The first spin-off business to emerge from the Small Hall makerspace, a lab set aside specifically for creative tinkering, is an artisan studio selling laser-carved wooden sculptures.
Scott Percic is a statistician in William & Mary’s Office of University Advancement. He used skills learned in the makerspace to start a side business just a few months ago, and already he is averaging about an order a day from his online business. The pieces he has created range in size and shape from a miniature Jenga kit with pieces only half an inch long, to a 6-foot-long elevation map of the entire Appalachian Trail.
“My favorite piece I’ve made so far is a squirrel riding in a canoe,” Percic said. “It started off just as a peanut holder in the shape of a canoe and as I was staring at it trying to get it right, the idea to put a squirrel in it kind of just came to me.”
Percic is just one example of how the Small Hall makerspace offers opportunities to all of the members of the Williamsburg community.
The makerspace has been run by Wouter Deconinck, assistant professor of physics, and Joshua Erlich, associate professor of physics, and the facility has been growing in size ever since they first put it together.
“We started off with just this room,” Deconinck said, “and it was mainly empty at the time. But slowly this room has filled up, and we’ve taken over two more additional rooms. It’s been a real evolution.”
The makerspace is open to all members of the community to use, once they have attended the proper safety courses, but Percic is the first to take this opportunity to create his own small business.
“I read about it on the [email] W&M Digest that goes to faculty and staff and I decided it would be a fun way to make Christmas gifts for my family,” he said. “And when other people saw the gifts they encouraged me to set up an Etsy site, and since then it’s just started to blossom.”
Percic graduated from William & Mary in 2008 with an undergraduate degree in mathematics. When he first started using the laser cutter to carve out his sculptures, he had had no experience using an apparatus of this kind. After taking the basic training course, Percic spent many hours learning by trial and error how to get his pieces to come out the way he imagined.
“I like to say that we teach everyone just enough to be dangerous,” Deconinck laughs. “We don’t want to teach you so much that you are familiar with all of the techniques necessary, because part of the learning experience is figuring out how to make something. The process of getting there is often the most useful part.”
After learning how to use the laser cutter available for public use in the makerspace, Percic decided to buy his own equipment so that he can continue creating and selling his artwork.
The computer-controlled laser cutter works by focusing a high-power infrared beam of light down onto a piece of wood that is inserted into the apparatus. As it burns away the wood, a translation stage moves the beam to recreate the pattern.
“I start by just looking at a picture of what I want to create.” Percic said. “When it comes to making 3D pieces it’s been a lot of just trying to imagine what each piece needs to look like so when I mesh it all together it can be cohesive.”
Percic didn’t have the best of luck when he first started making his sculptures though: “The first draft of my lighthouse, well, some of the edges were a little too thin so when the laser went by them they actually caught on fire!”
But Deconinck says initial failure is one of the most important lessons that the makerspace can offer to its users.
“This is very important, especially for William & Mary students who are great at thinking and doing theoretical work, but when it comes to actually building something—ahh, I think a lot of students can learn that there is a process to that as well,” Deconinck said. “A project is never perfect the first time you create it. This is something you can learn in the makerspace, and it is important to be able to build different prototypes and iterate until you get a final product.”
This perseverance is something that many members of the William & Mary community have had the chance to attain. Thanks to the open build hours the makerspace offers on weekends, undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and even unassociated members of the community can come in to use the equipment and learn all of the skills that the makerspace has to offer.
“Just last weekend there was a high school student who came in on Saturday, and his idea was to build a bicycle by himself out of bamboo,” Deconinck said. “He came in wondering if there was some way he could use the makerspace to do that, and we talked about some designs he could use. Ultimately he decided not to use the bamboo but he made a bicycle out of PVC pipes. Today he came in with the frame of his bicycle he had made, and he was getting ready now to test how strong it was.”
Percic picked a punning reference on his surname for his new business. His Pier6Designs offers a number of Virginia-themed wooden items, including earrings and necklace pendants depicting topographic maps of the James River, Mobjack Bay and other bodies of water. There is a refrigerator magnet of Williamsburg’s Matthew Whaley School and another of the Governor’s Mansion. In keeping with the makerspace philosophy, Pier6Designs will do custom laser-cutting work, as well.“I think that, for all of the efforts that we’ve been trying to make the makerspace more artistic, I probably thought our first spin off would have been in a more technical rather an artistic direction,” Deconinck said. “I would have expected someone to have developed something that uses little motors and rotates and has gears first, but I must say I am happily surprised.”