Cape May Craftsman Transforms Old Scraps Into Folk-Art Collectibles

With discarded shutters and other raw materials, Jack Riehl builds birdhouses that end up on porches, mantels and bookshelves all over the world.

jack riehl
Jack Riehl forages demolition sites and yard sales for the materials he needs for his one-of-a-kind birdhouses. Courtesy of Wendy Collins

Most people see discarded shutters as scrap destined for the dump. Jack Riehl sees them as birdhouses.

The Cape May craftsman has been making birdhouses out of cast-off wooden shutters since 2009. He recently reached a milestone—his 1,000th birdhouse—using parts from a 1920s shutter with a crescent cutout, an old gas-lamp fixture, and a 19th-century shutter that once graced Cape May’s iconic Chalfonte Hotel. Fittingly, Riehl’s work has come full circle.

Following a career in workforce development, Riehl moved to Cape May in 2006 and took a part-time job as a handyman at the Chalfonte. While cleaning out a shed one day, he ran across a pile of shutters original to the property. 

“I can do something with these,” he remembers thinking. 

Riehl made his first 50 birdhouses from that find. The hotel sold them at the front desk.

jack riehl

Courtesy of Wendy Collins

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During an extended stay in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Riehl displayed several pieces at an exhibit; they quickly sold out. People were beginning to appreciate his work as folk art.

Today, Riehl’s signed, dated and numbered creations appear on hundreds of collectors’ mantels and bookshelves from Cape May to China. No two houses are alike. 

Shutter-rich Cape May supplies Riehl with a steady stream of raw materials. Locals donate used shutters. Contractors drop off salvageable parts. Riehl also forages at yard sales, demolition sites, and, with permission, around people’s homes and in their garages.

Riehl makes each house by hand. Typically, he cuts the four sides from one shutter and the louvered roof from another for color contrast. He picks the perch from a large collection of what-nots. His work is sold at the Chalfonte and Quirk & Co. in Cape May; Jessie Creek Winery in Rio Grande; and Craftworks on Martha’s Vineyard. Prices start at $40. 

Riehl tries to keep a record of each sale and where the piece is likely to land. “You never know,” he says. “Maybe I’ll go visit my houses one day.”

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