September 19, 1988 12:00 PM

In 1889 Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel completed a little more than two years of work on what was then the tallest free-standing structure in the world. Nearly a century later, Stockton, Calif., engineering professor Joe King completed five years of work on what is without doubt the tallest free-standing structure in his driveway. It is an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower made entirely of toothpicks—110,000 toothpicks, to be precise.

King’s task was much more difficult than his predecessor’s. Eiffel had 250 workmen. “All I had was me,” says King. “Actually,” he continues, “I wouldn’t have wanted any help. I mean, did Leonardo ask his wife to help with the Mona Lisa?”

King, 40, spent $850 on materials for his towering achievement and, like most artists, he is very, ah, picky about his equipment. He uses only Diamond toothpicks (they are all 2.6 inches long, and uniformity is vital when one is building to scale). He is also loyal to Duco Cement, although he had to stop sending his wife, Patty, to buy that. “Everyone at the supermarket thought I was a glue sniffer,” she sniffs.

King became interested in toothpick art 15 years ago. Since then, he has constructed a 5,000-toothpick armchair, as well as a rotating space station, consisting of 30,250 toothpicks. “I would love to make my living as an artist,” says King, “but I’m not good enough. These things don’t take a lot of talent. They just take tenacity and patience. That I got.”

For his next pick trick, King is thinking of making a working motorcycle, using toothpicks for everything but the engine. Before he begins, Patty has a bit of construction—some would say constructive—advice. “Why not build an addition onto the house,” she asks him, “just for you, complete with padded walls and bars on the windows?”

And so, in Stockton, Calif., there are two schools of thought on Joe King. One: The guy is a genius. Two: His elevator doesn’t quite make it to the top of the tower. Take your pick.

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