using proven remedies, like applying sugar, when he didn’t have “proper” medicine available, for absorbing fluids from wounds to reduce infections.

I love to cook and invent my own concoctions. For example, one of my famous cakes was made from a recipe my grandmother gave me. I added hazelnut liqueur to cool whip and used that as the icing. All of my neighborhood teetotalers who sneer at people drinking a 3% alcohol beer, beg for me to make them a 40 proof icing covered blueberry cake.

Twelve years ago, at a local diner, I asked the cook to combine two Angus burgers, pimento cheese, grilled onions, and a special sauce, before putting all that between two pieces of sourdough bread. Soon the Joelburger won the best burger of the year and averaged over 300 orders a month.

I love to repurpose items and find a better use. For example, while helping promote a fundraiser so the Forge Greensboro makerspace could expand to a larger facility, I grabbed some scrap aircraft aluminum and a 10 pound titanium end cap. I then designed the Thorminator, a 50 pound giant hammer, to entice people to pay us to smash a Volvo that was recycled for parts for other artwork.

What type of maker would you classify yourself as?


I attended an engineering conference in Nashville, Tennessee fifteen years ago where a poll of over 600 of the attendees (many of the best in industry) revealed that over 90% would be retiring in the next 10 years. Walking down the street, I then witnessed over 5000 singers clamor in the streets in frigid temperatures to try and get on American Idol at the Nashville convention center. I realized U.S. values were tainted and real skills for real jobs were not in alignment with idle dreams of entertainment and sports industries. How many singers do we really need? How many 3 point shooters can turn on power, and run our buildings or manufacturing plants?

With this misalignment in mind, I decided to make it my life’s mission to build the next generation of skilled technicians (i.e. makers). I realized to reach the masses, a book or magazine may not make the cut, but more may listen to a song.

And to prove to a skeptical friend I could do it, I wrote the lyrics to the “Maintenance Crisis Song,” which has been played at dozens of engineering conferences all over the globe, on NPR and CNBC, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and during the U.S. Congressional Forum on how to revitalize U.S. Economies. Numerous leaders at the OSTP division of the Whitehouse have advocated for the song to be shared all over. To reach more audiences, it has been recorded in 15 different genres, that include rock, opera, hiphop, bluegrass, reggae, blues, funk, gospel, pop rock, and two Greek versions.

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While recruiting musicians to play my songs, I realized that the very skills needed to run a modern manufacturing facility are being cultivated by these musicians who work with electronic sound boards, manage numerous tasks, and work together as teams.

Once I learned about the Maker Movement, and how it connects directly to all that I’ve already been doing, I quickly joined in and have been helping connect manufacturing leaders to makerspaces. I begged the founders of Forge Greensboro to let me serve as community developer so I could help uncover equipment and talent, and set up initial programs to convert Greensboring to Greensciting. We hosted numerous large events to get the community aware of our efforts, such as a Silo busting Roundtable to connect various groups in our society together to have meaning conversation together about manufacturing challenges. Then some of the area employers shipped numerous tractor trailer loads of equipment and we were able to sell what we couldn’t use and generate capital to pay for our lease, insurance, and other operational costs.

We created Fragile Races, where we mounted 3D printed leg lamps onto remote control race cars, and held challenges for the community on an ice rink during the Christmas holidays. During the Grand Fragile Finale, a nine year old beat five members of the Greensboro City Council. In the first year of Forge Greensboro, we launched 16 new companies, had 9 patents filed, and helped over 50 get connected to new jobs.

So you are a workforce development consultant, tell us about that.

So I am literally living a southern, or at least this southern man’s, dream. Organizations around the world come to me to tell them what to do to advance their workforce development strategies, and, even better, sometimes I get paid for it.

After I identified my life’s mission fifteen years ago, to build the next generation of skilled technicians, I have been implementing workforce development initiatives, helped set up a private technical training company, worked under a Department of Labor Grant to audit the technical curriculum, and developed strategies for national security to ensure the economic viability of the Fort Bragg Regional Alliance in the aftermath of the recession. I have helped the Catawba Valley Metro Region (area around Hickory, NC) contend with the return of U.S. Manufacturing and the need to fill over 3000 technical and industrial jobs. In Guilford County, I was asked to help set up partnerships with area community colleges and industry to develop short course offerings that enable those in job markets to up skill their capabilities and fill the areas of machining, welding, aviation, and other in demand opportunities. After transitioning my tasks at Forge Greensboro to the  Executive Director, I was then freed up to consult and support makerspaces around the country like Newton Conover Middle School, Makerspace CT, Make Nashville, NASA Langley, and numerous others. Together, we connect and support manufacturing goals to grow and acquire technical talent. I have hosted at least two dozen job fairs and have helped employers locate thousands of employees.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?

A difference in fighting the skills and maintenance crisis by helping our youth calibrate their aspirations to current and future needs of employers. Because of the Maintenance Crisis Songs, people around the world are now considering careers in maintenance.

For example, this June I fulfilled a 10 year old promise to an exiting marine who, after breaking his ankle playing football, was lost. I told him to pursue maintenance technical training while he rehabbed his ankle.

Last month, while attending a fundraiser for a nonprofit that supports ex-offenders find employment, I met a City Councilwoman of Thomasville, NC, who asked me to build a makerspace in a community devastated by Thomasville Furnitur’s departure to China. Thomasville, without chair making, is like Hollywood without movies, Nashville without music, or Lexington, NC, or Kansas City without BBQ. I realized something had to be done to bring it back and my mind went into overdrive.

With that said, I was hesitant to agree to commit to building a makerspace immediately. After all, we know that just building a makerspace isn’t always the solution. I visited a mall, and the idea emerged of building chairs like the successful Build Bear franchise. I went home and put that idea on Facebook and, boom, an instructor of the Thomasville Highschool committed to making the raw material for Farmhouse Chairs from Bolivian Poplar with his students. This fall, as a part of this new Build a Chair initiative, we are going to be building chairs on Saturdays in a bandstand. Retirees from TFI are going to attend and help the public build their chairs. Several in the community have openly wept in delight of the news that chair making is coming back to Thomasville. The best part is that the students are already being recruited for future employment by several employers who did not know of the carpentry program.

To create more than a chair, something that would be an actual keepsake, we also are going to be laser engraving photos of lost loved one into plaques so their presence will be with us for generations to come. I am going to send my family their own Heirloom Legacy chair for Christmas this year with my mom laser engraved into a plaque attached to the chair. It’s amazing how fast this all came together.

What if people want to make their own chair?

Thomasville makerspace popup “Build a Chair” events have been scheduled for three Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the bandstand behind the Big Chair on Sept. 9, 23, and Oct. 7. Experts will be on hand to provide chair-making demonstrations and the public will be able to build their own chairs for $30, with materials and assistance provided.

Want to host a build a chair maker challenge at your space or order a kit for your family? For only $60, including shipping and handling, we will ship out kits, with all of the materials and instructions.

What’s something you’d like to make next?

A larger pipeline of qualified talent to be ready for jobs if the NC Triad wins the Toyota/Mazda new plant selection. If that happens now, it will cause a severe disruption to many local employers as they’d have a shortage of skilled technicians. If we supported technical skills with competitions like FIRST Robotics, Shell Ecomarathon, or Skills USA events with the same level of support we typically give traditional sports, we could quickly develop viable talent pipelines. The NCAA’s own statistics state that only .04% of every high school player will be able to play football professionally. Perhaps we need to encourage principals to require traditional sport teams to incorporate some career preparatory activities. For example, require all athletes to take OSHA Safety courses, host blueprint reading treasure hunts during practice to locate where the water or pizzas are hidden. Challenge them to build chairs so they know how to use tools or design and 3D print car parts for practice.

Any advice for people reading this?

If you’re managing, or a member of, a makerspace, please connect with your area manufacturers and don’t fall in the maker versus manufacturer trap. Manufacturers are not maker’s enemies. In fact, they can provide donations of equipment, sponsor events, set up training, or even hire makers to fulfill projects they don’t have the time or expertise to fulfill. And makers aren’t manufacturer’s enemies either. They’re a viable pathway to workforce development. Also don’t let your makerspace become a club for alpha geeks. Please take on challenges in your community, support those who achieve their goals, and be inclusive. The beauty of a makerspace is that older generations can teach workshops skills while the youth can teach the elderly how to use newer forms of technology.

If you are at a crossroads in your life, take on a challenge much larger than yourself and soon you will have the resources and support to help you grow and alleviate, if not completely solve, the problem.

Are you going to any upcoming Maker Faire events?

I hope to take numerous Thomasville Heirloom Legacy chairs and the students to a future event, but will definitely support the Burlington, NC Faire next April on the 28th.

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. find me at

View more articles by Caleb Kraft


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