Story and Photos by Carrie Perry
When you pull up to Mike Merritt’s house, you might not notice the magic at first.
It’s possible that you won’t take in the hand carved mailbox post as you maneuver your car into someone else’s driveway. But when the car is safely parked and you step out onto the grass, it doesn’t take long. Almost immediately you will notice the birds, singing, bouncing from branch to branch, tilting their little heads to get a better look at the stranger in their midst. And as you walk to the door your eyes will be drawn to the little pops of brilliant color, the joyful details tucked into the trees, and the birdhouses.
The birdhouses, hanging from the porch eaves, nestled in nooks between branches, some even hung from heights that seem impractical, they are everywhere. And they are the creation of a gentle giant of a man, Mike Merritt.
Mike hasn’t always made birdhouses, but he has almost always worked with his hands. Shortly after high school graduation, Mike left his hometown of Chicago and headed west to Colorado. For several years, he worked as the clean up guy on construction and restoration job sites, picking up new skills (and some nice scrap wood) as he worked. Mike watched as the craftsmen who completed fine restoration work on million-dollar homes matched carvings, lintels, crown moldings, window frames, and much more. He will tell you, that while many of these men worked for a living, he was working to learn. After the regular workday was done, Mike would take home the new skills he had observed and try them on his own. What he learned while practicing at home in the evenings, he in turn brought with him to the job.
Mike then moved to South Florida and the Keys, looking for more: more work, more knowledge, and more wood. He worked on historical restorations sites and ran a side gig leading kayaking tours in the Keys. And of course, Mike was always on the lookout for pieces to salvage. He pulled driftwood from the waters, rescued pieces that had fallen from barges, and even picked up boards from broken Cuban refugee rafts. Then came the recession, and all the restoration work stopped.
During those lean times, Mike made the first birdhouse as a gift for Beth, and soon had requests from other family members. In fact, his father, while openly skeptical about the idea of selling birdhouses for a living, began brokering deals with folks. Pretty soon, it became evident that there was indeed a market for the bright little homes.
Fast forward to the present day, and you will find Mike and Beth, living a happy little life in Travelers Rest, SC. Their home is full of Mike’s carved designs and the artwork that they have collected in their travels. Mike continues to salvage materials, using every bit and piece, either on the birdhouses or on the walls (and ceiling) of his workshop. He crafts each birdhouse with care and precision, even collaborating with ornithologists to learn ways to make the little homes safer and more attractive for birds. With the love, help and support of Beth Sicignano, Mike sells his beautiful birdhouses at more than forty juried shows each year. Beth also maintains their website and ETSY shop, insuring that the business stays lucrative even through the cold months.
But the real secret of their success is summed up quite well in the advice that Mike gives beginning craftsmen, “It’s not about the tools, don’t go out and buy a bunch of expensive stuff that you use once and then nobody touches again until the estate sale. Use what you have. Learn how to use them.”
And time and time again, Mike Merritt has done just that, beautifully.