A CNC Rescue Tale

Makerspaces bring to their communities a value that can be hard to quantify or even succinctly describe, it's not job creation or number of students served or products produced, though those outcomes certainly do exist, it's something a little less predictable and perhaps best conveyed by a story.

Three years ago one of our members told me about a friend of his who ran a manufacturing company in town and was trying to get rid of one of their large, industrial CNC routers, they'd be happy to donate it to us. On the surface this may seem like a no brainer, CNC routers are commonly found in makerspaces, and a full size router like this one is extremely valuable. But at the time, we were smaller and space wasn't plentiful, and what seemed a great gift would have only served as an obstacle to more making. Fast forward two years and we get an email directly from the owner of ABLCo, repeating the same offer. The difference this time is that we have since expanded, adding another 4,000 sqft to our makerspace. While there were still a number of logistics to figure out, I took up the invitation to come take a look at the machine.

There it was, a behemoth, sad and neglected, shoved into a corner and buried by other equipment, including the Pentium I computer, fully equipped with 3.5" disc drive, used to control the machine. There was a bit of water damage on one corner, some swelling of the wooden table and rusting on the linear rail, but nothing too bad. Alongside it was a 10 horsepower vacuum pump, and from my inability to move it or even to bump it any detectable distance, I'd estimate it weighed 500 pounds. The router itself, we were told, weighed another 1300 pounds.

The owner of ABLCo, Bill, bought this machine back in the 90's with the goal of going into business for himself. He taught himself what he needed to know, started finding work, and before long, outgrew his basement and started acquiring newer, more powerful machines. It became clear in talking with him that the reason this machine found itself in the corner was that it was no longer productive compared to the newer machines, but it remained as an artifact too sentimental to let waste away in the scrap yard. But the rest of the employees seemed to have Bill convinced that the time had come to say goodbye and make room for the future.

Moving heavy machinery can be a difficult task, though it can certainly be done by oneself or hired out. The same goes for machine restoration, electrical work, the necessary electronic retrofit and software configuration. The trouble is that this combination of skills almost never exist in a single person, and for a company to justify the cost of contracting the experts needed to complete this work, they need to see a net return on investment. And this is why a machine that cost $37,000 in 1992 can languish away in a corner or find itself on its way to the dump without having any major deficiencies. For those not well versed in CNC routers, I'll simply point out that this isn't the equivalent of an old computer or even an old car. An old CNC router is just as accurate and powerful as a modern one, it's major failing is that it isn't as fast, but what a production environment would call slow still qualifies as swift for the hobbyist and would hardly be considered a flaw. There is of course the obsolete computer once used to drive the machine, but this can be modernized at a relatively low cost. So you have a machine that companies find unprofitable, and therefore not worth rescue, and one that individuals meanwhile salivate over, but don't have funds or knowledge necessary for rescue. You're left with a makerspace that cultivates and collects the necessary knowledge and skill required to bring this machine to the hands of people who still see a great deal more life in it.

Once our homework was finished and we knew what needed to be done, we put together teams for each aspect of the rescue and got to work. Our movers brought their trucks, trailers, pallet jacks, and gantry cranes, while our member who owns a climbing gym rigged the machine with climbing ropes, and together they transported the machine to our building, up the ramp, up some stairs, smashing through an undersized doorway, landing gracefully in its target position. Others took to the task of restoration, replacing a worn linear bearing, cleaning and re-greasing the rails, replacing and leveling the spoil board, and adding new emergency stops. We ran two new electrical circuits, one for the router and one for the vacuum pump, which also needed to be vented out the roof. We gutted the control cabinet, throwing out the computer and motor controller, replacing them with modern controls that can be interfaced to a modern computer and ultimately driven by a Bluetooth Super Nintendo controller. It was three months of work, shared between a dozen members of the makerspace, all bringing their expertise to help get this machine operational again. In truth, it's likely working better than ever before, as we even added features like spindle speed control that weren't originally in use.

In the end, we have a machine that hobbyists and entrepreneurs are already keeping busy, prototyping inventions, making interactive art, signs for their businesses, and furniture they can snap together like a 3D puzzle. But while the robot does its work, the users stays busy exercising their brains, learning from one another and thinking of the next thing they'll make.

I would like to thank Bill and Adam from ABLCo for their generosity and patience, as well as our invaluable volunteers; Chaz, Ken, JB, Jeremie, and Darrell.


Maker Faire Lynchburg 2022

Maker Faire Lynchburg is thrilled to be back on the campus of Randolph College on April 3, 2022.

Join us for a gathering of fascinating, curious people who enjoy learning and who love sharing what they can do. From engineers to artists to scientists to crafters, Maker Faire is a venue for makers to show hobbies, experiments, projects, and products.

We call it the Greatest Show (& Tell) on Earth - a family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness.

Are you a maker?
Call for Makers is now open and accepting applications.

We are seeking creative, hands-on makers of all types to showcase their work at the event. Commercial makers, student projects, hobbyists, and artists are all invited to apply. Vendors that are selling goods pay a $50 booth fee, while makers that are exhibiting but not selling can participate at no charge.

Learn more and apply at:

Merch Available Now

NEW merch is now available! Fill those stockings with Vector Space t-shirts and swag!! Youth and adult sizing available; local pickup preferred but shipping also available.

Items are made in house, which means they sometimes have "bonus features" (not defects), such as color variation, etc. If your merch has a little too much character for your taste, just let us know and we'll replace it or issue a refund. Thanks for supporting your community makerspace! Happy making!


Where to Shop our Makers this Season

The makerspace is buzzing with activity this month, as many of our members create beautiful, small batch goods for YOUR holiday shopping! With many local faires and festivals coming up, we've compiled a list of times and places you can shop for maker-made goods from LYH this season.

Coasters by Lynchburg Live Edge
Coasters by Lynchburg Live Edge

  • Madison House of the Arts - Now through November 3
    • Vector Space Makers: Nneka Brown
  • Hill City Handmade - November 6 at the Urban Arts Garage
    • Vector Space Makers: Justin Smith, Lynchburg Live Edge
  • Holiday Maker's Market - November 26 & 27 at The Academy Center of the Arts
    • Vector Space Makers: Artist Joy Star Bright
  • Christmas in Sedalia - December 11 at The Sedalia Center
    • Vector Space Makers: Lynchburg Live Edge
  • Mini Christmas Makers Market - December 12 at Atelier
    • Vector Space Makers: Joy Star Bright

Mixed Media Canvas by Joy Morykon
Mixed Media Canvas by Joy Star Bright

In addition to these holiday shows, many of our makers have work available at these locations year round:

Leather Wallets by Justin Smith

Mathathon 2021 Wrap-up

You might be surprised how much math can be found in a makerspace. Making a table with angled legs and you need to know how long to cut them? Math. Cutting pentagons for a DIY soccer ball of a known circumference and you need to know how long each side should be? Math. Fitting up gears of differing sizes that still mesh without too much contact pressure? That's right, math. Even in our laziest efforts at making something, one still has to marvel at the mathematical complexity that drives those 3D printers with precision and ease. You can try to resist, but you're going to have a hard time producing anything without math, and contrary to popular opinion, the need only amplifies as technology advances.

You may also find it surprising just how much math takes place outside the makerspace, in your own backyard. All those years you spent deriving and applying formulas weren't just an exercise in cruelty, people actually use that knowledge every day. To help reveal and recognize the work these people do, we recruited 14 of the biggest math nerds in Lynchburg to spend 13.1 hours solving as many math problems as they could. Why so long? Because solving difficult math problems takes a certain degree of tenacity, and we know full well that people who have immersed themselves in this discipline have the stamina necessary, and how better to prove it than with a war of attrition against unsolved problems.

So from Friday at 12pm until Saturday at 1:06am, our 14 participants together solved 51 Project Euler problems, with our youngest participant, Dustin, solving problem 100, the hardest of the event. In addition to hosting this endurance event, Vector Space developed original curriculum for K-12 students to get a taste of computational math, we connected with our local schools to work through an example of a difficult math problem, and shared interviews of our participants, your neighbors.

We strived to connect people from various organizations because we know the power this can have for everyone involved. Our problem solvers collectively represented,

  • BWXT: Jonathan Stephens, Robert Martin
  • Framatome: Jesse Hyatt
  • CloudFit: Andrew Castellano
  • CCRi: Jason Thomas
  • U.S. Navy: Dawn Thomas
  • CVCC: Jessica Coco
  • University of Lynchburg: Mike Coco
  • Sweet Briar College: Tomori Buchanan
  • Cornerstone Christian Academy: Dustin Thomas
  • the former Holy Cross: Liz Lyng
  • R.S. Payne Elementary: Tracy Proffitt
  • Vector Space: Adam Spontarelli, Zach Taliaferro

"Tracy and I were on a roll and our next problem included a relatively complex calculation involving a spiral of numbers. My immediate intuition was to develop an algorithm to generate the spiral, then carry out the necessary calculations. Tracy took a completely different approach, looking instead for patterns in the spiral, shortcutting the entire idea of recreating the spiral, and finding the solution in a fraction of the time. One of my favorite things about working with other people is the reminder that there's always a better way."

-Adam Spontarelli

Lynchburg businesses showed their love of math, fueling these big brains with delicious food and coffee from beginning to end. Thanks for the support from Crisp, The Water Dog, MayLynn's Creamery, Mama Crockett's, Golf Park Coffee. And they weren't the only ones, a total of $772 was donated to the cause of promoting math and math outreach.

If you're sad the Mathathon is over, I have good news. We solved problem 19 and I used the code to calculate that there is only 1 first Sunday of the month until the next event. In the meantime, be like Tomori and learn more math.

"I have taken all of the advanced math that SBC offers...I had thought to stop until grad school, but this project makes me want to learn more."
- Tomori Buchanan


We're hosting Lynchburg's first Mathathon on August 27! This 13.1 hour event - a Math Half Marathon - will bring together our community's math and computer experts to solve as many Project Euler problems as they can. YOU can join the fun!

Event Details

  • Friday, August 27 at 12 noon until Saturday at 1:06am (13.1 hours, a half math marathon!)
  • Math and computer science experts will be on-site at Vector Space, but you can tune in online (details below)
  • We've built some great math curriculum that you can try in the classroom or at home. These exercises are broken down by age group below, and designed to encourage kids and adults to try something new!
  • You can encourage our participants and support math outreach with a pledge per problem solved!

Get Involved

  • Tune in to our live Zoom Webinar on Friday, August 27 at 12:30pm. Your class can follow along while our Director of Education works through a cryptography problem, and then shows how a computer would be used to find the solution. (This content will be upper Elementary and above, but will be fun and upbeat to keep younger students engaged too!) Register now for the Zoom Webinar.
  • Tune in to our evening Live Stream on Friday, August 27 at 6:00pm. We will have a progress report, interviews with local math and computer professionals, and share the history of the Project Euler challenge. Tune in via YouTube here.
  • Use our FREE math content with your students! We have put together real world problems to challenge your students while promoting interest in math and computers. Work on these in the classroom or send them home with your students!
  • Make a donation pledge to support math learning! Show your support with a pledge.

Find all of the details at




Go Kart Go: A Project Without Purpose

When I share stories of our student projects at Vector Space, I almost always find an interested listener. And when that listener sometimes submits their idea for a future project, it often comes with the larger suggestion that an urgent and pragmatic need be filled, that students make 3D printed prosthetic hands or braille readers for the blind or traffic counters for the city. There's nothing particularly wrong with these ideas, in fact we've done our fair share, but as much as they are offered with great intentions, they are also offered in naivete; a lack of understanding about the differences between novices and experts in their capacity to develop solutions to real world problems, and a lack of understanding about what it is that best engages and educates.

It may be that while reflecting on these conversations, I decided that for our next project, students would make and race go-karts. While it may be true that if we had instead focused our efforts on developing a hydrogen fueled car, we may have contributed to the prosperity of millions, but what would it mean for a student without the necessary prior knowledge to participate in such a project? The further from prior experience the task becomes, the less involved the students will be, until at some point they no longer play any meaningful role but serve more like passive viewers, streaming an interesting documentary. In contrast, by making a go-kart, an endeavor that I would readily admit solves no practical problems other than the education of 8 high school students, the students involved were hands on in nearly every aspect. Though they did not design the karts, they were given a budget and chose a design they thought would fit. They provided a bill of materials to their instructors, and over the following weeks, parts started pouring in. Our pile of steel tube gradually whittled away as students interpreted engineering drawings in order to cut parts to the right length and angle, learning the use of different saws for different situations: the horizontal bandsaw for straight cuts, the coldsaw for mitered cuts, the vertical bandsaw for steep or compound angles, and the belt grinder for cleaning up rough edges. The assembly of nearly one hundred different parts into their exact location in three dimensions is no easy task, a lesson these students learned again and again. The inaccuracies of each cut add up during assembly, until what was once a single degree becomes inches of misalignment, and the best way to move forward isn't to demand greater precision, but to use methods of assembly that compensate for such errors. Once parts were temporarily fixed in place, the welding began. It's tempting to think that the short edges of 1-1/4in square tube couldn't possibly amount to very much surface to be welded, but by the power of multiplication, those many edges had students welding for eight weeks, consuming twenty pounds of welding wire in the process. It's not just the fitup that poses challenges. In the process of mounting the engine and seat, students learned that the best approach is far from intuitive. Making an engine race ready isn't just a matter of bolting it in place. A three degree wheel camber and two degree toe in isn't a simple thing to measure.

Even when your first test drive has nuts rattling loose and parts falling to the ground, there's something deeply satisfying about driving your very own creation, something that urges you on when you would otherwise become discouraged by setback. With every test drive came inspiration for improvements and reminders of the disastrous effects of vibration on bolted connections and the importance of torque specifications. Every engine misfire, steering difficulty, broken bolt, and braking deficiency posed a new mystery to be solved, and by the end of twelve weeks immersed in the life of a go-kart maker, these students became suddenly capable of finding solutions. But let that not overshadow the feeling of driving your kart 30 miles per hour over dirt and mud, of racing your friends for the glory of the best lap time, and of rescuing them from deep within the woods where their wheel sheared off on an oak tree. This is how we impact a handful of lives as best we can.

Thanks to instructors Adam Spontarelli, Eddie Nemitz, and Jeremie Carriaga.



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