Untapped Market, or Terrible Idea?

I’ve had this thought in my head for a few years now, about what seems to me a teriffic idea for a business that nobody seems interested in opening.

Public Workshop. Go in, sign up for time on a given machine, get expert assistance, and make stuff. Drills. Saws. Lathes. Other machines and tools the names of which I don’t know. With professionals to help you use them.

I’m a guy. I live alone, in an apartment. I have a few tools (cordless drill, hammer, few screwdrivers) but I have nothing even close to the type of tools I’d need to actually MAKE something, like a table or chair. And even if I did have the money to go out and buy planing sanders and pit gougers and all the other tools I’d need to make something useful, I have nowhere to put them.

So… if I wanted to badly enough, I could go out and rent a storage space, and set up a nice little garage there, and woodwork my heart out. I could splurge and buy all the tools I could possibly need, and just leave 'em there and go when I need or want to build. Or repair. Or adjust. Or just tinker.

Ahh, but let me repeat myself: I’m a guy, who lives alone, in an apartment. My actual need for any items like this is virtually nil. There’s only so much room for coffee tables and wooden chairs in here. One? Sure. Two? Maybe. Three? Four? A full set? Hell no.

So after one or two uses, any given tool will become a big hunk of expensive metal until the unlikely occasion that I need to use it again. In fact, the entire workshop would be much the same… a huge investment, and very little return (aside from bragging rights amongst friends.)

And then I got to thinking… well, if I got friends to chip in, we could ALL buy this hypothetical workshop, and take turns using it…

And that’s when I thought, Hey wait a minute… this would be an awesome business opportunity!

Anybody remember “shop” class from school? How they had all this stuff humming and people running around making stuff, and you could go in and use THIS tool here and THAT machine there and the OTHER doohickey, and when you were done you had a lame crappy lopsided birdhouse thing that your mom preteneded to like but you could tell she really didn’t and then… well, maybe that last part was just me, but you get the idea. Tools. LOTS of tools. ALL tools, everything you might possibly need, right there ready and waiting for you?

Well… where do grownups go to do that? NOWHERE, that’s where!

Unless I’m badly mistaken, it’s just not done. You can’t just lookup a factory, walk in, use the machines and leave. Trust me, I’ve tried it. At best you get looked at funny and asked to leave.

And I’m aware that, if you really need something, there are places that will make it for you. A specific piece for a car that’s no longer produced? No problem, call around, some machine shop somewhere will be equipped and willing to make one for you, for a price of course.

But what about crappy lopsided birdhouses? My mother’s birthday is coming up, and I’d like to recreate the experiences of my youth… what better way to do so than with poorly-made crafts?

Imagine a warehouse. It’s divided into sections, with big wire cages and painted lines and alarms and bars and all kinds of safety gear, and in each section are different types of tools and machine. Saws over here. Drills over there. Lathes down that-a-way. A section for hitting things with hammers. A section for painting and varnishing. And most importantly, a sound-proofed area where you don’t have to listen to all the noise, ideally with a big-screen TV or five and a deep fryer.

No beer tho, that’s just asking for trouble.

And throughout it all, people in some kinda uniform… orange vests or something… who work there, are qualified to use the tools, and are paid specifically to help YOU make whatever the hell it is you wanna make.

I imagine such a place working like this:

You sign up for a general membership, which gives you access to the least-risky areas ONLY. This includes the sound-proof area and a small variety of relatively safe tools… hammers, screwdrivers, that sorta thing.

Then there are classes. You are required to attend instruction and pass testing for each and every sort of tool you might wish to use. This incurs a small fee, to cover the costs of the instruction and instructors, and upgrades your membership for access to the machines covered in the class.

NOBODY is allowed into an area without this upgrade. This keeps most of the public away from the dangerous things, like table saws and robotic laser-cutters.

There’s a locker/storage area in the back, which is part of your membership. It’s not large, but provides enough room for smaller projects (like the pieces of a chair). Larger storage areas can be rented, for an additional fee, for such items as a bookshelf or a car.

So… one day I decide I need a new dinner table, and I really have to make it myself (the building is more than half the fun, after all) and there’s one of these places on my way to work.

I go in, and I get my membership, and I learn the basics of table-making, and decide on what I wanna make. I buy some wood, and a storage locker, and I take the class on using the saws and planes and drills and stuff. Tuesdays I go in and spend an hour or three sanding or drilling or cutting my wood, under the ever-watchful eye of the dudes in the orange vests. A few months later, I have this crappy lopsided wobbly table which I display with pride and about which I prattle endlessly at dinner parties.

Cost-effective? Hell no. Wal-mart sells much better tables for a fraction of what it’d cost me to make my own here. But it’s STILL cheaper this way than actually buying (or even renting) all the tools and machinery I’d need. Plus I have the benefit of professionals at every step, to ensure that I don’t cut my arm off.

BUT… after a while, those who really want it can have access to the entire shop. So anytime you feel like screwing around in a garage, all ya gotta do is go down to this place, swipe a card, rent some goggles and a dust mask, and wander around fiddling with this and doodling with that, just like you would in your own garage… but THIS time, you’re doing it in a big professional-style factory filled with workers who will do anything you tell them to, and a bunch of like-minded guys equally willing to help you out. And there’s TVs in the lounge, if you don’t wanna make anything at all.

Now, I see three problems with this scheme. One, money. It would be incredibly expensive to set up one of these shops, much less several. Secondly, HIring Opal or other workers. It could be difficult to find qualified employees for all these different types of machines, much less qualified employees willing to teach fat middle-aged men who don’t know a crowbar from a screwdriver, and tend to use them interchangably. And finally, insurance. Thank you Legal System. The liability for a place like this would most likely be astronomical. This is the reason for the classes, the restrictions to certain areas, and the omnipresent workforce in orange vests to help you NOT cut your arm off.

Then again, I think… they let TEENAGERS do this, in some cases require it. And there’s only one guy watching, most of the time. Surely professionals could do it better and more safely.

I know, if such a place existed, I would be very interested in becoming a member just to putter around with stuff, and learn new skills.

What’s your opinion?

Oh, and Chicago Reader, if ya like this idea, it’s yers. Just comp me a basic membership please. Anybody else… well… call me first.

You do know that is is possible to *rent * virtually every (power)tool you could need, right?
So the business would have to exist by marketing only working-space and guidance, then.

Also, I might be wrong, but my impression is that a workshed is very much private property, that should fit the owner like a well-worn-glove. Serious tinkerers are very choosy about which tools they use; how their workshop is set up, etc. They wouldn’t like to use a Public Workshop like you describe. They’d just complain that the tools and the set-up were crappy.

The local technical college has something like this. You sign up and pay for woodshop. Someone is there to show you how to do stuff, but there are no required things you need to build.


I’ve thought about this before, too. Rather than live with cheap particle-board furniture, I could make a table myself. I’m an apartment-dweller too, but I could use my dad’s tools and store the project in my parent’s garage or basement if I wanted to. Still, there are lots of people who aren’t as lucky as me, and I’ve wondered if a public workshop could be run profitably.

I’d imagine that insurance might well be the killer in this case. They’d shit a brick when you told them that you were going to let the general public use power tools.

The U.S. military has a “skills development center” on most stateside bases. It includes garages with lifts and a full complement of automotive tools, a woodshop with plenty of scrap and nicely-maintained machines, and on some bases, the very basics of a machine shop. They charge a nominal fee to make up for maintaining the space and the equipment, and the staff’s pay is probably from the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation budget, so it’s pretty cheap overall. On a typical weekend, the garage slips are booked solid from opening time to closing time with airmen saving money by changing their own oil; the woodshop is less crowded but occasionally you’ll get a group of guys working together to make a bar for one of the guys’ houses.

It’s a nice amenity, but I only used it once or twice. The big difference between the military and civilian setup would be liability – there were posted rules, and you could obey them or break them, but if the floor manager saw you breaking them (in an obviously unsafe manner) he’d make you leave. Also, if you got hurt doing something stupid, military medical care wouldn’t cover your injuries.

It probably needs more of them - I know there is one half way between work and home for me.

It’s fairly hard to rent a good table saw because they’re built of cast iron and weigh 300+ pounds. Bandsaws and drillpresses would also be hard to fit into the backseat of the family car.

Still, I think the biggest problem would be to keep the shop utilized at a capacity that would help you make back your investment. You’d also have to figure out how to stop people from walking off with expensive things like router bits and drill chucks.

I would myself take advantage of such a place if it existed. On the other hand, the Car Talk guys had a do-it-yourself garage for a while, but they said that instead of merely being on hand to give expert guidance, they ended up doing most of the work for everyone. Sorry, no cite; I just remember reading this about them once. So you might face some of the same problems.

There are woodworking clubs that operate on the premise you mention, though I don’t know of any personally. You can undoubtedly find a woodworking chat board that would steer you to one. The other alternative, if you’re just interested in getting access to power tools that you don’t have at home, is your local adult-education center. It can be a noisy, dusty environment, but they typically have table saws, planers, band saws, etc.

Some tools don’t lend themselves to rental because they’re too heavy to move easily, or too complicated for the casual user to set up at home, or need to be installed into an existing bench or bolted to the floor.

Many tools also require accessories, add-ons, etc. to be used most effectively. These, too don’t lend themselves to rental because the user may not know at the outset which accessories are needed, or may not want to pay to rent every concieveable accessory just in case it’s needed. By going to the OP’s establishment, the user has access to the add-ons and accessories.

Kind of like kitchens. People who like to cook also tend to like their kitches set up just so. However, I’m aware of a couple of rent-a-kitchen enterprises - they supply the tools and space, you bring your food and expertise. Like the OP’s idea, they also offer expert guidance, workshops, etc. It can be a good deal if you like to cook but currently don’t have good kitchen space, or if have short-term need for more space than you’ve got, or for utensils you don’t own and don’t want to buy right now.

I love the idea! I would definitely go to a place like that (and I’m a woman). I have always loved watching “Old Yankee Workshop” (or whatever it’s called) on PBS, and have always wanted to learn how to make stuff and would love to have the opportunity! I just think it sounds like a great idea.

You could sign up for courses where they provide all the materials for a specific project and you come in every weekend for a month and build it. I think it’s fantastic.

The only problem is, it would probably take a lot of money to start, and it’s questionable whether it would be profitable.

Here’s a way to think about it: How do gyms and health clubs make money? They’re in a similar business. One could buy those machines and have them installed at home, but most people don’t. They go to a facility that has purchased the machines, (presumably) takes responsibility for maintaining the them, and (probably) upgrades to newer/better equipment when appropriate. At many clubs one can engage an expert assistant (personal trainer), and many clubs have group activities such as aerobics, tae-bo, etc.

I’d look closely at libility issues - what kind of insurance would you need to cover your butt if someone cuts himself on your equipment? What kind of waivers could you use to protect yourself and your business?

I like the idea. I was so happy when I bought a house and started building my wood shop in the basement. Truly the envy of many friends. Collecting old hand tools is becoming a small hobby.

For your plan, a lot of the nickle and dime costs would build up in a hurry. My day job I’m a tooling consultant. Anything you want to know about carbide machine tools? I’m your guy. The lathe and endmill cutters and saw blades get really expensive really fast.

I’m also part owner of a machine shop. Even with experience it’s easy to pile up a very expensive mill or lathe. I’m very fussy who I let touch my stuff. If it’s yours you take care of it. When it’s somebody elses it’s easy to not be as diligent or careful. Ever know anybody to drive a rental car like they are at the Daytona 500?

That said, there are a few things I haven’t done yet. I don’t have a plainer and am waffling if it’s worth it or not. I’d love to join a co-op like this for the once-in-a-while tools.

I had this exact idea at least fifteen years ago. I would have called it “The Wood Shop”. There would be others: “The Metal Shop”, “The Electronics Shop”, etc.

I decided that the insurance and liability costs would make it undoable.

One more thing. I’m a machinist, can I be a orange vest guy over there sometimes and get credit towards some machinery I don’t know about?

To keep the pilferage down, machine shoops have locked attended, tool cribs. To get a tool you need to sign it out. Or sometimes you have tokens with your employee number on it. You turn that in as proof you have the tool. When you return it, you get your token back.

I like the idea. I’m an apartment dweller who also happened to work for Black & Decker for a couple of years. I had access to B&D, DeWALT, Porter-Cable and Delta tools at great prices, but only ended up buying a few smaller tools and bit sets and such because I just didn’t have the space or use for the stuff I really wanted, given my living quarters. I had things I wanted to build, just nowhere to build them – and a balcony, even one as deep as mine, does not a good workshop make. Plus, I’d probably get cited for all the sawdust.

There are bike shops that work this way too. So that you don’t have to go and buy that wrench that is useful only for removing pedals, or a chain-breaker, or some of these highly specialized things bikes sometimes demand.

Otherwise the only option is to pay for a mechanic to do it. (Buddy. All I need is to loosen this bolt. I do not want to buy a fifty dollar tool to do it, or pay you twenty bucks to use yours to do it, I just want to borrow your wrench and do it myself! Is that so wrong?)

They are all very small and informal operations with varying arrangements: you can pay a bit to get a mechanic to help you (and for “rent” of the tools), or you can offer your labour to their bikes, and get free advice and use of the tools.

I love them.

Try a local vocational/technical school to see if they offer adult ed. classes. There are at least two near me that I can attend. I am currently making a piece of furniture this semester. Last semester was a built-in linen closet. You’ll probably need to demonstrate some level of competence to take an advanced class, but you’ll have tools and instruction available to you.

I have my own woodworking tools and equipment, but there are some tools at the school that are invaluable. This school has a thickness planer that will take a piece up to 36 inches wide, there are some 12" joiners, several bandsaws, several table saws and an almost new inverted router (in addition to assorted power tools). However, the best thing is that it gets me out of the house once a week and forces me to finish projects.

Actually, this is something that I was considering just to get my tools out of the basement and into a more organized space. Are spaces like these even available? How would one find one?

I also have this exact same idea for a business model. Like an earlier post said, the basic concept is no different from a gym/health club.

However, as has also been stated, I shudder to think of the liability insurance cost. Are there any Dopers in the insurance biz who would be willing to give a rough estimate as to how much the insurance bill on a venture like this would cost?

Hey, Phnord Prephect, where do you live? Maybe we could form a partnership and get this idea off the ground.

Just a couple hundred miles north of you, actually.

Come to think of it, is there a better market for this than Texans? I don’t think so!

Unfortunately I’m not really in a position to invest much at this point, and know next to nothing about starting a business. But if ya got ideas, I’m listening!