Gresham man creates elaborate birdhouses replicas using only household tools

PMG PHOTO: ANGEL ROSAS  - Smith has been able to make dozens of birdhouses from the comfort of his garage in Gresham. Marty Smith has traveled to hundreds of exotic locations all from the comfort of his Gresham garage.

The 89-year-old has been able to accomplish this through construction of intricate birdhouse replicas of famous buildings from around the globe.

Smith has been making these miniatures since 2002, but his love for creating, building and repairing started in his younger days as the handy man for his family in Portland.

Smith's father, a construction worker, was often away from the family for work, leaving Smith in charge of repairing household items.

Although only at home sporadically, Smith's father gave his son guidance on how he should build, many tips Smith still uses today.

"His big rules were: take the time; build it strong and always use the leftovers first," Smith said.

With tutelage from his dad, Smith noticed that not only did he enjoy working with his hands, but that he had a gift.

"Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I believe that God gave us all something that we are good at. From being a bus driver to a doctor." Smith said. "In my case, I felt like I could work with my hands."

Back to building

In 1951, Smith was drafted into the Korean conflict, where he served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. After his service ended in 1954, Smith worked as a grocery store meat cutter and managed a meat packing facility until he retired.PMG PHOTO: ANGEL ROSAS  - Marty Smith holding his birdhouse replica of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine.

In the summer of 1954, Smith met and later married his wife Jean, who was also something of a crafter. Marty's daughter, Patti Shearer, said Jean was a master seamstress. She would sew little dresses for Shearer as a child, and even crafted the bridesmaids' dresses at Shearer's wedding.

Despite working almost six days a week as a meat cutter, Smith still found time to hone his crafting skills. He would often build furniture for the house and craft leather purses for his wife. He even constructed a Japanese garden in the family's backyard.

In 1995, Jean was diagnosed with uterine cancer and died a year later. With Jean gone and Marty retiring the same year, he went to work picking up the pieces of life.

"A lot of the things I did since (she died) was just filling the void that you have when you lose your wife," Smith said.

Since the passing of his wife, Smith has been on a continuous search for things to build and opportunities to work with his hands.

This creative crusade led Smith to Oregon State University's Master Gardener program. Smith finished the eight-week program in 2006. To maintain the title of Master Gardener, Smith volunteered 40 hours a year, tending to gardens like the Portland International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park, the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden and even at the Pittock Mansion.

Those pursuits lead him to his miniature birdhouses.

Birdhouses take flight

The inception of Smith's meticulous birdhouses started when his parish, St. Therese Church and School in Portland, was looking for things to sell for an auction.

Trying to figure out something he could build for the fundraiser, Smith remembered seeing small birdhouses that sold for $10. Smith thought they would be a perfect auction prize, but the church wasn't impressed with the idea.

"The lady from the church looked up at me and said, 'Birdhouses? You have to be kidding me,' " he recalled. "I left a little disgruntled, but I wasn't going to let that stop me."

Smith ended up making 10 colorful birdhouses for the event. After the fundraiser the woman who initially shot down Smith's idea gave the craftsman a call.

"She asked me, 'Mr. Smith I need your address so I can send you this piece of paper so you can write this money off your taxes as a donation.' "

The sale of Smith's bird houses raised about $600. With that came a surge of confidence and Smith became a dedicated birdhouse builder.

Perfecting the craft

Smith starts his miniature masterpieces with inspiration from photos of buildings in magazines, newspapers and now the internet. He also enjoys finding out the history of each of the buildings he uses as a model. He notes all the details about their construction on his computer in a Word document.

Although Smith said he never liked to travel, he finds great joy in figuring out how and when ancient buildings were built and the significance of the structures.

After finding the right building model, then comes the process of finding where to start.

"It's not like building a house, you don't build a foundation for a birdhouse," Smith said. "I start in all different places."

Remembering his father's words, Smith starts by using leftover pieces of wood or material. Used bamboo skewers become window paneling and old wood dowels become church pillars. Everything gets used at Smith's workshop.

Recreating some of these massive structures requires out-of-the-box thinking. Smith often invents techniques or discovers new materials to pull off these miniatures.PMG PHOTO: ANGEL ROSAS  - Smith said he admires the architecture and colors used in many Russian buildings and towers.

Once, he was having a tough time finding a replacement for shiny windows in one of his builds. Then, on a trip to a Dollar Tree store, Smith caught a glimpse of the mylar balloons. The balloon gave off a perfect shine that would resemble the sun hitting a reflective window. Smith ended up using mylar for that project and many windows and metal paneling for future builds.

Giving the time

As his 90th birthday approaches in October, Smith shows no signs of stopping.

"It feels like God keeps on challenging me with something new, and so far, I have kept on winning," Smith said with a quick smile.

Smith hopes that his next project will be passing along his knowledge of building and crafting to the next generation.

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