By the gentle light of dawn, violin maker Robert Spear silently inspects his instruments in a tiny studio within Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center.

He is the first to arrive most days, before the cavernous waterfront building begins to fill with tourists and some of the nearly 200 artists who paint, print, sculpt, weave, weld and throw pots here.

Stained glass designer George Churchill and printmaker Penny Berringer arrive about 8 a.m. dressed to join a dozen colleagues in colorful leotards for an early morning exercise class held in the heart of the art center's atrium. With the grunting and groaning of fellow artists doing sit-ups in the background, painters Marge Alderson and Zetta Jones sip strong coffee and mix paints on palettes in their neighboring studios.

When the doors open to the public at 10 a.m., potter Jolande Goldberg is spinning clay on her wheel and most artists in the renovated weapons warehouse are settled into their separate studios for the daily combination of creating and selling their wares.

Two families from Iowa, girl campers and a couple from California are among the 60,000 visitors who stream through the studios each month. But from daybreak until, sometimes, after midnight, the Torpedo Factory is above all a community of artisans exchanging ideas and critiques, sharing art materials and financial worries. Over and over, these apron-clad men and woman speaking from behind easels or pottery wheels described their colleagues as "family."

"It's a big family network and a great support group," said Kathleen Middleton, whose painting studio is perched in prime position at the head of the stairs on the third floor. "We hang out to avoid doing work. We get feedback. We visit when we want someone to gloat with or worry with. We butt in on each other. It's family."

An inveterate night person who is among the dozen who sometimes stay in their studios until the wee hours, Middleton joked, "I owe a lot of people money here, too."

Across the hall, printmaker Alvena McCormick said the Torpedo Factory harbors "competition among artists, but it's healthy. You don't let each other slide." Joe Rogers, another painter, added: "You can always gain another eye or another perspective by stepping out of your studio or asking another artist to step in."

Pat Monk is a sculptor who has been at the Torpedo Factory since it opened in 1974. He gives credit to "a core of dedicated people who keep this place alive."

Monk talks about the center's elaborate potluck lunches. They are held for everything from artists' new babies to bon voyage celebrations, and they include dishes from spicy Vietnamese chicken made by jeweler "Tony" On Chow Man to taco salad from painter Connie Slack.

Smaller lunch groups often bring sandwiches and folding chairs into what has become known as "Club 30," Julie Schreder's first-floor sculpture studio and informal forum for sustenance of body and soul.

What holds the artists together, according to former Torpedo Factory director Alderson, is the fact that they conceived and created the center themselves. "From the very beginning there's been a feeling of cooperation among the artists that the success of the center was their responsibility," said Alderson, who has her painting studio on the busiest-of-all first floor. "There's the sense that this is here because of our own sweat and involvement, and to that extent it's ours."

It was artist Marian Van Landingham who sold the Alexandria City Council on converting the facility and then recruited volunteer manpower from the Art League, a local cooperative of artists, to improve the dilapidated structure. Many now credit the redevelopment of Alexandria's waterfront to the artists of the Torpedo Factory, whose successful endeavor attracted others to what was a neglected warehouse district.

Contrary to the popular legend of the starving, secluded artist, those working in the 84 studios and four group galleries feed on constant contact. "We talk about what we're working on now, the last show we saw at the National Gallery or in New York, or what the best buy is on paper or brushes," said Alderson. "Or there's a friendly instant critique from a peer. That's helpful -- it keeps you striving."

Having some 200 artists working side by side is not without its drawbacks, however. Take the clash of country, classical and rock radio music several years ago: A "noise committee" was created as a result, and the conflicting tunes and complaints subsided.

Other self-imposed rules require that artists spend at least 24 hours per week in their studios, and that everything sold on the premises be made there. But because many in the "family" have been together for a dozen years, they've largely learned how to vent feelings quietly. "One of our strengths is a certain amount of love and respect and willingness to cooperate," Alderson said.

The three floors tend to have different identities, with pottery, sculpture and fiber studios centered on the first floor, where the artists must bring in heavy supplies and equipment. The second floor houses the Art League School, which offers classes to the public, along with studios of jewelers, painters and stained glass makers. And most of the painters and some printmakers commune and practice their crafts on the third floor.

On the tip-top of the center sits Ann-Kristin Bohlin, the director of Friends of the Torpedo Factory who works out of a one-room cubicle with a sweeping view of the Potomac River. It is Bohlin's job to seek private financial support for educational programs and to promote the center's philosophy.

In a soft Swedish accent, Bohlin says she is most concerned that the center be known for the quality of its work rather than as a place to go shopping for crafts in Old Town. "My hope is that, while the Torpedo Factory has accomplished its goal of offering enjoyment and enrichment for tourists, it is also known as a forum for artists doing their best work."

It is now past midnight and artist Mark Anderson is alone, bent over his workbench, shaping ceramic molds for colored glassworks in his small riverfront studio. Finally, about 3 a.m., he lays down his tools and leaves the Torpedo Factory by the side door. Old Town is quiet, except for the sound of boats knocking softly against the nearby pier.