Bird House Crazy

At the foot of Dan and Annie Arnolds’ driveway, a handmade wooden sign spelling out their last name hints at the art within their Plymouth home. The house itself is perched on hilly, wooded ground, where surrounding trees provide much of the raw material for Dan’s handmade wooden bowls, signs and birdhouses.

The first birdhouse Dan made, Annie says, came about because of a hawthorn tree she wanted to cut down. But though she wanted the tree gone, she liked the idea of the stump remaining useful, and decided it could be a platform for a birdhouse. This idea kicked off Dan’s first online search for birdhouse plans and his first project in a long series, which he fashioned from some pine siding discarded from his daughter’s house. He cleaned it up and used the found material to begin his foray into birdhouse building.

An internet search for birdhouses revealed very “cookie-cutter” options, Dan says. He made his first house in the standard fashion, but started improvising by his second project. He created his own challenge: Now he works within the idea of a birdhouse but crafts something unique and interesting each time. There are no repeats. “I think I have a real problem, because I don’t like doing the same thing twice,” Dan says. “I’m always looking for something new.”

Not long after the Arnolds held an open house to display and sell Dan’s art, their dining room overflowed with colorful, whimsical and wildly disparate birdhouses. Wooden bowls also held a place on the tables: smooth, organically shaped and inviting, the bowls are at once artistic and useful. These bowls are Dan’s winter project: He finds bowls easier to work on than birdhouses when it’s cold because his workshop is in his unheated garage. “I’ve got a whole stack of wood cut onto slabs, drying or dried, and I take a saw and do the cuts to keep warm,” he says. If he wants to work on birdhouses in the winter, he has to bring the glue into the house to warm it up.
The birdhouses, some of which are more “concept” art—since they wouldn’t hold up outside or be especially bird-friendly— have veered away from the original idea of a nesting place for birds. But Dan says you might be surprised what birds will decide to call home; they aren’t always as picky as we might expect. Even though they look like art, he estimates that more than 60 percent of the houses are livable for birds.

Plymouth resident Judy Ulrich bought three of Dan’s bird houses last fall at an art fair at Orono schools.

“I use them as art pieces more than birdhouses — Dan added stained glass to keep the birds out and also made the exteriors weatherproof for the outdoors,” Ulrich says. “The uniqueness, the artsiness, the talent he has to create such quality. They’re just gorgeous. They’re so fun, each one is so different, and they’re well-constructed.”

Virtually every piece Dan creates has a history or personal connection behind it. There’s a bowl made from the wood of picture frames that held old family photos. One birdhouse is fashioned from the wood of a crib Annie bought when they became grandparents. Another one is made of Annie’s grandparents’ “junk drawer” that sat in the Arnolds’ garage for 20 years. As Dan was carrying it to the garbage, he realized it could be a birdhouse. “The idea is finding something and challenging yourself to do something with it. Each house has a story.”

But what drives him to create art in the first place?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t sit still. When you do this, you start with an idea, work on it, get frustrated, have to work it through … and in the end you feel good about it.”

Dan doesn’t work full time anymore, but he does still work for some time every day for various companies. He starts his days with business and tries to save the afternoon for art. “And Saturday’s really my day. It’s what keeps my brain sane — the smell of sawdust,” he says.

For Dan, there’s a distinction between the work he does on wooden bowls and signs and the creation of the birdhouses. While the birdhouses and bowls are all one-of-a-kind, he says the bowls are in a different category because he can almost manufacture them, creating a couple dozen a year, whereas each birdhouse is an exercise in problem-solving. He doesn’t make more than eight  to 10 of them each year. And the signs are generally commissioned pieces.

 “My background is marketing, design and art direction. I have always enjoyed working with my hands and creating objects using the common materials around me,” Dan says. “What I find very appealing about birdhouses is that few are built beyond the conventional online plans. This leaves a world of room to explore without boundaries.”

One of the challenges of the birdhouses is that he doesn’t like to buy components if he can avoid it. He works instead with mostly found materials, often starting with one object and using it as an inspiration for the entire piece. “It’s more exciting if you find something and create around that,” he says. “Often times I’ll find different things that I just can’t throw away, that I’m looking for the right use for. Every now and then something will strike me and I’ll say, ‘I can make something with this.’ ”

Dan doesn’t usually create a plan that is followed to the letter. “I’ll have an object, draw a rough sketch, but it always goes through a process of change and may look totally different by the end.” Annie offers input along the way, and his granddaughter Ella sometimes gets involved. At one point, she wanted a birdhouse shaped like a Hershey kiss, so that was a rare project that was planned from the start. She also helped paint another house. “She has a thing for color, and I just really enjoy working with her,” he says.

Dan Arnold's Tips for Creating Your Own Birdhouse

- First find some patterns for reference. Start by building your first one, and maybe just alter the perch a bit. Instead of a straight perch, it could be crooked … you could use a stick instead of a dowel. Try different materials.

- Push it further. You could alter the roof a bit, maybe use metal instead of wood. There’s nothing that says the bird hole has to be round — it could be oval. Take the base box and alter it in different ways. It’s amazing what birds will go into. One we have is just a limb that I hollowed out and capped the bottom. But they go in it every year.

- Add some color! I think color’s great. You could stack ’em, put one on top of the other, or side by side.

- It’s only limited by your imagination. That’s the whole point.