Thursday, February 26, 2009

Weathering and Aging Miniatures

Freshly built dollhouses or roomboxes often have one small flaw about them - they're too perfect. The average home has an assortment of furnishings - some new and some old. Some things are pristine and others are well used. For instance, I remember in my family's home the doorjamb to the study had little tiny pen marks on it where my mother had marked my height as I grew taller.

Adding a little of that "used" look to a scene can make it more homey and realistic. In this photo, you can see a very weathered front door. I intentionally aged it down low where the rain would most have been blown up against the door. (If you study doors on old houses, the lower portions seem to show the most wear.)

Here's how I "weathered" the door. I put some rubber cement on the bottom of the door first. Then I painted it. After the paint dried, I rubbed hard where the rubber cement had been, and the raw wood began to appear. I continued rubbing until all of the places that had the rubber cement on them were once again bare wood. As needed, I used a little sand paper to enhance some of the erosion in addition to this method.

To grey the wood, you can use Bug Juice, which some miniature stores carry. Or you can create a stain by taking old nails, soaking them in vinegar for a couple weeks and then painting the wood with that "enriched" vinegar. Another way to age or dirty-up wood is to take a small amount of india ink drip it into a baby food jar and then fill the rest of the jar with rubbing alcohol. You then can paint this alcohol-laced india ink onto the places where dirt would accumulate on doors or walls. If the first coat isn't dark enough, you can add progressive amounts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mix of Scratch Built, Kit and Purchased Items

Not to belabor the point, but since this blog site only appears to allow only one picture per blog, I just had to share another photo to illustrate my point from the previous blog.

Here is a real mix - the sink and hutch were purchased. The stove was a kit. The baby chair and the table in the foreground were my own creations.

I made all the veggies on the work table using Fimo clay. Little details such as the kitchen witch over the sink make it feel "real."

Mini Decorating - Scratch Build, Use Kits or Buy Stuff?

Personally, I don't care whether or not all the items in my roomboxes or dollhouses are one thing or another. I opt for what fits my needs. Sometimes that means purchased items. Other times, a kit is a simple and usually economical solution for satisfying a need. And at other times, I can't be satisfied unless I add my own personal touches with pieces I have created.

There are so many beautiful items that crafts people turn out. The problem is, if you have multiple rooms to fill and a small budget, then filling it with expensive pieces by all those craftsmen and women may simply be beyond your means. It doesn't mean you can't have a beautiful room.

The photo at right is a mixture of craftspersons' work, manufactured pieces, my own handiwork, and a couple of Hallmark ornaments. Ornaments?! Yes, ornaments. The dollhouse in the foreground was a Hallmark ornament as was the rocking horse on the left.

The tiny table was a gift from my parents. They picked it up on a trip to China. The dresser, rocker and baby crib were purchased. The jack-in-the-box on the dresser was my own creation of wood and Fimo. I also created the bookcase in the corner.

Some of the toys on the shelves and on the floor were created by members of our miniatures club for our gift Christmas gift exchange. This room, in essence was heavily "purchased," and yet if you were to look at another room in this dollhouse such as the bathroom, it is almost entirely made from a kit. Other rooms such as the parents' bedroom have even more handcrafted items my wife and I created such as scratch-built bed stands and a quilt on the bed.

The honest truth about this hobby is that if you stay in it long enough, you'll have more "things" than you have places to put them. It then becomes a challenge to search through your stuff to find just the right pieces to put into a room to give it that lived in look. To be totally honest, though, I would not be happy if I created a dollhouse or a roombox and did NOT have some items in it that I had created. That's what ultimately sets my room setting apart from all others, and I like that uniqueness.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Building a Barbershop from Scratch

As I approach my sixth decade of life, I now realize that people who I knew as a young boy gave me a perspective on how their life was like now well over a hundred years ago. Such is the case with my old barber - Jack Merica.

He began barbering just before the turn of the 20th century, and gave me my first haircut sometime in 1949 or 50. He told me how in the early days the livery stable was across the street from his barbershop. That was a problem for the more refined ladies of Salida, Colorado, because lots of guys hung out at the barber shop AND at the livery stable.

Jack recalled with delight how the ladies couldn't split the difference by walking in the dirty street - it got their black shoes and long dresses muddy or dusty. So, they were forced to choose one side of the street or the other to walk on the wooden sidewalks. My! How they hated to walk down that block! So, they scurried by the barbershop as quickly as they could.

In those days, lots of guys shaved about once a week. They didn't do it themselves. They went to the barber and had him do it for them, and each customer had his own personal shaving mug and brush. Many of them were quite fancy.

I'm now working on building my own replica of an old fashioned barbershop that is based on a picture my barber had hanging in his shop, and I'm helping a few of my miniature club friends build similar models for themselves. (The picture above is the rough layout I put together in PowerPoint, which I often use for doing up my working sketches of projects.)

So far, we all have empty roomboxes. (We painted them both on the inside and outside last month to reduce potential warping.)

Now, we'll start on the inside.

I used my table saw to cut miniature 4 x 4's for the wall that will have the front door and windows. I prefer to build a stud wall, just like the real thing rather than to use solid plywood or fiberboard. It's lightweight, but sturdy. I also discovered in the building of a previous roombox that it's better to use 4 x 4's than to try to build with miniature 2 x 4's. The top surface of a 1/12th scale 2 x 4 is not very big - about 1/8" x 9/32". (Keep in mind that real 2 x 4's are actually 1 1/2" by 3 1/2" in dimension - not 2 x 4. Such delicate pieces aren't quite as sturdy as I like as a result. So, I have gone to miniature 4 x 4's.

I quickly discovered as I worked on cutting regular 1" pine lumber down into roughly 9/32" square pieces that I needed a couple of tools to make the work safer. (Even miniature table saws are extremely dangerous tools and can damage fingers and eyes in a heartbeat!)

I used a featherboard, which was made for miniature table saws. It holds the pieces of wood tight against the fence, and helped keep the wood from kicking back at me. I also made myself a very think pusher stick out of a paint stirring stick. The stick kept my fingers safely away from any spinning blades.

This Saturday, we'll glue up the walls for the barbershop and will cut matte board to fit the various walls. Next, we'll wallpaper each piece of matteboard allowing the paper to wrap around the edges of the matteboard. Then, we'll glue the matteboard to the framework.

As this project emerges, I'll share pictures of it on this site.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tools for Doing Miniatures

People often ask me, "What tools do you need to create miniatures?" The answer is: many of the same kinds of tools you need to do large-scale woodworking, only smaller.

I have a miniature table saw that I purchased from MicroMark. Prior to that, I wore out a Dremel table saw. It's one of the tools I use time and time again.

Another power tool I often use is my Dremel tool. I use a variety of bits with it to shape and create various edges on wood that I have trimmed and for roughing out items when I carve them. It can be inserted into a drill press or inverted and set up as a miniature "router table." It, too, is invaluable to me in this creative work.

The next most important tools for me have been my jeweler's saw and miniature drill. The miniature drill allows me to put holes into very thin pieces of wood. (I sometimes will cut pieces of wood that are 1/32 in thickness.) I can drill a pin-sized hole, and then insert my jeweler's saw blade through that hole. I can then carefully cut very intricate scroll saw patterns into the wood.

This step takes a steady hand, good eyes (or a good magnifying glass), and patience. You can't cut fast with a jeweler's saw. You must keep your fingers very close to the blade to hold the wood down so that the delicate pieces don't break with your upward strokes. (The downward strokes normally cut the wood, but upward strokes sometimes catch the wood and snap it off.

You'll also need a "bird's beek" to hold the wood you're cutting. This is a solid piece of plywood that is normally 1/4" thick or thicker. It is the platform you set your wood on to cut. This piece of wood has to be large enough to hold your piece of wood and still have an inch or two to fasten down onto the edge of your counter top, table or workbench.

The "bird's beek" is a narrow V that you cut out of this piece of plywood. You must center the saw blade close to the narrow end of the V so that very little of the wood you're cutting is exposed. This reduces the strain on the wood that usually causes it to snap.

Other critical tools include:
  • emory board fingernail files - they are an incredibly handy sanding tool
  • needle files
  • good woodworking and/or craft glue
  • a quality, steel ruler
  • a right-angle ruler - I have them in miniature, but I often still use my full-scale adjustable right-angle ruler
  • a good quality miniature saw - Exacto makes a good one.
  • a miter box - I have one that is small and plastic that I got from Micro Mark. Again, it's been incredibly handy for doing picture frames and other mitered projects
The above photograph is the study (still a work in progress) in the latest dollhouse that I'm building.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tall Guy Doing Small Things

I love to think big when creating miniatures. I enjoy challenging myself with creating a piece where people say, "How did you DO that?!"

Doing miniatures doesn't require fantastic woodworking skills. (After all, I got a D in woodshop in junior high.) It requires patience and a willingness to try more than once to get it right.

One of the critical miniature woodworker skills is to realize that wood joinery is not as complicated as full-scale woodworking. For instance, miniatures wood joints could never hold up in a full-scale piece. That's because the "real" furniture has to hold up under our weight or under the weight of many objects (like a bookshelf). Miniatures rarely hold any weighty objects.

Understanding scale and making SURE your miniature is truly in scale makes the difference between the model looking "real" and looking like a child's toy. Me? I prefer to make it look real. (The Thorne Rooms at the Chicago Museum of Art are the standard of excellence to which I aspire.)

How to Create Accurate Replicas
You can create a scale to measure any piece of furniture (or other fullsize object) and know instantly EXACTLY what that item's dimensions should be in 1/12th scale. Draw a vertical 1" line near the left-hand side of a piece of paper that is at least one foot wide. Now, set your ruler at a right angle to that 1" line and draw a horizontal 12-inch line that meets at the bottom of the 1" line, creating a right angle. Next, draw a diagonal line to create a triangle.

Here's how to use this tool you have just created. You can measure anything that is a foot or smaller, then take your ruler and set it along the 12-inch base of your triangle. Now find the measure of your object on the rule. Set a sharp pencil at that point on the scale and then draw a vertical line up to the hypoteneuse of the triangle. You can now measure this new line you have drawn. It will be exactly 1/12th the size of your object!

I used this methodology to create an exact replica of a small writing desk that has been in the family for years. That desk is pictured above in the background on the right-hand side of the photo.
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