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'It's been hard, but we're still flourishing': Halifax's community woodworking shop is a DIYers dream

100 per cent volunteer run, Hands-On Halifax has faced a lot over the last few years — a pandemic included — but is looking forward to a brighter summer
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Three summers ago, Hands-On Halifax looked like it was on the brink.

Just as they had been preparing to move to their new North End location on Commission Street, more than $1,000 of power tools went missing from the shop, assumed stolen. For a community woodworking shop — which even in the best of times wasn’t designed to be a cash cow — it was a real punch to the gut.

“Right now our hearts are broken and our wallets are empty,” the shop said at the time, adding that “we might not move and just let a good thing have its time.”

But things have a way of working out, and now — three years, a bunch of donations and one relocation later — Hands-On Halifax has survived the pandemic, and continues to be a place for what Dave Clearwater calls sawdust therapy.

In part, they have kept the shop open through the pandemic by taking on outside contracts with other businesses and organizations in Halifax.

“We’re 100% volunteer driven, so we’re trying to have the shop open to fill contracts,” says Clearwater. “Booking and scheduling and all the good stuff that comes with running a business is getting very difficult, but luckily we have a few steady, steadfast volunteers who are able to consistently come in on a certain day or a certain night.”

They’ve built displays for Leonidas Chocolate, they’ve hosted four teens with the Atlantic Jewish Council who came in and built a small library, they’ve done specialty work for someone with a heritage home, and they have “a permanent gentleman, Rob, who makes cat houses and cat accessories for the local pet stores,” Clearwater says.

“We help the Legion every year for their annual. We help the police association, for Kids Help Phone. We also helped the Parker Street Food Bank with back-to-school packs, and we also do the Nova Scotia Ground Search and Rescue Association, to help them,” he says.

“We try and give back as much as we get from the community, because they’re a big part of how and why we exist. It’s learn, build, grow.”

They've also expanded what tools they have in the shop, with more of an emphasis on advanced technology. They have a new STEM lab and a Glowforge 3D laser printer, popular with smaller crafters and capable of engraving virtually anything. 

As things go back to normal, it’s still the community woodshop aspect of the businesses that is central to their mission.

So many people, Clearwater says —from apartment dwellers, to downsizers, to folks who are new to the DIY thing — lack access to the kind of expensive tools you find in woodworking shops.

At the same time, the pandemic has underlined that there is plenty of demand out there for places like this, places that give people a low-cost option to work on their projects. And despite what you might think of woodshops (or remember from high school shop class) that demand exists with all types of folks.

“Traditionally, we have a lot of middle-aged people who take the classes. It’s a resurgence — getting back to natural hobbies and stuff,” Clearwater says. “And then we have a younger generation that’s doing cosplay — a demographic that we really didn’t know about until this person came in, and [now] he’s one of our volunteers.”

So after a tough 18 months, and a tough few years, it now looks like there are brighter days ahead for the community shop.

“It’s been hard,” he says. “But we’re still flourishing, so I’m hoping this summer will really help us. Especially considering inside it is always 20 degrees, and it never rains in the shop!”

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