Texan builds business on DIY skills

Photo: DIY Praha

Do you need a new shelf but you are fed up with going to IKEA again? Well, why not try making it yourself? If you don’t have the space or the tools, you can visit a DIY workshop in the centre of Prague. In case you are lacking the experience and skills, its owner, Hank Duke, can also provide the necessary know-how.

Hank Duke, photo: DIY Praha
Born in Texas, Hank Duke originally worked as a paramedic, before moving to Stockholm and setting up his own building company. A few years ago, he settled in Prague and opened a workshop for anyone interested in making things with their own hands, from welding or sewing to furniture-making .

I met with Hank Duke in his workshop, hidden in a courtyard on a quiet street of Prague’s Vinohrady district to talk about his business:

“The original idea for this business came from Sweden. A lot of the local carpenters and workers live outside the city and come and work inside the city. This was my situation in Stockholm as well. I was living 30 km north of the centre and 90 percent of my jobs were in the centre, so it was a constant moving in and out and back and forth.

“Now with the idea of compact living, with making more out of less space, one of the things that have to get cut out of that, if you want to live on 45 square metres, is that you don’t have space for tools or for a workshop.

“So the original idea was talking to other guys like myself and creating a shared space. But when it came down to putting the money together and trying to find a place that we could actually afford and set up a workshop, it just became impractical.

“But by that time I got the idea going, I knew Prague and I had sold some property in Sweden, I had capital to work with, I owned a lot of tools, so I just jumped in.”

How difficult was it to find the right space and how long did it take you to actually set up the business?

Photo: DIY Praha
“There are actually a lot of industrial buildings in Prague that are no longer used for their original purpose. This space was built during communism and it was originally a bakery. And we looked a lot into these kinds of spaces.

“I came here in December 2011, started the company in April after having looked around the city, found this place within a couple of months and moved in in June. Then we started to deal with the Czech regulatory system.”

How difficult was that?

“Well, it took over a year. It wasn’t the actual regulations, such as the acoustic study or the fire safety, we didn’t have any problem with those. What was difficult was getting the people who are giving the permission for the business to operate here to get their head around a DIY workshop.”

So basically the whole idea was completely new to them.

“Yes, as far as we could tell.”

So how does it work here? If I want to come to your workshop, how does it work?

“We are offering training and teaching. We have a basics class every Wednesday, such as wood working, metal working or sowing, where people can come and get their hands on the machines for the first time.”

So I don’t need to be experienced at all.

“Some people come in with experience and already know how to use the tools. So they can come with a project they already have in mind.

“Right now we have a real mix of things going on. You have met a couple of guys more involved in real furniture building. We have lots of people who just come in, cut three shelves and go. It’s a mix of people who need a quick fix of something and people with a more elaborate project on mind.”

Photo: DIY Praha
So who are the people who come here?

“When we started, the majority of the people were expats. That was my social circle because of my lack of Czech. But in the past year we have gone from majority of expats to majority of Czechs. I would say about half of the Czech population are people who live close by, who have learned about us through the word of mouth. The other half is people looking for us.”

Czechs regard themselves as a nation that is good at DIY. Would you say that Czechs are still good at it, or is it something that is gone?

“It is not gone by any means. In terms of what’s happening in the Czech Republic I think you are seeing a real return to the DIY movement. I think that after the Velvet Revolution the retail sector moved in and suddenly you could buy everything and the idea of DIY, of making it yourself, was kind of old-fashioned or “not cool”. But now I think you are seeing a pushback against that.

“I don’t have any personal grudge against IKEA. Installing IKEA kitchens and bathrooms in Sweden has paid for a lot of the tools that I have in this workshop. But there is just so many ways of doing IKEA and after a while it’s the same pieces just put together a little differently.”

So would you say that people are simply rediscovering the joy of making something with their own hands?

“Yes. But going back to the idea of a compact living in an urban setting, most Czechs when they think about making something they go to their grandfathers, or to a chata, somewhere out of the centre, where they have tools and space. So they are doing the opposite of what I am doing, taking their projects outside the centre. And I am taking it back. So we are trying to create some balance.”

Photo: DIY Praha
It is Friday afternoon and Hank Duke’s DIY Prague studio is getting pretty busy. Two guys with protective masks on their faces are welding a window grill. In another, quieter part of the studio, a young Czech-Canadian, Martin Žižka, and his French colleague Mathieu Zylberait are working on some wooden furniture. During a cigarette break, I ask them how they got to know about this place:

Martin Žižka:

“A friend told me about this workshop. I was very happy she told me about this because I am an aspiring cabinet maker and carpenter and I was actually looking for a place to do my projects. I had a few jobs for my friends and I really didn’t have a place to do it. So I was really happy to find this particular workshop.”

Do you work on your own or do you have partners?

“Most of the projects I do on my own. For the projects I definitely cooperate with other people.

How often do you come here?

"I am still studying so on a busy week I am here about 20 hours a week."

What are you working on currently, what is your latest project?

“Currently I am working on a press for making books for a friend. I am also making my first chair. We are also designing a small coffee table that will be advertising a workshop where participants will be able to come and make it themselves.

Photo: DIY Praha
Do you ask anybody for advice or do you work on the projects on your own?

“I am still in the phase where I need mentors and good advice, and Hank has been doing a very good job of helping out. He basically has that approach to all the people who come to the workshop.”

Mathieu Zylberait:

What about you? How did you find out about this place?

"I just live nearby, basically next door. I was looking for a place like this, actually. I work in advertising, TV commercials, nothing you can touch and nothing you can do on your own. I didn’t realise I was super bad at making things on my own, with my hands.”

“It is great coming here, learning things. I am just doing my first from scratch project right now. I think it will be all right.”

What is it exactly?

“It’s kind of a weird coffee table. A creative coffee table, I would say.”

Would you say this place is also about finding new friends and creating a community?

Martin Žižka:

Photo: DIY Praha
“There is definitely a network starting up here. Recently I was renovating an old chair, about a hundred years old, and I found a woman who was able to do the upholstery. A month or two later a couple came in here to so some old chairs as well. So we passed the word and she helped them as well.

“That’s basically one of the main goals of this workshop. To create a network of creative craftspeople, professional or less professional, hobbyists, create a community where people can support each other, learn from each other and help each other.”