Meet Your Makers

Making its way back for the 13th year, the ‘Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth’ Maker Faire brings more than a thousand works to San Mateo this weekend.

Every spring, a fire-spinning, drone-flying, battle-bot fan’s fancy turns to the San Mateo for the annual weekend of high-tech, do-it-yourself wizardry of Maker Faire. The 2018 Maker Faire Bay Area is this weekend, as the San Mateo County Events Center is being converted into a futuristic playground of homemade robots, zany go-karts, and flame-breathing art cars.

Maker Faire is the kind of place you can mingle with fully operational life-size R2-D2s, stroll through a 3D-printed amusement park, or drive a cupcake-shaped mini vehicle — and those won’t even among the top ten the coolest things you’ll see or do all day.

The Maker Faire phenomenon now sprawls worldwide to 220 city-facing events in 44 countries, but Maker Faire Bay Area is still where it all began. Now a three-day event that draws more than 125,000 people, Maker Faire started right here back in 2006 when Make Magazine jumpstarted the maker movement with a gathering of tinkerers at the San Mateo County Events Center.

“We’ve been there ever since,” Maker Faire Managing Director Sabrina Merlo tells SF Weekly.

“It started as a test idea around having an event where makers could actually get together in an open source way to communicate and share around what they’re making — show and tell,” Merlo says. “This is a very Bay Area point of view that the world has taken on around interdisciplinary attitude and appreciation, from craft to technology to big art to costumes.”

You’ll be dazzled to check out the 1,200 projects, exhibitions, and features at Maker Faire. But the real inspiration meeting the makers and learning about the creative process that goes into these crazy concepts. And you can even take some of their project for a spin.

Perpetual favorite Bike Cyclorral lets you ride their home-modified tall bikes and altered tricycles Your heart will melt at the Magic Wheelchair exhibition from the group that builds big-budget, epic cosplay wheelchairs for kids with disabilities. And your pulse will race at the Power Wheels Racing that pits modified Fisher-Price toy style miniature electric vehicles in competitions of speed, endurance, and style.

“Where does that go besides Maker Faire?” Merlo says of these whimsical miniature jalopies. “You’ve got a deep tech aspect, to be able to know how to mod something, and you’ve got this hilarious, playful aspect of it around the performative Oscar-Mayer Wiener car, or the different sort of personas these cars take on.”

The competitions aren’t all on wheels, as this year’s Maker Faire is introducing its first annual Prop Contest that will bring cosplayers head-to-head to build their best movie, TV, and comic book character props from scratch. This is not full cosplay, makers are encouraged to put all of their effort into just one prop. And the prop has to be at least 75 percent original work, you can’t just buy something on Amazon to compete.

“It’s not a ‘replica’ type contest,” says renowned international cosplay expert Jackie Craft, who will serve as a Prop Contest judge and has some tips for competing. “Slapping Christmas lights on a piece just to have it light up won’t beat a well thought-out, cohesive piece.”

Maker Faire

“If someone has brought to life a really detailed paint job and maybe incorporated an interesting way to recreate a rust effect that’s special that can catch my eye that’s a good way to stand out,” Craft tells SF Weekly. “If you are going for accuracy then point out and show off every little bitty notch and ding you’ve realized. The story behind how your prop came to life is also a really nice part of contests.”

“Cosplayers often have props to go with their costumes but not all makers cosplay,” she adds. “Some makers create incredible props they love from their fandom to just display above their fireplace or mount to the front of their car.”

This being the Bay Area, the flame and lightning spewing big art will take a richly deserved center stage. Popular art cars Landau the Dragon and Rabid Transit will be on hand and frequently ablaze, and you’ll also see the familiar blue-lightning Tesla coils of Oakland Art Murmur and DorkbotSF favorite Lightning on Demand.

“This 40-foot scale prototype is currently the largest working Tesla tower ever built,” Lightning on Demand principal engineer Greg Leyh says of the rig he’s setting up for Maker Faire Bay Area. “We intend to recreate the actual electric conditions where lightning begins, here on the ground where we can observe the process. This requires an area at least 300 feet long, with 18 million volts from end to end.”

There is little practical purpose to Tesla coil lightning machines and autonomous Fisher-Price go-karts, and that’s okay. But that special Maker magic can also be applied to useful, everyday tasks like preparing food. And to that end, there are beekeeping, kombucha making, and other various ‘urban homesteading’ workshops lined up for the weekend.  

A sort of retail commerce component called the SF Bazaar doubles as a juried art competition and a shopping plaza, with a lineup of locally handcrafted indie goods, handbags, custom silkscreen gear and more.

“It might be the prettiest part of Maker Faire,” says holistic health educator Lisa Vincenti, who’ll be there with her Sensory Revolution eco-organic body care line. “There’s so many lovely, hand-crafted finished goods. It’s a combination of a place to shop, as well as a place to learn more about process, materials, and how the world works.”

There is a Thursday night component to the weekend-long Maker Faire marathon, right here in San Francisco at the Exploratorium. On May 17, the Exploratorium hosts After Dark: Maker Faire Edition at the Exploratorium (6-10 p.m.), a sneak preview that moves Maker Faire into a nighttime atmosphere with more than a dozen of the fair’s exhibits like robotic flowers and slime lamps.

“The Exploratorium has been a part of Maker Faire since Year One,” Merlo tells SF Weekly. “They are our brethren, we are deeply conjoined affiliates.”

The Exploratorium exhibits will include Stan Clark’s ‘space garden’ Astro Botanicals. “They’re kind of like the blow-up sculptures you see marketing car lots, or a jumpy house,” she explains. “He’s installing a garden of artistic shapes that are inflatables.”

“And then there’s cocktails!,” Merlo says. “And no kids!”

Kids are very much welcome at Maker Faire, though, and the really little ones ages 3 and under get in for free. But Maker Faire is the kind of event event that make you feel like a kid again, with its lineup of drones, droids, and dreams coming true.

Maker Faire Bay Area, Friday, May 18, 1-5 p.m., Saturday, May 19, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sunday, May 20, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., at the San Mateo County Events Center, 1346 Saratoga Dr., San Mateo, $50 (Kids $30, under age 3 free);

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