Powelton Village: Tiny WPA Teaches Philadelphians Carpentry, Crafting, and Design

On any given Wednesday night, the Tiny WPA’s work space at 4017 Lancaster Ave. is bright and busy. Artwork and works-in-progress fill the walls and all available floor space. Downstairs, saws and other power tools echo as residents of Powelton Village and surrounding neighborhoods attend the weekly open workshop nights, tinkering on projects and learning new skills.

Sign on the door at Tiny WPA

On Nov. 13, Kamaiyah Jones, a student at the Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, and a friend stood near the back of the main floor, using a laser-equipped vinyl cutter to carve game board pieces.  

“This is very important to me because I think everyone deserves at least some part of their day that is not bogged down by horrible experiences,” Jones said.

The Tiny WPA takes its inspiration from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The WPA, founded in 1935 by President Roosevelt, hired more than 8.5 million workers into public works projects in cities and towns all over America. Many WPA projects can still be found in Philadelphia today.

The Tiny WPA first opened its doors in 2012 in Powelton Village. Originally started as a for-profit operation, it received nonprofit status in 2014. Its mission is to operate a work space to teach anyone from ages five to 75 different types of skills such as design, fabrication, leadership, and more.

Art Work Displayed in the Workshop

Tiny WPA projects focus on both building useful structures in the community and teaching volunteers how to do the crafting themselves. The organization’s work includes teaching high school students how to build and sell their own projects, beautifying and building community structures on abandoned lots, and designing and building novel play structures for schools and parks.  

Wednesdays, also known as Stop By + Build, are open shop nights. From 4 to 7 p.m., co-founders Renee Schacht and Alex Gilliam, along with Tiny WPA faculty, invite people to come to the workshop and create their own projects. Community members can work on anything they want, whether as part of an ongoing Tiny WPA project, such as park benches for an empty lot, or something personal.

“People work on several different types of projects,” said Gilliam. “They either do projects for themselves, for gifts, to learn how to work with the crafts, or to help with community projects.”

Charlie Hart joined the Tiny WPA as an instructor after he attended architecture school. He was looking for jobs in Philadelphia, learned about the Tiny WPA, and wanted to be involved because he was inspired by what it does within the community. He is now a member of the staff and teaches carpentry to Tiny WPA volunteers.

“This place here really engages with public space on a personal level,” Hart said.

Hart supervises construction teams and the open workshop nights, where he also puts some time into a few of his personal projects. 

 Hart working on a new table during Stop By + Build

Many young people in West Philadelphia get involved with the Tiny WPA through the Building Hero Project, an eight-week long class where students ages 14 and older learn a range of design and fabrication skills. Students learn how to use digital tools like Adobe Photoshop, as well as laser cutters, power saws, drills, and even simpler hand tools, all with the goal of seeing a project through from start to finish. 

Interested students can apply twice a year, with classes limited to eight students. The program is free, but accepted students must pay a $50 deposit. 

Faces of those involved in the Building Heroes Project showcased  on carved wooden circles

After hearing about the Building Hero Project two years ago, Jones wanted to be involved in the program. Now, she is a part-time student worker helping teach other building heroes the skills she has learned.

“The Building Heroes Project is really more about learning skills that you can teach to other people and learning skills yourself,” Jones said. 

Jones (Left) working on a new project

Recently, Jones and other building heroes members have been making specialty coasters to sell. Each coaster features a different street-grid view of the neighborhoods in the city where the crafters are from. 

“You take a screenshot of the neighborhood on Google or Bing Maps,” Roy-ya Weatherbe, a building hero, said. “Then you put it in Adobe Illustrator to make the streets a specific color, and cut out everything else besides the streets. Once you do that, you’ll transfer it over to the computer with the laser.”

Students experimented with the equipment many times before they were able to get the process down. In early prototypes, paint would bleed through the wood of the coasters after the street designs were cut into the painted discs. They were eventually able to solve this issue by developing a glue and water solution to apply to the wood after painting, but before cutting.

“This solution just turns into diluted glue,” Weatherbe said. “That way, when you put the glue over it, you can’t tell that it’s bleeding.”

Finished Coasters

The students are eager to sell the finished coasters to the public.

“[People] will be able to purchase the coasters on our website,” Gilliam said.

Jones said getting involved with the tiny WPA has been rewarding, not only because it offers her a way to escape from everyday worries for a couple of hours each week.

“I met a lot of people that are in unfortunate circumstances,” Jones said. “And I was able to give them an hour, two hours, three hours where they were just having fun and building things.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com 

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