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U.S. Capitol made of 478,000 matchsticks. In the background: Space Shuttle Challenger and Notre Dame Cathedral.
U.S. Capitol made of 478,000 matchsticks. In the background: Space Shuttle Challenger and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Matchstick Marvels Museum

Field review by the editors.

Gladbrook, Iowa

The world's largest collection of tiny matchstick mega-art is in a farm town in Iowa. It's where Pat Acton lives, and where he's methodically glued together matchsticks since 1977.

"Plane Loco" has working gears and a firebox filled with matchstick fuel.

"It's not something I normally bring up in conversation," said Pat with a laugh. "I learned years ago that if you tell people you make stuff out of matchsticks, the eyeballs roll."

Pat's painstakingly detailed creations are often called miniatures, but there's nothing miniature about his USS Iowa battleship, which is 13 feet long, or his U.S. Capitol, which is 12 feet wide. A recent sculpture, "Plane Loco," contains over one million matchsticks, each one individually shaped and glued by Pat.

"My wife once tried to help me cut the heads off the matchsticks. I think she did maybe a hundred." Pat laughed again. "That's all the help I've had in the last four decades."

Pat accepts that what he does is unusual, but said it began as an innocent hobby. "I was working nights, my wife was working days, I was home alone and bored," he said. "We didn't have much money, so I began playing with matchsticks." Using only a utility knife, a bottle of glue, and matchsticks from a local grocery store, Pat built a little church. Then he built a slightly larger barn. Then he built a much larger model of the frigate USS Constitution. "It became a passion," Pat said. "I'm just a very visual guy."

Detail of the Notre Dame Cathedral. No matchstick Hunchback -- yet.
Detail of the Notre Dame Cathedral. No matchstick Hunchback -- yet.

Pat's increasingly massive creations also helped slow his impatient nature. "As a kid I was always screwing up kit models because I was always in a hurry," he said. "Well, I've finally found a type of model that I can't hurry." For example, Pat glued matchsticks into his scale reproduction of the Notre Dame Cathedral for nearly two years -- and it's still not complete. A note next to the cathedral says that Pat hopes to embellish it with "dozens of statues and gargoyles" in the future, some day.

Battleship USS Iowa is 1/70th scale: 13 feet long.
Battleship USS Iowa is 1/70th scale: 13 feet long.

Pat has had to invent the art of matchstick sculpting as he's gone along; "There are no instruction booklets," he said. Over the years he's discovered how to bend matchsticks into smooth curves, and how to glue thousands of matchsticks into sheets that form the walls and substructures for his increasingly complex creations.

One problem with doing the job as well as he does is that his sculptures sometimes seem impossible. "I'll get email from people who look at my website and write, 'That's not really matchsticks!' They don't believe it," said Pat. In the museum it's easy to see the individual bits of wood because Pat leaves his models unpainted -- except for one early effort, a P-51 Mustang, which he painted because people at the time told him that he should. "It ruined my perfectly good P-51," said Pat. "It covers up all the work."

Pat Acton orders his matchsticks direct from the factory, one million at a time.
Pat Acton orders his matchsticks direct from the factory, one million at a time.

We asked Pat if he was worried about fire, since his art is made of something that's designed to burn. Pat said that he was more fearful of water, which could warp the wood and dissolve the glue. The museum, he said, opened in 2003 and had to meet fire code standards. "The sprinkler system worries me more than the building catching fire."

The Matchstick Marvels Museum is home, on any given day, to about 20 of Pat's creations (he's made 70), as well as drawings and plans for some of the models, tools and equipment used in their construction, and a continuous loop video of Pat talking about his work. One thing you won't find at the museum is Pat himself, who stays away so that he can have more time to glue together matchsticks.

"I sat down with the volunteers who run the museum and said, 'I can either spend my time in the museum, or I can spend my time building new stuff to display in the museum,'" said Pat. "The vote was: I'll keep going, they'll take care of the museum."

Matchstick Marvels Museum

319 2nd St., Gladbrook, IA
From Hwy 96/W. 8th St. in town, turn north onto Gould St. Drive north six blocks. You'll see the museum on the left, on the northwest corner of Gould and 2nd Sts.
April-Nov. daily 1-5, off-season by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $5.00
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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