Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Doll's Houses
Any house involves a multitude of skills to build, and a miniature version is no exception. The finest doll’s houses are built and decorated to perfectly reproduce life-sized effects at a fraction of the size. For this, an eye for detail and delight in improvisation are a must.
The earliest recorded dolls house was made in Bavaria in 1558
for the Duke of
Albrect’s daughter, although significantly it ended up
in the Duke’s art collection. By all accounts it was a rich and
wonderful piece of craftsmanship.
The desire for more and more extravagant houses spread among
the wealthy and fashionable. This was especially so in Germany and Holland
in the 17th and 18th centuries where houses were
commissioned as status symbols and favour winning gifts as much as objects
of childish joy. Known as baby
houses, they were hung with perfect, tiny
tapestries, furnished with pieces in the best woods and stocked with fine
china, all in miniature.
Perhaps the most famous dolls house of all was made for Queen Mary of England in the early 1920’s by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It included paintings by leading artists, books written by eminent men and reduced to the size of a postage stamp and a fleet of cars, including a Rolls Royce in the garage.
The dolls houses made today range from the simple box shape
with a removable side, to elaborate mansions in miniature with numerous
openings giving access to the sumptuous rooms within.
style, where the front of the house opens out in
hinges, is the most practical. The early Georgian design is one of the
easiest as it is relatively uncomplicated. All the rooms run from the back
wall to the front, and the roof can be made flat rather than sloped.
Traditional Victorian and Georgian style houses are still
popular, but makers are increasingly branching out into the more modern
and unusual styles. This change has been influenced by people
commissioning miniature replicas of their own houses, which has seen the
creation of a much wider range of architectural
There is no reason why a dolls house should not be art deco,
sixties kitsch or ultra modern. It can be as simple or as complicated as
the maker wishes, opening on one side or many. Removable sections may be
worked into the design to give greater access to the interior, and allow
the addition of rooms in the heart of the house.
It takes a great deal of skill and experience to make a
miniature replica of a real house, not to mention a hawk’s eye for
detail and a logical mind. The attraction of this type of work to a
professional is the challenge each job presents, as no two houses will be
With the aid of photographs and
architect’s plans of the
house to be copied, the house
is scaled down and a plan of action is drawn up.
It is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. First it has to
be decided how to make each room accessible from the outside, what sides
and partitions to make moveable. Then the maker has to determine the order
of construction and decoration of the interior. Or example, grooves for
electrical wires have to be cut and the wires laid along the walls before
the wallpaper can be hung up.
Decoration is dictated by personal taste, the development of
skills, and the tools and equipment available. On the exterior, windows
and doors may be framed with scrolls and curves. Pillars, staircases and
terraces can be added, even wrought iron gates and railings. The inside
can include corridors, working doors, decorated walls and
these details should be decided on at the planning stage.
Construction – The first thing to be built is the shell of
the house. This will include openings for windows and
doors, any removable
sections and sides for access to the interior. Channels for the electric
wires will also be cut into the walls.
This is followed by the interior floors and partitions, and
then the staircase – possibly the most difficult part. Unless one is
attempting to reproduce a particular staircase, a simple one can be built
from a series of small wooden blocks. The lip is formed using a circular
saw and the edges are finished off with a grooving tool. Precision is
everything here, as it is with all miniature modelling. A slight
miscalculation of wood thickness could mean that the top step doesn’t
quite make the landing!
The craftsman needs to ‘think miniature’ all the time;
this way effort can be saved by using materials that do not need altering.
For example a dowel rod becomes
a curtain rail, with rings made from copper wire wrapped around the rod,
soldered and flattened.
Wainscotting, skirting boards, picture rails, door and window
frames can be cut with a steady hand. They may be left planed or carved
to add intricate decoration. It is for this kind of painstaking work
that each maker develops a personal technique and improves tools to fit
the job. One professional makes banisters by applying a fine chisel to a
stick of wood turned lathe. More complicated designs are carved by hand.
Windows are glazed by sandwiching PVC or glass between two
frames. Lead windows can be imitated either by painting thin lines onto
the glass, or sticking on minute strips of card.
If several identical features are required, such as
fireplaces, it is worth making a mould and casting them in metal or resin.
The tiny pieces should always be painted before they are assembled and put
Roofing – There are three popular roofing materials which
are imitated as follows. Shingles can be reproduced using fine sandpaper
painted dark. This is then cut in narrow strips, notched at intervals the
length of the strip across and glued in overlapping rows.
Shake shingles are imitated by using 1/32 inch balsa wood cut
across the grain, snapped into irregular pieces, glued in overlapping rows
The look of slate tiles is made using strips of sanded balsa
wood stuck onto the roof, intended as for shingles and painted.
Lighting – Light can be achieved either from batteries or
via transformers from the household supply – systems with 12 volt bulbs
are the most popular. Wires go along the channels cut when making the
shell – this makes for a better finish. Copper tape may be used instead,
but this is an expensive alternative.
Finishing and furnishing – Just about anything can be used
to decorate the house. Wallpaper, wrapping paper or fabric for walls,
paint and stain for the woodwork, plastic sheeting to imitate marble for
walls and floors. Inside or out, brickwork can be painted on or natural
stone effects achieved by scoring the walls with a sharp tool before
painting. Inside, floors can be laid with patterned tiles, or be given a
warm glow with polished floors. Walls can be papered or panelled,
fireplaces set in and chandeliers hung.
In an almost limitless area, a couple of suggestions are to use egg shell paint or distressed – finish techniques to achieve and aged look and, if your eyes can stand it, tiny pieces of needlepoint make great rugs or cushion covers for another little piece of miniature magic.
Equipment and Materials
Making a dolls house requires a well stocked workshop. A
selection of saws are needed – fretsaw, padsaw with a hacksaw blade for
metal, ripsaw and tenon saw. A twist drill and a hand drill, a simple lathe
and other basic items like chisels are also required. Added to this it
takes a lot of ingenuity to form shapes in tiny pieces of wood, which
would snap under the strain of ordinary treatment.
Woods which can be used include birch plywood or medium
density fibreboard for the main structure – both are easy to work with
and take paint well – soft wood for details such as window sills and the
stair case and hardboard for arches.
Heavy PVC or thin glass is required for windows and a range of glues and tapes to hold delicate pieces while they set. A magnifying glass is also a good investment to avoid eye strain.
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