Dolls House Heaven

Hardware Shop

September 12th, 2010

Posted: under Miniature Know-How.


I did not put my hardware shop together with the intention of its being an artisan piece.  As a miniaturist, my own speciality is making food and flowers, so a hardware shop wasn’t something I’d normally contemplate in the course of what I do.    Rather it was something deeply personal, a less than faithful representation from a memory of a visit to the reconstructed hardware shop that I saw at the Black Country Museum in Dudley,  England.   This particular real shop is set in the 1930s but I wouldn’t claim that my version is the same.   Truthfully, I haven’t kept to any precise era.   You can most accurately describe my hardware shop as being “old fashioned”, sort of Victorian, sort of Edwardian probably with later elements thrown in.   To me it doesn’t matter.  I was aiming to capture an atmosphere and a feeling of generic age.  Were I to burn a paraffin lamp close to it, I could probably even capture the smell of the place as well.


Apart from that, why did I choose to put a hardware shop together in the first place?  I suppose I was attracted to the clutter of practicality.  The hardware shop used to be the modern day equivalent of a department store for homewares.   You could get the majority of goods for your home from a hardware shop in days gone by, and my first impression of the hardware shop in the museum was that of clutter.   Tins, packets, bowls, baskets, brushes and anything else you care to mention were everywhere; particularly hanging from the ceiling, not to mention outside the shop.  In miniature terms, that translates as “anything goes”.  The occupational hazard for most dollshouse collectors is accumulating piles of odds and ends that have taken our eye for no particular reason, that thn end up in drawers waiting for a home.  A hardware shop could be that home.


The building itself is the Sid Cooke corner shop.  Ok I cheated.  It was already built and ready-wired when I bought it.   I like constructed shells ready for me to move into.  I don’t like woodwork and I’m no good with copper tape, screws and electrics.   The nearest I got to woodwork was making the tongue and grooving for the walls.   I could have bought proper, sophisticated miniature tongue and grooving, but for some reason I can’t fathom, I chose to paint individual pieces of wood and stick them one by one on the walls.   Looking back, I think it would have been better to have chamfered the sides first since they look rather stark, but they’re stuck solid now, so they’re staying.   And I don’t think anyone would notice, unless I told them.


Oh yes, the flooring is wooden as well, but I had the sense to buy that in a sheet and lay it in one piece.   The beauty of doing a hardware shop is that the floor can be as rough, shabby and grubby as you like.   In reality, that meant a lot of staining, sanding, more staining, more sanding, a bit of boot polish, loads of expletives and probably a lot more boot polish.   You can actually throw anything you like on a floor like that while you try to get the right effect.  If it doesn’t work, just take yet another sheet of sand paper to it.  If that doesn’t scrape away a mistake, you can always blame it on the miniature public stomping through the shop in their hobnail boots, bringing in the dirt and generally making a mess.


The nearest faithful, authentic representation of anything in the museum is the counter.   The counter particularly grabbed me with its quality mahogany top and black body (with some strains of mahogany peeping through cracks in the black paint).   My counter started off as a plain wood cheap import and I first stained it mahogany all over.   Leaving the top mahogany, I painted the rest in several coats of matt acrylic black paint, then sanded off a few areas to reveal the mahogany beneath. .Similarly with the shelving, I just bought some plain wood units and roughly stained them mahogany.


The advertising inside the shop was fun.   A few pieces I bought complete as they are, others I cut from pamplets (or dare I say it, even books).   There is a wealth of material out there, often from curious places.  For example, the notice for soap flakes (above the mangle and tub containing soap flakes) was cut out from some rather original wrapping paper. 


I made the Sunlight bars of soap from small slivers of wood.   I actually bought one real bar of Sunlight soap years ago from the old fashioned style Apothecary shop to be found in Howath, Yorkshire, England.  (This is the real shop where the brother of the Bronte sisters bought his drugs in the nineteenth century – I digress, I know – but it was very interesting.)  Back to the bar of soap – I simply scanned the wrapper into the computer, shrank it down then printed several copies to wrap round the slivers of wood.  I did the same for the blocks of Reckitts Blue having found a real one.  The rest of the tins and packets were bought ready made.  There is a great variety available on the market that to choose from if you find you can’t make them yourself


(If you are wondering why the soap flakes in the tub with the mangle look so realistic, it’s because they are real soap flakes bought from the same wonderful Apothecary shop.  Add real water and you’ll get real froth.)


The rest of the contents of the shop were the results of years of collecting and hoarding, just like the rest of us.  Looked at objectively, I don’t think my hardware shop is full enough, but that doesn’t matter. Like I said at the beginning, it was never intended to be an artisan piece.   It is a piece of my own history, a piece of one memorable visit to a memorable museum that is organic, like a real hardware shop and I will continue to add to add to it as I go along.  It is a moment in no particular time that will grow with me for the rest of my miniature days.  

Wedding Cake tips

July 12th, 2009

Posted: under Miniature Know-How.

Wedding Cake

You can make your wedding cake as simple or as complicated as you like. Whatever your choice of design and decoration, you may find the following tips of help when using polymer clay for your cake.

1. Put the cat out. Polymer clay attracts dust and fluffy bits more effectively than any vacuum cleaner. Cat hairs can appear from nowhere and embed themselves deep into the clay – even when you haven’t actually got a cat – so it is important to keep your working area and tools scrupulously clean. Nail varnish remover is excellent for this.

2. Cutters are wonderful for cutting out shapes but you need to take care when using them since it is all too easy for the middle of the shape to bulge out when pressing down on the cutter. Once the cake is cooked, you may need to slice the top very carefully to provide a flat surface.

3. If you want graduated squares (or oblongs) for a tiered cake and don’t have the appropriate cutters, try using an omnigrid. This is a special plastic “overgrown ruler” type tool used by quilters for the accurate cutting of material and templates. I have found it works very well for polymer clay – especially when using it with a tissue blade. (See picture).

4. If possible, once you have cut out your shapes, do not lift them from the tile, but bake them first in situ.

5. Don’t be tempted to varnish any of the finished surfaces unless you specifically want something to shine. I have personally found that un-varnished clay makes for very realistic icing.

6. Once you have your basic shapes cooked and assembled, you can decorate your cake to your heart’s content. If using ribbon, you will find the silk variety much more pliable on such small shapes than polyester and they therefore appear to sit more naturally.

7. Remember with polymer clay that so long as you do not over-heat the oven and burn the clay, you can re-bake as many times as you like if you want to keep adding to your cake.

8. Let the cat back in.

Click on the link below to see cakes and pastries I currently have for sale:

A Moment in Spring

May 20th, 2009

Posted: under Miniature Know-How.

Other than the ’sale item, half price’ sign, the dark stoney trough said ‘buy me’.   I hadn’t a clue what for until a recent walk in a park, and there was the answer suddenly at my feet.  The vibrant lights of spring flowers were bursting through the dead leaves of last year’s autumn as winter was finally switched off and that was it.   The moment to capture in miniature.  That’s why I’d bought the trough.


The first thing to do was fill the trough with a thick polymer clay layers of yesterday’s failures squashed together with a top dressing of brown clay.  You can relax.  The slimey trails in the photos did not come out of a 1/12th scale slug, just a tube of glue.  The stuff gets everywhere.


The main material I used to make this trough was polymer clay (Fimo).   I love using this for flowers for three reasons.  Firstly the infinite variety and intensity of colours you can achieve.  Secondly the ability to rebake and rebake, so you can create multiple layers of petals/leaves without disturbing the shape of what you’ve already done.   Thirdly, I have a big deep drawer full of it and it needs using up.


I used only very simple tools to put the whole arrangement together – just tweezers, a needle, a razor blade and my fingers.  I know that very flowers can be crafted using the many wonderful flower cutters available.   However, the sad truth is that I’m no good with cutters!   I don’t know why, but as soon as my fingers spot cutters, they turn into fat sausages incapable of handling or manipulating anything.  This leaves me with the time-consuming method of tweezers, a needle, and obedient fingers.


My method when making flowers is always to start from the centres and work outwards, rebaking the different layers if/when necessary.   I haven’t actually ever needed to dissect a flower but I often root through them in nurseries counting petals.  And yes – that’s in public.  (As an aside, primulas have five petals, sometimes six, and they seem to overlap quite randomly.  I thought you’d like to know that.)


The crocuses and the primulas had the same ground rice origins at their centres.  Thirty-three gauge paper-covered wires were dipped in white PVA glue, then into ground rice that had been already mixed with pastel chalk (orange for the crocuses, yellow/green for the primulas).   These were left to dry and harden.


For the single coloured crocuses, it was a question of rolling a manageable sized ball of the clay, gently drawing off a petal shape from one end then nipping it off with the needle.   This was applied to the pre-hardened centre with a dab of PVA glue, and the exercise repeated and repeated.


The primulas were made slightly differently, having bi-coloured petals.   I made a log of the two colours in a rough petal shape, took very thin slices off with a razor and shaped them with the needle and tweezers.  These were applied and overlapped onto the centres.

Although snowdrops in real life have coloured centres, you can’t actually see them unless you turn them upside down, so I skipped that step and started with the petals.  The three inner petals were made using a very basic cane with white and a green “V” shape, from which a cut three slivers.  I then drew out three longer petals from a ball of  white clay and placed these in between the three inner petals.  


At this stage the flowers were all baked.   A word here about clay baking temperatures. For delicate flowers, you must make sure they don’t bake at too low a temperature otherwise they will crumble. Depending on which clay you are using and the plasticizers they contain, the necessary range is 110 – 130 degrees C but you will need to experiment with your own oven as they are all slightly different.   For my oven the correct temperature for flowers is just one tiny click below Gas Mark 1.   An accidental tiny click above Gas Mark 1, a long phone call and the flowers are burnt.


Once baked, I added additional greenery to the stems of the crocuses and snowdrops while the rest of the leaves were made separately.  If you want to add very fine veins to a polymer clay leaf, or simply give it that extra little crinkle, try pressing the clay against a “skeleton leaf” then removing it before baking. I came across these skeleton leaves (see photo) in the card making/scrap booking section of craft shop and I think they worked particularly well with the primula leaves.


When it came to arranging the flowers in the trough, I had no great design in my head.   I just dug holes with the needle and placed them and re-placed them until I was happy with the effect.   I didn’t use glue at this stage, but chose the liquid clay.  This gives a sufficiently globular medium for the flowers to stand up in, but doesn’t set until going back into the oven so I could move everything around until I was happy.   The whole thing went back into the oven to harden the all “earth” and liquid clay, and the scene was now set.


Now for the finishing bit.  The fun bit.  Throwing scatter material around the base of the flowers and leaves.   And it’s so easy. It all comes out of bags (apart from the diluted PVA that is spread first.)   First of all the loose earth, which is just very fine brown railway ballast.  Like the glue, these tiny granuals did get everywhere, so they had to removed from petals and leaves with a pin to prevent the appearance of a premature aphid attack. Then the miniature real dried leaves – again railway material.   (You can get mixed leaves, oak leaves and ivy leaves.   For the trough, I stuck to oak leaves).  Then finally other odd bits of greenery which I’ve picked up at various dollshouse/model railway shows and the trough was complete.


So there you have it, a moment in spring, my lasting memory of a beautiful place in a park at a particular time in the year that will last for many seasons to come.  It is something to hold on to.

Oranges Aren’t Very Orange!

February 1st, 2009

Posted: under Miniature Know-How.

Tomatoes and strawberries are red, bananas are yellow, cabbages are green, chocolate is brown, and oranges are – well – orange, aren’t they?  One of the key things to making successful miniature food is getting the colour right.  So, put aside these stereotypical colour preconceptions, get some of the real full sized examples in front of you to copy, get your clays out then prepare to experiment, and have fun!


Half close your eyes when looking at the real thing and forget for a moment that it’s an item of food.   See it in terms purely of colour then attempt to describe that colour to yourself before you start mixing your clays.


For example, study the outer leaves of a Savoy cabbage and you’ll start seeing more blue than green.  The brown in milk chocolate is more blue than red.  Strawberries vary from cream to a deep red, but by far the most common colour I’ve seen in strawberries is orange.  Unless bananas are very under-ripe in which case they are very yellow, they do contain  a high proportion of ochre and white.   And oranges are often more yellow than orange.  Tomatoes can often be the hardest colour to replicate since too much red makes them at best over-ripe, and at worst something else altogether.  The irony is that when it comes to mixing, tomatoes are actually more orange than oranges.  So from experience, I can tell you that the trick with tomatoes is to start with orange and gradually work in small flecks of red. 


You should also look at the intensity of the colour of the item that you’re copying.    Translucent clay is an absolute must when you’re making miniature food as you frequently need to soften a colour.  I probably use as much translucent clay as all the other colours put together.   


If, when looking at the item, you think that Mother Nature has merely brushed a little colour onto it (for example the mauve on a turnip or a garlic bulb), try doing the same with your miniature using some powdered chalk pastel before you bake it.   The effects can be extremely realistic.  (A bit of a digression, but a useful tip here – brown and black chalk makes brilliant dirt on potatoes)


Most of all don’t forget to have fun.  No clay needs to be wasted even if you go wildly off-colour.  It will keep.  You can use it again for something later.   I have a huge box of bits that I dig into as a first port of call when making a new miniature.   I only go to a fresh block of colour if I can’t find something to mess around with from my bit box first.


In summary, don’t assume you know the colour of something before you start, but be prepared to experiment.  As in nature, you can – and should – vary the shades of the same things for added realism.     Going back to oranges, strawberries and tomatoes – remember - some are less orange than others!