Fab Lab, Iowa City: A Makerspace That’s More Than Just Machines

The Fab Lab woodshop welcomes makers young and old.

This past December, I caught the crafting bug and ended up spending a couple afternoons in the “Sew Awesome” makerspace on the MIU campus in Fairfield, whipping up some handmade Christmas gifts—specifically, reusable two-ply flannel cleaning rags meant to replace paper towels. The project was so satisfying, so affordable, and so good for my mental health that two months later I’m still sewing, stockpiling these cute-as-poo gifties for whenever.

That said, my serger sewing project doesn’t hold a candle to the creativity currently underway in the sewing space at a magical little place called the Fab Lab, now celebrating its tenth year.

I’d been curious about this particular Iowa City makerspace since catching wind of its “Woodshop Basics” class last year, and because so many of our readers live along Iowa’s Creative Corridor, it seemed like a great resource to explore and share with y’all. Maybe you’ve already been there. If not, take a tour with Kirk Cheyney, operations director, or Justin Scroggins, facilities manager, next time you have a couple minutes to kill. They’re, well, fabulous—and eager to help local makers take their projects from ideation to fabrication.

I arrived early for my tour and caught Kirk with a mouthful of Casey’s pizza—pretty standard fuel for a lot of the makers, artists, and hackers who frequent the place, located just north of Riverfront Crossings Park. Justin graciously offered to walk me through the first few rooms so Kirk could finish his lunch.

The Future Is Indigenous

I was particularly interested in the Sewing Room, naturally, which is neatly equipped with a row of identical sewing machines and a handful of matching sergers. The luxury of learning the ins and outs of one type of machine, instead of three or four, is not lost on me.

Young participants Pascale and Alden (both Plains Cree/Saulteaux) work on their designs for The Future Is Indigenous fashion show

Justin brings my attention to a fabric sample sporting an elaborately stitched rose, recently sewn on their 15-string embroiderer, a machine soon to clock some serious mileage. The Fab Lab, Justin explains, is about to embark on a unique four-week collaboration with the University of Iowa College of Education and Alicia Velasquez, Apache and Yaqui artist and House of Dotł’izhi (dot-cluh-gee) jewelry designer.

Light-emitting diodes for The Future Is Indigenous project

With a vision of blending traditional dress with modern technology, indigenous designers will guide local indigenous participants ages 8 to 75 in creating ribbon skirts and shirts that incorporate lighted elements. Wired lights—sewn into each design and activated with a handheld controller in a pocket—can be programmed to display color patterns, movement, or imagery—illuminated, for instance, to depict a constellation. “The sky’s the limit for what they want to do,” offers Kirk, with a pun, post pizza.

“We’ve got different switches for things that react to sound,” he says, “and things that react to pressure—they could have a pressure switch in their shoes,” for instance, so lights flash with each step.

Fab Lab staff will guide participants in exploring the electrical possibilities, and makers will soon be hard at work in the sewing room. Embroidered designs and clay beadwork, also created at the Lab, will add finishing touches to pieces that will be showcased in a fashion show and panel discussion at the Englert Theater on Saturday, April 27, called “The Future Is Indigenous.” Get tickets to this free collaborative event at Eventbrite.com or find more info at Englert.org.

Space for Making

Alphonse Mucha’s Cycles Perfecta, laser engraved on wood by Kirk Cheyney

A comfy, colorful reception area showcases some of the pieces created at the Fab Lab, including a stunning wood-engraved master copy of Alphonse Mucha’s Cycles Perfecta. This room leads to the Print Shop, tucked off to the right, supplying the set-up for five-color screen printing. Custom t-shirt or yoga mat, anyone?

Beyond reception, a Laser Cutting annex offers two machines, the larger boasting a 150-watt laser with a five-foot bed for cutting or engraving wood, plexi, fabric, glass, stone, and even chocolate. “But we’d expect you to clean the mess up afterwards,” jokes Justin.

My mind goes right to laser-cut wooden Christmas tree ornaments (because seriously, how many years in a row can I gift cute cleaning rags?), but Justin explains that a laser cutter is also fantastic for tool-making—creating a jig for the woodshop, for instance.

“It can make the thing that helps make the final thing,” he says. “If you start to think about the whole lab that way, you can make basically anything you want. Combine some embroidery with this and that, and suddenly you have a rocketship!” I was diggin’ the vibe. If I ever make a rocketship, Justin, why yes I do want embroidery on it. Move over, Elon Musk.

Creating in the computer lab

We scoot around the corner to the Computer Lab, equipped with all the programs needed for users to send their digital designs to equipment across the lab—laser cutters, CNC machine, 3D printers, etc. And the Fab Lab has its own intranet, “so users can save their work on one computer, walk to the next room, and grab it there,” says Kirk.

The next room, in this instance, is filled with 3D Printers—both filament printers and finer-detail liquid resin printers. I picture the 3D tile game pieces soon to be fabricated here as part of an upcoming “Game Design Adventure” after-school class launching on April 11.

This section of the Lab also houses an Electronics station—you know, in case you want to “fix your cell phone, make a flashlight, or make a robot,” says Kirk. There’s a large-format printer, foam-cutting table, and a vinyl cutter nearby, too, for custom decals and the like.

Girl Scouts in the woodshop work on their birdhouse projects.

Next, we enter an area I’d be more at home in, filled with old-school equipment, minimal computing required. A sizable Woodshop offers “hand tools, table saw, chop saw, drill press, hand saw, jointer, planer, sanding equipment, lathe,” says Kirk. “Users range from people who want to make a small cutting board to people who build beds and chairs, you name it.” Next, Jewelry Making and Stained Glass spaces offer a host of tools and machines used for flattening or cutting metal, resizing rings, “hotwork,” and even wax casting and silver pouring.

Next up, the Ceramics room is complete with sinks, shelving, three pottery wheels, and a kiln. Kirk lifts the kiln lid to show me a handful of intricate pieces cooling off after firing. “It’s usually pretty busy in here,” he says. The Fab Lab has a couple new pottery classes in the works, he tells me, to keep up with popular demand.

If it’s space you need, the Fab Lab has that too. Studio spaces are rentable as creative spaces or for storage—from private Artists’ Studios with locked doors to partitioned workspaces in an Open Studio room, where current projects in progress include photo-reactive (glow in the dark) resin paintings, jewelry design, and even a sculptural, suspended bus-stop seat that’s being designed for the city.

In terms of the innovation and entrepreneurship that often blossom at the Fab Lab, “there’s a balance point,” says Kirk. “Using a nonprofit’s tools for a for-profit business? The IRS doesn’t like that very much. But we had one guy who started here, and now he has a couple of global patents and a multimillion-dollar renewable energy startup in Georgia.” This particular innovator was developing wave generation technology and ultimately needed to move somewhere with more water, but Fab Lab staff helped him build his first prototype, which he began testing in a tank of water he’d installed in one of the private studios.

There’s a designated Classroom space, too, providing a great spot for group learning, large projects, local nonprofit meetings, after-school programs, and summer camps. The Fab Lab is looking forward to their next animation camp, for instance, where kids will experiment with computer animation, flip-book art, and stop-motion animation with legos and clay.

And then, of course, there’s space to hang. A centrally located Kitchen & Break Room offers a coffee machine, microwave, refrigerator (for the slice of pizza that might come in handy around 2 a.m.), and comfy chairs for when you need a breather from a session of serious making.

The Fab Lab uses a Discord app, too, so members can communicate with each other, ask for help, or hash out ideas. A room full of equipment might be useful, but tapping into a community of like-minded creatives sounds invaluable. For its (roughly) 70 current members—a posse that includes business owners, retirees, hobbyists, and, of course, college students—the Fab Lab is clearly providing more than just machines.

What Makes a Fab Lab?

“All Fab Labs are makerspaces, but not all makerspaces are Fab Labs,” Kirk explains toward the end of my tour. “Fab Labs are a concept that MIT created in 2007, and we were the first Fab Lab in Iowa. We’re not the biggest anymore, but we’re the coolest, obviously,” he says with a grin. “That puzzle circle symbol you see on our building? Anywhere on earth you find that symbol, you know that you have a certain standard of equipment—leaning toward the tech side.”

Director Kirk Cheyney with some of the Fab Lab members’ creations

As a digital fabrication workshop, a Fab Lab is required to provide “a classroom, electronics, CNC machine, 3D printing, a computer lab, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, and other bits and bobs,” says Kirk. “But we have more than we need to be a Fab Lab because my story is always this. If you need to drill a hole in a piece of wood and you only have a CNC machine, you have to sit down at the computer, tell it how big the wood is, how thick the wood is, tell it how fast the drill bit goes, how deep it goes, etc. You have to design the whole thing, you have to set it up, clamp your wood down, then you have to run the program. OR. You can have a drill press. A lot of times the high-tech stuff is great—and totally not what people need.

“We’ve added a lot of those things that people just like to play with. We are member run. All of the stuff that we get is because the members want it. We save up the money, or someone donates it. The whole silkscreen printing setup, for instance, was donated.”

Letting People Do Stuff

Iowa City Fab Lab has been around for 10 years, but it took them three years to find the right space, finally landing on their current 8,000-square-foot home that was—at last—zoned for welding and a woodshop, was accessible by bus, and could offer open hours for the public.

“I’m the seventh person to try this in Iowa City, but I’m the first to succeed because I’m too stubborn to not!” Kirk says.

Having a makerspace is especially valuable in a place like Iowa City. “About a third of the people here live in apartments, and it says right in their lease they can’t have a woodshop or whatever,” explains Kirk. The space has been a boon for University graduates, too, who no longer have access to the equipment they’ve become accustomed to. “This is a good place to continue that education,” says Kirk.

“Or if you weren’t lucky enough to go to the University, you can still do it. I don’t care if you’re a doctor with 85 degrees or you’re a part-time cashier at Walmart—everybody has a cool idea and the right to do this stuff—to be able to learn and use this equipment.

“And that’s how innovation happens. You don’t squirrel it away, like ‘we’re the innovators and you have to just buy our products.’ No. You just let people … do stuff. That’s how new things happen.”

Iowa City Fab Lab is located at 870 S. Capitol Street in Iowa City. Membership fees are $50–$100 a month and range from weekend only to 24/7 access. Personal tours are available Monday–Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment: info@icfablab.org, (319) 382-6167.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!