By Aaron Curtis
Though they have been here since the beginning, Jack Walsh and Mike Rushton admit their surprise while standing inside a section of the 6,000-square-foot space that makes up Lowell Makes.
They can't believe how far this place has come.
The packed, two-level venue of Lowell Makes, at 47 Lee St., in downtown Lowell, holds an array of equipment most would expect reserved for a space owned and run solely by professionals and artists.
Down hallways and on the other side of doors, and tucked into every space available, are a woodshop, metal shop, and equipment for ceramics, robotics and electronics. There's even a minibrewery, a space to tune up your bicycle, several 3-D printers, a paint room, sewing machines and a laser cutter.
And the list goes on.
Then there's the shop captains, or the pros at Lowell Makes, who teach how it's all done.
"We've taught everything from woodworking to electronics to making soap," Rushton said.
There have even been classes on origami and Russian Easter eggs, Walsh added with a smile.
Lowell Makes is what's known as a makerspace -- a community-based space to create, learn and collaborate with other hobbyists, as well as aspiring and growing businesses.
Rushton, while holding his smiling baby daughter, Emma, points out to a time before fatherhood when it all began at Lowell Makes. It was in November 2013. Back then, everything they had took up a sliver of the space in the basement of the current location: three benches, a lathe, a drill press and just one 3-D printer.
"That was it," Rushton said as Emma cooed and tugged at her father's goatee.
At that time, Lowell Makes included Rushton, the first paying member, and founders John Noto, an astronomer, Eric Sack and Kamal Jain.
"There was nobody else here, and there was nothing else to do here," Rushton said.
Rushton and his wife, Sara, took it upon themselves to draw the public's attention. For example, they used the 3-D printer to create random items, took pictures of their creations, and posted them on social media.
The mantra was, "If you build it they will come," Sara said.
It worked, or at least helped, as more and more people showed up. Every person who came through the makerspace's doors brought more, whether it was more people, more equipment or more ideas. Lowell Makes even received a state grant at one point.
Now, Walsh estimates there to be about 130 members. And, of course, there are the piles of equipment.
Walsh, who captains the woodshop, shows off what his shop has to offer alone: a table saw, lathes, a band saw, a compound miter saw, routers, a scroll saw and tons of hand tools, among other things.
"The problem we have at this point is how to figure out the best way to use space," said Walsh, who chairs the Lowell Makes Space Committee, which is in charge of delegating space.
"I think we are all kind of stunned," Walsh added.
So how does it work?
Lowell Makes members pay $49 per month to utilize the space and all it offers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For those willing to pay more and wanting more out of Lowell Makes, there are classes and workshops for all experience levels.
Walsh and Rushton proudly provided a tour recently. As the tour began, they casually pointed out a space that holds a $50,000 scanning electron microscope. It produces images of a sample by scanning the surface with a beam of electrons, reflected to form an image. The device is used for forensic investigations or material identifications, for example.
It's only the beginning.
Downstairs is Castro-Yves Arboite, who rents space that serves as an extension to his cosplay-related business, GiveWave Studios.
Cosplay is the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie or video game. Arboite, the cosplay shop captain, puts together and builds costumes, props and accessories at Lowell Makes, and then sells them online and at conventions.
A wall is decorated with his crafted accessories, including a glowing sword from the new Zelda game and the mask of Erik Killmonger of Black Panther, which even breathes smoke.
Arboite's extensive knowledge of the craft, along with the equipment, is made available to Lowell Makes members.
"I also have these cosplay Fridays," Arboite said. "People can come bring a costume and get it repaired."
Also popping up on the tour is Chelsi Hanley of Dracut, an art teacher for Lawrence Public Schools, who serves as the ceramics shop captain at Lowell Makes.
When she started here about 2 1/2 years ago, the space occupied a fraction of what it is today.
"There was one pottery wheel," Hanley said. "It didn't even work."
Today, the space has only grown and now offers eight fully functioning pottery wheels. Hanley teaches classes on how to use them.
"After taking a class or two, you become independent enough where just a membership is enough, and you can create and work by yourself," Hanley said.
She initially came to Lowell Makes for the clay, but conversations with members and exposure to new ideas and various shops expanded her interests and abilities.
"I initially really liked the woodshop, because I used it to build all the stuff that's in here," Hanley said, pointing out shelves lining the ceramic shop's walls.
She adds that she also built a dining-room table for her Dracut home at Lowell Makes, with Walsh's help.
"I never would have thought of how to use these things for myself," Hanley said.
The roughly 130 members who have joined Lowell Makes includes men and women, along with people of all ages and backgrounds.
"It's become part of the community now," Walsh said. "It's not just a few geeks sitting around."
An open house is offered to meet members and tour the work space every Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m.