Making Matchstick Models

American Artisans, People
on November 11, 2007

From its tiny mullioned windows to its gargoyle-festooned towers, woodworker Patrick Acton’s model of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the boarding-house home of Hollywood’s favorite teenage wizard, Harry Potter, is an amazingly detailed replica. The real magic, though, is that it’s made entirely of matchsticks­—602,000 of them.

Hogwarts may be the most grandiose project undertaken yet by this Michelangelo of matchsticks, but playing with matches is a 30-year hobby for Acton. In 1977, he built his first matchstick model, a high-steeple church, at his kitchen table in Gladbrook, Iowa (pop. 1,015). Back then, his only aim was to while away the icy Midwestern winter.

“But it slowly became a passion,” he says.

Since then, Acton, 53, has used little more than tipless wooden matches, sandpaper and gallons of carpenter’s glue to piece together 60 models of buildings, ships, animals and people. Among his collection: Pinocchio, the USS Iowa battleship and a 200,000-stick Challenger space shuttle. Yet for years, few people outside his family even knew about Acton’s quirky talent.

That changed in 1993, when 15 of his sculptures were snapped up for exhibit by Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums. The draw, explains Edward Meyer, vice president of Ripley’s exhibits and archives, is how Acton’s matchstick models turn something so commonplace into things of beauty. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say Pat is the best we’ve ever seen,” Meyer says.

The grandson of an expert stoneworker, whose artistic instinct he seems to have inherited, Acton says he was “the kind of kid who tore everything apart because I wanted to see how it worked.”

Acton builds in pieces rather than from the ground up. “My son suggested that I paint the first matchstick in a model red so I could point it out to people,” he says.

Selling some of his models to Ripley’s was a boon for Acton, who continues to work full-time as a college career counselor in Iowa Falls (pop. 5,193) and Marshalltown, Iowa (pop. 26,009). Yet, because each model represented so much time and energy, it felt like a loss. “I decided I wanted to keep most of the stuff I’d made here in Iowa,” he says. “But I was raising three kids and didn’t really have the money to invest in a building to display the models permanently.”

In 2000, the farming community of Gladbrook came to the rescue. With donated funds, grant money and volunteer labor, the town built a brand-new edifice on main street to house not only a museum for Acton’s work, but also a city hall and the town’s first movie theater. To seal the deal, Acton gave five of his biggest and best creations to the town, no strings attached.

Since opening day in 2003, the Matchstick Marvels museum has attracted a steady stream of visitors to Gladbrook, including tour buses from Chicago and Branson, Mo. But the museum/theater complex also has become a hot spot for locals. “It used to be that at 5 or 6 o’clock at night, you could shoot a cannon off on Main Street and not hit anything,” says Mark Fink, 35, the town’s former mayor. “Now there are a lot of cars uptown.”

Whether they come from near or far, visitors to the museum are always wide-eyed at the matchstick masterpieces, lingering over favorites such as a curvaceous Brontosaurus dinosaur.

Acton’s Hogwarts model, one of the few creations he has agreed to part with since the museum opened, recently was sold to a folk art museum in Spain for a sizeable sum.

“They wanted it more than I did,” Acton says.

Never fear: He’s already mulling the possibilities of building a Star Wars four-legged AT-AT combat “walker” or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. No matter what he creates, it’s bound to be a masterful matchstick marvel.