There is no room in James Wells' Omaha apartment for a band saw, let alone a table saw or sander. But that hasn't stopped the 28-year-old TD Ameritrade employee from turning a pile of cedar boards that he stripped from his parent's dilapidated barn into a set of nicely finished kitchen shelves.
Wells is building his project, which will be a Christmas gift, at the Bench in downtown Omaha, where do-it-yourself woodworkers pay to use a fully equipped 3,000-square-foot woodworking and cabinet shop.
Ben Petersen, 25, who co-owns the shop with his brother, Nicholas, has assembled a full set of hand and power tools — including hand chisels, band saw, router and a heavy-duty sewing machine for upholstering — that can take a project, whether it's a walnut side table or a jewelry box, from start to finish.
“He helped me with the design,” Wells said as he was being instructed in how to use a power sander by Ben Petersen, who runs the shop's day-to-day operations.
The Bench offers design assistance and instruction in how to use the tools, said Petersen, who said he got his start building “things” in his father's workshop when he was 10 or 11.
“I was always working on something. My dad was a farmer, and farmers do everything. The only part of his job I liked was the woodworking.”
Customers, who must be 18 or older, pay $25 for a day pass to use the equipment; monthly memberships cost $150. Although the shop is insured, said Petersen, be prepared to sign a lengthy waiver that releases the Bench from liability in case of injury or death.
“We like the monthly membership over the day pass — so people don't feel rushed,” he said. The Bench welcomes beginners, but if someone isn't using the machines correctly, Petersen said he will step in and “give a little lesson.”
Although the Bench is new to Omaha, the concept is not. Cooperative or shared work spaces, where members pay to use woodworking or metalworking tools or other power tools, have become a familiar format in cities such as Seattle, Philadelphia and Sunnyvale in California's Silicon Valley.
MakerHaus in Seattle, Philadelphia Woodworks and the Sawdust Shop in Sunnyvale, Calif., have tapped into and helped spark the back-to-the-bench movement, attracting clients who live in an apartments or don't want to spend the big bucks necessary to outfit a shop. Like other shops, the Bench plans to begin offering its own classes in January.
Petersen, a 25-year-old cabinetmaker from Exira, Iowa, opened the Bench at 2452 Harney St. after he found his workshop, a garage, regularly overrun with people seeking his advice or to borrow his power tools.
“People were coming over to ask for tips on how to work on stuff,” Petersen said. The influx made him think there were more people out there who would like to have access to a fully equipped woodworking shop. Clients can supply their own wood or purchase domestic logs or boards from the Bench, including locally grown walnut and oak “harvested from my dad's property,” Petersen said.
Petersen's shop is downtown Omaha's gain, said Tasha Moss, a downtown real estate agent and owner of Prudential Ambassador's Urban Omaha team. A shop like the Bench may make it easier to persuade more people to consider moving downtown, she said.
“The largest portion of new homeowners we're seeing downtown are empty nesters,” Moss said.
They are happy to give up the yard work, she said, but can be hesitant to give up “the little tool shop or workshop they've built up in their garage or basement. This solves it.”
The Bench opened in late September and has depended on word of mouth and a nicely framed oak sidewalk sign to drum up business. So far, the low-key approach has worked, Petersen said.
“A bunch of people from around this area would have been displaced without this place. One customer is working on an entertainment center, another a coffee table and another a cart to haul behind his bicycle.”
The Petersens spent several months remodeling the space, which involved removing a suspended ceiling and five layers of linoleum to uncover the shop's wooden floor.
The result is a clean, homey, workshop in which to get a lesson in joinery, the art of selecting the right joint to attach two pieces of wood together or whittle away a Saturday building an Adirondack-style chair.
“It's nice to be able to come here and have Ben and Nick talk me through a project without feeling talked down to,” Wells said.
Each piece of the shop's equipment is clearly labeled by chalkboard signs suspended from the ceiling: “Band saw,” “Router,” “Table saw,” Even the restroom gets its own sign.
“Twelve people can work here at one time,” said Petersen, whose voice was being drowned out by the sharp growl of a table saw in use by Nick Evans, a local furniture maker who uses the Bench as his workshop.
Petersen's creations can be found throughout the shop — an oak stand-up desk, a side table fashioned from a split log and steel pipe, the frame for a couch. Depending on the project, the cost of constructing a piece of furniture can be less than buying something similar at the store.
Even if it does cost more, the “quality is going to be much higher,” Petersen said.