A Career Takes Flight
By Paula Santonocito
When Bonnie Burton Gaenzle tells people she makes birdhouses, they often say, “Oh, how cute.”
But, as you can see from the birdhouse pictured, a replica of the First Presbyterian Church in Oyster Bay, N.Y., President Theodore Roosevelt’s boyhood church, the word “cute” doesn’t do Gaenzle’s work justice.
As a builder of custom replica birdhouses, Gaenzle is an artist and a craftswoman. Yet, she arrived at her career almost by accident.
Although she was always interested in building things, Gaenzle never had the opportunity to take shop in school.
She came of age when classes were gender-specific. Boys took shop; girls took home economics. For Gaenzle, it was, as she puts it, “all the girly stuff, sewing and cooking.” But, because she was a hands-on learner, she excelled at all of it.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Gaenzle continued to be interested in wood and tools. “I always loved wood: the smell of wood, the grain. There’s something to be said for taking plain old wood and making something,” she says.
She tells of how she loved being in her father’s cellar as a girl. Later, early in her marriage, she argued with her husband to buy a screw gun.
As a young mother, she attempted several projects. She built a tree fort for her children, though years later she would realize she had used the wrong materials and the wrong tools. She also built a children’s picnic table.
Then, one day her girlfriend took her to see the work of the man New York’s Newsday had dubbed the “Birdman of St. James.”
Chuck Grodski, coauthor of “Birdhouse Builder’s Manual,” had been building birdhouses for many years and his Long Island, N.Y., property displayed his creations.
Gaenzle was immediately taken with the birdhouses, and with Grodski’s work area. “When I walked into his cellar I said, ‘I love the smell of cedar,'” Gaenzle recalls. “He said, ‘Do you want to be my apprentice?'”
They chatted briefly and a few days later she called him and asked if he meant it. Grodski’s initial answer was no, but he called Gaenzle three days later saying, “I’m up to my knees in sawdust.”
Gaenzle seized the opportunity, and immediately went to work organizing everything. “Job security,” she says.
From Apprentice to Business Owner
Gaenzle and Grodski worked together for nine years, building houses and gaining notoriety for their creations.
As time went on, Gaenzle found her true passion was custom replicas.
“The devil’s in the detail and that’s what I love,” she says, explaining that building custom replicas requires taking photos of the original structures from every angle in order to create birdhouses that truly represent the big houses.
Grodski didn’t enjoy this kind of work, however, and so two years ago Gaenzle started her own business.
“Nine years is a long time,” she says of her apprenticeship with Grodski. “It’s like a college degree in woodworking.”
Today, Gaenzle works in her own shop. “I’m never happier than when I’m in the cellar whistling away, building a house,” she says.
Advice for Other Women
It took Gaenzle years to break out and find the career that was right for her. “The desire was always in me, but not the opportunity,” she says.
Part of it, she believes, is that women aren’t always able to identify their strengths. “We women don’t give ourselves credit,” she says.
Women also have to be ready to act on their interests, she says. After meeting the Birdman, Gaenzle says she had two choices: keep her mouth shut or step forward and seize the opportunity.
And acting on the opportunity wasn’t only about the work itself. Gaenzle says building birdhouses was like finding a way to open a door to what she could do; it allowed her to unlock what was already in her head.
Gaenzle tells SMW she hopes her experience will inspire other women to recognize they too can do whatever they want.
“I don’t think each of us realizes how special we are, in one way or another,” she says.