How to Stock Your Makerspace for 100 Bucks or Less; Plus, an Essential Equipment List from the MakerBus Driver

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Dumpster diving and dollar stores. Purse-shaped post-it's and animal lubricant. When you're building a makerspace on a budget, you learn that resources are everywhere—and they aren't always what you expect. 

For three years I and my fellow cofounders Kim Martin and Beth Compton, have created, developed, and run Canada’s first mobile makerspace—the MakerBus. As an entirely community-driven (pun intended) makerspace, we have had to master doing a lot with very little. As we have learned, while money is extremely useful, no amount of it can replace the value of an engaged, creative community. Below I share some ideas for creating makerspaces at various price points, offering advice for building a $100 and a (nearly) $0 community makerspace.

Creativity is priceless

When it comes to creating a makerspace, large amounts of creativity can easily overcome not having large amounts of money. With the proper mindset, even a ream of office paper can provide a makerspace with endless possibilities. In our experience, makerspaces come in three main varieties—library makerspaces, school makerspaces, and community makerspaces. No matter which type you’re building, with a little creativity you can outfit it with amazing, low-cost everyday items.

Library makerspaces have access to old books and can create community drop boxes for donations of unwanted technology. If you’re building a school makerspace, turn to your parent community. From donations of cardboard, to old cellphones, to veterinary-grade animal lubricant (that's another story), we’ve seen parent communities play vital roles. When planning a community makerspace, approach businesses for unwanted materials, collect unwanted technology, or, when all else fails, go dumpster diving. 

A Budget Mindset

When creating a makerspace on a budget, ask yourself this question: Do you really need that _______? The Maker movement is about more than technology; don’t feel like you need iPads, laptops, or 3D printers to create a successful makerspace. If you don’t have a specific use for a piece of technology (or the time and drive to learn how to use it), don’t bother spending your money it. Instead, spend your money on essential things that be can used again and again; scissors are always needed, and a having a soldering iron is a good idea.

If money is tight, focus on things that you can buy a lot of for very little money. Sites like eBay and AliBaba will quickly become your friend. As I write this article, you can buy 100 assorted color LED lights for $2.20 (including delivery). There is a degree of risk using these sites. (If a deal seems to good to be true, it might be.) But it’s safe to gamble $2.20 if you have a good chance of receiving 100 LEDs. Pre-assembled kits (like those from littleBits, makedo, and BrushBots) are attractive because they save the time of finding the individual parts, but it’s often considerably cheaper to buy the component pieces. Think about whether you can afford convenience or if you’d rather spend more of your time to save more of your money.

How to build a $100 makerspace

With a little time spent searching for materials and a lot of creative thinking, you can stretch $100 pretty far. After scouring deals on the Internet, I created my dream equipment list for a $100 makerspace. Please keep in mind two things. First, the MakerBus is located in Canada, so the equipment listed may be more or less expensive in your region. (That said, my editor made me list everything in US dollars.) Second, and most importantly, there is no right way to create a makerspace. My equipment list is filled with things that I feel comfortable using and find inspiring. The best foundation for a makerspace is passion—choose equipment that you are passionate about.

  • 110V Soldering Irons (x2) — $15.98: Soldering irons are important because they allow you to take electronics apart, build new electronics, and teach people a skill that they can use in their daily lives. This is a foundational piece of equipment that opens up a world of possibilities.
  • Hot glue gun (x3) — $9: I would rather have 100 hot glue guns than a single 3D printer in my makerspace. In our community, we can buy hot glue guns for $3 at our local dollar store. With creativity, you can find amazing uses for hot glue guns. Check out this list of hot glue gun hacks for some inspiration.
  • MaKey MaKey GO (x1) — $24.95: If you want to see someone’s face light up, show them MaKey MaKey. This is the less expensive mobile version of the classic Makey Makey ($49.50), which features a small circuit board that runs a 2V electrical current through conductive objects and allows you to turn anything that conducts electricity into a button for your computer. MaKey MaKey has a fantastic video on their website showing off the device’s near-magical ability to turn everyday objects into musical instruments. (Note: You will need a computer.) 
  • Dollar Store Budget — $25: When you’re building a makerspace on a budget, dollar stores will quickly become your friend. Save some money in your budget to buy critical supplies like scissors, construction paper, tape, and hot glue guns. Dollar store are also a hacker’s paradise filled with inexpensive objects that can be taken apart and remixed. Go to a website like Instructables and search their many amazing dollar store maker projects; you’ll be amazed by all you can do in your $100 makerspace.

  • 200 LED diodes (red, blue, white, yellow, green) — $10: LED lights can be used and reused in a number of projects. You can teach people how to make throwies, light up LEDs with homemade batteries, or have workshops on soldering skills.
  • 100 3V batteries — $13: While batteries are at best a temporary investment, having a number of batteries on hand is never a bad thing. They can be used with the LEDs to make throwies, combined with unwanted electric toothbrushes to make brushbots, or used in any number of different projects.

The above items total $96.25. This means you could buy all of those things and still have nearly $4 left over for things like tape, glue sticks, paper, or pens/pencils.

How to build a (nearly) $0 makerspace

This is where things get interesting. If you want to build a makerspace for next to nothing, you’ll need to get used to begging, borrowing, and sometimes stealing (also know as long term borrowing) any equipment you can get your hands on. Since beggars can’t be choosers, you might end up with some strange things in your makerspace. (For example, 3M donated 300 purse-shaped Post-It note holders to the MakerBus.) But necessity is the mother of invention and a creative maker can find a use for nearly anything.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your (nearly) $0 makerspace:

  • Neverware is your new best friend. It’s a free version of Chrome OS that will not only run on nearly any computer, but will actually make old hardware useable again. This software is free for individuals and has been used by underfunded school boards to breath new life into their aging computer labs. If you receive donations of old computers, this software can help make them worth using again.
  • Get creative with cardboard. Free cardboard is everywhere, from recycling bins to people’s garages. Using cardboard, you can build structures, marble mazes, boats, and even furniture.
  • Check the Classifieds every day. Classified ad sites like Craigslist and Kijiji (as well as your local newspaper) have community listings for free items. Check these sites daily because you never know what you’re going to find. For example, now that most people have switched to flat screen televisions, you can find older big screen TVs for free. Big screen televisions offer a wealth of materials for different maker projects—you can even turn one into a death ray.
  • Make friends with interesting people. If you don’t have much money, focus on finding people with interesting skills to share with your makerspace. The MakerBus team has a friend who worked as a locksmith for a number of years. He has generously offered to lend us his time and equipment several times to teach lock picking classes. By drawing upon your interpersonal resources, you can quickly find fun, interesting, and educational things to do at your makerspace.

  • Learn your city’s garbage schedule. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Figure out when your city has garbage collection and scout different neighborhoods for treasures. From furniture, to cardboard, to unwanted electronics, you’ll be amazed at what you can find.

Necessity and creativity are the two strongest forces in the world. Don’t view a small budget as a barrier, view it as a challenge to build the coolest makerspace you possibly can.

The Maker movement is built around taking chances and risking failure. Don’t let money get in the way of creating a vibrant maker community. Passion, creative thinking, and an engaged community are worth more than any amount of money.

If you have creative low-cost solutions you’d like to share with the MakerBus, send us a tweet @DHMakerBus or a Facebook message (look for The MakerBus). We would love to learn from your ideas.

Ryan Hunt is a Maker and educator living in London, Ontario, Canada and cofounder of the MakerBus, Canada’s first mobile makerspace.

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