For all those people who took apart their Nintendos and put them back together as kids, for those who build things with wood or steel or circuits or wool — there is a place for you in Albuquerque.
Enter the nonprofit “hackerspace” Quelab, a literal warehouse full of tools and supplies of every kind, from sewing machines and soldering irons to 3D printers and high-tech laser engraving machines. For a small monthly fee, members have access to the building and everything in it 24 hours a day, including the vibrant community of makers and hackers that have built the space.
“The terms ‘hackerspace’ and ‘maker space’ are used interchangeably,” said Geoff Nicholson, Quelab treasurer and member of the board of directors. “It’s really just a community workshop where folks come together and learn how to make anything they really want to, with a bunch of other folks who are like-minded and interested in creative uses and applications of technology.”
By day Nicholson, a UNM alum, works as tech support for lawyers. But on nights and weekends, he tinkers and builds whatever he wants with a large group of friends and fellow makers.
“We’re not really a school, we’re a place where you come to learn with the community,” he said. “If there’s something you’d like to learn, there’s probably someone here who knows how to do it, and if there’s not, someone will want to learn it with you.”
A leisurely walk through the 6,500 square feet of Quelab quickly reveals the projects and creative uses of materials that happen there on a regular basis.
Near the entrance sits a large teletype machine from the ’60s, a sort of precursor to the fax machine, which the team bought on Craigslist and added a Linux machine to. It can now be used to play the ’70s text-based computer adventure game “Zork”.
In another room sits an old fashioned loom, which was donated to Quelab and will be hacked and repaired — another fine addition to the Fabrics Room, which already features several sewing machines and a serger.
An extensive wood shop takes up a whole wing of the place, with band saws, circular saws, a lathe and another laser cutting machine. Off in one corner lies a dark room for developing black-and-white film, and in another is a Mig welder and an oxyacetaline torch setup.
In the 3D printing room, which features two printers and a scanning system utilizing the camera from an X-Box, member Ben Cole sat diligently in front of the computer, designing and printing parts for his hydroponic garden at home, where he grows tomato plants in his upstairs apartment.
Cole has been a member for about a year, and his passion for hydroponics led him to electronics, metal working and a whole host of new skills at Quelab.
“In working on that one project, I do some of this (3D printing), I do some electronics, some elemental shop — which I never did in high school, and I’m excited to learn more about that,” Cole said. “I consider myself a newbie to the maker movement, but man, it’s fun.”
Cole is designing his entire system to be monitored and eventually run by an Arduino system, an open-source electronics platform that is very popular around Quelab and the maker movement, used to control anything from robots to any computer system.
Quelab president Walter Duran had a similar story. He said he first came to Quelab simply looking for a place to hang out, with no knowledge of the maker movement. He learned everything he knows from others in the community, and now he spends much of his free time volunteering at the lab.
“Everyone here is a volunteer; no one does this as their day job. It’s really a labor of love,” Duran said.
Duran said he feels that Quelab is special because there are so few places like it in the world today where novices and pros get together to make things for fun.
“I think what we’re doing here is very new. You think about your public places where people get together — bars, coffee shops — they’re all places about consumption,” Duran said. “There are very few public spaces I know where you get together for the sole process of creating. I think that adds a special sort of energy to the place, and people get into that.”
Geek culture is on display everywhere, from posters and a cardboard cutout of Boba Fett to prototype jewelry made in the laser cutter, featuring logos from Harry Potter, Star Wars and M.C. Escher.
“Our location isn’t too geeky, but all of the members are,” Nicholson said. “As an organization, we don’t all have one fandom; we’re all the fandoms. We’ve got the Firely stuff, Doctor Who stuff, Star Trek. It’s all over the place.”
Learning sciences major and network administration graduate Morgan Gangwere has been involved with Quelab since its early days and said the best part is getting to share your knowledge with other people.
“As for what I like doing at Quelab? Teaching, predominantly,” Gangwere said. “I’m a huge advocate for the ‘if you can’t open it, you don’t own it’ crowd, and I’ve taught and been taught how to repair devices or otherwise make them better — phones, routers, mostly tech things.”
Jonathan Baca is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JonGabrielB.