Since 2010, Xerocraft "hackerspace" has welcomed frustrated engineers, curious tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers of all stripes to share ideas and equipment in a beat-up commercial building on South Sixth Avenue.
Now, Tucson's original cooperative "hackerspace" is moving downtown, where it will join other collaborative workspaces to help form a new "innovation district."
Like other places known as hackerspaces or makerspaces, the nonprofit Xerocraft provides the space, equipment, training and collaborative support to so-called "hackers" or "makers" who want to gain new skills or perfect a new invention.
After occupying a cramped, 900-square-foot former space at 1301 S. Sixth Ave. - site of a former Miller's Surplus store - for nearly three years, Xerocraft is moving uptown by moving downtown, so to speak.
Xerocraft is preparing a new space at the historic Steinfeld Warehouse, 101 W. Sixth St., that will more than triple the group's space on the ground floor alone, said Dale Tersey, secretary of Xerocraft.
"It's going to give us a lot more space," said Tersey, noting that the new site will have 3,300 square feet on the main floor plus a 1,400-square-foot mezzanine area.
Judging by the rather cramped quarters at Xerocraft's current home, the new space will come in handy when the group moves in by mid-July.
During Xerocraft's "open hack" night last Thursday, equipment including a radial arm saw spilled out in the parking lot. The front room houses workbenches, metal machining equipment and 3-D printer setups, with walls lined with parts drawers and technical manuals.
A second room holds a computer-operated laser etcher-cutter that the group recently rehabilitated, along with a refrigerator and stove. Out back, a narrow yard is used for metal castings and assorted large parts.
Besides the open-hack nights, Xerocraft holds classes on subjects including welding, machining, lasers and robotics. Full membership in Xerocraft - which recently became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization - is $40 per month and includes full use of tools and free workshops. But any donation is accepted, and no one is turned away, Tersey said.
Xerocraft has about 25 regular members, but as many as 150 drop in over the course of a month, said Tersey, a hydrologist who is the group's elder statesman at 62.
"The mix is really out there," Tersey said, adding that the average age is in the 20s. "We get a lot of scientists who maybe in their early years worked on machinery, but they're in jobs now where they really don't get out and touch the equipment they way they used to."
Others are looking to learn new skills, or to work on a specific project - like the guy who turned an 1870s revolver into a semiautomatic pistol, with the help of a certified gunsmith.
Alex Barton, a 27-year-old electronics technician and Xerocraft board member, said his aim is to learn and teach others skills, such as 3-D printing.
"The hope is to be the place to come if they want to learn something," said Barton. "Personally, I love nothing more than showing somebody that they can, in fact, fix the things they own and make them better, and they can do all the cool things they see online. I want to show people they can do anything they want and make it accessible to people."
The 3-D printing technology - which takes digitally rendered three-dimensional objects and "prints" them by building up layers of material - is a good example. The technology has hit the masses in recent years with consumer-level printers that can make small items in minutes.
Xerocraft has two 3-D printers the group has used to print objects to create molds, which are used in turn to cast parts in metal or other material - in one case helping a local man create a hard-to-find part.
On the recent open-hack night, Barton was printing up small mustache combs with the 3-D printer while chatting with Marcus Amshoff, a sculptor who had come to check out Xerocraft.
"I will be back," Amshoff said. "These guys are up to speed on areas that I need access to and knowledge of for my career - I live off my work as an artist."
While a lot of what goes on at Xerocraft is just plain cool, it is also an important part of Tucson's rapidly coalescing technology entrepreneurship community, said Justin Williams, founder and CEO of the entrepreneurial group Startup Tucson.
Williams said "makerspaces" like Xerocraft are part of a tech-oriented entrepreneurial ecosystem that can nurture innovation from idea stage to funding a company.
Shared workspaces like Gangplank Tucson, Spoke6 and Xerocraft can foster collaborative innovation, while Startup Tucson can help innovators form companies and court investors at local events like IdeaFunding.
"What we've been trying to do the last couple of years is create a pipeline of new venture creation that grows from ideas to funding," said Williams.
And while much of what goes on at Xerocraft seems just for fun, Williams noted that a team of Xerocraft members won Startup Tucson's latest "Hackathon," a 24-hour event in which teams produce a working prototype in a day, with a robotic "BarBot" that can pour mixed drinks on command via a smartphone.
With several other collaborative workspaces recently opened or planned for downtown, Williams and others are discussing the formation of a "downtown innovation district" linking the sites.
Besides Xerocraft, Spoke 6, the city's first collaborative workspace at 439 N. Sixth Ave., and Gangplank, which recently moved downtown to 100 N. Stone Ave., Williams cited:
• Maker House, an "artisan-focused maker space" planned by the founders of the locally based website ArtFire.com, is expected to open this summer at the Bates Mansion, 283 N. Stone Ave.
• The Hive will open July 1 a shared workspace at 1 E. Toole Ave., headquarters of Sinfonia, a new health-care company headed by downtown booster Fletcher McCusker.
• Connect is a shared workspace expected to open this fall above the Rialto Theater downtown.
• For more information on Xerocraft, see xerocraft.org
• Keep up with all the co-workspace and hackerspace developments at Startup Tucson, startuptucson.com
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.