Rehabbing a Dollhouse: Some Rules to Live By!
By Ann Woldt
Brimble’s Public House was truly a labor of love. All three of my finished dollhouses are treasures to me, but somehow he is special. He is reminiscent of a lot of old houses and businesses in my home town, and the bar is like the one we spend time in here, “where everybody knows your name”, where everyone is a friend, where all are welcomed. He surely didn’t start out that way, though! Here are some things I learned, getting him from forlorn discard to the elegant little Pub he is today:
1. LOVE the house you’re going to rehab. There is a lot of messy dirty work to be done to turn a discarded house into a lovely little home, and if you don’t like the house to begin with, it’ll never get done! I fell in love with the Brimble Mercantile, bought one off eBay, and turned it in to Brimble’s Public House.
2. Start with the foundation. Turn the house upside down, or on its side, so you can examine the foundation. Check the glue joints, check the framing, see if there are any loose or “strange looking” crosspieces. I found a strange piece in Brimble’s foundation, and removed it. The whole house squared up and settled out, and was much sturdier and straight! I dug out lots of old glue and putty, scraped and sanded the edges, reglued everything, and added some reinforcement framing around the base of the outside walls. This made for a much sounder building when done.
3. Check for loose pieces. Remove anything obviously loose. Save everything – I used trim pieces as templates to make more trim where trim was missing. You can always throw it away when you’re done. Then go back and check all the outside seams – if you’re not doing it right away, make a list of all the areas that need re-gluing, or need putty. Note whether things need sanding – whoever owned Brimble before me had apparently never heard about sandpaper, so pretty much everything needed sanding. Here’s another example of needing to love the house – sanding in-place scroll trim can be very time consuming. Glue, putty and sand everything, then check again. There’ll always be places you missed at the first go-round!
4. Now move inside. Look around and start assessing what’s there. The lesson here is, be ready to think about future decorating, and be ready to decide as you go just how much you’re going to want to remove, or fix in place. I found that Brimble had half a walnut floor on the first floor. I had to decide whether to remove that, or try to match it. It was very well glued in, so I looked around and realized that coffee stir sticks were almost exactly the same width. I left the flooring in place, and noted that I’d need to make more with the stir sticks. A good sanding and several coats of stain later, and you can’t tell where one floor stopped and the coffee stick flooring started.
5. Priming is your friend. The Brimble was wallpapered on both the first and second floors. Here’s a major lesson I learned: if you’re thinking about redecorating a dollhouse in the future, and redecorating might include replacing wallpaper, prime the walls before installing the paper! The upstairs had been primed: the paper pulled off relatively easily, with only a few areas needing a wet sponge and soaking treatment. The downstairs was another matter: the walls had not been primed or sanded before the paper was installed. It literally took days of work to scrape off the paper, soak off the glue, scrape some more, then sand, to get the walls ready to prime and re-paper them. Good thing I still loved the Brimble!
6. Too much glue (and putty) is not a good thing. I encountered lots of both, in the “wrong” places, and applied in ways that disguised and in some cases damaged at least the appearance of the house. Careful chiseling with small artist chisels – the kind used for working in clay – worked well here to remove all the excess material from around the windows on the second floor, to restore them to their “church peaks”. Another few days labor, but well worth it in the end. Do go back though and re-glue (or putty) where necessary, filling in any gaps that are still showing.
7. Be ready to “bash”. Brimble’s staircase had not been painted, ever. Removing it was not possible, nor was painting it as it was. So I had to either live with it… or get creative. Creative won. The stair comes down to a landing, turns a corner, and then drops down to the “main floor”. I carved an opening in the outside wall next to the landing and installed a door to the “outside”. I intend to build a small porch, and then drop another stairway down to the ground on the outside, Brimble’s “private entrance”. Before installing the door I could fit my hand through the opening sufficient to install the wallpaper on the back wall along the stairs and paint the stairwell. OK, so maybe no one will ever notice, but I will!
8. Masking tape is your friend! Use lots of it. I prefer the blue “painters tape” – it doesn’t stick quite as firmly as masking tape, so if I don’t get back to it for a couple of days it won’t do as much damage as masking tape seems to. When walls are already in place it’s necessary to mask off everything before painting, or staining, or wallpapering, or gluing, or any of those messy jobs that seem so easy when everything isn’t already together. And it works well to hold things in place temporarily until you can grow a second pair of hands to reach in tight corners to put it in permanently.
9. As in new house construction, work carefully and slowly, taking your time. Think through each step – if I remove this, will I damage something else, or can I get to something that needs repair? Before I glue this back in place, is everything behind it ready to be covered up? If I paint this, will I spill paint on something that I haven’t masked yet? And so on.
Love what you’re doing. Do it carefully. Have fun in the doing. And a cold beer at the end of the day will make it all worthwhile! As the song says…
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name…you wanna go where people know, people are all the same. You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”
“Cheers”, by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo
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