BANGOR, Maine — The cardinals, blue jays, doves, chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows and finches that frequent Ken St. John’s birdhouses in his garden in Bangor have a lot to sing about when it comes to architecture. St. John creates the small buildings for the bird population in his garage workshop.
St. John, 74, who grew up in Old Town, began building birdhouses at the request of family members after he retired several years ago.
“I watched TV for a day and that was is it,” he said of his “retirement” time. Thus began his interest in making birdhouses — but not your average birdhouse. His birdhouses are fitted with antique glass doorknobs and brass backplates, some complete with vintage keys. Some have S-shaped roofs made of copper. Some also serve as bird feeders or planters. The houses sport decorative moldings, tiny fences, cedar shingles and even ceramic figurines.
“It’s good for my head. It gives me something to do every day,” St. John said of crafting the birdhouses. Typically, he works on the houses 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at least five days a week and sometimes seven. His shop is snug and neat, the tools hung within easy reach. His favorite tool is a nail gun that fastens the wooden pieces together.
The antique doorknobs and fittings, the hallmark of his work, aren’t easy to come by, he said, though he still finds them at antique shops and online. The most he ever paid for a doorknob was $40.
“I go everywhere to find stuff to put on them,” he said, noting that the hunt is part of the fun of creating the birdhouses.
St. John’s path to building birdhouses took him from Old Town at age 17 to join the U.S. Air Force when the Korean War was nearing its end. He spent six days in Korea before being shipped back to the states. His 18 years with the Air Force took him all over the world, including Panama, Saudi Arabia, Greenland and a fair chunk of Europe. After he left the military, he worked construction for a while, then did property management, which took him to Massachusetts to live. He and his wife, Marilyn, moved back to Bangor in 1999.
“No two of his birdhouses are alike. His inspiration comes from little things,” said Marilyn St. John, whose job is to add hand-painted finishing touches to the edifices her husband creates.
“I’m quality control,” she joked. She applies details such as stars, “windows” and words — family, America, shhh, welcome and imagine. “The words mean a lot to people,” Ken St. John said.
St. John has no idea when he starts building what any of his finished birdhouses will look like.
“I start by thinking about what I can do that’s different from the one before,” he said. The end result is “what’s inside my head.” Another way he gets ideas is to look at the pieces of wood he has on hand.
“I try to find wood with knots,” he said, pointing out a piece with an unusual grain.
St. John said its hard to get sheet copper for his creations. Local stores don’t stock it because frequently it is targeted by shoplifters. He has, however, found a store in Ellsworth where he can buy the metal.
Each birdhouse is painted or stained and sprayed with clear lacquer making the house not only decorative but also fully functional as a nesting site for small birds such as chickadees.
St. John makes the birdhouses for fun, even though he has been approached by a company offering to market his work more broadly. He declined the offer because he wants to keep the operation small, to prevent it from becoming work.
St. John sold his birdhouses at farmers markets in Bucksport and Winterport this summer and will be a vendor at a few area craft fairs during the holiday season. His work also is available at the Hammond Street Senior Center in Bangor and the center’s Aunt Nellie’s Attic shop in Holden.
So far, St. John has created nearly 100 birdhouses, ranging in price from $40 to $95.
“There are no rules when it comes to building a birdhouse so I have the freedom to do anything I want,” he said.