The Garden Shed: Bird Poo 101

For Sale: The Gardener’s Shed

The Gardener’s Shed, project #33, marked the start of our official teaching career. Prior to that our “teaching” was more like the blind leading the blind, as those of you who took our early garage classes in Seattle can attest to. We taught without a detailed plan or instruction booklets, just trying to guide the students through the process of transforming a plywood shell into a recognizable, aged building.

Then came our first year at the Guild School—1983. We were invited to speak and teach a 10 hour class. That class consisted of our providing each student with a sandwich baggie full of birdhouse parts, along with some paints and glue. On the way into setting up our classroom, baggies in hand, I paused when I saw the other teachers lugging in trunks and boxes of supplies, tools and teaching manuals, thinking, “Oh my, they’re awfully prepared. Teaching manuals?” Our students finished on day three of five, and we spent the last two days taking them on walking tours to point out aging details on the historic homes of Castine, ME, where the school was held. For some reason (possibly our “bird poo” demo ?) we were forgiven our haphazard approach, and invited back for the next year. We went home to build a better birdhouse.

Early drawing

The better birdhouse turned out to be the Garden (or Gardener’s) Shed. It’s inspiration came from a reprint of the July 1891 Scientific American. It’s a gardener’s dream—a potting shed deluxe in which to store one’s pots, rakes and hoes. It blossoms with amenities like lots of reflective glass, and a bench from which a tired gardener might listen to the birds and watch things grow. If it was out of reach for my life-size, postage-stamp yard and bank account, it was possible in miniature. It also presented the perfect vehicle for teaching the illusion of age–slant, sag and rot–board-and-batten siding (simple enough for a classroom setting), bricking and shingling. It also seemed doable for a 5 day, 6-hour class schedule, though the only basis for that assumption was gut feeling—we’d make them do it in that time!

Final Drawing

Preparing kits from the prototype

Working hard on the second prototype–the first one sold to Noel’s brother.

Real diagram from the real instruction booklet

We arrived at the 1984 Guild School, somewhat confidently equipped with boxes, diagrams and booklets. However, as with any teaching situation, it’s the knots you never thought of that cause the most trouble.

Shed roof detail, with tricky uprights.

While we had pretty much ironed-out a method for the tricky chevron detail on our garage projects, we didn’t count on how long it would take a non-whittler to carve the multiple brackets with an Exacto knife (a whole class unto itself), or attach the uneven posts that hold up the shed roof. As with many future teaching projects, Noel took over such headaches in the last day or two, while I helped the class through the rest of the project. We always gave the student the option of completing all the work themselves, no matter how far beyond their skills, but in all our years of teaching, only two people accepted the challenge. Nobody needed to finish in class (and few ever did) but they did need the skills and materials to go home and finish on their own. What always cheered people up at the end was that everyone could shingle, and that was one of the final jobs. We still get photos from students who, years after their class, finally finished (the kids are gone!) the project. With wonderful results!

Hinged back wall with birdhouse and chevron detail.

Yes, bird poo was one of the lessons, for the birdhouse, and the Garden Shed. What roof doesn’t have a little, or a lot, of bird poo? Our Artistic License dictates we use only a little—as with anything in miniature, and maybe art as a whole, a tiny suggestion drills a long way into the mind of the observer. You want to pique their interest, not bludgeon them with your new-found technique. Bird Poo 101 consists of dampening down the already aged  (Bug Juiced) roof surface with a big drop of water on a small paint brush (a #4 watercolor round is good). A second brush (dry) is then dipped into titanium white acrylic paint. Dot a little blob on the dampened area. A tinier dot of raw umber or Mars black should be added for graininess, and/or some blue if it’s berry season. Finish it off with another drop of water from the first brush, dropped from just above the pile so it wets the whole slightly–enough to mix the colors a little and stain the area around the blob, but still keep some dimension to the blob. It takes a little playing with, but the end product, so to speak, is worth it. Unfortunately I cannot find a single photo that includes a close-up of bird poo.

Door detail with some of those brackets above

Another year at the Guild School we taught the popular Bird Poo Demo as a seminar. A student from South Africa, a fairly buttoned-down man, spent the whole demo at the back of the room with his brow furrowed. All I could think was that he was offended, but not so much as to leave the room. Finally, as we put the finishing touches on the “poo” his face lit up. “Oh,” he blurted in his rich English accent, “Fulmar!!” Fulmar presumably being their word for bird droppings. He applauded. Everyone applauded. Now bird poo had a class, and some class.

End Notes: For more detailed how-to’s on the Garden Shed, see my Creative Notebook entry in the May 1991 Nutshell News. Purportedly that series is still available by order from Dollhouse Miniatures. I am not allowed to reprint them myself, but any of you may copy and distribute them as you like. People subscribing to The Camp or other mini-chat groups might be willing to send you a copy.


About smallhousepress

In 1974, my husband Noel and I began building aged miniature houses for collectors and museums. We were 70's dropouts. We quit our careers in advertising--art director and writer, respectively--and escaped Los Angeles in a VW camper and a Bug for a simpler life on the coast of Washington State. From a tiny studio in our home, we built 64 houses and buildings. Our specialty was aging--making a structure that reflected the scars and wrinkles of time, the elements, and human habitation. In the 80s we began teaching our techniques in workshops around the country, and I began to write our how-to's in Nutshell News and Miniature Collector. In 2000 we migrated across the Columbia to Astoria, OR, where , in 2011, we retired from miniatures. We are Fellows of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans and taught at their annual school in Castine, ME. By avocation I am a writer and poet. The blog is my way of working back into a writing routine, as well as recording what we did, and what we learned along the way.
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8 Responses to The Garden Shed: Bird Poo 101

  1. Marilyn Starr says:

    good story! i cant ever remember a recipe for cookies but i will remember the one for bird poo! thanks!

  2. I still treasure my little birdhouse with it’s bird poo and the tiniest of feathers stuck to it. Too cool!

  3. Linda Master says:

    Love it! I have some pigeons in a parking lot, never occurred to me to put poop……

  4. BENITA LEE says:

    really enjoyed reading the story of the bird poo and love the garden shed

  5. Sheila Wylie says:

    LOL! ‘Fulmar’ is a sea bird which does leave lots if poo but never, ever, has it been an English expression for poo. The ‘proper’ word for bird ‘droppings’ is ‘guano’ which when built up in thick layers, as it does in sea bird colonies, has been collected throughout history as a very effective manure for gardens or small farms. Amazing what you learn through the world of minis isn’t it? !!!!

    • Sheila, Thanks for pointing that out. I questioned it too, but found an Old Norse definition of “foul and unpleasant” for the front end of the word, and thought maybe that had made its way in to some colloquial version of guano for the colonial British in So. Africa (and decided all that was too much for the blog). But who knows–it seemed to be a word that satisfied the speaker!

  6. Elga Koster says:

    Well, I am South African and we definitely talk about bird poo or droppings, never heard the word “Fulmar” in all my life. I went to Guild School last year as a scholarship student and am looking forward to going again this year. Thanks for your blog, I enjoy reading about your journey.

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