American Woodworker

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Winter 2013-2014

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School News: MIT Hobby Shop -Proof that working with your hands is good for your mind.


By Randy Johnson
  Located under the basketball court, in the basement of the 80 year old Armory building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus, is a wood and metal working shop known as the MIT Hobby Shop. It's humble location belies the shop's important mission: To provide MIT's science and engineering students—some of the world's best young minds—a place to work with their hands and learn by doing. Learning by doing is a fundamental principle of MIT's educational approach and the Hobby Shop helps carry out this mission by providing space, machines and instruction to any student who wishes to take advantage of the facility. Students can pursue any project, whether for a class or personal use. Hobby Shop students have produced everything from cedar-strip canoes to  dorm furniture to robots. The instructors play an important role. MIT alumnus Ken Stone, the current Shop Director, is an accomplished furniture designer and builder. Hayami Arakawa is an expert wood turner who also loves imaginative woodworking. Ken and Hayami offer students formal classes in machine use and building as well as  individual instruction. MIT has endorsed and supported the Hobby Shop for 70 years, an indication of the value this venerable institution places on hands-on learning, and that working with your hands is also good for your mind.


Biological engineering major Zach Bjornson is building a harpsichord in his corner of the MIT Hobby shop. Not one to shy away from a challenge, the harpsichord is Zach's first woodworking project.




The Challenge:
Build a harpsichord with no prior woodworking experience. Zach Bjornson assigned himself this challenge when he started at MIT in the fall of 2006. Zach, who has played the piano since he was six years old, initally tried the harpsichord when he was looking for another instrument to play. The major difference between the two instruments is that  a harpsichord's strings are plucked, rather than struck, as they are in a piano. Zach quickly became intrigued with the idea of building his own. Zach has spent about 300 hours researching this project and expects to spend about 1000 hours building it. One of the challenges he faces is locating some of the special woods a harpsichord requires. This recent e-mail shows Zach's persistence is paying off: “I spent a few hours last night trying to find one of the rare woods I mentioned, and finally did. It's quarter sawn Picea abies (Norway spruce), with a ring density of up to 40 per inch, harvested just before the new moon at a certain hour of the day during winter by a husband and wife in Switzerland, air dried, selected for best tone quality, and perfect for the soundboard!” To see more pictures of Zach's harpsichord project or to follow his progress log on to


The Hobby Shop provides a place for students to pursue all kinds of projects under the guidance of full-time instructors.






Hayami Arakawa, MIT Hobby Shop instructor, is available full-time to assist students with their projects. In his spare time, Hayami designs furniture and enjoys creative woodturning, such as these ball-and-claw bats.

MIT Hobby Shop A Brief History - by Ken Stone
During the 1937-38 school year, a group of sixteen MIT students  acquired some abandoned equipment and got permission from the administration to set up a 16-ft by 22-ft wood- and metal-working shop in an unused basement room in the main complex(top photo, page 32). The name “Hobby Shop” reflected their belief that to be well-rounded individuals, students needed to pursue interests outside their profession—hobbies. For MIT students, these interests often involved building things. The shop's original constitution stated that it was only to be used by students for non-academic work.Until the 1950s, the shop was run as a club, with a student foreman. Members started as apprentices and progressed to journeyman and master craftsman. Joe Macalister, the first paid Shop Master, started during World War II, and left at the end of the war. Then Bob McCadden, still in his early twenties, took over and remained Shop Master until he retired in 1972. Under his leadership the shop expanded several times before moving to its current location. Membership expanded to include faculty, staff, alumni and their spouses. Other hobbies were added as well— electronics, photography, printing, and pottery, to name a few.

When I joined the MIT Hobby Shop as a student in 1968, many of the formalities were gone. There was no student shop foreman and member classifications were no longer given. Several activities had also moved to other locations. Eventually, only the wood and metal shop remained. However the shop remained a busy place. George Pishenin, a technician in Material Science and long time shop member took over as Shop Master in 1972. When George retired in 1991 I took over as only the fourth Shop Master, and the first who was also an MIT graduate. During my time as director I've seen an increased need for the Hobby Shop. MIT had many shops when I was a student, including a student shop in all engineering and many science departments. Most of these shops have been closed and the ones that remain are primarily used for specific classes. At the same time, fewer students come to MIT with shop experience. The Hobby Shop provides a place for MIT students to work with a wide range of well-maintained machines and tools. Their projects can be academic or personal, serious or just for fun. We provide individual instruction, practical design and building advice. We also offer classes and collaborate with professors and instructors in many departments.


Started in 1938 as a place for students to broaden their interests, the MIT Hobby Shop still provides a valuable service to students by carrying out one of MIT's central missions learning by doing.