Las Vegas SYN Shop home for makers, hobbyists, tinkerers

In an office park storefront in Henderson, a gang of hackers gathers.

Adult hackers. Mom and dad hackers. Even a few kid hackers, all of them concentrating intently on the morning’s activity.

But don’t worry. Your credit card number, your photos, your tax records and anything else you might have floating around somewhere in some sort of digital form is safe. That’s because these hackers are a more diverse — and a more benevolent — group than the hackers you usually read about.

All are members of SYN Shop (https://synshop.org), which bills itself as Las Vegas’ “hackerspace,” a place where enthusiasts of computers and other activities ranging from woodworking to crocheting gather to pursue their passions, collaborate with and mentor one another, and share their passions with newcomers.

In one room, a group of kids is using mallets to pound stamped designs into straps of leather that will leave the room as bracelets. Nearby, a computer enthusiast installs a hand-operated control device in his computer. And in the connected warehouse-sized space out back, another member makes a wooden chessboard with the help of a high-tech, and pricey, laser cutter.

If it helps, think of “hacker” in this context as the modern-day equivalent of “tinkerer” or “hobbyist,” but with the ability to use equipment way cooler than anything your dad might have borrowed from a neighbor’s garage.

SYN Shop is “like a community center for nerds, basically,” jokes Mark Koch, a member of the group’s board of directors.

“For us, ‘hacker’ means that we see things in the world differently. Like, we buy a product and we like to take it apart to see how it works, and we might add a button to make it work slightly different, hacking, or changing our own gear to make it do things the (original) engineer didn’t think of,” Koch says.

“SYN Shop” plays off of “Sin City” and also alludes to synergy, the notion that two things combined can create something greater than either one can alone. Its beginnings date back to 2008 when a group of valley do-it-yourselfers would meet casually to discuss shared interests.

“We used to run out of people’s garages,” Koch says, but as more enthusiasts joined in, “we had to move to bigger quarters.”

Koch says SYN Shop spent three years in downtown Las Vegas before space demands prompted a move to its current location at 1075 American Pacific Drive, Suite C, Henderson. There, for a $50 monthly fee, SYN Shop members have access to some seriously cool — and really expensive — equipment that they can use to, as the group’s motto puts it, “make things awesome.”

“The way we describe our membership is that it’s like a gym membership with tools,” Koch jokes.

There’s an electronics area, a metalworking area and a woodworking area equipped with a drill press, band saws and a lathe. There are 3-D printers and a laser cutter, Koch says, and even “a ShopBot,” which cuts large pieces of wood.

“We have a whole spectrum of other tools that you probably wouldn’t be able to afford. But for 50 bucks a month, you can come here and rent them.”

On a recent Saturday, the lower-tech craft of leather working was being taught to kids who wielded mallets with surprisingly painless dexterity. Robert Vinson says he and daughter Emma, 10, have been to SYN Shop “many times. There’s a lot of neat stuff for the kids.”

Emma is “very mechanically inclined,” he adds. “She’s an artist. She draws and makes things. She works with me in the garage and does carpentry.”

“It’s fun,” says Emma, adding that her favorite thing to do at the SYN Shop is “just about everything.”

Camren Wakefield has been a SYN Shop member for about three months. He says that even the pricey equipment made available to members — Koch says the laser cutter and ShopBot alone would run about $20,000 apiece — is dwarfed in value by the knowledge fellow members are willing to share.

“All of these guys are superintelligent,” he says, and “what’s nice about this place is you don’t have to be a member to get their experience. You can show up and just hang out with them.”

Tyas Frantz is using the laser cutter in the back shop to make a chessboard. Actually, Frantz says this is the second chessboard he’s making with the cutter. During his first attempt, “I learned a lot,” he says, mostly from fellow members offering tips.

“There is a community element happening here,” he says. “People watched me and said, ‘You know what you should do? Put tape here and here …’ So I learned a lot while that was happening and, ultimately, it makes me want to try again.”

While only members have free run of the SYN Shop’s equipment, classes held at the shop are open to anybody for fees that range from free to about $10, Koch says. (A schedule of classes and discussion groups can be found at www.meetup.com/synshop)

 

And, Koch says, anybody is welcome to stop in just to pick members’ brains. SYN Shop has about 100 members, whose membership fees generate enough money to keep the space open.

While some people become members only for as long as they need to use the shop’s facilities and tools, Koch says others pay the $50 fee each month even if they don’t use the facility simply because they support having a hackerspace here.

“A lot of our members are just dedicated to the concept of this,” Koch says. “So we just pay our $50 a month whether we use it or not, because we want this place to exist.”

Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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