Steampunks and Cowpunks Love Power Tools

Stationed down twisted, rural Bitney Springs Road in Nevada City, is a large warehouse where you can play with power tools and blowtorches in your spare time. The Curious Forge is a 22,000 square foot “makerspace” for the public to come in and use soldering irons, sewing machines, 3D printers, glassmaking equipment, pottery wheels, and more. Adults and kids can learn to use these tools to make specific projects by signing up for one of their classes. Or you can take a certification course that will allow you to build what you want on your own time. The Forge currently has 170 members, and is celebrating its decade-old anniversary this year. After showing us some of his projects, including a giant flood light that he was going to turn into a terrarium, founder Liam Ellerby filled us in on The Curious Forge’s backstory and his ambitious goals for it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why did you start The Curious Forge?

I was inspired by the huge kinetic art and sculpture at Burning Man, and I love building community. I lived in Europe for eight years: Germany and England. In Germany you just sit down at a table and everybody knows all the same songs, young and old. There’s a real cultural cohesiveness that we don’t have here. I was seeking that out. How can we have community here when we’re all so independent? 

What’s the draw of a makerspace? 

Makerspaces are all about reclaiming our aesthetic and creating the things that matter to us. Hacking our clothing, hacking our bikes, upcycling. Like we have a course on making all of your dishes – plates, sauces, plates, bowls. How cool is it that you can be eating off the stuff you made, and you decided on the curves and the glazes? 

What is an example of Curious Forge’s more high tech side?

We have a class called Smart Art that teaches you how to use [open source microcontroller] Arduino and sensors. We had one student who downloaded a sequence onto the Arduino that would turn off any TV it came in contact with. She sewed the Arduino into the back of her hoodie, and any time she zipped up her hoodie, it would activate the sequence. She’d wear it into bars and turn off all the TVs.

In your opinion, what was the coolest thing to be built at The Forge?

When we built the Shaman Cycle – a six-station pedal-powered bicycle with a performance stage on it and LED lighting. There were a lot of people involved who had never built anything that big, and didn’t have any experience in welding or electronics or anything – but I just announced, ‘Hey we’re doing this build this weekend’, and people really came out and came together to build this thing.

So are most of your members Burning Man participants? That sounds very Burning Man.

There aren’t a lot of people in The Forge who are Burning Man people. There are ranchers who want to do their own repairs, artists, and people who want to challenge themselves. I just got done hosting a van conversion Meet-Up where we’re working on electrical, cabinetry, solar, and roof racks. We have about six people who are doing van conversions right now, I’m sure there are more who are afraid to start.

Was there ever a moment when you thought you were going to give up on The Forge? 

Absolutely. I was an engineering manager for Lockheed Martin, and that involved long hours, and then I was doing The Forge at the same time. Two and a half years ago it was just getting to this point where I had to give up one thing or another. I was in my highest earning bracket, and I had this conversation with an 85-year old version of myself and said, “How would you counsel this younger man?” Like as if I was on my deathbed. And I realized it wasn’t about having a comfortable retirement. So I retired and started doing this full-time. 

You just hosted a glassblowing event for local government and community leaders so that they could become more familiar with what The Forge offers. How did this event tie into your larger vision?

They are saying that by 2028, half the jobs will be gigging, that is to say freelance, and most of the time you need to be good at multiple disciplines to successfully do that. Secondly, we need to attract millennials here, or we’re just going to be a tourist/retirement community. And lastly, when you walk down the street [there’s a need for] art that surprises and just aesthetically uplifts the whole place. We’re stuck in this miners thing here and it drives me crazy.  I just feel like The Forge can just be a great resource for workforce development, art in our community, and creating entrepreneurs – all the things that a thriving community is.

Photo courtesy of The Curious Forge.

More to explore

Leave a Comment