'We like to tinker'

High-tech workshop gives 'nerds' place to play
Apr. 13, 2013 @ 08:16 AM

A computer programmer, a field systems analyst and an electrical engineer walk into a bar ...

Okay, it isn’t a bar but a “hackerspace,” a community-operated space where people gather who have common interests, often in computers, technology and science. The number of self-professed “nerds” plunking down $35 a month to play at the Foothills Community Workshop is up to 17 now.

Members include Colin Robinson, an English satellite communications computer programmer, Ben Liddy, an information communications technology field systems analyst, and Michelle Suddreth, a computer engineering instructor.

“We like to tinker,” said Rich Goldner, the computer programmer and president of the 2-year-old nonprofit workshop. “I might be here seven days a week.”

The workshop, as if by design, is hard to find, unless you stumble across it while lost. It occupies a few rooms deep within the confines of the old Shuford Mills plant about 100 yards off Falls Avenue in Granite Falls. It is an exclusive group. Members (and the occasional guest) can gain access by use of a special key pass that ‘reads’ an electronic identification code. If a member fails to pay dues, he or she can easily be taken out of the system and denied access.

Once inside, the 3,500-square-foot workshop is their virtual playground. A custom-built video-gaming cabinet loaded with 6,000 games sits in a corner. Lining the wall of another room is a homemade, simulated death-row electric chair (complete with smoke) and a guillotine. Gene Chase, an electrical engineer for Bell Laboratories, hauled in his 10-foot by 15-foot train set in four large sections, complete with scenery and a model village.

The members not only keep track of the power they use, they attached a transmitter to the building's circuit box, which sends the data to a laptop computer.

“We geeked out the power we use,” said Warren Bumgarner, a 59-year-old retired Western Piedmont Community College faculty member. “We know exactly how much power we use each month in kilowatts.”

Two Web cameras keep an eye on the activities. A smartphone application allows members to view the workshop remotely. Goldner was on a recent hunting trip to Canada, logged on to the webcam and noticed the lights were still on.

“I called someone to tell them to shut the lights off, we’re paying for that electricity,” he said.

There is a ham radio station and two lasers. A wood router, milling machine and metal lathe occupy another room. A large Cinderella coach is being crafted there by the workshop for an upcoming play at South Caldwell High School.

Members share ideas and bounce ideas around. They meet twice a week, if for nothing else than just to tinker. Other times, they actually hold meetings. But mostly, they play.

J.D. Wegner, 58, is putting together a rack for monitors for a giant flight simulator.

“I’ve been a nerd all my life, taking things apart and putting them back together,” Wegner, a Hickory resident and instructor for Cisco Sytems, said. “I like to see how things work. I was reading about hackerspaces and found this one right in my back yard.”

As a nonprofit, it is not out to make a buck.

“With rent, electricity and insurance, it leaves us a little bit to get into new stuff,” Goldner said.

The workshop is looking for others to share their quirky activities. With more members come more ideas, and more fun to be had.

“Between our people and our equipment, we have the ability to make anything we want,” Goldner said. “To be a member, you either must have a skill to share, or want to learn. We like spreading our knowledge. Being in the company of others who like to make things, or have similar interests, is special. There are no limits to what we can get into.”

For more information, visit www.foothillscommunityworkshop.org, or e-mail info@foothillscommunityworkshop.org. To make an appointment for a visit, call 828-351-4225.