Building Matters

MIT Hobby shop fosters inventiveness

MIT breeds entrepreneurs and inventors, and this place is perfect for them,” says Ken Stone, director of the MIT Hobby Shop, a wood and metalworking facility where you can build anything that you can dream.

More than 200 members of the MIT community are transforming metal and wood into furniture, bowls, bicycles, sailboats, harps, violins, and airplanes. And much of the craftsmanship is brilliant.

Member Kim Schmahmann recently crafted a cabinet, which took five years to build, that is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington. And Senior Lecturer Jay Kirsch and alumnus Jim Hamilton once created a clock that is now in the permanent design collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

World-famous architect I.M. Pei was a Hobby Shop member when he was an MIT student. The original transmitter for the MIT radio station was built here. And for the past 12 years, members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity have built hundreds of wooden toys to give to needy children at Christmas.

“This is an incredible place for creativity and inventiveness,” says Stone, adding that the 63-year-old shop is not only a creative outlet but a peaceful place to relax.

“It’s great to have a hobby as a balance in your life. MIT is a demanding place and coming here is a stress relief. People today deal mostly with computers and have nothing physical to show for their work. Woodworking gives you a product.”

Eighty percent of the 200 members are students, but the shop is also open to faculty, staff, alumni, and their families. Some drop in to work on just one project; others come back for years. One-third of the members are women.

“Sometimes when I go to work in the shop, it’s all women,” says MIT staffer Dana Andrus, who began coming here in 1986 and says that for a woman, woodworking is a valuable skill. “I’ve learned a great deal about metal and wood joinery, which was so useful recently when I bought a house.”

She adds that she originally went to the Hobby Shop to learn just enough to refinish some old furniture. “Instead, I built my first piece from scratch – a copy of a $2,000 table I saw at Shreve’s in Boston.”

Throwaway society

Stone, who offers courses here and also helps members plan their ideas, was hired in 1991 to direct the shop after he earned an MIT degree in architecture in 1972 and after he spent 25 years as a contractor and custom furniture-maker.

Even though students want to learn, he says, they now come to the shop with less experience in building than they did a decade ago. “I notice as people’s computer skills have increased, their building skills have decreased. Many people have not studied shop in high school the way they once did.”

Prof. Emeritus Bob Mann, a member of the shop since he was an undergrad here 53 years ago, has also noticed that times have changed. “When I was young, kids would come to MIT knowing how to fix toasters and radios. Today, our whole society has a materialistic view. If your microwave breaks, you just throw it away. We don’t repair anything, and therefore, kids have lost the capacity to do that. The shop is great because it gives kids the confidence that they can build.”

The Hobby Shop, begun by a dozen students in 1937, brings people together. “One of the great things about this place is not only can students socialize with other students, but they can socialize with faculty, staff, retirees, and alumni,” Stone says. “It’s a wonderful social experience.”

“It’s all about networking,” says Prof. Sam Allen, who recently built a 14-foot sailboat with a 21-foot mast. “Part of the reason I go to the Hobby Shop is to get expert help and advice. Being able to talk to people and work out solutions together is a wonderful way of doing things. And it’s also a great convenience to have access to high quality machines.”

“The shop is beautifully equipped. It has every tool you could imagine,” says Mann, who recently built a Murphy bed for his grandchildren. “I was working with huge sheets of plywood, and the shop was a great place to go because I needed another pair of hands.”

“The shop is a very friendly place,” Allen adds. “And it’s fun. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so successful.”

by Liz Karagianis |

 

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