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MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt

Alums reflect as the 86-year-old shop finds a new—and fully renovated—home on Mass. Ave.

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MIT Hobby Shop member Irving Fischman, SM ’72, PhD ’75, holds the bowl he made that was featured on the cover of Fine Woodworking in 1975.Mel Musto

When Fine Woodworking magazine printed its first issue in the winter of 1975, a bowl made by Irving Fischman, SM ’72, PhD ’75, was on the cover. Though he had started woodworking in the MIT Hobby Shop only a few years before, he had already become highly skilled at the craft and found a lifelong passion.

“Woodworking is so fascinating that at some point in my grad school career I was thinking of doing it professionally,” says Fischman, a retired real estate developer and business consultant. “I really think working with your hands is part of human nature, and it’s so satisfying.”

Founded by students in 1938, and now used by more than 200 members of the MIT community each semester, the Hobby Shop relocated in fall 2023 when a newly renovated space—the former home of the MIT Museum store—became available in Building N51. 

Intended from the start as a place for nonacademic projects, the shop continues to give many a welcome break from other work. “Because you have to concentrate on what you’re doing, you don’t think about the homework problem or the research you’re doing. You let that happen in the back of your mind,” Fischman says. 

Tess Smidt ’12, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, agrees. “It’s a different way of being creative than what I do in my research, which is mostly on the computer,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to use my hands; it’s really a treat.”

The refurbished, fully equipped wood and metal shop offers membership to students, staff, faculty, alumni, and their spouses. (The only requirement for alums is new member orientation and a fee of $200 per term or $500 per year.) Members are particularly enjoying the tall windows of the new shop, which faces Massachusetts Avenue.

“It’s like night and day, literally,” Smidt says of the difference from the old space, which was in the basement of Building W31 for 65 years. “Having the sunlight and the space, you want to hang out there more.”

Entering a new age

Much has changed over the years, Fischman says. “The original shop had a printing press and a darkroom, and people used to make their own electronics. There’s been quite a transformation, especially to the digital-controlled machine age,” he says.

The new shop is equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art machines, including a computer numerical control (CNC) router, 3D printers, a welding station, and a precision water-jet cutter. It has all the staples—planers, jointers, lathes, and hand tools—and it’s got a new, quieter air filtration system. “Incredible resources went into this shop,” Smidt says. 

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MEL MUSTO
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MEL MUSTO

MIT faculty members Alexander Rakhlin, PhD ’06, (left) and Tess Smidt ’12 work on furniture projects in the new MIT Hobby Shop.

One of Fischman’s favorite tools is the giant belt sander, which allows him to sand a whole tabletop at one time. “You get this wonderful finish on your project,” he says. “Years ago, you’d have a little hand sander, and it would scratch the board and do all sorts of terrible things.”

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor for support. It’s made of reclaimed maple from MIT’s basketball court renovation, which the shop had salvaged. “It’s always such a pleasure to use the perfect hand tool,” she says. (Find a link to photos and step-by-step instructions for building the desk here.)

wood desk shaped like a wavy lasagna noodle
BLONDEGEEK VIA INSTRUCTABLES

Although Smidt was an undergraduate at MIT, she didn’t discover the Hobby Shop until she joined the faculty in September 2021 (after earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley). “For that first year, the Hobby Shop was pretty instrumental in my maintaining sanity,” she says, noting that MIT had just begun to relax its early covid restrictions. “I think I’ve now used just about every machine.”

Novices and experts

More than a workspace, the Hobby Shop is also a community—one where people from all corners of MIT can come together to share camaraderie as well as tips and techniques. “I’ve met some of my favorite people from MIT at the Hobby Shop,” Smidt says.

Fischman even owes his marriage to the shop. Thanks to a referral from a contact there, he wound up with a 25-year part-time gig teaching two night classes in woodworking at the Boston Center for Adult Education—where he met his wife. “That was a connection the shop made possible,” he says. 

Novices are always welcome, and the shop’s staff—director Hayami Arakawa and technical instructor Coby Unger—are always willing to provide expert guidance. “It’s encouraged to ask questions,” Smidt says. Classes and workshops provide more formal training on complex machines or in unusual crafts, such as steam-bending wood.

Projects undertaken in the shop run the gamut from simple cutting boards to fine furniture. Fischman says the piece he’s most proud of is a curved-edge walnut console table with hand-planed, tapered octagonal legs. But not everyone makes furniture. “We had a guy who came in to build a machine to put the caps on his yogurt containers,” Fischman says. “We’ve had harpsichords built in the shop, canoes built in the shop. It goes on and on.”

Smidt adds, “It’s really inspiring to see what other people are making.”

Now, nearly 50 years after his bowl was spotlighted in Fine Woodworking, Fischman says he still finds joy at the Hobby Shop. “The shop is fun,” he says. “I think that’s an important aspect of it.”

Another, he says, is knowing that he has created pieces that will live on. “I’m 76. I think about legacy a bit,” he says. “The woodworking gifts that I gave to people that they cherish now are part of my legacy.” 

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