In the early days of the COVID pandemic, Loudoun’s Makersmiths organization made headlines by cranking out high-quality protective equipment for first responders. Now, with COVID restrictions lifted and enthusiasm for DIY surging, Makersmiths is experiencing a boom in interest and working to build membership in its collaborative workshops.
And the benefits go way beyond getting to use super cool tools most of us don’t have in our basements. It’s also about forging connections.
“Community is a big part of what we do,” said Scott Newman, the organization’s membership chairman and an incoming board member. “We’re going to continue on our mission to serve the community and to grow the technical arts.”
Makersmiths is an independent, membership-based nonprofit with locations in downtown Leesburg and Purcellville. The Leesburg location, located in a historic building on Royal Street, is chock full of hobbyist-level tools and high-tech equipment, including 3D printers, laser cutters and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) printers, along with wood and metal shops. The organization is turning the basement at the Leesburg location into a cosplay space in response to member demand, with sewing machines, a green screen, a ventilated painting area and possibly a vacuum-former to help cosplayers young and old create new looks.
Makersmiths’ larger Purcellville space, located in a former town shop building, is home to its larger, industrial-scale equipment. It includes a classroom, large woodshop, metal shop, walk-in paint booth, blast cabinet, welding space, ceramics studio, picture-framing shop and blacksmithing space.
Jessee Maloney, a laser-cutting instructor and membership coordinator at Makersmiths, said the laser cutter is the organization’s most popular tool, and intro laser cutting classes almost always have waitlists. Members are required to take an intro class for any so-called “red” tools that are expensive or dangerous.
The makerspaces’ CNC printers are also in high demand: the organization boasts a 4×8 foot CNC printer in Leesburg (known as Big Red), and its big brother in Purcellville (Big Blue) is 5×10 feet.
As a longtime maker and Makersmiths member for several years, Maloney and other members are working to bring more women into the organization.
“It is a little harder to be female and a maker, but I absolutely love this place,” Maloney said—despite some occasional “mansplaining” from the largely male membership.
Maloney, a Brunswick, MD-based artist and mom, is also a Girl Scout leader and brings her troop to the space for projects and badge work. The organization welcomes young people, but youth under 18 must be accompanied by a responsible adult: a parent, guardian, teacher, or scout leader. Makersmiths regularly works with area scout troops, and the organization sponsors teams for the KidWind Challenge each year. That program invites student teams to compete on design and construction challenges related to renewable energy.
Newman, who lives in Lovettsville, found Makersmiths when he was looking for a place to work on his car. He discovered that an auto shop is one thing the organization doesn’t offer, but after his initial tour, he was hooked.
“I saw the potential and the value of a tool library, a community workspace, a community shop where people can have access to tools that they don’t necessarily use every day in their life,” he said.
Newman is working on a project to refurbish some old metal parts bins. He said the idea of moving away from throw-away culture by repairing and repurposing is a big draw.
He shared the story of a member whose child tripped over and detachedthe cable for their computer monitor. The family was able to solder the connector back on with help from fellow members at Makersmiths.
“I love that story,” Newman said. “To move away from the disposable culture that we’re in really has benefits”
At the end of last year, things really slowed down at the makerspaces, with strict limits on occupancy and class sizes while COVID restrictions were in place. But as vaccines became available, interest has surged, Newman said. After state COVID restrictions were removed at the end of last month, Makersmiths removed mask requirements for members, operating on the honor system. The organization’s teleworking space for members in Leesburg has reopened, and class sizes are returning to normal. The group is also rebuilding class schedules and interest meetings. Membership is also on the rise, with 200 members and counting. Makersmiths offers associate memberships for $50 per month and full household memberships (after a trial period as an associate member) for $100 per month.
The nonprofit also has reinstated its weekly open houses in Purcellville on Tuesday evenings and in Leesburg on Thursday evenings, with gatherings for current members and tours for prospective members.
For Newman, the appeal is about way more than access to cool tools and facilities. It’s also about the brain power of fellow members.
“I used to think I was a smart guy until I came here. The members of this community are just so smart.” Newman said with a laugh. “Our makers are helpful and giving. … When somebody comes in and has a project, you almost have to fend off the help that people want to give.”
For more information on Makersmiths, including details on membership and open houses, go to makersmiths.org