As noted in the first installment of this series, the “hackerspace” concept is fueled by an effort to reclaim the word “hacker,” which is often misrepresented and misunderstood by the public. The representative spaces of the movement are redirecting the label toward innovation and creativity, fostering a new public image of collaboration and project-launching—what some might call “making and doing.”

This story is part of a series that explores startups’ recent shift toward DIY, community-built innovation, as well as the organizations bringing hackerspaces to life in North Carolina.

Within downtown Greensboro’s collective of historic buildings and landmarks sits a space that houses some of the city’s most dedicated makers.

It’s called The Forge, a name that ably encapsulates its twofold purpose—to “forge” both the creative community and the local economy in Greensboro.

Much like the spirit of the hacker movement, The Forge’s facility operates around a commitment to sustainability—reimagining, reusing and revamping existing resources to up their value.

The building was previously occupied by The Flying Anvil, once downtown Greensboro’s largest music club. Also inside the building was a record shop called Gate City Noise, which closed in 2006 when the rest of the building shut its doors.

Years later, local developer Andy Zimmerman, also co-founder of downtown coworking space HQ Greensboro, saw promise in the building as a possible new location for The Forge, the fast-growing hackerspace of which he served as board member since it began in 2014.

The building, which sits on West Lewis Street, doubled the square footage of The Forge’s previous space. And so Zimmerman bought it and renovated it for The Forge. Doors to the new location opened in the spring of 2016.

The 501(c)3 nonprofit organization offers its 180-member community 24/7, affordable access to equipment and tools they need for their projects and businesses. There are two membership levels—a $30/month “Starving Maker” package intended for students and a standard, $54/month full membership level.The Forge divides its tool offerings up as follows:

  • Soft space—well-equipped computer lab
  • Textiles—sewing materials and machinery
  • Tech Lab—3D printers and laser cutters
  • Electronics—digital storage oscilloscopes, power supplies and various hardware essentials
  • Hard space—woodshop tools including several types of saws, as well as measuring instruments
  • Metal shop—milling machines and steel cutters

Leveraging Greensboro’s economy

The Forge began with a mission to provide resources for people to express themselves through making. Though the goal still stands, it has expanded over the years to fit a particular need in Greensboro’s economy.

Executive director Joe Rotondi, a recent UNC Greensboro graduate in social entrepreneurship, says The Forge is “beginning to participate in economic development by assisting startups and developing programs to teach marketable skills.”

A lot of its work fits well into Greensboro’s main industry clusters of manufacturing, life science and supply chain and logistics.

Innovative manufacturing is particularly dominant in Greensboro, with companies headquartered in the city representing fields such as textiles and fabrics, steel, skin care, pharmaceuticals, semiconductor, motor transportation and even aviation. The hackerspace gives a labor force so heavily rooted in manufacturing other options for using their skills or crafting careers.

To help individuals translate or learn new skills, The Forge is host to a collection of classes. They’re all open to the public and include a range of subject matter, from Basic Sewing to Introduction to Programming Art to Woodworking 101: Basic Box Making.

It also offers events and gatherings to promote collaboration between makers. A recent example is Make a Gift, which was held at the space in December. For a $15 entry fee, attendees could hop around various workspaces to use 3D printers, laser engravers, sewing, embroidery and machining equipment to make their own holiday gifts (with added assistance from members of The Forge).

A venue for launching small businesses

Over the years, a sizable woodworking community has spawned out of The Forge. John Sherwood, a two-year member who began woodworking shortly before joining, speaks to how the space feeds that culture and fosters collaboration between the woodworkers.

Sherwood says The Forge has been instrumental in providing access to tools that he couldn’t fit in his own shop.

This benefit, he says, allowed for The Forge to become a “launch pad” for him in starting his business, Sherwood Woodcraft.

The makerspace community of people always willing to help is also a pro for Sherwood. He’s collaborating with another Forge member to make tap handles for Gibbs Hundred Brewing, a beer company next door to the space, to send out to vendors.

Sherwood’s experience with The Forge is one universal among many other members, as they also grow their individual talents and businesses out of the space.

Steve Bird originally discovered The Forge with his daughter, who encouraged him to join. He quickly turned into a full-time resident of the space, building organization and storage solutions for his deck-building card games.

Steve Bird works out of Greensboro makerspace The Forge to design and produce custom storage trays for his online shop, Table Top Envy. Credit: Steve Bird

Now, Bird runs an online shop called Table Top Envy, where he sells different iterations of the wooden storage trays. He’s approaching $1,500 in sales.

“The amount of community knowledge is a huge part of The Forge,” he says. “I had no idea where to find my materials or how to do what I wanted to do, and community members helped me all along the way.”

As Bird’s knowledge enhanced, Rotondi recruited him to become head of the laser tools department. Since assuming the role, part of his job is collaborating with a group of other box-makers in the space, sharing expertise and tips to better their projects.

Bird adds that the intersection of different Forge departments does well for member collaboration. Though he mostly works in the laser department with wood and acrylic, he also uses the 3D printer for key elements in producing and creating accessories for his products.

Camaraderie among makers

Another accomplished maker at The Forge is Sam Rouse, who first discovered The Forge through online searches when contemplating a move to Greensboro. After a tour of the space, he and his wife decided to make the move, seeing The Forge as a great place for Rouse to start his furniture business Sam Rouse Furniture Design.

Woodworking hobbyists and professionals regularly gather at Greensboro makerspace The Forge to collaborate on ideas and work on their designs. This oak table was crafted by Sam Rouse, a member at The Forge. Credit: Sam Rouse

Rouse has produced two custom dining room tables in the space. He says the variety and affordability of The Forge’s tool selection has been a definite influence on his work.

Even when some of the tools he needs aren’t available at The Forge, he’s forced to come up with creative solutions to complete tasks without them.

“That part can take up more time but I believe it will make me a better furniture maker in the future,” he says.

Though he primarily works with other Forge woodworkers, he appreciates the open community The Forge has created. In January, he will meet with one of the metal workers to talk about co-producing a table with metal legs for a client. That’s a big appeal for Rouse—the “general camaraderie in the maker community.”

Growing Greensboro’s maker base

The Forge’s involvement in growing Greensboro is representative of a fresh, innovative enthusiasm among city dwellers.

More than that, Rotondi argues that every town and city should have some version of a makerspace. He says, “The potential impact on not only the creative economy, but entrepreneurship and innovative thought, is apparent to anyone who engages with a makerspace.”

The only thing standing in the way of that engagement, he adds, is a challenge to communicate the why and how.

But through a copious selection of events and workshops, affordable membership fees and growing number of makers, The Forge is widening public openness to collaboration and creative synergy.

This, combined with positive testimonials spread word-of-mouth by members, positions The Forge to tackle the challenge full-force.