Moving abroad often means losing that ‘insider’ status that you held in your home country. The advantage of just ‘knowing’ how a system or local industry works, where to find the tools or resources you need to get something done.
Remco recognised this, and that his public workshop in Amsterdam could act as an entrance, not just for locals needing somewhere to knock up a coffee table or use specific machinery… but also for expat carpenters, designers, artists and D-I-Y enthusiasts.
The Openbare Werkplaats is providing foreigners in Amsterdam with an entry point – and community – that they may not otherwise find.
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Moving abroad often means losing that insider status that you held in your home country. The advantage of just knowing how a system or local industry works, where to find the right tools or resources you need to get something done. Remco recognised this, and at his public workshop in Amsterdam could act as an entrance, not just for locals, needing somewhere to knock up a coffee table or use specific machinery, but also for expat carpenters, designers, artists, and DIY enthusiasts. The OpenbarWerkplaatz is providing foreigners in Amsterdam with an entry point, and community, that they may not otherwise find.
Remco, you run this public workshop for craftsmanship and DIY. How did it start?
Remco: Well, it started with the fact that I grew up myself with all the facilities we offer now, and the factory my father once had. So this was a place where the firm would make mainly stuff for musea and store fronts and that, all those kinds of things. Both woodworking and metalworking stuff, making frames to house artefacts for example for museums, with,with wooden bases, glass tops and all that kind of stuff. And privately, I had a lot of advantage just being there.
I worked there part-time, I grew up more or less there, I always worked there on Saturday. As a private person, I did all the kind of stuff, building my own furniture, technical stuff, so metalwork and cars and all that. That’s what I did back then. And at one point in time, when this company which my father had sold already wasn’t going that well, and we both had, well would be ashamed if that would just go away, and we wouldn’t have the possibility to do our thing, what we have done for so many years, on a private level. And then we started thinking, well, maybe we can make what we have here into something public, and that’s how more or less it came about.
Carlie: So you opened your doors to the public. And what do people come in and most use your workshop for?
Remco: Well in reality, luckily the company didn’t go bankrupt, so what we did is we set up the same sort of facilities in a neighbouring building, and we started, and just, well very much from word of mouth and people just finding us through our website on the internet. And mainly, we started simply in Dutch, because that’s what we came from, of course. We later changed to an English version of our website. What we found out, there’s people, let’s say 70% of the people that come into our doors are coming in as a professional. So, you must look at people like being designers, architects, artists, furniture makers, those sort of people are normally visiting here, but are working here.
Carlie: I guess it’s quite expensive to set up your own workshop as a designer, as an artist, as a furniture maker, and so having these facilities that you can just come in and use as you need, and all of the tools that you need are there, that must be so invaluable for people.
Remco: Yeah. We get a lot of that. There were like two main reasons for us to say hey, we’re gonna start this, because we were seeing of course that being in Amsterdam, everybody lives in a small house, relatively small. If you go out to the countryside everybody has a big shed, or whatever, and can do their own thing. And on the other hand, a lot of people in Holland anyway, are now working for themselves, more like, in the old days people were working for a boss with a big workshop and doing their thing, and more and more people are working from their own, and you can’t just have a complete workshop for a single person. That’s just too expensive, to hold that up.
And that’s why we thought, well, this might be a viable thing for us, because of those two things, and in practice that was true, and also what we saw and what is the main influx of people for us, is that people come from an education, let’s say a woodworking school, or an artists’ school, like the Rietveld here in Amsterdam. They come from a school that’s fully equipped with everything that you can find, and then they have to start for themselves, and they have nothing. They don’t have the work, so they don’t have the money to buy anything for the job.
And they don’t have the place to do it, and what we see is that we have a lot of, well let’s say start-ups also, that people have, or try to start working for themselves, they’ve come in, and some of them stay here, and some of them just go, grow bigger, and they leave and start their own workshop or start their own place to work. So that’s what we see a lot.
Carlie: So you’re a bit of an incubator for new businesses as well, and giving them a bit of a soft landing when they start.
Remco: Yeah. That’s a very popular way, or, that’s something you see a lot, everything’s called incubators and start-ups and, and, but everybody talks about it, and we just say hey, we’re just gonna do it. And that’s happened to be like that.
Carlie: So tell me about some of the projects you can come in and do.
Remco: It’s a very wide variety, because of the variety of people that come in. And also what you can see is that there are private people who come and work here that do nicer things or more intricate things than, like professionals that come here, so there’s no one way you can say this is what these people make, or this is what that, those people make.
For example, right at this moment there’s a guy who’s in here for the first time, and he wanted to make a frame for a picture, and it’s quite a, well not so much a complex, but it’s not something that a beginner should normally start with, ‘cause he’s going inlays from wood into another wood, and it’s gonna be very nice. But it’s the first time round for him, and he’s just, doing his thing, and when he’s not understanding what you have to do he can come in and ask, and we’ll guide you through the process, when it’s not too complicated.
There are people here making tables or other furniture out of old sport room floors, for example, because in the old days, gym floors used to be from wood of course, with all the stripes and everything on it, and now those are made into nice pieces of furniture.
Carlie: Ah, that’d be very nice!
Remco: Nicer wood, and we have all the stripes, doing all of that kind of strange things on the top, where we have all the fields and, which were on the gym floors. We’ve got a lot of people doing reclaiming things, so getting old pieces of wood or metal, and making something new out of it, so upcycling is a very hip and happening thing.
But what we get a lot, for example, is people doing woodwork, like say carpenters. They for example want to make a steel frame for a table, which is very common, but even if you have your own facilities doing woodworking, you don’t have your own facilities for making a steel table frame. And that’s what we also offer.
So we also get a lot of people who have their own workshop, and do their own thing, but also come to us to, for example, use the bigger machine that we have compared to what they do, or they have at home. Or, use facilities that they don’t have at home. Making something of steel’s a whole different ballgame than making something out of wood.
Carlie: Remco, you mentioned that at the start you just had your website in Dutch. How did you identify that your business could be very useful for expats?
Remco: Well, mainly because quite early on we got English carpenters, or English-speaking carpenters, actually one from Australia, and one from America, who found us through their boss who was working in Holland for a longer time, he was from New Zealand, to really make it complicated! But that’s the way we thought, well, we know of course Amsterdam, there’s a growing number of expats working there, and they don’t have the entrances the Dutch people have, knowing all the places they can go, and courses they can get or whatever. It was OK, why not just put an English website out, and see what happens, what’s happening, and slowly but surely we have a growing number of foreign people coming here.
Carlie: On your Facebook page there’s some feedback, and one person says that your business is more like a clubhouse. You must be really proud to have fostered a bit of a community around this workshop.
Remco: Yeah, it’s very funny, as we had never intended it to be like that. We always intended it of course to be a nice place to come. Mainly because we started in an old building, and, with nothing fancy, and with, like the modern workshops. It has very much a look and feel that it’s alive, has a history, and we try to keep that look and feel. What we certainly are is just plain down to earth. What you see is what you get, and we try to be very nice to everybody, but if somebody comes in and wants something that’s impossible, or out of his or her league, we’ll just say it. And that’s not always nice, but at the end, our experience is that’s better.
Carlie: If someone comes in and wants to make an intricate chess table, and they’ve never made a picture frame before, this could be a problem.
Remco: Yeah. But, depending on how you come in, of course, if you just barge in and say hey, this is what I’m gonna make, and it’s gonna be beautiful, and then we find out well, that you’re just like.. well, let’s put it bluntly, full of shit, we’ll let you know. If you come in and say I really want to make this, I know it’s difficult, and I need a lot of… not so much assistance but I need to learn a lot, we’re very much more open to help you along. We’re still gonna say hey, it probably will take you like maybe twice, three times, four times as long as you might think it would take. Because, and that’s what we explain almost daily. What people do here is not so much an art, but it’s a skill, and it’s a skill set you need to have or need to obtain, to get something done. And, I always say, once you’re finished, you know how it’s done.
Carlie: And you do offer some workshops too, don’t you, for people looking to do some DIY jobs around the house?
Remco: Yeah. We do quite a lot of workshops, but the DIY is one category, yeah, that’s something that came to us, the DIY school in Holland, so in Amsterdam the [Dutch word – 00:10:49], which has existed for a very long time. We were looking for some cooperation with another firm, and I said hey, well, if you take the practical part of our courses, especially the DIY and woodworking and furniture upholstery, those kind of courses they gave too, we can do a cooperation, and that’s how that came to be.
Carlie: So how does it work? If I’m an expat that’s doing a bit of home reno, or I’m an expat carpenter or a builder that doesn’t have enough of my own equipment or a workshop, how would I come in and start using your facilities?
Remco: Well, for the DIY thing, it’s of course mainly if you don’t have any experience, because most of the courses are for people who don’t have experience, and you can come in and learn the basics. One of the things you learn, not so much, you learn of course some basics, but you also learn hey, where do my skills end? When do I hire a guy who does the odd jobs around the house for me?
Carlie: Do you throw up your arms in defeat? (laughs)
Remco: No, no, no, the main advantage of following a course like this is that if you don’t know anything, it’s very easy for somebody to say, hey, this needs to be done, and that needs to be, and that’s when to rip out your arm financially. And if you have some experience on what you can or cannot do, or how it’s done or not, in that way you can say hey, now you’re pulling my leg, let’s get back to the basics, this is what I want you to do, and this is what you’re gonna charge me for it. So that’s one part of the story.
On the other hand, if you want to work here during the day time, most of the courses are given at night. During the day time it’s very simple, if you,if you come in, first time we sit down, you know, we have you sign our house rules. For example, in our house rules [it’s] stated that you work here at your own risk, and that has to do with something like you poking somebody else’s eye out, so with…
Carlie: Cutting off your arm, you know!
Remco: No, not so much your own arm, that’s your own fault, but it’s mainly say if you work next to somebody else, and you poke somebody else’s eye out. Once you’ve signed, you get a t-shirt, and from then on you can just hire a work bench per half day, half days are always from 9 till 1, and 1 till 5. A standard work bench is €30, ex VAT, including the use of our stationary machines. So that’s table saw, planer, thicknesser, band saw, welding equipment, even our lathe and our mill, all those kinds of big machines which normally you wouldn’t have at home.
And there are some extras, depending on what you’re doing, for example if you’re using a machine intensively, let’s say you’re coming with a big stack of wooden planks which you want to cut, or want to plane, or something, we charge you like €20 extra per half day for that.
Carlie: And it’s a bit like hogging the photocopier in an office really, isn’t it?
Remco: Yeah, well, our prices are based on [what’s] widely known in English as a fair use.
Carlie: I can imagine that it would be an excellent networking opportunity, especially for new expats that might be in woodworking, construction, furniture-making kind of areas, to make some new connections with locals as well.
Remco: Yeah, yeah you can, sure, that’s what happens, and of course the most important facility in our building is the cantina, where all the talking goes on. It happens, certainly, people getting to know other people working for them, or on the other hand we also get quite often people coming in here saying hey, I don’t want to do things myself, do you know somebody who can do some work for me? And with like 1200 people in our register who are inscribed here to work here, most of the time we can find someone who might be able to, to help those people.
Carlie: So Remco, if I’m looking for your workshop, where can I find it?
Remco: Well, that’s not too difficult, if you’re a bit familiar with Amsterdam. It’s in the east of Amsterdam. It’s very close to the [Dutch name 00:14:25] Dijk, and this is a road that exits or enters the east of Amsterdam, and we’re at the Cruquius, that’s a difficult name, and that’s spelled as C-r-u-q-u-i-u-s, some Dutch guy long dead! [Dutch name 00:15:14], maybe for some expats who like to wine and dine a bit, we’re exactly opposite the Harbour Club in Amsterdam.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you want to know more about Remco’s public workshop, or have any questions, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our Netherlands forum or Facebook group. You can also check out our other podcast episodes. We cover all aspects of expat life. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.