Master craftsman, prolific musician and selfless innovator, Jeff Schaefer leads Innovation Lab with expertise, ingenuity and sixth MacGyver sense
When he was growing up, Jeff Schaefer made his mom a deal. If she would keep their kitchen table clear of stacks of paper, he would build new table leaves with wood that matched the original 100-year-old solid oak table. His parents had purchased the table at an antique shop because it was all they could afford, and the leaves it came with were generic.
“My mom was always a collector of paper because she thought she may lose her memory,” says Schaefer, Director of the James Guth Costigan ‘62 Innovation Lab. “I wanted to do something special for her.”
He spent weeks in their basement, secretly crafting table leaves that would bring the old oak antique back to life with consistency and character. Unfortunately, his mom developed Alzheimer’s before he could finish the project – yet the table leaves endure as an “homage to that time” because of what they represent and the story they tell.
Today, the table leaves, which adorn the display case at the Innovation Lab, offer a glimpse into the creative mind and incredible depth of a man who is a master craftsman, prolific musician and selfless innovator.
Schaefer’s proclivity to build and create began with an innate curiosity for how things tick. He grew up in a neighborhood with acres of trees and no other kids. “I was young and bored, and we had a lot of tools, so I started woodworking on my own, then moved to metalworking and small engine repair.”
His father enjoyed watching home renovation shows before they were in vogue. “I learned from that and started fixing things around the house to make life easier for my family,” he says. Schaefer adds that MacGyver also caught his imagination because of his “drive to create and learn and improvise” with limited resources.
“I grew up as a tinkerer,” Schaefer says. “What really interested me was taking things apart and hitting them to see what they sounded like. I wanted to know why things sound certain ways, and how material properties and thickness and air depth affect the end result.”
Schaefer became an avid percussionist and studied music in college before beginning his career teaching percussion in the Wentzville School District. As part of his job, he fixed broken music equipment. This simple yet skilled task inspired him to start his own side business acquiring derelict equipment, fixing it and selling it to schools that needed it. “It was something I could do to help others,” Schaefer says.
He went on to pursue theater management in local schools, in addition to serving as a professional stagehand at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center. These experiences allowed him to cultivate his craft as a carpenter, machinist and stage craft builder.
In his spare time, Schaefer made wooden drum sets from scratch. “I figured out what suits my sound, and it became my signature style for building.” His building talent caught the attention of Jazz St. Louis.
“I still get compliments from the drums I made for Jazz St. Louis six years ago,” he says. “It’s neat seeing an array of national and international artists, and many big names that have played my drums and been happy with them. For me, what stands out most is not necessarily building the drums, but the response I get after I build them.”
In addition to building custom percussion instruments and occasionally fixing broken equipment in his home shop, Schaefer enjoys working on his three classic cars: a 1968 Corvette, a 1949 Plymouth (all original) and a 1989 Mazda RX7, a birthday surprise for his wife.
“The cars are a lot of fun,” he says, adding that his wife cried when he gave her the Mazda.
“Doing stuff for other people is more the motivation and drive for me, rather than that one crowning project or thing I make.”
When Schaefer arrived at SLUH in July 2019, he was tasked with establishing the school’s new Innovation Lab, a 5,200 square-foot space that features a fabrication workshop, classroom, general workshop, STEM competition space, and group meeting and planning spaces. He developed safety protocols and helped to finalize the space design and layout for optimal functionality.
“We wanted to create something that was safe and cohesive,” says Schaefer. “At the same time, we wanted to create tiered student involvement, so students can progress in skill operation and machine technology levels, and do it in a way we can support them and chart their paths.”
The Innovation Lab equipment – including 13 3D printers, a CNC router, fully equipped woodshop, two laser cutters and a hybrid machine (3D printer and CNC milling machine) – provides seemingly unlimited opportunity for creativity.
“I tell students, if they can dream it, we can make it,” says Schaefer. “Though it may not be to the same scale or of the same material, we can figure out how to create the concept.”
Brendan Carr ‘21, who had no woodworking experience, approached Schaefer about an ambitious project last school year. He wanted to create a marimba, a behemoth percussion instrument consisting of a set of precisely cut wooden bars, with resonators or pipes suspended beneath for sound amplification. Though the pandemic slowed his progress, he hopes to finish it this spring.
“Mr. Schaefer is great to work with, mostly because we share many of the same interests,” says Carr. “I've learned a lot about woodworking from him, but I've also learned about workflow and how to balance massive projects with everything else in life.”
In addition to working with students on individual projects, Schaefer, a colorful and effective communicator, teaches the Woodworking course and collaborates with faculty on class projects. Last year he teamed up with Jennifer Ice’s Latin class to create custom signet rings on 3D printers.
“The students were excited to see how it went from paper design concept to 3D reality,” says Schaefer, who used the experience to discuss perception-based problem solving. “I encouraged them to look at their rings and ask what else they could be, aside from circles. How you look at something can change how you perceive it. It’s a great exercise for idea generation and allows you to look at problems from another angle.”
Other unique projects in which Schaefer and the Innovation Lab have contributed include the creation of a prosthetic hand and an elliptical pool table, as well as production of personal protective equipment for local healthcare organizations.
“You can come to Jeff with an idea, and he can tell you not only how to make that idea a reality, he already has ideas on what pieces will be the most difficult to accomplish and a list of questions to consider,” says Robyn Wellen, science teacher and co-moderator of the STEM/Robotics Club. “He is very practical and knows the tools in the shop so well. As soon as a new tool enters the shop, he is already researching how to make it better.
“Jeff has so many ideas for the future of the space and ways that students can use it to express themselves in a safe manner. The space will only grow with him at the helm.”
Moving forward, Schaefer continues to explore how the Innovation Lab can be a catalyst for project-based learning in the curriculum as well as interdepartmental collaboration. All the while, he maximizes the potential of this space with his expertise, ingenuity and sixth MacGyver sense – and when you see him there, he looks delightfully content, like he’s at home. “The stuff I do here is stuff I grew up doing.”
Go Forth funded the establishment of the James Guth Costigan '62 Innovation Lab and the staff to manage it. Jeff Schaefer serves as the Director of the Innovation Lab.
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