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Retired carpenter building for the birds

Gord Oleksuk says he’s built well over 100 purple martin houses over the past 18 years

Eighteen years ago Gord Oleksuk was a freshly retired carpenter in search of something to do — so he built a purple martin house.

More than 100 purple martin houses later, he’s still building them in the little shop beside his house, at the corner of Highways 10 and 25, north of Brandon.

It all started that fall when he asked a neighbour about the graceful birds that were sitting on a hydro line, flocking to leave for the winter. The neighbour said they were called purple martins, and were living in his purple martin house.

“I didn’t know what purple martins were at the time, but I went over and had a look at his house. I dreamt up my own plan for one in my head, and put one together,” Gord said.

“We really had good luck. It filled up the first year. So I built another one. I didn’t get a chance to put it up in spring, so I set it up by the road. I thought, maybe somebody will notice and want to buy one. It’s still there. Then I put a sign up. I’ve built well over 100 since then.”

Gord Oleksuk’s purple martin houses are all over after 18 years of building them.

Gord Oleksuk’s purple martin houses are all over after 18 years of building them.
photo: John Dietz

At 81, Gord said he still has a few left to build. Gaby, his wife, is fine with that… for now. Next winter, though, she’d like to be living in Brandon, and the shop may be just a memory.

Gord builds a red and white plywood ‘house’ that gracefully spans six feet across at the outside peaks.

The martin house has four sides. Each side has a four-storey nesting arrangement, giving it a capacity for 16 nests.

The single-piece face of each side is hooked and hinged, making it easy to open once a year for cleaning.

The nest spaces increase in size at each level, due to the sloping outside walls. The walls rise to meet a sweeping roofline, giving an overall impression of open wings, ready to lift off.

Buyers receive five pieces, ready to assemble with a screwdriver but able to be transported in a small car, he said. The set weighs about 60 to 65 pounds, and has two coats of paint.

Buyers need to supply their own post, small winch and cable. He builds it to slide on a 4×4 wood post. He recommends a treated post that’s 12 to 18 feet long. For stability it needs to be three feet into the ground.

Oleksuk kept track of his time for building the first house that he sold. After expenses, he only made 90 cents an hour.

“That’s when I got to making jigs and templates, streamlining the work. It saved quite a bit of plywood, too. There wasn’t as much waste,” he said.

Now, when he needs to build another one, he can start in the morning with cutting up three sheets of plywood. It can be ready to pick up in about four days.

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photo: John Dietz

He uses five-eighths-inch plywood for the core or centre piece. He uses half-inch plywood for the side, the back and the front door. He uses three-eighths-inch plywood for the roof. Plus lots of screws, an air-nailer, some hinges and hooks.

“I rough cut my plywood into lengths, then I start using the jigs. Mostly, I use a table saw and a cutoff saw. I build the four boxes for the houses first. I put the roofs on, then I build the carrier,” he said.

A few times Gord has custom painted to suit a buyer’s request – usually to match their home’s exterior colour.

“They have come back later and said they went back to red, because the birds weren’t coming. I don’t know what it is, but red paint seems to draw them when they’re looking for a place to nest,” he said.

Building purple martin houses has been a great retirement hobby, he said.

“For me, it’s given me an opportunity to keep using my tools and doing what I like to do – working with wood,” he said. “The most interesting part is, where they go. The farthest east one is on Manitoulin Island. They’ve gone west into Alberta and Saskatchewan, north to The Pas and south to North Dakota and Minnesota.”

“We’ve got to really enjoy the birds,” Gaby added “They’re phenomenal. I love to hear them first thing in the morning. They’re singing away. You go outside and they’re flying around. I just enjoy them.”

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