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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Doll's Houses

Making Doll's Houses

The Giggleys, Made to order Doll's HousesDoll’s Houses Introduction

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.

Origins of the Dolls House


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.


Basic techniques of making a Dolls House


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.

The cabinet 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 styles.  


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 the same.

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 fireplaces. All 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 in place.  


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 and stained.

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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