Robert Gatchell
Robert Gatchell and his model of the ferry Islander. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

The gingerbread man

By Heather Curtis - October 4, 2007

Smiling like a small child showing off a new toy, he lifts the curtain and unveils his work. Behind the glass panes is a built-to-scale replica of the retired Steamship Authority (SSA) ferry Islander, beautiful and finely crafted. The model is clearly a project Robert Gatchell, woodworker and owner of Splinters and Sawdust in Oak Bluffs, takes a great deal of pride in. And anyone looking at it can see why. The model is not only built-to-scale but comes complete with a working horn, lights and rudder. The retired SSA employee got the blueprints for the beloved vessel and used them to build his masterpiece. What is now under a sheet in Mr. Gatchell's workshop (which seems all too appropriate for a man who spends Christmas Eve in a Santa suit collecting food for the Island Food Pantry) was once on display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

Cottage Museum and Shop
Mr. Gatchell recently renovated the gingerbread at One Trinity Park, the Cottage Museum and Shop.

Mr. Gatchell demonstrated his interest in woodworking at a young age, watching his father use tools and then experimenting himself. When he was seven or eight years old, he followed the example of other children, making miniature wooden sailboats to use in the pools at Ocean Park. By age 16, the Cottage City summer resident began restoring and repairing the gingerbread on the quaint, vibrantly colored houses of the campground. What Mr. Gatchell started as a side job done while working his way up the ranks at the SSA has now turned into a full-time job giving him a title he shares with few (if any) others: Gingerbread Specialist.

Woodworking is clearly something the men of the Gatchell family have a natural aptitude for. Mr. Gatchell started teaching his own son, Kyle Gatchell, 26, how to use tools when Kyle was six years old. In 1998, when he was a junior in high school, Kyle used the skills his father taught him to build a workshop in the family's backyard. The large one-room building houses a number of saws, from which have come the intricately carved wooden models and crafts scattered throughout the workshop. A dust-encrusted case holds a detailed model of the Eiffel Tower made by Kyle. Another dusty display case on the wall holds more than a dozen ribbons Mr. Gatchell has won for his crafts in the Agricultural Fair.

And it's in this workshop that Mr. Gatchell spends hours over drills, saws, and hand tools - creating and fixing everything gingerbread: eyebrows for windows (the decorative wooden trim adorning the tops of windows), railings, screen doors and anything else that needs to be restored or replaced in the neighborhood.

Woodwork

When he gets a call, he visits the house to see what he's up against. If he can do the job, he comes up with a bid based on the cost of wood and labor. He then retreats to his workshop doing every part of the job he can do without being at the house. "I'm there as little time as possible," he says, explaining that he doesn't want to cause any big disruptions.

"This past year, I've made many screen doors," Mr. Gatchell says pointing to a few resting against the wall of his workshop.

Last winter, when he wasn't busy crafting doors, Mr. Gatchell started repairing and restoring the Cottage Museum, a relic of the past with period furnishings, vintage photographs, and historical documents. "They want to try to bring her back to what she originally looked like," Mr. Gatchell says. So far, he's replaced four of the museum's windows and even scraped off the paint so they can be opened. "I don't know when they were opened last," he says, adding that many windows in the Campground have been painted shut since the houses were built in the 1800s. This year, he plans to make the museum's front step part of the porch, in addition to other repairs.

The work on the museum has presented many of the same problems that come in all his gingerbread projects. "Some of them are pretty challenging because you don't know how the old-timers did it," Mr. Gatchell says, adding that, "Today I have different materials and ways of putting things together."

Woodwork

When he's finished with a project, he photographs it and his wife, Lynn Gatchell, catalogues it in a massive binder kept in the workshop.

"This is what I call my bible," he laughs, pulling a thick, black binder out from under one of his many saws. The volume has pictures of Mr. Gatchell's work on countless gingerbread cottages. He uses the book as a reference.

After putting the book away, Mr. Gatchell covers up the Islander model and gets ready to go back to work.

Heather Curtis is a contributing writer to The Times.