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Atherton man to unveil public TechShop

Menlo Park open house this weekend for shop with industrial-grade tools for public use

With the demise of high-school shop classes in California and elsewhere and with the relocation of blue-collar jobs to Central America and South Asia, Californians born after 1970 have little first-hand experience with jobs in which sparks fly, metal filings collect on work boots, and hands take on a grimy patina.

A remedy for such missed opportunities is opening this weekend in Menlo Park at the TechShop, a new 15,000-square-foot work space with classrooms, teachers, materials and industrial-grade equipment for the use of hobbyists, inventors, artists and anyone with a creative curiosity and an urge to play around with mechanical, electrical or software engineering tools.

“We’re very upset that we’re giving away manufacturing ability, development ability, to other countries,” said TechShop co-founder and Atherton resident Ridge McGhee. “We want to give people the capability to develop here.”

An open house for the general public is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, and Sunday, Oct. 1. The TechShop is located, appropriately enough, in the industrial zone of Menlo Park between U.S. 101 and the Bayfront Expressway in a one-story former office building at 120 Independence Drive.

TechShop is currently a for-profit outfit with plans to become a “hybrid” company by partnering with a yet-to-be-established nonprofit foundation, McGhee said. The company’s lease is for 18 months, reflecting the pilot nature of the enterprise.

The membership-based company will offer monthly passes for $100 and yearly passes for $1,200, discounted to $1,000 at the open house this weekend, McGhee said.

New materials such as metal and plastic will be available for purchase in a store inside the building, and there will be an entire wall dedicated to storing free used materials and objects, McGhee said. “Re-purposing is a big thing here,” he said. “Some people call it hacking.”

Why now? “There’s nowhere else to go,” McGhee said. “You can’t go into a machine shop and say ‘Hey, can I borrow your lathe for a while.’ … We are enablers. We are definitely trying to fill a need in the community.”

The community has responded. To jumpstart the company, McGhee and co-founder Jim Newton of Belmont sought donations of $25,000. The campaign found many donors, including 12 at that level, McGhee said.

“We’re been amazed,” McGhee said. “People just really want this to happen.” The membership may well sell out at the open house, he added.

About 150 people applied for TechShop teaching positions, McGhee said. Selection included a background check and a dry run teaching to the co-founders. Instructors, shop stewards and volunteers will be around in various shops to offer advice, McGhee said.

Hour-long basic instruction classes for specific machines are $30, with advanced classes also available.

Milling machines and drill presses are not toys, and the U.S. service economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is hardly conducive to work with industrial-grade tools that makes demands on physical and spatial as well as mental intelligence.

Some of the machines were designed decades ago when Silicon Valley was in its infancy and high-school shop classes were common. Do people today have the right stuff to use these tools effectively ?

“Safety is the primary concern” and is not limited to rolling up one’s sleeves and wearing safety glasses, McGhee said. Only members who have shown ability -- either through classes or demonstration -- will be able to turn on a machine. Membership cards will be equipped with a sophisticated electronic device to enable machines that users have been trained on.

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