A Wonderful, Whimsical Workshop for Tinkerers

At the Tinker's Workshop in Berkeley, California, people of all ages come together to tinker

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As the world grows more virtual, it's easy to forget that we are direct descendants of the human genius that conceived the on/off switch. A black box provides our nightly focus, a stack of printed paper directs our thoughts, and a high-resolution video screen baby-sits our kids. While such external stimuli give us something to do, the passivity they induce doesn't exactly promote the creativity that produced them in the first place.

Fortunately, ingenuity hasn't entirely disappeared. Step inside the Tinker's Workshop in Berkeley, California, and you've entered a cavernous cross between Dad's garage and a mad scientist's lab, with some Wizard of Oz whimsy thrown in. This multidisciplinary “hybrid between a scientist's lab and a creative artist's studio” is actually “a place for young people of all ages to take things apart, build things, explore things, fix things, and meet with others who are already doing these things,” says the volunteer outfit's founder and director, Nick Bertoni. “Everyone, from novice to expert, is given the opportunity to actualize projects.”

A chef who dreams up a solar oven design comes here to find someone with the scientific know-how to tinker this vision into reality. A doctor with an idea for a noninvasive allergy detection device taps the Tinker talent pool for engineers to build the prototype and lawyers to bring the invention to market. An architect enlists a fine artist to refine a design plan. As Bertoni says, the possibilities are endless. “We are literally a 'think-do tank'—a cross-pollination of scientists, architects, doctors, engineers, lawyers, ecologists, artists, inventors, politicians, teachers, and students. By bringing tinkerers together, we intend to tinker our way to the next level of understanding.”

Predecessors to today's creative mavericks and hackers, the original tinkers were a band of much-maligned European gypsies (also called Irish and Scottish Travelers) who traveled in wagons, plying their mending services from town to town. Although they were treated as pariahs because they provided hands-on labor the general population disdained, they were, in fact, the lifeblood of society. And as unfettered outsiders, they were free to approach each day with a fresh perspective, devising innovative solutions to problems old and new.

“Today, believe it or not, tinkering is actually held in high esteem,” says Bertoni, who looks like a relative of master toy tinkerer Kris Kringle. “People respect you if you can actually fix a door, a car, a light, a heater, a radio.” And as he discovered several years ago, people who can tinker also respect themselves. As artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Exploratorium, a hands-on museum, Bertoni engaged museumgoers in artistic projects. “I could see that the youth, especially the borderline kids who were in trouble for behavioral problems and petty crimes, thrived when they had something positive to do. Once you engaged their skills, interests, and intentions, and got them involved with something practically meaningful, they turned around.

“Unfortunately, schools tend to operate from the mind-set that young brains are empty vessels into which facts and data can be poured,” he adds. “Our experience is the opposite. Something as simple as driving a screw, pounding a nail, figuring something out gets them to trust life. They say, 'I know how to do that, I can drill the next hole, let me measure it, let me, let me,' and before you know it, a light is turned on.”

But it wasn't just kids who were transformed. Bertoni's museum workshops for adults generated much interest and many participants, giving him the impetus to establish a place “where the general public could go for creative advice without having to show special credentials, pay a lot of money, or be specially funded.”

So in 1996, Bertoni and East Bay gallery owner Bonnie Hughes took over an abandoned bank and used tinkering skills to refurbish it in exchange for rent. Today, in new quarters, the workshop runs the Open Shop, an afternoon session for all ages, three times a week; a weekly Saturday-morning Kid's Shop; and Tinker's Talks, a twice-monthly discussion and demonstration series featuring inventive guests such as Nobel Prize–winning physicist Martin Perls, public art sculptor Buster Simpson, earthquake predictor Joe Tate, and filmmaker, artist, and soap-box derby guru Greg Gavin.

“We also hold weekly 'brain springs'—'brain drain' is too negative—where we discuss the edges of thought,” says Bertoni. “You name it—fiber optics, computers, science, consciousness, medicine, technology, agriculture—we talk about it. This is the basis for designing our 'inventor's lab,' an organized and commercially viable big kids' shop where adults who have some expertise can combine their knowledge and skills.”

Big projects require big surroundings, and in the workshop's rough-hewn warehouse world, it seems dreams really can come true. Nearly every square foot is piled with works in progress, from low-tech items—a Godzilla-size praying mantis made from abandoned plastic parts, a banjo constructed from a round cookie tin and an old mop stick—to a daunting but ingenious stack of electronic and audio equipment that Bertoni calls a flame loudspeaker.

“It is basically a gas flame that acts as a sound conductor. With a high-voltage input, the flame moves slightly and thus moves the air, which means the voice literally dances out of the flame,” he explains. “Sound frequency is controlled by the size of the flame; higher flames produce a deeper bass. The sound has the fidelity of a good portable audio player.”

Bertoni is the first to admit that building and running an organization is hard work—but also an important challenge. “More and more people are disengaged from the world because they don't know they can affect the world they see deteriorating around them,” he says. “Having access to tools, apparatus, and expertise helps to build a respectful, creative community; it stops the hierarchy that disenfranchises people. People change as a result of what happens here. It is a contagious spirit, a real spiral upward in consciousness.”

The Tinkers have a wealth of forward-thinking projects on their collective plate. Students who are working with Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters on the Garden Project—literally an edible classroom with a kitchen where the food from the garden is prepared and served—are developing the specs for a human-powered compost shredder incorporating bicycles, treadmills, and incline planes. They're not only having fun with alternative energy, recycling, and composting; they're also learning they have a role in sustaining nature.

And who knows what inventiveness they might unleash? “Last year, we had one group of kids making multicolored flashlights out of Christmas tree lights, and another group was making kaleidoscopes. Then, without our prompting, the two groups got together and put the light inside the kaleidoscopes and made fantastic, three-colored, illuminated kaleidoscopes—which were cooler than any of our original plans,” says Bertoni with a grandpa's smile.

These days, a poster in the window says “Computers Driving You Crazy? Try the Tinker Workshop—a place to do REAL stuff.” Real, yes—but with a hearty dash of imagination tinkered in.

From Intuition (Jan./Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from 275 Brannan St., 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94107. The Tinker Workshop is at 1336 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94702; 510/644-2577;  www.bookless.com/tinkersncb@paradigmproductions.org.