Meet the matchmaker

There is a church, shops, town hall, playground, cars and kids in Donnsville, and at Christmas, a little group of carollers turned up to sing under a lamp post.

Its city blocks run to little more than the size of an average coffee table and the seesaw in its playground is smaller than, well, a matchstick.

The town, named for its founder, 81-year-old Don Willsher, is a testament to the infinite patience of its maker and literally thousands of Redheads.

A volunteer with various historical groups, Don is also a member of an increasingly rare group of woodworkers who work only with matchsticks.

It’s a hobby that he took up in his youth and that has lasted a lifetime.

“I was laid up in 1961 and bored stiff,” he says. “My mother had died when I was very young so my father employed a housekeeper whose husband was making things out of matches. I decided to give it a try myself.”

When he was well again, he continued to potter with it, mainly making occasional tables with simple patterns on top which have long since found their way to the homes of family and friends around the world.

Each table would take between 20 and 40 hours depending on the complexity of the pattern and since then, many organisations have benefited from his work. “I’ve donated them to kindergartens and bowls clubs to raffle but often they choose to keep them for their own use,” he says.

It was a hobby that required few tools and that he could take with him anywhere.

During the 1960s and ’70s he worked as a salesman and spent a lot of time on the road and it gave him something useful to do during the long, lonely nights he spent in western Queensland motels.

“There was no TV at the time, so there was not much to do and I would work on my match creations,” he says. “It was definitely more popular in the days before television when you could sit and do it while listening to the radio. There were far fewer options for entertainment in those days.”

Fast forward to 2002, dozens of occasional tables and thousands of matchsticks later, and Don, by now a retired association secretary, and his late wife Justine set off on the grey nomad adventure around Australia, although he says they were SKINS not nomads “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance Now”.

For the next 14.5 years, they travelled the country and Don found his matchwork could easily continue in the limited space of a caravan.

“I then got into 3D after I made a little upright piano for my granddaughter and this inspired me to build my own village,” he says.

Like an engineer and an architect, he just had to work out how to do the construction.

“I started with a church and it went from there over the next couple of years.  I would make the little buildings while we were travelling and then put them into storage at home.

“Eventually I had enough and while we were based at the Bribie Island caravan park I put them all together and added the streets, cars, people and streetlights.”

There is amazing attention to minute detail, with tiny pews, chairs and people inside his houses of sticks, a playground with a moving swing and seesaw and lighting.

The streets have been named for his family, such as Terri Terrace, Adam Avenue and Lachlan Lane. It remains a work in progress, along with his futuristic Donnsville 2030 village created entirely from his imagination.

“It’s something that doesn’t need a workshop or a lot of heavy tools,” he says. “The basic tool is a razor blade and the good thing is you can walk away from it at any time. If you want a break, it will wait.”

For Don, half the fun is working out how to do it and capturing the effect he envisions.

“Putting the matches into place is just mechanics after that,” he says. “It’s about the only thing I have patience with.”

In 2012, his daughter gave him an American woodcraft book which had a picture of a winter wolf made from timbers.

Don decided he could do it in matches – and 8000 matchsticks and at least 80 hours later, he had his first artwork, the wolf’s nose appearing almost 3D.

He sent a photo to the American magazine and was then himself featured on their pages. More framed artworks followed and now clocks.

Homebrand matches, which are made from Indonesian hardwood and are naturally darker, along with the lighter Redheads pine matches which come from Sweden, achieve the effects for his art, as well as woodstain and occasionally, the brightly coloured “kiddy matchsticks”.

That’s a lot of matches in the lifetime hobby of an octogenarian.

“I strike one and stick it into the box and they all go up together and then they go out,” he says.

“I don’t want them to burn too much as they get pointy. I do 10 boxes at a time and while some require cutting off the head, I also use the burnt tip to effect.”

In the beginning, he was a smoker and that kept his supply of matches up, but now he has a lifetime supply from the Redheads Matches company itself.

After exhibiting at “Working with Wood” in Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra in 2014-15, he sought some assistance from Redhead and they delivered him two cartons of matches – each containing 54,000 matches.

“I haven’t had to buy any for a long time, so it’s a sponsorship of sorts,” he says.

“I never really saw myself as an artist but this is a different dimension to working with wood. I’m not a woodworker but a matchworker”.