Break Through is a podcast series about making. Making discoveries, making a difference in the community and making the world a better place. It’s the stories of startups and inventors who are developing products that have social value by solving real world problems. It’s about artisans and entrepreneurs who have broken through the mold to live their best lives.
Welcome to episode number five of Break Through, a NextFab-made podcast series. This time our guest is Mel Sage of Sage Woodworks, a Philadelphia-based artist whose custom-fabricated designs use nature and typography to produce stunning and unique pieces. Throughout the conversation, you’ll learn about Mel’s journey from architect to entrepreneur, how she found a sense of community at NextFab, and advice for those who aspire to make a living from making.
Ron Bauman: Good morning, Melanie. How are you today?
Mel Sage: Morning. I’m good. How are you?
Ron Bauman: I’m good. Bright and early on a Monday morning.
Mel Sage: Yep.
Ron Bauman: Thanks for joining us here at NextFab, South Philadelphia. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mel Sage: Okay. I’m Mel Sage. I am from the area originally, and I have a background in architecture. I have my bachelor in architecture. I went to school down South in Clemson, South Carolina, and I graduated in 2016. And I immediately moved to New York City, where I did a couple odd jobs and then I ended up at an architecture firm there. I worked at, it was like high-end residential firm. And I worked there for about a year and a half, and I worked on a five-story building in DC for most of the time that I was there. And I was always sort of interested in fabrication ever since college. So even when I was at the firm, I was interested in building the site models there, and I didn’t always get to do that. So when I did, it was a really exciting time for me.
Mel Sage: I don’t know if you’re familiar with site models and architecture, but that stacking of the topography was always really beautiful to me. That’s where I got the idea for what I do now, which is wooden wall hangings. I take topography maps, and I underlay them in AutoCAD, and trace the topographies of different places. And then I cut out the wood on the laser cutter and stack them in more of an artistic way. I take a little bit of artistic liberty there.
Mel Sage: But yeah, so I decided that I wanted to leave New York when I realized that I wanted to pursue this, but it was so expensive in New York. I was looking at wood shops there, and they were like $800 a month just to be a member. So, I figured maybe I would come back to my roots, come back to the Philadelphia area where I know it’s a little more affordable, and I found NextFab just through online searches. And their membership is, I think, a great deal.
Mel Sage: My lease was about to end, so I was like, “I’m just going to up and move to Philly.”
Ron Bauman: Nice.
Mel Sage: So, I moved here and immediately started working at NextFab, and it’s been great. I’ve met a lot of people that are also in the same boat as me. It’s been fun to get to know people here.
Ron Bauman: Yeah. That’s awesome. Was there a tipping point up in New York that you said “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m done with architecture. I want to pursue this dream that I have.”?
Mel Sage: Yeah, I guess the tipping point was when I found myself sneaking away from my desk to hop on the laser cutter at work, and I was designing things like in CAD in my spare time, and hoping that my boss didn’t see. That was probably my tipping point. Also, I took a woodworking class when I was in Brooklyn, and it was a six-week course, and that was really fun. And I just found it super therapeutic. All of that came together, and then again, with my lease ending, I needed to make a quick decision on it. So, I put in my two weeks.
Ron Bauman: Cool. Was woodworking something that you were always interested in? Or was this something that developed in your time as an architect?
Mel Sage: I would say it developed pretty slowly. When I was in school, in college, I would always use the wood shop whenever I could. I’m not a classically-trained woodworker. I’ve trained myself on most of the machines that I use. But yeah, I would work in the wood shop at school and I would use the CNC router at school whenever I could, and the laser cutter. I was really interested in digital fabrication. I would say more so than woodworking, but I always was really interested in wood as a material. I would make a lot of my models in school out of wood when I could. I was just drawn to wood.
Ron Bauman: Nice. What do you find passionate? What inspires your creativity?
Mel Sage: I would have to take it way back. My mom-mom is who taught me just how to incorporate art into my life. Not that I draw inspiration from that everyday obviously, but I do a lot of painting with what I do now, even though I’m not necessarily drawing figures or anything. But whenever I pick up a paint brush, I think of her. I hang out with her sometimes. She doesn’t really paint anymore, but we still talk about art.
Ron Bauman: Awesome. You find inspiration through through mom-mom, any other sources of inspiration?
Mel Sage: Yeah. I still have that architectural, I don’t know what I would call it. There’s something in me that’s still drawn to architecture, so I still follow some big name architects. So I would say like Bjarke Ingels is a big one. Zaha Hadid, who obviously was a female in the industry. I follow their work just on social media and stuff, and just keep up with what they’re producing. Not that their work necessarily relates to what I do now, but I definitely draw inspiration from their textures and their structures that they come up with.
Next, Mel tells us about her new career path, the community here at NextFab and her transition into teaching.
Mel Sage: When I came to NextFab, there was definitely a big jump from working for the man per se, to just doing my own thing. And it’s just made me so much happier in my day to day life. Being able to set my own schedule is amazing.
Ron Bauman: Be your own boss.
Mel Sage: Exactly. And being able to just come here and work straight through the day. I don’t think about how much time I’m putting into my work day because I’m just passionate about what I’m doing. Because at the architecture firm, there were times when I would be there until 2:00 AM on a Saturday, crazy hours. But here, I don’t think about it. I’ll come in on the weekend and I’m having fun, and it’s therapeutic. And like I said, I’ve met a lot of other makers here that are in a similar boat to me, like in an entrepreneurial sense. And I’ve had lunch meetings with people that are also working in the shop that we just talk through ideas and it’s way more casual than what I used to do being in a firm. And it makes for like a lot more of a relaxed lifestyle I would say. But I’m still like working my ass off.
Ron Bauman: Cool. So, talk to me more about the community here at NextFab and how that’s helped you get to where you’re at today.
Mel Sage: I would say I typically meet someone almost every time I come in here, someone new. And it’s super exciting, whether I’m just walking past one of the workbenches and seeing a new interesting thing that someone’s making, or just a new face. I try to say hello to as many people as I can, because there are a lot of people in here making really cool stuff. I’ve met people that make traditional woodworking stuff, to people who are making large-scale digital fabricated stuff on the CNC router.
Mel Sage: So, it’s really all types of projects that are going on, and people are really easy to talk to about how to make things for free. I don’t need to take a class to learn how to use certain machines because people are really friendly and if I see someone working on something, I’ll just ask if they can show me how it’s done really quickly and people are really friendly here.
Ron Bauman: So that knowledge sharing is really a really important element of the community here.
Mel Sage: Yes. Yeah, knowledge sharing I would say is definitely. It’s very open here, and it’s a very nice relaxed community.
Ron Bauman: And you’ve taken that next step to actually, you teach here as well.
Mel Sage: Yeah. Yeah, so I do teach here part time. I teach introduction to Adobe Illustrator and Illustrator for laser cutting. And I’m about to start teaching Rhino too.
Ron Bauman: Oh, nice.
Mel Sage: Those are all programs that I learned in school and throughout my architectural career. That’s been a cool transition too, and definitely has integrated me more into NextFab and just getting to know the staff better and stuff like that.
Ron Bauman: Sure. What’s your favorite piece of equipment here in the shop?
Mel Sage: Good question. I think my favorite piece of equipment would probably be, I love the laser cutter, but I feel like I know it too well for it to be exciting for me or I don’t know. In the actual wood shop I would say the table saw, it’s really fun to just like get into a groove on it and yeah, just rip through stuff. So yeah, probably the table saw.
Ron Bauman: Do you work in any other departments? You work in metalworking?
Mel Sage: I don’t. I would love to learn more metal stuff. I should probably sign up for some classes soon. I feel like I get so enthralled in what I’m doing that I forget that I can take all of these awesome classes here. So, that’s definitely something on my list.
Ron Bauman: Awesome. Do you ever collaborate with any of the other members on projects?
Mel Sage: I haven’t collaborated with anyone yet, but like I said, I’ve talked to other makers about how to make certain things, so currently I just got asked to do a commission for someone’s wedding where I’m going to be making this mountainous scene with wood, and then it’s going to be like the guest book, so people can sign it at the wedding. And I’ve been talking to my friend Emily who, she’s an amazing woodworker. She’s been woodworking for years.
Ron Bauman: Emily, she’s a member here?
Mel Sage: Emily Bunker.
Ron Bauman: Oh yeah, sure. Of course.
Mel Sage: Yeah. She’s been guiding me in different ways that I can make this piece because she has more technical knowledge in the wood shop than I do.
Ron Bauman: Mel goes on to tell us about her inspirations, why she loves using laser cutting and answers the age-old question, “Why wood?”.
Mel Sage: I think wood, especially with what my product is about right now, which I draw a lot of inspiration from nature and topography, so wood being more of a natural material, that’s what drew me to it. And I always have just been drawn to wood. Like I said, when I was in college, I would make my models out of wood for whatever reason. There’s just a quality of it. I think the fact that you can stain it, or paint it, or sand it in a certain way, you can change the look of it pretty easily. And the grain obviously is beautiful, and follows that look that topography has as well. So, I think there’s an interesting connection to nature through using wood as a material.
Ron Bauman: How does the laser cutting come into play?
Mel Sage: I design everything through sketching first, and then I’ll design it on the computer. And when I say sketching, some of my pieces are just straight pieces. So, I don’t do any of the curvature aspect. With the straight pieces, I design that through sketching, and then I’ll take it to my computer. With the topographic stuff, I had literally just traced topo maps on my computer, so not much sketching.
Mel Sage: Once I create everything digitally in AutoCAD, then I’ll send it all over to Adobe Illustrator, and get everything formatted for the laser cutter. And so with my pieces, and I’ll show you later, I create these tabs and numbers to each of the pieces of wood because they’re going to start stacking on each other. So, it ends up being sort of a big puzzle.
Ron Bauman: Okay. Like Jenga?
Mel Sage: Yeah. All of these pieces are numbered, so I know where to place them when I’m actually assembling it. And so with the laser cutter, all of my pieces are laid out just on a flat surface. And then I’ll have the laser cutter come in and do all of my cutting and scoring of all of the tabs and the numbers.
The discussion moved towards the business-side of Sage Woodworks, where Mel sells her art pieces, and some of the challenges of being an entrepreneur.
Mel Sage: I do local markets as much as I can, and I just recently joined a gallery up in Brooklyn. So, I’m sort of doing both of those scenes right now, the market scene and the gallery scene. And I’m kind of like straddling that right now. I’m not really sure which direction I’ll end up falling on more heavily. But yeah, I make an inventory for those shows, and then I try to keep my inventory up as much as I can. But obviously I’m just a single maker right now, so we’ll see if I can get my inventory where I need it.
Ron Bauman: And you’re also a part of Good Measure, correct?
Mel Sage: Yeah. I sell pieces in Good Measure right now with through Ross Stoops.
Ron Bauman: Yeah, and Good Measure, just for our audience, so they know, is a brick and mortar retail storefront in South Philly. Not too far away from the shop here where a lot of the members are selling their work on consignment through there.
Mel Sage: Yeah. It’s commission-based. I basically lend my work to the Good Measure and then when it sells I get a percentage based on that sale. Or I guess Ross gets the percentage, and I get the principle.
Ron Bauman: Awesome.
Mel Sage: And I’m in a store in Haddonfield, New Jersey as well, called Meraki Market. And that one, they sell wholesale, so that’s great. So, I get to just sell them my work, and then if they sell it, that’s great. But that’s the end of the transaction. And I’m about to meet up with someone from the Common Room in North Philly. I’m going to be part of it. That’s another makers’ retail space. Much like the Good Measure.
Ron Bauman: I have to check them out.
Mel Sage: Yeah, and then I also sell on Cactus Collective, which is a vintage shop in South Philly.
Ron Bauman: Are you doing anything online, or is it mostly through these markets?
Mel Sage: Yeah, so I have a website.
Ron Bauman: Of course.
Mel Sage: My website…
Ron Bauman: Sage Woodworks.
Mel Sage: sagewoodworks.org.
Ron Bauman: .org. You got the.org going. Nice. You’re not a nonprofit though, right?
Mel Sage: No.
Ron Bauman: No? You just like the.org?
Mel Sage: I couldn’t get the .com.
Ron Bauman: Oh, good move. Good move.
Mel Sage: I had to do it. Yeah, so I have my website. And I tried doing Etsy, but I wasn’t really getting a lot of traction on Etsy, so the website’s been going pretty well. I would like to make more sales online. It’s always exciting to get a sale online that is from someone I don’t know. So, that’s happened a couple of times where I’m like, “Yes, the word is getting out.”
Ron Bauman: That’s great. Do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
Mel Sage: Yes. I love being an entrepreneur. I like making my own schedule, and being my own boss.
Ron Bauman: Nice.
Mel Sage: Yeah.
Ron Bauman: Awesome. What are some of the challenges that you face?
Mel Sage: I think for me, the challenges that I face are more mental than anything else. It was hard leaving my old job, and walking away from a salary-based position to just really being responsible for my own income, and everything that’s attached to that. Just convincing myself that I made the right move and that things are going to continue to progress. It’s up and down. Some days, I have great opportunities coming at me and I’m really excited, and then there will be days when I feel like there’s not much happening, so I need to keep myself motivated and stay positive about everything.
Ron Bauman: How do you do that?
Mel Sage: I just try to take it day by day, and I try to do yoga and that sort of thing to keep my mind steady.
We wrapped our conversation by discussing women in the workshop, advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, and what the future holds in store for Sage Woodworks.
Mel Sage: At NextFab, I really don’t notice the fact that I’m working in a male-dominated space as much. There may have been one or two times where my ear perks up, but for the most part, this is a space where everyone is equal. I really don’t notice much-
Ron Bauman: There’s no mansplaining going on?
Mel Sage: No, not so much.
Ron Bauman: Okay, good.
Mel Sage: No. Actually, I’ve had a lot of men ask me how to do things, which is really great. And I’ve had men ask me to help them lift things and stuff, which-
Ron Bauman: That’s got to be empowering.
Mel Sage: Yeah, you don’t like get that everywhere. So, it really is a space that’s, I’m not just saying this, it is a space that’s really, it’s equal. Men and women I would say are pretty equal. And I would say it’s probably a third of the population, at least in the wood shop is women. So, I do see women in the shop.
Ron Bauman: All right, so you’re not outnumbered too bad.
Mel Sage: It’s not too bad, no.
Ron Bauman: That’s good. Awesome. So, what advice would you give to a young budding entrepreneur? Someone looking to make that leap and following your footsteps, and do what you did.
Mel Sage: I feel like there are two schools of thought in this. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Don’t leave your old job and become an entrepreneur until you’re like ready to do it. Everything’s set up, and you know that financially you can do it. Everything’s where you need it to be.” I disagree with that thought.
Ron Bauman: I do too, by the way.
Mel Sage: Yeah, I think you just need to go for it.
Ron Bauman: Dive in head first.
Mel Sage: You just got to get out of what’s making you unhappy, and pursue something that’s making you happy. And if it doesn’t work out, which I don’t think that’s a failure either. I would say if things aren’t working out, that just means you need to sort of change your footing a little bit and just change the way that you’re approaching it. So, yeah.
Ron Bauman: Awesome. So what’s the future hold for Sage Woodworks?
Mel Sage: For Sage Woodworks, the future right now is just about getting into more shows, getting the word out there. I’m just trying to gain more traction in terms of having a bigger following, so that people know my work, and I get to make more sales based off of that. Just getting it to be a little more steady. And eventually, I would like to have my own studio as much as I love NextFab, and it’s been an incubator for me, and I’ll probably be here for a few more years.
Ron Bauman: Right.
Mel Sage: Eventually, I would like to have my own creative space, and just be able to send packages from my shop, not my apartment address.
Ron Bauman: That’s great. Well, as much as we like to see people grow and members here grow and move on and get bigger and better, we always want you to stay here. And I think people, they don’t ever really fully leave NextFab. I think once you’re here, you’re always a member, even if you have graduated through.
Mel Sage: Right. It is that sort of community, and it’s cool when you walk through the lobby, you see all these photos of people that have made things here in the past, and even some examples of their work. And it just from working here, I know that those people, they don’t still work here. So, it’s cool that NextFab gives tribute to people that have made things here. They’re not mad that they left. They’re happy that they made something.
Ron Bauman: And that’s why I feel bad. This shouldn’t be necessarily the end of the rainbow for anybody, but this is really, the place where it gets you to where you want to be as an entrepreneur, even as an enthusiast, and as somebody who, we talked about earlier, how do we go from passion, to project, to product? And I think that’s really great what you’re doing, and we’re really happy for you, and excited for you.
Mel Sage: Thank you. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now without NextFab.
Ron Bauman: That’s awesome. Well, we wish you the best of luck. We look forward to seeing you around the shop.
Mel Sage: Thanks.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Break Through. I’m your host, Ron Bauman, serial entrepreneur, founder of Milk Street Marketing, and NextFab member. If you are enjoying our show, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and leave us a review. To learn more about how NextFab can help make your ideas come to life. Visit nextfab.com, and follow #nextfabmade on social to see what our members are making.
Come back for our next episode featuring Jessie Garcia of Tozuda, who developed a head impact sensor to help detect concussions in sports and in the workplace.