Sundial garden shines in Vancouver Heights

Retired electrician shares hobby of creating with neighbors

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter



Tom Laidlaw wastes no time when there’s a new skill to learn.

The 80-year-old retired electrician has always been a “do-it-yourself kind of guy,” he said. For a while, it was skateboards he fancied, and bookshelves, and a Benjamin Franklin chair that transforms from a chair into a stepladder. He’s self-taught, he said, researching new projects online, then diving in.

“I like to find patterns,” he said.

His latest obsession? Sundials. Visitors to his Vancouver Heights neighborhood house are greeted by a yard dotted with all types of the time-telling devices. They’re big, they’re small, there’s one made from a globe, another from a skateboard. The centerpiece of the display is an analemmatic sundial, where a person stands in the middle, hands over their heads, and their own shadow tells the time. A plumb bob, a weight with a pointed tip, dangles from a beam in the yard, allowing Laidlaw to time solar noon.

“There is an art to it,” he said. “It’s very ancient.”

A sign greets visitors to Laidlaw’s sundial garden, inviting them to knock on his door so he can explain the science behind each device. Winding wooden pathways lead from display to display, and laminated information sheets explain how each sundial works. Some use traditional columns, others use horizontal beams. One uses a combination of the two.

“It’s fun to watch him talk to people about it,” said Debra Brouhard, Laidlaw’s daughter and neighbor. Laidlaw’s also been a docent and a history re-enactor, she added.

“He’s always been into history,” she said.

Laidlaw’s passion for sundials began in 2009, when his grandson, Doug Brouhard, stuck a stick in the ground while they were camping. Doug Brouhard was about 12 at the time, and the dial didn’t quite work, Laidlaw said. It was the right idea, though, and a new hobby was born.

“I still have the stick that started it all,” Doug Brouhard said.

Laidlaw turned to his favorite resource, the internet, and began building sundials with paper. There’s a trick to the angle for some types of dials, he said. They have to be aligned in just the right way for the latitude and the longitude where the dial is placed.

“I’ve been working on it a little bit here, a little bit there,” Laidlaw said.

It’s more satisfying, after all, to build it yourself, he said.

“Just dig in,” he advised anyone looking for a new hobby. “Just put in ‘How do I make,’ or put in ‘DIY,’ and dig in.”