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Tooling around San Francisco's TechShop

CNET gets a tour of one of TechShop's four commercial-scale hacker facilities, which are helping to bring the maker culture to the mainstream with classes and monthly memberships.

Suzanne Cardenas uses a machine called a MIG welder at TechShop in San Francisco. The hum of machines gives the lab a distinctive sound as a metal welder mixes with the a table saw chomping on wood. Josh P. Miller/CNET

The maker culture can seem exclusive sometimes, but TechShop is helping to bring the underground community to the mainstream, offering classes and monthly memberships to the general public.

In late June, a fourth TechShop location opened in San Jose, Calif., but it's still building up its own storied history. To see what a TechShop is like after it builds its network of makers, CNET toured the 15,000 square-foot San Francisco location, which opened its doors earlier this year.

During our visit, people where taking prototyping into their own hands. An eclectic bunch of members--including policemen, entrepreneurs, and fashionistas--all huddled in the gym-size playground to make whatever they fancied, from removing rust from metal lockers to grinding custom wood pieces to stitching together leather for a handbag.

The tour began on the bottom floor, where the loud welding sounds and constant screeching of metal bounced off the walls and dissipated into the high ceilings. Further in the back, we saw a policeman taking rust off of a 1940s locker.

Next, TechShop founder Jim Newton took us into a separate room off to the side, where the floors were covered in dust. Newton bragged about entrepreneurs who use the space to kick-start their business. One such company, Dodocase, began in this wood shop when a member created a bamboo iPad case. After taking a couple of classes to learn how to use the machines, the iPad case entrepreneur built a thousand cases and pulled in $3 million in revenue. Newton smiled and said he didn't kick them out exactly. They "graduated" and had to move on to find more space

On the second floor, there's a conference room open to entrepreneurs who just need a place to hash out their ideas. Next, we walked up the stairs to the top floor, and saw people sketching out their designs electronically on computers. There, members can design their prototypes using programs like Autodesk before getting their hands dirty in the wood shop or machine room.

The locations of the first four TechShops have been strategic: Newton would rather open locations in areas where there's an an entrepreneurial spirit. Currently, in addition to San Francisco and the new location in San Jose, Calif., TechShops are located in Menlo Park, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C. In five years, Newton hopes to open up hundreds more around the nation: next on his list are Brooklyn, N.Y., and Detroit.

Newton said he built TechShop in 2006 so he'd have a place with the necessary tools to work on his pet projects, one being a digital clock. He has yet to actually build a digital clock.

TechShop isn't the only option in town: There are less formal places, like Noisebridge, where one can go to make stuff. The hacker movement is in full swing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visiting the crowded Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., this summer made it clear that this do-it-yourself culture is indeed maturing at full force.

Check out the photos from our tour of TechShop here.

Related links
• Behind the scenes at TechShop
• Entreprenuers get hands-on with ideas at TechShop
• Making whatever you want at TechShop