News & Community

The New Luddites

More and more millennials are embracing their inner artisan. But why?

For Adrienne Shevchuk, her amateur carpentry career began with an ambitious goal.

“I had this idea that I wanted to make my own dining room table,” she remembers with a laugh.

A 31-year-old executive assistant at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Shevchuk doesn’t come from a design or woodworking background. But six months after signing up for her first class at the Station North Tool Library, she had built an entire kitchen island for her Hampden home—right down to the tapered legs and butcher-block top milled from wood that she picked up from a salvage yard in East Baltimore.

Although woodworking was new to her, Shevchuk tends a raised-bed garden in her backyard, and has been canning and pickling produce from local farms for the past three years. Outgoing and spunky, with dark, shoulder-length hair shaved on the right side of her head, she also has taken ceramics courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for fun, as well as a sense of purpose and individuality.

“Even if my mugs look like crap, which my first semester’s did, they are way better to me than going to Target and buying mass-produced mugs that thousands of other people have. I’ve always liked the idea of doing things myself,” continues Shevchuk, who now has a number of the tool lending library’s workshops under her belt, from cutting boards and coffee tables to a chef’s knife class, where she walked away with a beautiful—and utilitarian—blade forged from a rectangular piece of steel and a block of wood. “Making that knife was pretty much the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.”

Aside from the satisfaction of creating something by hand, Shevchuk says the time spent working with wood remains a welcome escape from the stress of modern life and the tedium of staring at a computer screen all day. “It’s an outlet for me, after sitting in the cube during the week, to go on a Tuesday night and spend three hours building something,” she says. “It kind of wakes you up. I also think there’s some draw to returning to the idea of being an expert in a trade.”

Shevchuk may have become an unexpected woodworker, but her experience is not unique. She’s actually part of a burgeoning collective of hobbyists, craftsmen, and amateur and professional artisans in Baltimore who are coming together with a desire to learn and share both new and bygone skills in the Internet age via workshops, apprenticeships, and “makerspaces.” (Makerspace: a community studio where people share their do-it-yourself processes, equipment, and ethos.)

Still somewhat under the radar, the city’s DIY community has grown significantly in the past five years, with the opening of hands-on working and teaching spaces across the city. Before the Tool Library opened in 2013, for example, Baltimore Print Studios launched its letterpress and screenprinting studio in Station North. Two years ago, Boomspace, a tech and workforce development center, got its start in McElderry Park, and when MICA discontinued its jewelry center, several artists banded together and launched the Baltimore Jewelry Center, now at the renovated Center Theatre on North Avenue.

Earlier this year, The Foundery, a tools, training, and metalworking makerspace, moved into its new 20,000-square-foot space at the City Garage innovation hub in Port Covington. And finally, this fall, Open Works, the highly anticipated, creative studio space developed by the nonprofit Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO) will launch in a 34,000-square-foot warehouse across from Greenmount Cemetery.

“People [my age] are trying to bring production down to a smaller scale.”

Although the boom in DIY enterprises and makerspacers may feel new, the ideas and values driving the phenomenon have been bubbling for a while. They’re part of a broader cultural movement related to the renewed interest in urban farming ushered in by millennials moving back to cities, industry experts say.

“Maybe 10 to 15 years ago, when the term DIY got really popular, we saw a resurgence of urban farming and things that are associated with people of my age group who are interested in trying to bring production down to a smaller scale that someone can do on their own,” says 33-year-old Andy Cook, a planner with Baltimore City’s Office of Sustainability. “I would hesitate to say it’s a return to something necessarily old—some of these enterprises are technologically advanced—although some things are definitely [a throwback]. We talk about makerspaces like they are new, but I’m sure they were called workshops a hundred years ago.”

Ultimately there’s a limit to the number of people interested in these things, Cook continues, but he adds that he doesn’t believe that ceiling has been reached. “I don’t think everyone realizes they can be empowered in this way, and that’s something the makerspaces in town are especially good for—showing people it’s within their reach. I hope it helps us get to a point where, yeah, more people are making their own stuff instead of ordering it from Amazon.”

Letta Moore, 37, of Knits, Soy & Metal, says that before she quit her job as a marketing director for a real-estate company in September to go full-time with her handmade scarf, candle, and jewelry brand, she didn’t realize the extent of the DIY culture in the city. But in just the past few months, she has been embraced by the colony of craft-oriented entrepreneurs like her in Baltimore, who she says are all about building each other up. “I didn’t even know this huge community existed prior to becoming a ‘maker,’” Moore says. “I’ve worked with so many amazing people, either through vending or using their products myself, and they’re all very supportive.”

Moore feels the physical act of creation is a basic human instinct that has been somewhat lost because of the convenience of modern technology. She adds it’s both an appreciation of that process and a set of skills that she wants to instill in her 16-year-old daughter. “This is going to sound absolutely absurd,” she says, “but knowing that I actually have created something—it’s almost like giving birth. It’s like I’ve brought something into this world that is a reflection of me. I [also] think it’s important that people know how to do things with their hands, because what if at some point technology isn’t available anymore?”

To better connect the city’s growing DIY community and help develop commercial opportunities for startup enterprises, Piper Watson of the Station North Tool Library and Mark Huson of Baltimore Node—a diverse maker group that includes electronics, digital fabrication, wood and metalworking members—discussed the idea of a maker “congress.” With help from several leaders in the local community, including Cook and Will Holman from BARCO, the broad-based Industrial Arts Collective (IAC) formed in the summer of 2014.

Cook attended one of the first IAC meetings to recruit for a city project to reuse vacant industrial buildings; he was looking to identify small businesses in need of warehouse space. “While people definitely felt like they needed more space for production, the more immediate concern for most was retail,” he says. Cook worked with Holman to apply for a grant to hold a pop-up shop where sprouting artisans could sell their goods. “And that became the first real IAC project.”

Following that initial IAC pop-up event in Station North, membership in the collective doubled. Today, the IAC has more than 130 members and holds several pop-up shops throughout the year. At its holiday 2015 event, more than 80 city businesses participated and sold goods.

At North Avenue’s Baltimore Print Studios, husband-and-wife founders Kyle Van Horn and Kim Bentley manage a screenprinting and letterpress studio and teach monthly workshops, all on machinery dating from the 1880s to 1980s. “Not much of the equipment or tools for it are being made new today, so new people are using old equipment to make new stuff,” says Van Horn. “People are excited to get back to the roots of design.”

“Especially designers who have grown up in the digital era,” adds Bentley, explaining that the terminology used in computer programs is based off of physical objects that designers can hold in their hands at the shop. “People who understand what ‘leading’ is, which is the space between lines of type, their eyes bug out a little bit when they see the leading is made of lead, and it’s measured in points and picas, and it’s a real thing,” says Bentley. “And the name has meaning suddenly.”

In addition to designers who yearn for a pre-Photoshop way of doing things, Bentley and Van Horn say the shop’s goal is to enable people to become their own producers. When a couple called asking for their wedding invitations to be printed, Van Horn offered to teach the bride-to-be how to make them herself. “I think it’s surprising to them how achievable that is with just a bit of training and access to the right equipment,” Van Horn says. “We’re teaching a craft and we’re teaching people they can do the task themselves.”

“It’s the tangible object at the end of the day . . . the fruits of your labor.”

Make Tribe, which plans pop-up workshops and skill suppers, takes the concept of maker culture and turns it into a comprehensive entertainment experience. Attendees learn a skill and meet new people, venues are able to attract new audiences, and makers can test the waters by hosting their first workshop. After the first pop-up—a sold-out 30-person terrarium-building workshop in 2013—word about the events quickly spread.

“It was when the workshop movement was first starting to get underway—people were really excited about it and it felt like something new,” says owner and co-founder Jessica D’Argenio Waller, 30.

At a Make Tribe event last fall at Church & Company in Hampden, Jess Schreibstein, known as “The Kitchen Witch,” instructed some 15 guests in the basics of herbalism while they sipped on drinks by Artifact Coffee in a room lit by candles and string lights. In addition to the one-time events, Make Tribe hosts a twice-monthly knitting meetup, known as K1P1. “I think people have an inherent desire to work with their hands and get back to their roots a little bit, especially with all the technology surrounding us these days and the sort of go-go-go attitude that’s very prevalent,” Waller reflects. “It’s nice to take time out for something like making a scarf or even gardening and cooking.”

While she doesn’t eschew technology—in fact, Waller credits social media apps like Instagram for connecting makers with common interests—she still prefers some analog ways of doing things, like reading a hardcover book or cooking by candlelight. “It’s the tangible object at the end of the day where you can really see the fruits of your labor, and see the skill and the process that went into it,” she says. “Whether it’s exactly what you intended to make or not, just having the final product in your hands is such a rewarding experience.”

From the lending desk at the entrance of the Station North Tool Library, where more than 15,000 loans have been completed in its three years, sculptor and woodworking instructor Hannah Wides reflects on the human inclination to build and create physical objects, a yearning the library is finally able to fulfill for so many.

The process of creation itself can be meditative, says the soft-spoken Wides, a petite 26-year-old, wearing a knit cap and canvas work jacket. “It’s a form of self-discipline. It definitely has changed the way I think and work,” she says. “With woodworking, you have to be all in, all the time. You can’t just phase out. I think people like that.”

The Tool Library also prides itself on making its classes approachable, and more than half of Wides’s workshop students are women. It’s something she can relate to as a young woman in an often male-dominated industry. “Here it’s super woman-positive, queer friendly, and just really open. Nobody is trying to tell anyone how to do it right,” she explains.

“When I talk to people, they’re like, ‘Can you show me how to do this? I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.’ Maybe it’s always been in people’s brains but they’ve never had the resources. They come in, and their eyes light up.

“I’ve never seen people so excited to see tools,” she continues, gesturing to the shelves and racks of handsaws, hammers, ladders, and generators, as the sound of a table saw whirs in the background. “You don’t see that excitement in Lowe’s or Home Depot. There’s a kid in a candy shop delight when they come in for the first time.”