So You Want to Build a Dollhouse: Part 1 Selecting the Right Dollhouse for You
It all starts out so innocently. You decide that you want to own a dollhouse, or gift a dollhouse to a special person, so you start looking around at dollhouses and discover that you have the choice of buying a pre-built house or making one yourself. For many people, the first reaction to that choice is "Oh, I could never build a house myself, so I'll just look at pre-built houses"……….and somewhere in the back of your mind, a small voice whispers, "You can build it yourself." As you continue looking at pre-built houses and discover that the price range is higher and the houses may not have all the customized features you're looking for, that little voice in the back of your mind becomes stronger until you find yourself saying, "I can build it myself!"
The advantages of building a house yourself guarantee that it's a decision you'll never regret. Not only will you have the picture-perfect house that's just right for you, but you'll also have a unique pride of accomplishment that can only come from building a miniature house. It's marvelous to own a beautiful miniature home, but it's euphoric to know that you built that beautiful little home with your own hands.
Since you'll be building the house yourself, one of the first considerations is your skill level and comfort zone for building. Dollhouse kits are easier to build than a novice might imagine. With step by step instructions and support groups such as the Greenleaf Dollhouse Forum?, you'll find that building a dollhouse is so much fun that if you're a first time builder, you may find yourself addicted to a brand new hobby! With assistance and support at hand there's really no worry about trying something new, and experienced miniaturists will be happy to help you evaluate the skill level required for a specific kit.
The next thing to consider is the choice of building materials for different kits. The most common choices are either 1/8" plywood or MDF. Miniaturist Wende Feller has compiled a fact sheet of information about the two mediums to help you make the choice of which is best for you. You can read Wende's article about construction materials here at Dollhouse Universe.
Having narrowed your choice to the composition material that best suits your plans, you're ready to start looking at individual houses. The size of the house is a good place to start. You'll want to display the house in an area where it can be placed on a turntable and rotated for viewing, or in an area where it can be accessible from all sides. If you'll be placing the house on a turntable, consider the entire size of the footprint of the house and if it could be rotated without bumping into walls or furniture. If you'll be adding landscaping around the house, be sure to calculate the size of the "yard" into your measurements. Another thing to keep in mind is making sure the house you're building will be able to fit thru the doorways of your home. Building a house like the Garfield Dollhouse in your basement only to find it won't fit thru the door when you attempt to move it upstairs is a situation you'll want to avoid.
Who will be the owner of your house? One of the most delightful treasures a child can receive is a dollhouse built just for him or her by a special adult (or a house built together as a family). If the house you're building is going to be owned by a child, you'll want to take special care in choosing the right house design. You may want to avoid houses with small bits of trim that could be broken off by small hands during play. This doesn't necessarily rule out houses with gingerbread, but you may want to consider leaving off some of the more delicate pieces of trim that protrude from the house (most can be added to the house later). You'll also want to choose a house that has large, open rooms that a child can reach easily without having to stretch or turn to get back into far corners and cubbies.
Consider houses that will grow with a child and allow the décor to be easily changed as the child matures. Some recommendations for a child's dollhouse would be the Laurel and Primrose Dollhouses, the Harrison Dollhouse, the Willow Dollhouse Kit or Greenleaf's Haunted Dollhouse (don't let the name fool you, it's a sweet little cottage). If it's something a little more masculine you're looking for, you might consider the Shady Brook Cabin or the Wildwood Stable. Each of these houses has an open design that let little hands freely move and play. There is no fussy trim to inhibit a child's play and each house has unlimited charm. They can be decorated in any style from victorian to contemporary and the house can be upgraded in décor to mature with the child to ensure your gift will be one cherished into their adult years.
If accessibility and age are not factors in your choice of house, then your decision can be based on style and personal preference alone. The most popular styles of dollhouses are Tudor and Victorian. If those styles aren't quite what you're looking for, don't despair by thinking that your choice is limited. One of the greatest things about building your own miniature house is that you can personalize it any way you like! Modifying (or "bashing") a dollhouse kit is relatively simple to do and with a little planning, you can transform any kit into the perfect style for you. If you're considering a kit and thinking, "It would be perfect if only... " don't let that "if only" stop you. Bashing a kit is much easier to do with plywood construction material since you can easily alter existing pieces or create new pieces to modify your miniature home. You can also make modifications such as adding interior walls using materials such as foam core which doesn't require an investment in woodworking tools. You can also add upgrades such as pre-built windows and doors or architectural features that give your house a distinctive look. Sometimes something as simple as leaving off a bit of trim can change the entire look of a house.
Whatever criteria you use for selecting your miniature home, select the house that is most appealing to you. Your mini home will be a source of pride for generations to come.
So You Want to Build a Dollhouse: Part 2 Planning a Theme or Decor
Now that you've selected your dream house, you may want to consider how you're going to decorate or theme the house before you start building. A specific theme or décor can call for modifications to the house that may require planning ahead.
The planning process is unique to each builder, so there is no wrong or right way to proceed. Many builders consider the planning process to be one of the most entertaining parts of building miniatures. In this article we'll cover some tips and techniques to try as you go thru the planning process.
If you already have the kit in hand, the best way to begin planning is to put the house in dry fit (assemble the house shell using tape instead of glue) so you have the house in front of you to visualize your plans. If you're planning the house prior to receiving it, many sites such as the Greenleaf store have close up pictures of the interior and exterior of their houses, as well as a zoom feature so you can see details more clearly. Keep a notebook and pencil close at hand while you begin planning so you can make notes of your ideas as they come to you. Even if you think you have no drawing ability, make sketches of your ideas. The sketches don't have to look perfect, but they do help you with a visualization of your concepts. They'll also be helpful to refer to during the building process to ensure you don't forget any tiny details.
When you begin planning, consider the overall design of the house. Does the kit fit your goal for the style and period you want? Were you wishing for a slightly more modern look to a Victorian house, or vice versa? Do you know yet if you're going to need to add or remove walls, doors or windows? Are you going to be using any specialty items such as floor coverings, or will you use the existing wood for hardwood floors? This is the time to consider any modifications (bashing) that you'll want to do. If the kit is in dry fit, you can use a light pencil to mark the walls and floors where the modifications will occur. (it's also a good time to mark any tabs/slots that might need shaving and where your wallpaper lines will be) If you'll be tape wiring the house, now is the time to plan where your tape runs will be and mark them in pencil. If you are working with sketches, make an extra copy of the pattern for your tape runs and when the house if finished, secure it to the underside of the foundation. If you ever need to modify or repair the wiring in the future, you'll have a copy of your wiring schematics at hand.
Color choice is important for both interior and exterior and something you'll want to consider right away. There is a very helpful article for color choices at Dollhouse Universe that can help with selections. You'll be considering paint choices for exterior walls and trim as well as interior colors, wallpaper choices and stains for woodwork, so it's helpful to lay out your palette and see how well the colors go together. Using paint chips to lay the colors side by side is the best way to visualize. If you'll be using stain, 'audition' the stain on scraps of the wood from the kit so you can see how each stain will display on the wood. Keep in mind that the shade of the wood itself can change the end result of the stain color.
If you'll be using wallpaper, you may want to print out swatches of the wallpaper before you purchase it. You can create swatches of wallpaper by copying and pasting images from online stores into a document, printing them out and then cutting out the individual swatches. Laying out the wallpaper on a table or floor in the order in which it will be seen in the house allows you to see the 'flow' of the paper from room to room and floor to floor. It's much easier to rearrange the swatches to get the perfect balance than it is to repaper a room after you've discovered that two rooms next to one another clash in color, or that you've created an imbalance in the house by putting too many stripes on one side of the house and too many florals on the other side. Wallpaper is certainly not your only choice for interior walls. In fact, those options are so numerous that the choices for wall treatments are discussed in a separate article in this issue of the Gazette.
Also consider your choices for floor coverings. Comparing swatches of wallpaper with your auditions of stains for hardwood floors, or against tile, linoleum, carpet or other floor coverings will help you determine that the floors and walls are harmonious and ensure that the 'break' between floor and wall is visible. You'll want to avoid floor patterns or colors that are too similar to the wall coverings since that can give an optical illusion that the floors and walls are blended. This is also a good time to determine if you'll be adding baseboards and crown moulding, and if you want them to be stained or painted.
Many builders will already know the type of furnishings they'll be including in a specific house before they begin. In fact, a large number of houses are actually built around one special miniature piece. As with decorating a large house, sometimes the best results are obtained when décor is planned around a favorite armoire, or living room suite, or even a lamp or rug. If you already have furnishings planned, place them in the house in dry fit—or sketch out the floor plan of your house and add in the measurements for the furnishings you'll be using. This sense of placement gives you the confidence in knowing your treasures will fit well into your house, as well as allowing you to consider arrangements and the planning of other furnishings that will be included.
If you don't have specific furnishings in mind but are planning on adding them into the house after it's built, take some time to think ahead to those furnishings. This is the miniature version of window shopping and extremely fun to do. Many online miniature stores offer a "wish list" so you can save your favorite minis to one page and go thru them at leisure. Keep a tape measure handy so you can check to be sure the minis you desire will fit into the room for which they're intended. While you're planning, copy and paste the pictures of each item for a room into a document on your computer, and compare it to the wallpaper swatches, paint chips and stains to get an overall view how the completed room will look.
Finally, there is the decision of landscaping. If you'll be adding landscaping to your house, you'll want to decide on the types of greenery you'll be using, the style and placement of the features, flowers, trees and bushes, and how those designs will fit with the style/era of the house. Will you be adding a gazebo or a fountain to a romantic Victorian side garden? Is there a vegetable garden behind the farmhouse? Or a swing set and slide in the front yard for the kids? Does your fairy or elf need a tree trunk to hide in when the ogre comes to call? Sketching out your landscaping designs will give you an idea of placement, proportion and space so you can plan for the size of the base you'll need as well as gathering supplies.
Obviously, it's not necessary to take all these steps to plan your décor, but it can be helpful to plan ahead on many things. Some builders never use any planning at all and follow their instincts for each step of the building process to tremendous success. Regardless of your method, the same key applies to any building or decorating………..make it suit your own personal tastes. After all, it's your house and there are no rules. The most important thing is that you enjoy the processes of building and decorating, and that the end result is delightful for you.
So You Want to Build a Dollhouse: Part 3 Tools and Tips to Get You Started
First of all, find a workspace where you can spread out your tools and materials and leave them undisturbed for the duration of your project. When building a house, you don't want to spend precious time moving things out of the way and then setting up again. After all, that's time that could be spent working on minis instead of gathering up your supplies repeatedly. Keeping your work in one area also decreases the chance of losing a tiny piece of trim.
Be sure your workspace is well lit and that the work surface is flat and even. An uneven work surface can lead to problems with your house being square and level as you build. Also be sure that your workspace is ergonomic for your body and for your work habits. Having a table and chair at appropriate heights and angles is important so that you are comfortable sitting there for long periods of time. If you can, organize your supplies and materials so they are easy to see from a central location and within reach without straining. This all seems like obvious advice, but many miniaturists find themselves with aches and pains after an extended work period and may not realize that the aching back could be caused from repeatedly reaching for supplies that are just one inch too far away.
When you begin building, review the instructions and schematics sheets first. Remove the individual pieces from the sheets and, with a light pencil, label each piece with its name and the sheet number. That might seem like quite a lot of extra work, but it's helpful for a couple of reasons. One is that there won't be any guesswork as you progress with building, and the other is that it's a good way to become familiar with each piece before you start building. It's also very helpful to organize the pieces as you remove and label them. Create stacks of pieces categorized as "walls", "roof ", "porch", "windows", etc. Small pieces can be put into envelopes or zipper baggies with a label included so that they are easily found when you need them.
There's always a lot of discussion about what tools are needed when someone new to the hobby begins building. Members of the Greenleaf forum have contributed a lengthy list composed of "must have", "nice to have" and "if I won the lottery" tools. It's been suggested that a list categorizing the tools would be helpful to have, so here we go.
Masking tape—painters quick release tape is recommended.
Wood Glue—A good quality wood glue such as Elmer's ProBond or Elmer's Stainable.
Tacky Glue—Tacky glue works for more delicate items such as windows.
Toothpicks or cocktail straws used to apply glue.
Wallpaper paste—Regular wallpaper paste works best and is quite affordable.
Sandpaper—An assortment of sandpaper in varying grits. A medium grit for beginning work, a smaller grit for finishing and smoothing.
Emery boards—Emery boards work well for small spaces and have two grits on each board.
Paint brushes—An assortment of sizes and bristle types.
Ruler or measuring tape
Sharp utility knife—Keep plenty of sharp replacement blades on hand. Never use a dull blade.
Pencil with eraser
Your color choice of paint and stain for interior and exterior; wallpaper if you'll be using it.
Primer to seal the wood.
Spackling compound or wood putty for gaps.
Nice to Have:
Clamps—Clamps can be a variety of materials. Masking tape is used as a clamp and you can also use pinch clothespins or regular clamps from the hardware store. If you're using clamps, be sure they are the correct size for your project.
Latex gloves—These are especially helpful when applying stain and paint.
Baby wipes for your hands
Dremel or other rotary tool
Miter box and saw
Waxed paper or freezer paper
Glue gun for shingles (do not use a glue gun for assembling the house)
Mini bench sander
Mini table saw (the above tools are also great in real life size)
Any and all accessories for the Dremel
Storage and shelving units to store supplies
Vise bench with clamps
If you'll be wiring your house for electricity, our Electric Guru, Darrell, has created the world's best guide to wiring a house. You can find that guide and pictorial here.
Some specialty tools for wiring include:
Pilot hole punch
Every builder has their own list of tools and that varies with each individual's building style. This list doesn't contain every tool that might be used for building and decorating, but it will get you started. As you gain experience, you'll find the tools that are just perfect for your individual style.
Your House, Your Rules: Dollhouse Kit Bashing
Dollhouse Kit Bashing, to bash, or not to bash, that is often the question. We fall in love with a kit and think 'it would be perfect if only it had a slightly different porch, or an extra room, or just a little more space on the first floor." Over and over, miniaturists are heard to say that they'd love to bash a house but they're intimidated by the thought of modifying a kit.
Let's stop right there and consider that thought. A house kit is made of wood and you use glue to put it together. There's really nothing about a combination of wood and glue that should be frightening or intimidating. If you can build a house from a kit, you've got the skills to bash it. There are very few "oops" moments that can't be covered with a bit of trim, some wallpaper or paint, or a strategically placed piece of furniture. In the very worst case scenario, in most cases you can always contact the kit manufacturer and order a replacement piece. So let go of the inhibitions and open your mind to the wonderful world of bashing!
There are a couple of different schools of thought about the definition of kit bashing. Some say that bashing a kit is dramatically altering the shell, or combining two kits into one structure. Others say that bashing can be as simple as making a modification to a door or window. Because we'll be covering a multitude of modifications, let's use the term 'bashing' to cover any modification made to the structure of a house.
Tools are often the first thing that comes to mind when someone considers bashing a house. Power tools can be nice, especially if you're a habitual builder and will be using the tools enough to justify the expense. However, fancy tools are not always needed to complete a bash. For most bashes, the only tool you'll need is one with which to cut plywood. With care and patience, you can use a utility knife to score thru plywood to make your cuts. It is easier to use a rotary tool with a cutting wheel and you may want to consider investing in a rotary tool. (Rotary tools such as the Dremel are inexpensive and have a multitude of uses.)
The subject of cutting brings us to an important point about bashing---the composition material of the kit. MDF is a thicker composition material and can be very hard to modify. It's difficult to cut even with power tools. Kits made of plywood have a greater potential for bashing since the material is easier to work with and modify. You're not just confined to wood for your bashing however. Materials such as foam core can easily be cut with scissors to make a new wall or roof piece. Foam core is available in a variety of widths to match the width of your plywood. With some creative thinking, you can find other materials that can be used to modify your house. PVC pipe can be cut and used for towers and bays and heavy styrafoam can also be used. Sheets of basswood are readily available in most hobby or craft stores and can easily be cut to fit your needs. When selecting your materials, keep in mind the function that your house will have. If it is a display or collector's piece, more fragile materials can be used, but if the house is going to be a hands-on playhouse for a child, you'll want to stick with wood.
So where do you begin with dollhouse kit bashing? One of the most popular modifications to a kit house is a door and window upgrade. There are a lot of choices on the market for door and window upgrades. You can select an upgrade package specifically designed for a kit by the manufacturer, or you can customize your own upgrade by selecting individual doors and windows made by third party manufacturers. If you purchase an upgrade kit from the manufacturer, you won't have to make any modifications to the house and the installation is as easy as gluing in the components. If you choose to select individual components, you may need to modify the door and window openings to fit. Most retailers will include the measurements for each component in their advertising so you'll have a good idea if that component will fit your window or door opening. If the component doesn't exactly match the opening on your house, you can always cut the opening to a larger size. On occasion, the component may be shorter or narrower than the opening, in which case, you can always creatively add trim to the edges, or even a decorative pediment at the top.
Adding Windows and Doors
There are times when you just need a window in a place where one is not, or a door between two rooms. These are simple modifications that require you to determine where you want the window or door to be and mark that location with cutting lines in pencil. For a smoother cut, drill holes in the wood on the inside of each corner of the area you'll be cutting out and then make your straight line cuts between the holes. Got a window or door in a place where you don't want one? Leave the punch out pieces in place and give the seams a light coating of glue on either side to reinforce them and then cover them with wallpaper or siding.
Stair upgrades are also very popular and can add charm and life to a house. Stair upgrades can be purchased as either pre-built components or as kits, and the specifications will give measurements and height. You'll want to makes sure your stair upgrade is either the correct height for your house, or determine that it can be modified to fit. Quite often with a stair upgrade, you'll need to make some changes to the opening in the second or third floor for the stairwell. That change can be as simple as enlarging an existing square or rectangle opening or it could require that you make a more complex cut in the floor to accommodate a spiral staircase. When modifying the opening, it's a good idea to dry fit the staircase into that area first and use a pencil to mark where the changes will be made. You can use basswood strips or skinny sticks cut to size to frame the opening for a smooth finish. With stair upgrades, you may also need to modify the banisters around the stairwell opening, so keep that in mind when you're planning your upgrade.
Interior walls can easily be added or removed to create a whole new floor plan. Some existing interior walls may have tabs that fit into slots in the floors and ceilings so if you're removing those walls, you'll need to fill in the slots with putty. It's important to put the house into dry fit when you're planning changes to interior walls. If the interior wall is 'load bearing' or interlocks with another piece, you will have to take that into consideration. Load bearing walls can be replaced by pillars or columns to provide support to ceilings above them. Interlocking pieces can be a bit trickier since they often provide support for the entire structure. Rather than remove an interlocking wall, you might consider creating a wide arch instead so that the portion of the wall that interlocks with the floor or ceiling remains intact.
Adding interior walls can be as simple as cutting a piece of wood to fit and gluing it in place, but it's recommended to provide just a little more support. Baseboards or crown moulding can help secure the wall at top and bottom, or corner trim can be placed in the corner joins of walls.
Bashing a dollhouse kit porch makes a dramatic difference in the overall look of a house and can be very easy to do. A porch can be altered by changing the types of railings and trim, or you can modify the entire porch to a whole new look. Extending a porch to a wrap-around style adds grace and elegance to a house. You can create a wrap around porch by using the existing porch pieces as a template and adjust them as needed to meet the measurements for the other side of the house. Use a mitre cut or insert a triangular piece for the join at the corner of the house for a smooth look. Would you like to have a balcony where the existing porch roof is at? Flatten the slanted porch roof by lowering the inside edge, or by lifting up the outer edge and extending your porch railings higher to create a balcony floor, then add railings to the edges. Support the interior edge of the balcony floor by gluing support beams under the inside edge. The same can be done with a wrap around porch by cutting a larger triangle piece to go in the corner join and you'll have a lovely wrap around balcony. Want a screened in porch for a country look? Add railings between the porch floor and porch roof and glue panty hose to the interior to make screens. Looking for a vine covered cottage? Create lattices from basswood strips or skinny sticks and add them to the sides or front of the porch where you can embellish them with greenery and flowers.
The Big Bash
Ultimately, the big bash is a dramatic alteration of a kit, or combining two kits into one house. That's really not as intimidating as it sounds. Put the house or houses into a dry fit and then sit back and take a good look. Where are the areas that "flow" into a natural design? Are you going to be removing an exterior wall and adding a wing? Decide where you'll create supports for the walls you're removing and determine placement and measurements for the new walls. Bashing two dollhouse kits together? With a roll of masking tape, begin moving pieces around and experiment with various placements till you find the look you're going for. When you've decided on the design, pencil in your cutting lines or notes on the wood for reference points. It's also helpful to take digital pictures of your design to refer to as you build. There may be some gaps or joins where you need to add in some pieces of wood cut to fit and it's a good idea to cut a paper template of those areas while the house is still in dry fit. Once you have your design planned, you're ready to grab the glue and start bashing! For added stability to your bash, you may want to add support beams under the joins, or use corner moulding for extra reinforcement. You may want to also mount the house onto a sheet of plywood or mdf as a permanent base to make moving the house more secure at a later time.
The great joy of dollhouse kit bashing is that it allows you to take a kit and customize it into your own personal and individual design. Relax and have fun with it! Follow your creative instincts and you'll have the house of your dreams!
Filling in the Gaps
A natural challenge to building houses is finding ways to fill in gaps around wall seams, tabs, and in areas that just don't quite fit together smoothly. Sometimes we don't get joins perfectly square, or there might be a bit of natural warping in the wood that creates a little space that needs to be filled. Builders know that gaps are a part of the process and there is a multitude of creative ways to fill or cover them.
The all time favorite filler is spackling compound. Lightweight and easy to handle, spackling compound can be spread on with a finger, a credit card or a small spatula and fills in gaps very nicely. When applying spackling compound to a gap, it's a good idea to cover the back with masking tape so the spackle doesn't ooze thru the other side. Apply a liberal amount and use your finger or tool to smooth it down, then let it dry.
Once it's dried, you can sand it smooth and paint it. Spackle can also hold stain to some degree, so it can be used to smooth rough or porous edges of wood such as stairs and window trim. Spackle works well to smooth the edges of slots both on corners and on the exterior walls of your house. The benefits to spackling compound are that it's lightweight, sands smoothly and adheres nicely to wood without any additional adhesive. HavanaHolly also suggests that you can mix spackling compound with white glue for a little smoother and more pliable texture, then pour it into a waxed paper cone to apply into gaps and hard to reach places.
Wood putty is another choice for filling gaps, but is not favored for large areas. Wood putty is a little harder to work with as it doesn't smooth as easily as spackling compound and may not adhere as well. The benefits to wood putty are that it's stainable and you can also find brands that are already tinted with the same stain you're using on your woodwork.
Filling in tab slots on stained surfaces such as hardwood floors can be another challenge. Wood putty works well for these little gaps, but you can also mix sawdust and wood glue together into your own putty, and tint it with stain to match your woodwork.
Bay windows are often the biggest challenge when it comes to gaps. Nutti has an excellent solution for bay and tower gaps to give a smooth and lovely finish to them. In her McKinley Blog on the Greenleaf forum, Nutti suggests using bamboo skewers cut to size and then glued in place on the joins of the bay walls. This works well for both interior and exterior walls and makes an elegant architectural finish.
Interior walls present a different type of challenge since some builders install wallpaper before assembling the house. For that style of building, it's best to put the house in dry fit first and use a pencil to mark areas where you'll want to extend the wallpaper around an edge or a gable. When applying the wallpaper to the walls, give an extra 1/4 inch to the wallpaper beyond the edge of the wall. When you assemble the house, it will be easy to apply just a touch of glue to that wallpaper extension and smooth it down on the wall to cover the join.
Another finishing touch for covering wall joins on the interior is to use crown moulding in corners. The crown moulding can be applied vertically in the corners and gives a lovely finished look, as well as providing a little extra support for interior walls. Baseboards and crown moulding at ceiling and floor also give a finished look to a room while covering gaps.
Floor edges are another area where we sometimes want to provide a finished look and cover any gaps or rough edges. Roof line moulding makes an excellent finish for exposed floor edges and can be painted or stained to match the floors or exterior. It also gives an impression of floor boards on the exterior side of the room.
Exterior trim is another favorite for hiding gaps around the roof line or on walls. Extra gingerbread or medallions can be placed along the roofline and basswood strips can be used on vertical edges of the house for "framing". Basswood strips can also be used horizontally along the sides of the house to cover the slots on the walls. Both techniques add to the architectural features of the house.
During the process of building, it's a good idea to occasionally stop and place a light behind the house and examine if from all angles to locate hidden gaps. If possible, pick up the house and turn it upside down and sideways so you can see every angle. (This isn't advisable with a house the size of a Garfield or a Pierce so you may have to be content with walking around the house or standing on your head)
Regardless of the house you're building, gaps happen and are easily remedied…….and sometimes the remedy can be a beautiful new feature to your mini home!
Keeping It Real! Historical Accuracy When Building Dollhouses
The ultimate compliment to a miniaturist might well be, "I had to look twice to make sure it wasn't real!" Even when we're creating works of fancy, we strive for as much realism as possible. Of course, since there are no rules to miniatures, even the most dedicated historian can sometimes make concessions such as 'The running water in this home was very cutting edge for its time' or 'The stairs are behind the wall you can't see' or 'The fireplace is on the opposite side of the house from the chimney due to an engineering feat. The homeowner was a genius'. After all, sometimes a fixture is just too perfect for a house to leave it out just because it might not be precise for the era.
Our miniature homes typically follow the architecture of the past two hundred years as reproductions of favorite styles. The following time lines are a brief overview of the styles of those eras that describes features of each era which can be incorporated into our miniature homes.
Colonial Era—1607 to 1830
As America was settled, our forefathers brought many different styles of building with them from other parts of the world. Therefore, architecture in that era varied a great deal from colony to colony. Houses were built for functionality over style, but many European features still found their way into the designs. New England homes had a dash of the English countryside in their saltbox and Cape Cod styles, while settlers in the New York and Hudson Bay regions favored a more Dutch design with steeply pitched gabled roofs. In the south, French Colonial styles were more prevalent and featured tall, narrow doorways and windows. In the 1700's Georgian architecture became popular and featured paneled doors, a square, symmetrical design and twin chimneys.
Federal Era—1789 to 1865
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello began the rise in popularity of the Federal style, combining Georgian with Roman influences. Federal houses were more inclined to have less pitch in the roof and more curving lines such as arched doorways, fan windows above the doors, and made use of garlands, urns and swags in the design. Shutters on the windows and narrow windows bracketing the doors became popular. Dentil moulding was also very popular during this era. As styles evolved, the Greek Revival and Antebellum emerged with more focus on architectural features such as flat roofs, entry porches supported by columns, grand staircases and formal ballrooms. Of more importance to the miniaturist, it was in the late 1860's when the flushing toilet became more commonplace, allowing us to incorporate beautiful bathroom features in our mini homes while preserving historical accuracy. (Flushing toilets didn't really catch on in the United States till after WW1, but would not be uncommon in upscale homes)
Victorian Era—1837 to 1914
Ah, the Victorian Era, a true favorite of miniaturists. Is it the romance that draws us, or is it the drama of the furnishings and design? Or do we simply yearn for the sweet and sultry perfume of that time? The catch phrase of the Victorian era was "More is more" and we still love to follow that in miniature.
The industrial period was beginning and homes were beginning to reflect more asymmetrical designs and more flamboyant styles. Creativity and daring were all a part of architectural trends so homes took on more trims, more fabulous shapes and more vibrant colors. See? More is more.
Gothic revival styles reached back to medieval times for inspiration with textured walls, asymmetrical facades and as much gingerbread as the roof and eaves could hold. The Italianate styles took advantage of new industrial techniques for building and incorporated square center towers and low pitched roofs with elaborate porches and corner quoins.
The Second Empire era took elaborate styling to a whole new level. With more than a little influence from Paris, the Second Empire styles brought about the popularity of dormer and bay windows, double entry doors and mansard roofs.
Folk Victorian styles were predominant in more rural areas where functionality was blended with style. With slightly less gingerbread than their urban counterparts, Folk Victorian houses featured wrap around porches and had a closer resemblance to an English country cottage with a bit of romance in its life.
The Queen Anne styles are probably the most popular in Victorian revivals and took the romantic English cottage to a whole new level. With the Queen Anne styles, 'anything goes' became the norm and these houses featured grand circular towers, steep gables and decorative trim, fantastic windows and irregular floor plans and facades.
Arts and Crafts Era—1830 to1920
Overlapping the Victorian Era, the Arts and Crafts styles reflected a bit of a rebellion to the industrialization of our country. More streamlined and sedate, these houses utilized a more natural construction that implemented materials native to the area where the house was built. The styles were also designed to blend into the environment rather than stand out as a declaration of population. Craftsman and Bungalow styles were low dwellings, usually one story.
The Mission styles became popular in the Southwest regions of the United States where the influence of the Spanish colonies combined with practicality for comfortable homes. Mission styles feature stucco or adobe walls with decorative parapets, arched doorways, flat roofs and wide verandas. These homes were often built around an open and airy courtyard.
The Tudor revival was also a part of the Arts and Crafts era and typically used neutral shades of white, brown and black combined with half timbers and brickwork. Roofs were thatched or roughly shingled. These homes were often aged deliberately to give the look of established stability.
Modernism—1920 to 1960
A direct opposite of the Arts and Crafts designs, Modernism embraced industrialization with enthusiasm. With all the bold bravado of a flapper, Modern architecture turned dreams of the future into designs of the time, featuring shining chrome and sparkling glass. New materials were incorporated into buildings such as bakelite, steel and aluminum as well as chrome plating. Neon arrived and with it came the dazzling use of light in design. Art deco styles were daringly vertical and emphasized strong lines. In larger cities, architects were told that their skyscrapers were blocking too much sun from the sidewalks below, so a new design of tapered towers emerged and gained popularity everywhere.
The International style of architecture found more use for glass in new ways, combining it with geometric shapes to create a sparse and minimal style that scorned elaborate decorative trims. As airplanes began to fill the skies, architecture reflected that technological development as well, and the Streamline Moderne style went to extremes with rounded, chromed designs mimicking those in the air.
After World War II and the baby boom, practicality became more of a concern in American architecture and homes that were easily mass produced and functional for urban family life became the norm. Thus we saw the emergence of the ranch style, the split level, and the A-frame. Suburbia began its rapid growth and America saw the arrival of the attached garage. These homes were mass produced and a common joke of that era was that no one in a neighborhood knew for sure which house was theirs till they found the one that fit their front door key. However, the modern look and convenience of these houses made them true homes.
If you're considering historical accuracy for your miniature home, there are many resources available online. These are just a few sites where you can research historical accuracy for your mini home
Historical accuracy in colors: Historic House Colors
Examples of styles: American Architecture and Styles of Architecture
Whether your house is historically accurate, a flight of fancy, or somewhere in between, the most important aspect is that it is pleasing to you. After all, your creation has its own place in architecture… your individual design