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How a nonprofit’s Snowdown float became a vehicle for crafts, collaboration and creativity

Durango Makerlab makes tools available 24/7 to its members
Maureen McDonald uses a tungsten inert gas torch on a rectangular metal bar as Shawn Grimes, right, watches during a TIG welding class on Feb. 21 at Makerlab in Bodo Industrial Park in Durango. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

It’s been about two years since Makerlab, a community-led makerspace, moved out of the Powerhouse and into its own facility on Turner Drive in Bodo Industrial Park, where members have more room for welding, industrial sewing, wood labs and more.

Aside from an abundance of fabrication equipment, power tools and digital design stations, the new location provides Durangoans a creative space that fosters collaboration and community.

The behind-the-scenes story of how creatives combined their varied handiwork skills to build the Makerlab’s Snowdown Parade of Lights 2024 float is evidence of what the club can offer. The Makerlab won first place for best float.

The float was built on an approximately 40-foot-long trailer and featured a psychedelic, sprightly light show on wheels complete with radical mushrooms dancing to booming music.

The Makerlab float won first place for best float in the 2024 Snowdown Light Parade held Feb. 2 on Main Avenue in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Ryan Williams, Makerlab board member and fan of all things Burning Man, “Star Trek” and working with his hands, said the Makerlab has increased its membership by about 30% since the start of the year.

About a month before the Snowdown parade on Feb. 2, Williams gathered a group of about 16 Makerlab members to brainstorm ideas for a float. He said he wanted to harness the lab’s growing membership and momentum, and a float was a great way to do that.

People brought their own parade float ideas to the table. Williams wanted to make a float based on “Star Trek” – he said he always wants to do “Star Trek.” But together, the group narrowed it down to a mushroom-themed float in line with this year’s “Peace, Love and Snowdown” theme.

Mushroom-capped Makerlab team members dance on the Makerlab’s float at the 2024 Snowdown Light Parade in early February. The float won a first place prize. (Courtesy of the Makerlab)

Group members took on tasks suited to their skillsets. Some focused on giving the float a far out paint job with ultraviolet paint.

Williams said John Reeve, Makerlab member, was “amazing” with his work on the float’s electronics, sound and soldering.

Reeve said the project “wasn’t a big lift,” because so many people were taking on individual tasks simultaneously.

Phil McGuire, another member, used an old computer to stream music to the rest of the crew’s headgear during the parade so everyone could hear over the cheers and commotion of the crowd along Main Avenue.

He also synced LED lights with the music being blasted from the float.

Member Terry Spriggs fabricated all of the wooden platforms used for staging on the float.

Member Brandon Walter designed the mushroom hats worn by dancers during the parade.

“He laser-cut these things,” said member Leah Roy-Ehri.

Williams joked that managing so many people was like “herding the cats” or “rallying the squirrels,” but everyone did their part to make the float a success and had fun doing it.

Ryan Williams, Makerlab board member, right, helped organize the Makerlab team’s float construction in the month leading up to the Snowdown Light Parade in early February. The Makerlab won first place for best float. (Courtesy of the Makerlab)
Exposing creators to new crafts

Roy-Ehri, who enjoys working with textiles, said the Makerlab attracts a lot of people who are already familiar with one craft or another. But being exposed to so many other forms of building and manufacturing in the Makerlab can broaden one’s interests.

Maybe someone is skilled at woodworking but they have never used textiles equipment, she said. Or maybe they’ve never used a laser cutter.

“It's really fun to watch people expand and play with new machines, new toys,” she said. “That's really common and we do offer quite a few introductory classes.”

One man who became a Makerlab member about a month ago spoke firsthand to that experience. He initially took interest in the makerspace because he has several hobby projects he’d like to complete, but he lives in an apartment and doesn’t have room at home for a table saw.

He came to the Makerlab for access to a simple table saw and electronics tools. But he stayed for metalworking.

“I came in and they were soldering a bunch of these microcontrollers, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” he said.

He took an introductory class to the metal shop, learned how to use a welder and now he’s in the metal shop regularly, “burning the hell out of metal.”

Ryan Williams, Makerlab board member, said pulling together a 2024 Snowdown Light Parade float was like “rallying the squirrels,” with a large team of people tackling many tasks. But the hard work paid off and the Makerlab won first place for best float. (Courtesy of the Makerlab)

“I’m really bad at it. But I feel like if I do enough, eventually, I’ll get good,” he said.

Williams said it is not just access to heavy-duty tools that the Makerlab provides. Many of the members are experienced professionals in their trades. Some woodworkers own professional cabinet shops. Metalworkers work at area fabrication facilities. And they are available to beginners to share their knowledge.

Introductory classes are free, with the exception of small materials fees in cases such as woodworking and jewelry. The Makerlab must keep an inventory of wood, and $10 fees help do that, Williams said.

On the web

For more information about the tools and equipment available at the Makerlab, class teaching opportunities and how to become a member, visit themakerlab.org.

The introductory classes are also meant to instill a sense of culture among prospective members. People should clean up after themselves and not leave messes for anyone else to deal with. Respect colleagues in the makerspace and the space itself. That sort of thing, Williams said.

Higher-level classes teach people how to properly use more sophisticated tools such as laser cutters, CNC routers and axis mills so they don’t injure themselves while making things to their hearts’ content.

Members receive a key card to access the Makerlab, which they are welcome to enter 24/7, Williams said.

“You can come in at three o'clock in the morning on Christmas Day. No one is going to be here ... but you come in anytime you want,” he said.

He then corrected himself, saying it may not be all that surprising to find someone working in the lab on Christmas morning.

Rachelle Faherty, who joined the Makerlab near the start of the year, said she was drawn to the lab by the allure of the CNC router. But working on the float was exciting, too.

“I just started coming to the mingles where we put the float stuff together. And it was really great,” she said. “It is great to be around people who are creative.”

cburney@durangoherald.com



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