August 30, 2009

Brickology Part 1

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009


Today I started walking the immediate neighborhood taking photos of bricks on old buildings. I started making miniature bricks last night. My new dollhouse has a raised hearth fireplace, wood storage underneath, built in spice cupboard to the side. I have not gotten as much of the construction done as I hoped as I had to design the fireplace. It is not looking promising to make a 30 day completion goal but I am having a lot of fun so I don't really mind. There is a Seattle dollhouse show in March.

My roof tile method is what I will be using to make the brickwork on the hearth. This blog is a bit of a teaser in that it only contains reference photos of bricks that I took at lunch today. The how-to blog is coming later when I have the hearth finished and ready to photograph.

I am going out on a limb here and state my opinion that egg cartons do not make realistic looking bricks on dollhouses. The closest it comes to reality is where the hard kiln fired face of a brick has broken off and the soft clay inside is eroding away. Mushy rounded over edges on paperclay bricks don't work either.

Having stated that strong opinion I will soften it by saying that not all dollhouses have to be photo realistic looking, they are fun and they are a form of folk art where photo realism is not the point. The dollhouses I create are a blend of folk art and realism. So you keep right on doing what you love best because it is good and great. But if you want to try for something closer to the real thing then go and look at the real thing, look very closely, touch it, feel the surfaces, absorb the experience into your memory banks. Use a camera and record the experience to take back to your studio. Pick up a fallen brick from an old wall to use as a door stop or to weigh down something being glued together.

The photos that follow are the record I made of a late 1800's structure in the neighborhood that was built with local, hand made bricks. The color variations come from the position the bricks were stacked in the kiln. The smoke and heat creates a kind of glaze. Some of the striped color variations are from where an adjacent brick was stacked thus protecting the brick from the heat in that spot. Heat also creates cracks and spalling. Because the clay is hand packed into the molds there are often fissures in the layers of clay. The clay itself has grit and other inclusions in it and there are variation in color from the earth. When the mold is removed from the wet clay it can distort the shape of the brick. Moving the newly formed clay to the drying shelf can distort it and the person moving it might leave visible prints of their fingers. while the bricks are of similar size and the clay material is dug from the same pit there are absolutely no identical bricks unlike modern manufactured brick where they all look the same.

These brick photos do create a kind of abstract art where you look at things in detail. Don thinks I should do a gallery show of the images at a local coffee shop and sell people the prints. Who knows maybe I will give it a try sometime. I will need to shoot at the golden hour of intense sunlight from the west when there are long shadows.

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009

August 24, 2009

Timber framing for a dollhouse

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009
Lumber for the new timber framed dollhouse.


I am not going to be creating a real mortise and tenon frame for my dollhouse. That can be done but I have chosen a different method, one of overlaying timbers onto a plywood substrate.

The first task after the basic design is to choose the wood for the timbers. I am using Western Red Cedar. It is technically not a cedar tree, it is a member of the cypress family, thuja plicata is the proper nomenclature for this species. This is a plentiful, tree farm grown, local tree in the Pacific Northwest.

I was fortunate to find some fine grained timbers at the local home supply store. I was hand selecting for fine grain with a little curve running through the boards. They must have fine grain on both the top and side surfaces. My goal is to have it look as if the structure was framed with in-scale trees. You can't use branches for this kind of work, they might be the right width but they don't have enough growth rings to look authentic. The pieces I have just cut have between 25 to 35 growth rings per inch. That is fairly good for imitating old oak timbers, there could be more rings but that is very difficult to find without cutting down an old growth forest.

I started with 3/4" X 1-1/2" pieces and have split them on my table saw. That was the size of lumber I found that day with the right grain. Sometimes I am lucky enough to find 2X4 lumber. If I am going to have the timbers show on both the inside and outside walls of the house I will tape the split halves together before taking them to the bandsaw for further sizing. That way the inside and outside of the piece will be a match.

photo copyright Karin Corbin 2009
In the photo above you can see the way the grain curves within the piece of wood. I use a pair of dividers set to the width I want for my timber and follow along the natural grain lines. Then I take the piece to the bandsaw and cut on those lines. The next step in the process will be texturing the wood. I don't have to worry about table saw or band saw marks showing up as those will be removed in the texturing step.

If I want a straight beam I choose a piece of wood with straight grain. But all the beams being perfectly straight means that my dollhouse would not have a realistic look for the style of structure I am trying to create. See the photo below for an example of using narrow trees on a old structure.
photo copyright Karin Corbin 2008

August 19, 2009

Tile batch show


A sample section of the tiles I have been working on. They are just loosely laid out in rows on a board. I have made no calibrated attempt to get the rows even. You know how it is, you just can't wait to see how it is all going to look someday in the future. Of course they will look different when the dollhouse roof is finished. There will be more darker tiles in the mix, I have not made any of those "kiln burnt" batches yet with the black in them. There is no moss, mildew, dirt or bird droppings on this sample either. They do have some water color washes on them bringing up various shades of the terra cotta color range.

As a side note it takes about 720 tiles to cover one square foot of dollhouse roof. I will need somewhere around 2,000 tiles for my project. One reason it takes so many is there is a required triple overlap to this kind of roof covering. That means only the bottom one third of each tile is left exposed.

Now I have to quit having fun and get back to organizing the chaos that reorganizing creates. I swear that I make a bigger mess than ever when I make changes to the workshop space and it seems like I will never reach the goal.

Company is coming tomorrow so I have to get the workshop cleaned up before midnight. Tomorrow we are going to be putting together a tutorial on aspects of wiring a dollhouse without using flat tape products. From one of my dollhouse newsgroups I rounded up a local volunteer who wanted to learn. It is much easier to shoot photos of someone else instead of using a timer to trigger the shutter.

Oh no, TV is tempting me, a show about the excavation of the fort at James Town just came on public television. What to do? Work? Play? Stay up late and be sleepy tomorrow? The show is going to win, it is fascinating.

August 6, 2009

Roof tile progress


The first batch of weathered roof tile keepers.

I am starting to achieve the look I want for the tiles my roof, another dozen batches and I might be satisfied. I threw out the first experimental batch as the color, shape and texture were not up to my expectations. The batch in the photo above is representative of the aged and cracked end of the spectrum. I made some adjustments to my mixing and rolling methods as also added more color to the mix. I am not adding premixed paint, I am adding in the tints they put into paint cans to make it the color of your dreams. That avoids adding in excess liquid. Put in some PVA glue to give the tiles a little more strength and some powered earth pigments to keep the clay dry enough to run through a pasta roller. Whirled it up in small batches in a mini food processor, kneaded it together, rolled it with a pin to flatten the piece enough to get it go into the pasta machine.

Some of the tiles for my dollhouse roof will be worn and cracked, others will have far less texture with a much smoother surface. Different areas of a roof get different amounts of sun, wind and rain all of which damage the tiles. Remember each of the tiles on a real roof was hand made, not machine made, so each is unique. This batch has more of the weathered look, other batches will have more of the smooth tiles. That look is dependent on the variables of what I mix into the batch. More or less liquid is one factor, this batch was on the dry side. It is also dependent on how smooth I decide to roll it out, I left this one on the more highly textured side. A scale of 10 with 1 being smooth and 10 being rough this batch ranges in examples of a fairly smooth 4 through a 10 with its ragged broken edges. The cracks in the tile are not from the clay shrinking and splitting, they are created along the outside edges when it goes through the pasta machine.

But mixing and rolling is just the start, the tiles have to be cut to size without pushing the edges down leaving a rounded surface. Miniatures loose character if you loose all the crisp sharp edges that are supposed to be there, they no longer look believable.

August 4, 2009

Tiles for the roof


A lovely old building in a beautiful public garden in Cambremer, France. Great place for lunch too, they serve crepes at those tables. I went back twice and took many photos of the restored timber framed buildings on the estate. But what I am posting this photo for is the view of the charming red tile roof that covers the structure.

Tired of dealing with making timbers and sawdust today I turned to another task I need to accomplish for the new dollhouse, making roof tiles.

I had experimented with achieving the look I wanted a few years back when I first started this project so today I got out the box of materials to get back to working on achieving the perfect, flat, terracotta roof tile (tuile plate).

One thing to figure out was the dimensions of the tiles. I needed to know the height, width and thickness. For that I searched around and found some places on the internet selling antique, salvaged tiles, they listed the dimensions. Naturally there was some variation of size between lots of tiles on different web sites. These materials were not ordered from the big box stores, they were locally made products, hand crafted.

Colors vary a lot from tile to tile even on the same roof. There might have been a different batch of clay dug from another section of the pit.They might have been fired in a different section of the kiln. They could have been fired on different days at differing temperatures.

All that color variation means I can't open up a package of terracotta air dry clay, roll it out, cut to size and glue it on the roof. I have to make small batches of a wide range of terracotta colors. I am using the Plus brand of air dry clay from the Activa company. I will vary the color with universal tinting mediums from the paint store as well as natural powdered earth pigment. I make small batches of the clay and mix them in a small food processor.  I run it through a pasta roller a few times to blend it some more. If the mix does not feed through the pasta roller easily adjust the mix with more liquid or add more clay or earth pigment. It takes trial and error until you get used to the feel of what a good mix is for rolling. A little color streaking is a treasure to be enjoyed and very authentic.

After it comes out of the pasta machine I place the rolled piece between two pieces of flexible cutting board and roll it with just a little bit of pressure using a regular rolling pin. Then I cut it into tiles using a straight edge and a scalpel. The thin, very sharp scalpel leaves nice sharp edges on the tiles without rounding over the edge.

A hundred small batches of a thousand tiles and the job will still not be done. Further color variations will be added with watercolor washes. The paper-mache clays do tint nicely with watercolors. Then I will have hundreds of subtle shades of tiles on my dollhouse roof. You can understand why I have to get an early start on it, I will be making roof tiles for many weeks to come. This is a very labor intensive process but the results are totally worth it.

The next two photos show authentically aged roofs. These are photos I took on my trip to Normandy. Now if I can just achieve something even close to being as interesting. Try not to turn to other peoples dollhouses so much for your inspiration, instead do image research and try to achieve on your dollhouse a feeling of reality from life. There are thousands of these inspirational old buildings still standing in Europe although it does look like that building won't be around for long if the roof is not patched up. The sign in the dormer window say "a vendre", that means the place is for sale, what a fixer!

August 2, 2009

Cutting thin strips on tablesaw


The best way to safely cut thin strips on a tablesaw is to set up a gauge on the side of the blade opposite the fence. The gauge must be in front of the saw blade not in the cutting area of the blade where it would create a dangerous pinch and kickback situation. Note that I am using a push stick for safety as I have the blade guard removed. The saw shown in these photos is a Jet 10" cabinet saw.

The wood you are going to cut is set against the gauge and then the fence is moved over to the wood to be locked in position against it.


I have used a magnetic block on my steel table top as my gauge in these photos. It is just short enough not to bind the wood as I am cutting. I have it slightly angled so only a point is making contact with the wood. Another way of doing this is to have a gauge located onto a piece that is a snug fit in the miter slot. Set the wood against it, locate and lock the fence, then remove the gauge before you make your cut.

Rockler makes a jig for thin strip cutting. It is OK but I think there is a little too much play in the slide and it needs shimming. You can make something adjustable for yourself that fits into the miter slot. If you have only a small point of contact you don't have to remove the gauge.


I will be using the strips I am cutting today for making close studding on a timber framed dollhouse. The strips will be cut to width on a band saw and they will be textured before I glue them to the structure. You can see close studding on the real half timber structure in the photo below.