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In the nearby "big room," Dalton puts on meetings and Thursday-night open houses. Stools with duct-tape-covered seats ring a flock of raised wooden tables where electronic components are stashed like products in a Kmart clearance aisle. Three kinds of Mountain Dew are visible. A brown couch is positioned before a huge projection television that was the recent test screen for a homemade Etch A Sketch.
"This is like being in six vocational classes at once," Dalton says. "There's always somebody here to tell you what you're doing wrong."
He steps into another little cell, this one tucked between shelves of parts in the corner opposite the old TV. This is the kids' room, he says, a space-themed play area. It's dominated by a shiny metal box with dozens of buttons, tubes and LED lights: the Quantum Encabulator, a blinking, beeping machine that he designed for this year's Maker Faire at Union Station.
"This is a miniature version of my son's spaceship room at home," Dalton says.
"It's the only finished room in the house," Beck cracks, watching one of their two sons build a tower from LEGO bricks. The table saw that was in their driveway more often than not irked the couple's Leawood neighbors. It was Beck who suggested that perhaps the time had come for Dalton to find, in his drive to build, a place for his equipment besides the family home.
"I was just imagining a storage facility with outlets," she says. "Maybe a man cave, a place where you could just close the door when everything was done."
Instead, Dalton opened Hammerspace.
Everybody in my lineage got in trouble for taking toys apart when they were kids," Dalton says. "It's not enough to know that something works. We want to know why and how."
One of his grandfathers, Lee Spruill, was an aeronautical engineer with TWA, overseeing the airline's overhaul base in Kansas City. His version of retirement was to build a steam-powered car out of an old white Ford Pinto, its dual tailpipes roaring through sleepy St. Petersburg, Florida. (Theatricality also runs in the family.)
As a child actor, Dalton played Merlin in a Coterie Theatre production and ran through the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in Bonner Springs as a pickpocket attempting to steal coin purses from nobles. In high school, he produced jewelry in a shop class and he showed some of it to the fest's blacksmith, who was impressed enough to invite the boy to apprentice.
"He told me his last apprentice had run off with the test-of-strength girl," Dalton says.
Following his 1991 graduation from Shawnee Mission East High School, Dalton spent the next three years on the festival circuit, learning to forge steel and make swords, knives and handles.
"I found my crowd," he says. "It is a place where handcrafted art is still celebrated and rewarded and purchased at prices that are indicative of the level of physical labor that's been put into it."
After a shop fire claimed his tools, though, Dalton got off the ride in his hometown. Looking for an employee discount to purchase new tools, he stopped into Ranch Mart Ace Hardware and handed a job application to the woman behind the counter. His phone rang later that night.
"Beck called and said there's bad news and good news," Dalton recalls. " 'The bad news is, they're not going to hire you. The good news is that there's a consolation prize: You win a date with me.' " The two have been a couple for 18 years.
Around the time he began dating Beck, Dalton enrolled in Johnson County Community College to study interior design. His brother, Scott, had recently gone to work for Valve, the Seattle video-game designer, and Dalton thought that he'd take over his father's interior-design business. Jim Dalton moved on, though, and Dalton eventually learned the plantation-shutter trade from another local businessman, whose factory he took over in 2008.
Looking for a place to both anchor his shutter operation and store his growing arsenal of tools, Dalton settled on the disused telecom building in Brookside. Moving into it required a one-man Maker Faire, though. The place had been stripped of its valuable copper wire, and the roof leaked. He patched holes in the wall and, with help, routed a new air-conditioning system around the old one.