Robert Gatchell – his work is in the details

Robert Gatchell cuts out the filigree on a scroll saw, one piece at a time, an effort that requires focus on the work at hand.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Robert Gatchell cuts out the filigree on a scroll saw, one piece at a time, an effort that requires focus on the work at hand.

Robert Gatchell is known to many Islanders as the guy with the massive Christmas holiday light display that illuminates his County Road house in Oak Bluffs. The extravaganza includes more than 20,000 lights, a flying reindeer, candy canes, talking Santas, a toy train, choir singers, penguins, a homemade igloo, and a 40-year-old nativity.

Mr. Gatchell is also known as a master woodworker, with an artist’s eye for detail, who estimates that he has worked on more than 40 Campground houses over the years. He has reconstructed hundreds of the intricate patterned woodwork, the gingerbread, that makes so many of the classic carpenter gothic houses unique. He has a thick photo book of images of all the projects he has undertaken.

Mr. Gatchell completed a three-year project restoring the Cottage Museum five years ago, and he is now rebuilding the deck on the Camp-Meeting Association office. The work includes reconstructing the railings in their original style, which he has reproduced from a mottled 19th-century photograph.

Mr. Gatchell remembers cutting out his first piece of wooden gingerbread with a coping saw when he was 15. His parents put it up on their house. It was the only piece of gingerbread on their Campground house. “It stayed there until it rotted away and the new owners replaced it with a copy,” he said.

In 1980, he and his wife formed their company called Splinters and Sawdust. They traveled, when they could, to trade shows for 10 years to pedal toys he made of expensive hardwoods. “It was fun,” he said. But it ended up costing them almost more than they were making, so he decided to spend more time at home in his shop.

Until retiring from the Steamship Authority after a 30-year stint in 2004, Mr. Gatchell was able to follow his love of woodworking only during his off hours.

Now he is a full-time woodworker. “I’ve always had a passion for woodworking, and I’ve stuck with it,” Mr. Gatchell said. With a faint, wry smile, he acknowledged that it is his first love. His family, including the grandkids, come in second, he said.

The workshop

The shop behind his house is spick and span and filled with equipment, including a lathe, table saw, large band saw, planers, shapers and his scroll saw, which uses blades thinner than the wire of a paperclip. His work hangs on the high walls, sharing space with old Vineyard town signs he picked off a truck on the ferry hauling them off-Island after they were replaced by newer versions.

Much of his work on display is from his restoration projects. There are small pieces loaded with intricate filigree, and clocks, toys, and chests. On a lucky day, Mr. Gatchell will show the one-quarter scale model of the retired Steamship Authority vessel Islander that he keeps in a glass case under a cloth cover. The model is complete with interior seating, lights and a freight deck that requires a double take it looks so real.

The intricate details of the gingerbread work Mr. Gatchell is probably best known for come from samples of the old work, photographs and sometimes from other houses. He has photos or drawings produced to size from which he cuts a master pattern in Masonite. He traces the design onto pieces of wood precut to the correct size and then cuts out each design on his scroll saw by hand under a bright light viewed through a large magnifying glass.

Mahogany is Mr. Gatchell’s wood of first choice for the rails of his current project, gingerbread balusters he is producing from medium density overlay plywood (MDO). Designed to resist weather, MDO is widely used for outdoor signs. He has it primed and painted with three coats of paint before final assembly, when another coat will be applied. He is making the first-floor balusters from furniture grade mahogany that he is turning on his lathe.

His attention to detail shows great pride. For example, he takes pains to hide most of the modern fasteners he uses. He said he tries to keep stainless steel screws from giving the rain an entry into the wooden constructions. It’s characteristic of him — down to the last hidden fastening in his woodwork and down to the last dollar when he calculates the $5 of electricity his Christmas light show uses each day.