Station North Tool Library offers DIY resources, skills and a sense of community

Amid the blaring of pop tunes, the humming of power tools and the grinding of table saws, Jay Ranaweera, masked by protective goggles, is at work on his latest project at the Station North Tool Library on a Sunday afternoon.

The 29-year-old designer and intern architect at Rohrer Studio is finishing up a credenza, which he will top with an ironing board in hopes of saving space in the Charles Village home he's renting. He has spent the past 2 1/2 weeks on the credenza — just one of the many creations he has built since stumbling upon the tool library a year ago.


The bustling facility — located in an unassuming building on Oliver Street — is home to nearly 2,000 tools, a wood shop and a metal shop. Here, Ranaweera has rented tools to fix his parents' windows, built a table for his home, and created a custom wooden handle for a saucepan.

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Such projects are just what the Station North Tool Library is meant to facilitate. The library, which opened nearly three years ago, aims to offer affordable access to tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Members can check out tools for free as a way to decrease the high costs of home improvement projects. The tool library also offers classes, workshop space and more.


For those looking to get creative or renovate their homes, Ranaweera said, the library is a saving grace.

"It's a luxury for people to have access to tools needed for high-end woodworking, and even for a hobbyist — it's not very often that they have access to tools like that," said Ranaweera.

Tool rentals are free for members.* Classes at the library, costing between $25 and $250, teach skills ranging from woodworking to skateboard-making. And members, who can choose to pay a yearly fee based on their income or a fixed monthly rate from $9 to $39, also can use the open workshop hours after they've completed a safety course.

It's set up to help people help themselves. .... And I think that's the draw.

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Buying tools from a home improvement store or hiring a contractor can cost in the thousands, said Chris Lavoie, director of the tool library's public workshop. Offering low-cost tools and the sliding-scale membership prices "makes sure that these services are accessible to anyone," Lavoie said.

An online inventory shows which tools are available for checkout. The miter saw is the most popular, Lavoie said, but inventory depends on the season.

"Snow shovels have been very popular this month," Lavoie said. "We counted that we had 25 in stock, and I'm pretty sure a couple [weeks] ago, those were all checked out."

The workshop gives members a space to work on their projects, and is also where the skills and product-based classes are taught.

"We wanted to take hold of the DIY mentality and utilize the service, and show [people] what a whole room of tools can offer," said Lavoie.

Before classes were added to the tool library's offerings, Lavoie said he found himself giving tips and explanations about tools on a daily basis. It only made sense to streamline that instruction.

"It was just a natural progression to say, 'All right, when can we all get together and show people how a floor sander works?'" he said.

The library's catalog now includes 19 classes, including subjects such as home care and repair and knife-making.

Kate Christian, 33, of Hampden has taken every class the library has offered.


"I took the cutting-board class and then I just never left," said Christian, who first visited the tool library a year ago after receiving a gift certificate from a friend.

She soon began volunteering there and became skilled in woodworking. She built a countertop, a coffee table and floating hexagon shelves for her home.

Kate Christian, 33, of Hampden, uses a table saw to cut wood for a TV stand. The Tool Library was humming with activity during the Open Shop period on Sunday afternoon.
Kate Christian, 33, of Hampden, uses a table saw to cut wood for a TV stand. The Tool Library was humming with activity during the Open Shop period on Sunday afternoon. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Now Christian works at the library full time as a part of its workforce development program. Participants work on the library's Surface Project, which transforms reclaimed softwoods from torn-down Baltimore rowhouses into custom counters, tables and shelving for individuals and businesses in the area.

For Christian, working at the tool library has been an exciting new venture.

"I like everything about working with wood as a material," she said, wood chips sprinkled on her vest from a TV stand she was working on. "I kind of like the design aspect of it and ... deciding what would fit in a space, using the flaws of the wood to its advantage. … I also like the dangerous aspect of power tools. It keeps you on your toes."

For Ranaweera, it's all about bringing his sketches to fruition.

"You could go to Home Depot to get wood chopped, but here, it's more rewarding," he said. "It builds confidence in making things. It sounds cliche, but it really helps you think on your feet and work to try to solve problems. It has also helped me learn to trust my instincts as an architect."

Beyond its practical services, the tool library, which hosts a happy hour the first Friday of every month in hopes of attracting new members, provides many with a meeting space and sense of community.

After moving to Baltimore from Austin, Texas, Jessie Hillman, 28, stumbled upon the tool library on a walk around the city.

"The concept of a tool library had never occured to me before. I was immediately fascinated just by the [two] words together," said Hillman, who lives in Old Goucher. She saw it as the perfect way to get to know the city.

"There are all these people who are of different ages, race and skill levels, and they were all coming here to build things ... and so I immedately asked to volunteer, and it's been such a gratifying experience," Hillman said.

The library, operated by six paid staff and more than 20 volunteers, functions much like a support group — but with tools, Lavoie said.

"It's set up to help people help themselves, and so even though the projects people bring in seem simple, a lot of it is about quality of life and being able to customize something that you like. And I think that's the draw. People want to feel like they have the ability to do it themselves."

*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the public can check out tools from the Station North Tool Library. Tools are only available for members. The Sun regrets the error. 


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