Shedding the past: Humble or grand, the Island’s hardworking buildings

A Nantucket Shed, available at Eden Nursery in Vineyard Haven. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Island publisher Jan Pogue works in one, albeit known as a tree house, 10 feet in the air. Martha’s Vineyard Commission stalwart Donna-Lee Stewart lived in hers a while back during her home expansion.

Not McMansions, merely the humble backyard shed. And the hard-working, multi-tasking structure that has served Island residents for three hundred years, is feeling its oats these days.

“Hey, I built my landscaping business with sheds. I didn’t have $50,000 for a big storage barn so I built sheds,” said Matt Tobin, proprietor of Tea Lane Nursery in Chilmark and Eden Nursery in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Tobin represents shed-builder Nantucket Sheds in Swansea at his Eden Nursery location.

The “Derby shed” is perhaps the most iconic shed on the Island, making the journey each Labor Day week from Mike Cassidy’s backyard in Edgartown to serve as the filleting and storage headquarters for the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby on the Edgartown harbor.

Residents who are handy, such as Messrs. Tobin and Cassidy, build their own sheds, but for a growing number of residents, buying a modular shed is the cheapest and speediest way to provide shelter for everything from prized tractor lawnmowers to sleeping quarters for stray relatives who show up unexpectedly.

Sheds range in cost from about $2,000 for a simple eight foot by 12 foot affair with shingles, a door, and a couple of windows, up to $15,000 or more for regally-designed affairs with steeples and cupolas.

Nantucket Sheds, Mr. Tobin’s shed builder of choice, provides the former in classic, saltbox, or loft shed designs. Pine Harbor Wood Products, based in Hyannis, provides the latter on the Island, though Pine Harbor also provides do-it-yourself kits and instructional videos. The third alternative comes from Bill Seaborne’s carpentry class at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).

“The carpentry program has been building sheds for more than 20 years. We’ve built about a 100 of them,” Jeff Rothwell, MVRHS director of vocational training, said recently.

“Kevin Carr began teaching it, then I did it, and now Bill Seaborne teaches shed building. We use it as a learning experience because the project includes the same construction elements as building a home. It’s a way to learn the basics of how a house goes together and to learn how to do it right. Each kid learns how to lay a floor, cut rafters, and put a roof up. We build them at the high school and trailer them to the site,” he said.

“We sell them at the cost of the materials to replace the materials for the next one,” he said, noting material costs are nearly $2,000 these days for an eight by 10 foot shed. Based on demand, he observes, “I could sell 100 of them if I had them,” he said.

Mr. Rothwell advises shed buyers to check with their town building inspector and permit the work as required. “Island towns have varying size and setback requirements, for example. And checking with your neighbors regarding location is always a good idea. Makes for good neighbors,” he said.

“We’ve installed more than a dozen in the year and a half I’ve had Eden Nursery,” Mr. Tobin said last week. “I think part of the demand is that during boom periods, builders don’t want to mess with sheds. There’s a lot more money in building houses,” he said.

And while tradesmen have been scrambling for construction work of any kind in the past few years, it’s difficult to compete on materials price and labor with pre-fab units constructed off-Island and fabricated in a few hours on-Island, both Mr. Rothwell and Mr. Tobin said.

A visit to the Pine Harbor website indicates that our concept of a shed is only limited by imagination. Customers can customize design elements on six styles to build “the Taj Mahal of sheds” as the online literature promises, with belfries, cupolas, skylights, window flower boxes, and outside cladding options from shingles to barn board.

Mr. Tobin also noted that sheds have their own vocabulary. He elucidated. “I’ve seen sheds that are two feet by four feet, toolboxes essentially. Shelters for dogs and chickens. I think of a shed though as a structure large enough for a human to enter. Structures smaller than that are called bins, such as we sell for trashcan storage.

“In the old days, sheds were built out of what was available. Construction leftovers. I’ve used a ladder to provide material for rafters,” he said. Today, however, form precedes function. “The most common shed size is eight feet by 12 feet,” Mr. Tobin elaborated. “That’s the size that best accommodates the normal lengths and widths of pre-cut boards and plywood materials.”