One matchstick at a time
Acton creates ‘Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon model using 910,000 matchsticks
GLADBROOK — “Some people refer to me as an artist, but I consider myself a woodworker.”
Patrick Acton may have one of the most tedious artistic hobbies on record. Since 1977, he has created intricate wooden models made entirely from matchsticks. His creative endeavors caught the attention of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in 1993. Since that time, he has created 25 models for the Ripley’s franchise, which has 100 attractions on five continents. Acton’s latest piece, which was commissioned by Ripley’s, is his second-largest model to date: the “Star Wars” Millennium Falcon.
His representation of the iconic spacecraft measures 15 feet long by 10 feet wide, and was made with 910,000 matchsticks. The matchsticks alone weigh 450 pounds, not including the craft’s movable parts. Crafting the Millennium Falcon took 2,500 hours.
“I wanted to do a ‘Star Wars’ piece, and they said to do the most iconic one — the Millennium Falcon,” Acton said.
The model’s interactive features include a rotating communications disk, retractable loading ramp and landing gear, fiber optic lighting in the cockpit, and it plays the “Star Wars” theme song upon the push of a button.
“They’re more and more into interactive exhibits at their museums,” Acton explained.
He began work on the Millennium Falcon — his 71st piece — in April 2016. Before any matchsticks are glued together, Acton draws up blueprints. For this piece, he worked from photographs of the movie prop and from a toy model. He spent over a year on the project, putting the finishing touches on the piece about a week ago. The model is currently on display now through July 25 at Matchstick Marvels at the Gladbrook Museum. After that date, it will be disassembled in 50 pieces and shipped to Ripley’s Orlando warehouse, whereupon it will be reassembled for future display. The model was made to rest on it’s custom-made stand, or be suspended from the air.
Acton’s distinctive hobby begs the question: why matchsticks?
“I was always a woodworker as a kid; always building and fixing furniture,” he said.
He also cites a news story he saw as a child about a man who made a model farmstead out of matchsticks, and Acton was immediately intrigued by the concept.
In 1977, after he graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, he built his first model out of matchsticks: a country church.
“It was a really cheap hobby, building with matchsticks and glue,” he said. “I would buy the matchsticks at the grocery store and cut off the sulfur tips.”
Today, Acton purchases in bulk special matchsticks made without the sulfur tips.
Working in his home-based studio, he constructs his models in a series of calculated steps.
“In the summer months, I plan and draw the design. In the late summer, I glue sheets of matchsticks together and cut different components. In the winter, I build the basic structure, and in the spring, I do the detail work,” he said.
His wife April applied the polyurethane to the finished product; a substance which protects the wood against the elements.
Utilizing yellow carpenters glue, and some specialty varieties, Acton glues the matchsticks one by one. Using the sheet-building technique, he glues thousands of matchsticks together on a base of Plexiglas. After they dry, he then peels the “matchstick board” away from the sheet of acrylic, in what then resembles thin pieces of plywood. Each matchstick measures 2-1/4 inches long by 1/9 of an inch wide.
“In some ways it’s like bricklaying,” he said.
The Millennium Falcon required 26 gallons of glue to build.
“That may not sound like a lot, but that was 26 gallons run through a school glue bottle tip,” he said.
While most of his creations are made solely from matchsticks and glue, the more elaborate, interactive models (such as his latest) require screws, glass and other hardware.
Acton retired from the Iowa Valley Community College district in 2012, after nearly three decades in service. He now completes one model per year for Ripley’s, which does not allow for time to do other commissioned work. The largest piece he has made (which was commissioned for Ripley’s) is the Steampunk Train. It was crafted using over one million matchsticks, 35 gallons of glue, and it weighs over 750 pounds. It is the biggest matchstick model in the world.
When asked if he is interested in building a model larger than the record holding one, he laughed and shook his head no.
“It ended up being bigger than I originally planned,” he said.
The Matchstick Marvels display is open daily April-November, from 1-5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids 5-12, and those under 5 get in free of charge. The museum includes several of Acton’s pieces, including the Notre Dame Cathedral, a 12-foot lighted model of the United States Capitol, planes, animals, and always, his latest creation, until it gets moved on to Ripley’s.