The Stair People and Other Nomads: Faces of the Moon, Pt. IV

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With the question of what to do with the space between the chimney and the entry still hovering, we continued our work on the toymaker’s workshop. While Noel was devising all kinds of fun exterior details, and figuring out the interior, the last of the chimney stones were frazzling my nerves. To give me a break, Noel did his eyeball geometry, first in poster board, then in ply, for the undulating roof form so I could move on to covering it with wave-coursed shingles.00049_s_10af8pvwbk0024

Wave coursing is often described as mimicking thatched roofing, but to me it’s definitely watery–an ocean of ground swells, built tiny wave by tiny wave. One vertical inch of wave-coursing in miniature–which I’ll take up more in my next post–translates into six wandering and unevenly spaced rows of shingles, individually sanded thin and cut to fit, or three time the normal amount of shingles, a fact I was happy not to know at the outset. This one job would take over a year to complete. As time-consuming as it was, once I got the hang of it, it was easier on the hands and mind than stone-fitting.

00052_s_10af8pvwbk0025As I pieced the shingles together, I had time to think about the influences and associations that made our work peculiarly ours. We miniaturists deal in a fairy tale or fantasy life, one way or another, and each of us is drawn to those details that come from our own particular make-up. For me, the influences included the creaky, weathered houses of New England—in particular the 200-yr. old farmer-tenant house where I grew up–the attics and closets we played in, basements that smelled agreeably of must and paint like my grandfather’s, fairy tales with a twist–like the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson—that my sister loved to scare me with, and my lifetime exposure to books, theater, music and art.

Because Noel and I worked as a team, we had the advantage of being able to draw upon each other’s spheres of imagination and inspiration. Noel’s influences were more inward. He was born with a piece of paper and pencil in his left hand. Well, almost, maybe he stole it from the delivery room nurse, but he was born seeing the world through the eyes of an artist, and with the ability to set it down on paper. Drawing was his escape, his obsession. He spent World War II recording it, battle by battle, in drawings that filled a roll of butcher paper. Drawing dollhouses wasn’t a real stretch for him.

And, in the case of this project, our client contributed her influences in art, architecture, travel, and the make believe of movies. She grew up in Hollywood, her imagination shaped by, in particular, early Disney animation. And we all shared a fondness for the Old World-inspired paintings of the Dutch artist Anton Pieck. Noel’s and my job was to select which features, which inventions from all three streams of influence would best enhance the project. Or how to swirl them all together.

One night, after a week of particularly slow progress for both of us, I walked the dog and went to bed early. My state of mind was like the state of the worktable—a mess of slivers and rejected shingle shapes. Noel stayed up as he often did, holed-up in the back of the darkened studio with just a small light on the project. Ruminating. In the morning I came down to find this fragile-looking settlement of tiny buildings clinging to one side of the chimney.00055_s_10af8pvwbk0034 It consisted of a few rudimentary houses connected by a catwalk, and supported by a precarious system of buttresses–an inexplicable colony of dwellings built from the splintered leftovers from the roof shingles. We were colonized!

It had been almost two years since the idea of an other-than-one-inch-scale civilization began to take shape. Noel and I had talked about introducing evidence of a smaller “people” into the toymaker’s domain. It began with that opening in the chimney that invited a tiny staircase, a passage for beings of unknown origins. And then there was that tunnel and tiny ladder in the basement (see http://smallhousepress.me/2014/04/06/the-midnight-factor-faces-of-the-moon-part-ii/ ). The idea of a needing home, or base camp for these ”Stair People” took hold, and now, there it was, right out of Noel’s nighttime conjuring.

Inspired as it was, the new encampment did not solve the problem of the increasingly noticeable blank space between the chimney and front steps. Then, on another of those late-nights, Noel, who had returned to full-scale watercolor painting a few years before, got out his miniature traveling watercolor set, and some acrylics. He began what he thought would be decorative wall painting of the kind he saw on centuries-old buildings in Germany while he was in the Army. But this space, and the whole project-to-date, invited more than plants and birds.00054_s_10af8pvwbk0038 The structure of the chimney, and the Stair People’s settlement, suggested the more architectural forms of stone buttresses arching over a small path, all in diminishing perspective. Maybe it wasn’t a road for the Stair People, but it was leading them someplace interesting, and who’s to say there might not be (or have been) another realm of inhabitants, or passers-through?Facesotm133

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Rocking Gepetto’s Chimney: Faces of the Moon Pt. III

Facing the rock pile.

Facing the rock pile.

In more ways than one, this posting is about splitting rock—1) the literal task of splitting rock for a miniature chimney, and 2) the more cerebral task of bashing my mid-20th Century brain against the rock of Millennial technology to get it to spit out the photos I want to write about. I hope you will laugh with me when I tell you the solution was as simple as, yes, tripping over a rock—look at the screen long enough and you’ll see the button you’re looking for. It’s a good thing it wasn’t a rattlesnake. Which leads me to one more aside—our recent vacation in the Arizona sunshine (with no snake sightings, but lots of spiny flora)), which included an afternoon talk at the wonderful Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson. It was a thrill to see the museum, and to re-visit the Greene & Greene House–probably our most accomplished piece—as well as our funky Airplane Café, giving you a hint as to the eclectic nature of this very personal and wide-ranging collection. The museum is beautifully and imaginatively conceived, and well worth the trip to Tucson.

Edging toward the subject at hand—the building of The Faces of the Moon, and in particular the construction of its stone chimney–in August 1983, I wrote in Nutshell News that, “Dollhouses are our work. Our nine-to-­five job to pay the rent. The adventure for us is the working-out of problems in our heads and with our hands. The small scale gives us a certain freedom, rendering our mistakes mostly time-consuming, not dev­astatingly costly as in full-scale building. We spend a lot of time thinking and talk­ing about what comes next, what will keep the design in balance, not just decorate it. We thrive on exploring the boundaries between “craft” (manual dexterity) and “art” (emotional and intellectual flexibility).”

“In our current project–an Old Euro­pean/Disney/Thomas toy shop– we are exploring borders, discovering our own blend of design and technique. This partic­ular building lends itself to exploration. Its design is defined by no single style of architecture, but is influenced by several. And beyond the design component, we are playing in our other margins: between fan­tasy and reality, childhood and adulthood, waking and sleeping.”

As with every project, Noel made a watercolor sketch before construction, as much for the client to see what they were getting as for us to see what we were aiming for. Often the hows were not articulated or even thought about—we just knew we’d figure out something. In this instance the “how” of how we would make a stone chimney was the problem, and a sizable one, as the stone façade was a massive feature on the project—a major architectural element we needed to execute well.

Plywood chimney form

Plywood chimney form

First Noel made a hollow plywood chimney following the design he had put down in the original sketch. Then came the stones.Facesotm126

Originally we wanted a buff-colored stone, such as that found around Carmel, CA, but without reasonable justification for the long trip to Carmel, we explored other options. One morning, Noel headed out to the nearby Columbia River, and brought home a carload of  hunky rocks in a warm gray color—probably basalt, given the location, though it’s usually a darker color (Karin Corbin says it’s probably limestone). He spent an afternoon splitting, shaping, and gluing some of them to the chimney base with Elmer’s white glue.

Day one.

Day one.

Satisfied with the results, he went back to the walls, and the stained glass windows framed in windfall holly twigs from the yard, and I took over the rock pile.

My tools at hand were an old metal butcher tray (supposedly to contain the mess), a concrete paving stone, an iron firewood-splitting wedge, chisel, and a large hammer. Eventually I found that reducing rock to stone with a wedge or chisel (with the paving stone underneath so as not to go through the table) requires more timing and position than hard-hitting. I started splitting the rock by giving the end of the chisel a solid whack with the hammer. The trouble was, the whack attack caused the stone to shatter horizontally, sending pieces flying everywhere. Not only were they hard to find in our messy studio, but flying stone shards are dangerous to the occupants. Step 2 was to set up plywood baffles around one part of the room, so the pieces would mostly bounce back into my work area. I can only hope I was wearing goggles.Splitting chimney rock - Version 2

After randomly chipping for a while, I discovered what stone masons have known for centuries–rock has a language. I could “talk” (or maybe it was listen) to it. I began to get a feel for the material, the individual rocks, and where to locate the best splitting spot. After more trial and error, I learned to better anticipate where and how to find the smaller stone forms within the larger ones. When I hit that spot just right, it was a medium tap, et voila!, a handful of usable sizes lay on the table.

The shapes of cut stones could further be adjusted on the sanding wheel of our scroll saw–this is hard on the motor, but the remaining life of that saw was limited anyway. Once I split a rock close to the sizes needed, I sanded off points, and flattened edges, sides, tops and bottoms on the sander, as needed. Back on the worktable I could also make finer adjustments with pliers, and a sanding block with 100 grit paper. The rest of it was just getting into the Zen of the stone shape and sizes, the puzzle pieces, and how they fit on the plywood chimney form.

For extra adhesion, and to fill the gaps between the rough-edged stones, I made a “putty” mix of sifted sawdust mixed with Elmer’s, a little water, and Bug Juice to gray it. I then stuffed the mix behind and around the stones, forming a contoured bed. Eventually these spaces, along with the stones, would be dirty water washed, colored and mossed to bring it all together.

As I worked my way up the front of the chimney, a narrow slot more or less formed itself in the stonework. Faces Chimney constrc - Version 3Rather than fill it in, we hollowed out the wood behind it. I decided it could make an entrance, a link to where Noel’s mind was taking the interior—the suggestion of another mini-mini civilization inhabiting the project. After all, it was a fantasy building–home to Gepetto. Inside the slot, I made a smaller-scale, rudimentary staircase–going down into the dark interior—carved from plaster of Paris mini bricks in a color barely distinguishable from the stone. It’s subtle, as I didn’t want to draw attention to the stairs, but to allow a viewer to discover them. Anyone probing beyond the staircase might find an opening in the ground, where another staircase presumably goes down. To what and by whom, was the mystery.

The project was finished in this photo, but it gives you an idea of how the chimney and entrance looked together.

The project was finished in this photo, but it gives you an idea of how the chimney and entrance looked together.

Once the monumental rock job was finished, we realized something was missing in the overall design. The front of the building had two major architectural elements—the chimney and the entrance–with a narrow stretch of wall between. Rather than join the two, the wall just became a blank white space. Something else was needed to unify those two major features. If we stared at it long enough, and/or dreamt about it, the answer would come.

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Tower House for sale, Nutshell back issues

The messages below came through the blog site recently, so I thought I’d post them separately so you wouldn’t miss them.

1. I have a Tower House looking for a new home. Please seehttp://www.greenleafdollhouses.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=35895#entry579104

inquire at info@hertzfelt.com

2. golfer44302@mypacks.net has back issues of Nutshell News to donate.

Please contact the above people, as I have no further information.

Yes, soon I will have another posting about our houses–the summer is running away with me.

 

 

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The Midnight Factor: Faces of the Moon Part II

Initial drawing for Faces of the Moon miniature toymaker's shop and home.

Initial drawing for Faces of the Moon miniature toymaker’s shop and home.

It was early 1992, or thereabouts, when we began to cut wood for Faces of the Moon. For background entertainment we had the end of the Bush-Quayle era (marked by a widely-televised diplomatic dinner where Bush vomited and passed out on the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister), the winter Olympics in Abbeville, and the first season of Law & Order. The footprint of the base for the project should have been fairly straightforward—a rectangle on a rectangle. The bottom rectangle being the larger, hollow base raising the project off table surface, the smaller rectangle on top housing the basement, and acting as foundation for the walls. To avoid having to finish the entire foundation interior, Noel sectioned off approximately half the space for the basement room and walled off the other half—out of sight, out of mind. Except for the midnight factor, which always played a role in our designs.

Base structure--the basement to the right, underground tunnel to the left.

Base structure–the basement to the right, underground tunnel to the left.

For our customer, Noel had come up with a design that incorporated wattle-and-daub construction, a wave-course roof, fanciful stone chimney, leaded-glass windows, and a basement. And some mysteries. All we had to do was build it. As he started cutting and gluing the plywood base and basement walls, the house began to suggest a life of its own. Late one night, while surveying the day’s work, Noel decided to cut an opening into the basement wall. A doorway into—what? Storage space? Wine-cellar? Whatever it was, it would never been seen by the customer, or anyone else. Once the opening was cut, it asked to go somewhere, so, using false perspective he made a series of arches of diminishing sizes to form a tunnel leading diagonally back and down under the house. Intuitively he had begun laying the groundwork for the imaginary history of the project. With the base structures complete, we began to create the interior atmospheres. We darkened the ply walls with our Bug Juice. Next was painting black any areas where light might leak through from the outside and break the illusion of seemingly infinite space within. To egg-on the viewer’s eye, he wired a small light into the base that would throw only a narrow shaft of brightness across the deepest recesses of the tunnel. The tunnel’s walls were then covered with our favorite mini dirt: dirt. The best dirt is fine, sandy dirt, which we dug out of our summer neighbor’s yard in their absence (in the back where they wouldn’t see, and if they did, they never said so). I loaded it onto metal trays, put it in the oven at 350 and baked it for a half hour, or until it dry. Yes, it’s a smelly process… I then rubbed it through window screen, sifting out the lumps and larger roots. The remaining tiny gravel and roots added an element of realism not found in purchased “railroad” dirt. To apply the dirt to the vertical tunnel walls, we first painted them with Elmer’s white glue. We then dipped an ordinary drinking straw into a jar of dirt and carefully blew it on the walls. Yes, it was primitive, but easy and entirely effective. And yes, we probably inhaled some by mistake. Later, where any wood was still visible, we painted on more glue and spotted in the dirt as before.

Faces of the Moon basement

Faces of the Moon basement

For the basement room itself, we wanted more textured, or sculpted dirt on the lower 3” of the walls (the underground portion), to suggest that it was dug out of the ground. For this we mixed fine sawdust (sifted through screening) with Elmer’s to a paste-like consistency, and applied it to the walls with a putty knife. Using our fingers we then “crumbled” the surface to further conceal the flat plywood underneath. To darken the bright orange sawdust, we sprayed on Bug Juice (while the sawdust and glue were still wet), allowing it to darken for a few minutes. Then, with everything still wet, we applied dirt through a straw, as before. For added visual interest, and suggesting more structure beneath, we glued in rocks salvaged from a nearby river (the mighty Columbia), and chipped to size with a chisel (more on that later). The stucco upper basement walls were made by applying plaster of Paris with a spatula and fingers, directly to the plywood. A little cement adhesive added to the mix helps keep it on the walls. The surface has a rough, daubed-on appearance, created by a buildup of thin layers. The cracks were added with an X-acto knife. We also added more thin rocks to suggest this covering was applied over a rock wall foundation. Later the stark white of the plaster was toned-down and further aged with thin layers of acrylic “dirty water” washes (using Grumbacher Mars Black warmed with a little Burnt Umber). For additional texture and interest, we faced the upper portion of the interior basement walls with old boards. Practically, these boards would provide an easier nailing surface should the owner want to attach things to the wall. In our hoard of old wood, salvaged for its rottenness, Noel found some suitably bug-ridden and de-laminated plywood to cut into ¾” planking. The boards were then glued vertically to the plywood walls. Once all was dry, Noel glued and nailed a ¼” ply ceiling over all; i.e. the sub-flooring for the upper rooms. Rough boards and “structural” beams finished the ceiling. When he initially cut the basement walls, Noel built in a slant to establish the groundwork for a sagging floor above. We imagined this house to be several hundred years old, and wanted the floors to look suitably settled. The sub-floor has a distinct, but not exaggerated hump in the middle, sagging at the outer edges. This basic below-ground framework set the scene for the rest of the house. Included in the sub-flooring layer is a cut-out hole for trapdoor access between house and basement. We later added the ladder, and shelving at the back. After another adventure into the midnight factor, the tiny ladder leading down to the shelving appeared. (In a side note, the midnight factor has its roots, for this particular project, in the work of Charles Simonds (www.charlessimonds.com), a singular artist known for building temporary, tiny worlds (for a tiny race of migrating “people”) out of unfired clay bricks, and left to the elements on rotting ledges and window sills all over the world.)

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A Roof, Gepetto, and the Moon: Faces of the Moon, Pt. I

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In 1984, a new client (whom some readers will know as Melanie Wilson) called to say she was smitten. She had just seen the newly-completed Pippen Hill–our semi-fantasy Old European toymaker’s workshop inspired by the paintings of Anton Pieck–and asked if we would build her something similar. Having just finished the project, we weren’t sure we wanted to, or were even capable of inventing another fairytale structure with unknown materials. However, as such things go, the three of us clicked right away—Melanie is one of those people with an irresistible spark that is impossible to turn away from. Luckily, we had a waiting list and could put the idea on the back burner while we worked on other projects. We went our separate ways, but the idea of working with her on a fantasy project simmered along in our minds like a be-ribboned package left on the doorstep.

Melanie is a dreamer with a great imagination. One dream involved an ageless toymaker with a modest but comfortable place in which to work, sell his toys, and live. She knew what she liked and was able to verbalize it. She also knew she liked what our minds did with architecture. Together the three of us entered into an unspoken contract in which she would trust us enough to produce the best piece of work we could, and we trusted her to embrace our aesthetic choices. And to wait.

For the next eight years, a string of other commissions took over, but as we worked, our thoughts strayed to what the new toymaker’s shop might look like. Neither Noel nor I think sequentially—I’d think about what we’d name it, what its secrets would be, and, practically, what we’d do for a roof–the slates we’d used on Pippen Hill were no longer available, and were way to much work even if they were—maybe thatch, but no, I hadn’t seen any I thought was successful. I don’t know what Noel was thinking, but every now and then he’d say something like, “Twig furniture. ” “It could be a story and a half with a cellar,” or, “We could do a stone chimney,” and I’d know what he was talking about.

Mail arrived, and there would be a photo from Melanie—some architectural detail she’d seen that might make our hearts beat faster. One was of a house in Carmel, CA with a wave-coursed roof—narrow rows of fluctuating courses of wooden shingles. Wonky, complex, and romantic, it seemed perfect for the building, and we already had miniature shingles enough for a lifetime. Once, it was a Disney drawing of Gepetto’s workshop. And, most memorably, she sent a small silver charm—it looked like a mask of a grumpy man in the moon.

Faces of the Moon sign

Faces of the Moon sign

She said she didn’t know why she sent it, but thought it might help. It sat on the table like an enigma, a charm in the sense of a spell, a totem, or mojo. Mr. Moon looked like the dark side of a fairy tale, the other side of Gepetto.

It came to us one morning at breakfast, the name of the project—Faces of the Moon. So, we had a roof, Gepetto, and the Moon, there was no turning back.

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String Too Short to Be Saved: Building the Maine Idyll Bathroom from Salvage

“A man cleaning the attic of an old house found a box full of tiny pieces of string—written on the lid was “String too short to be saved.”” --Donald Hall drawing by Noel Thomas

“A man cleaning the attic of an old house found a box full of tiny pieces of string—written on the lid was “String too short to be saved.””
–Donald Hall
drawing by Noel Thomas

What Noel began in 1974 as an odds and ends drawer in the studio overflowed to engulf an entire wall of shelves, and most of the surrounding drawer, floor and wall space. Found bits like Ronson lighter springs, trout fishing swivels, rusted tin cans, part of a leather glove, and defunct tape recorder components shared space with odd lots I found in catalogs catalogs, thrift shops, fabric and hardware stores. Added to that were the multiple boxes of leftover plastic plumbing parts from Chrysynbon kits.

When I married Noel, a Northwesterner, I thought only New Englanders like my father never threw anything away. Over the years though, I came to appreciate the value of making miniatures by the accrual method. I delved into our stockpile regularly, searching for substitute shower curtain rings, screen door springs, cupboard handles, or birdhouse feathers (from a dead baby bird–roadkill). In the accumulation trade I became my father’s daughter, as well as my husband’s wife. In miniatures, no string is too short to be saved. And, yes, there was a drawer for anything that arrived tied with string.

Our collection not only provided us with an endless warehouse of supplies, but also gave our work a singular identity. When our students asked how we made a deep fat fryer, shower stall, or fold-out ironing board, we fell back on the sly cook’s replay, “a little of this, a little of that.” Not that we intended to mislead, but so much of our work came from pieces at hand. Pieces that you can find every day, if you save what you find. A truly creative miniaturist needs to accumulate. Plus, for us, we had no easy access to miniature shops.

Scan 9            The Maine Idyll Motor Court bathroom was a good example of how we used “stuff.”   To create the proper atmosphere for the tiny bathroom, Noel built the toilet starting with a plastic Chrysynbon kit he painted to look like porcelain (starting with trimming any flashing from the parts, gluing them together, spraying with grey auto primer, then glossy white). He also re-designed it so the water tank was behind the seat, rather than on the wall above.

toilet paper roll detail

toilet paper roll detail

No bathroom is complete without toilet paper, so he made a rolling dispenser by looping a bit of copper wire, then, using our full-size 1950s garage apartment fixture as a model, he cut a minimally decorative “chrome” hanging bracket from a piece of wine bottle lead embossed with a lead pencil. For paper he used the real thing, wrapping it around the wire a time or two, then leaving the leading edge hanging. As with so many of our seemingly minor touches, the toilet paper caused more comment than the rest of the bathroom.

Scan 3

The shower curtain is barely visible on the left. I made it from a shopping bag which I pleated and ironed into a bit of a drape, then glued it in the open position. The curtain rings were coils cut from an old spring.

The bathroom also needed a shower stall. Our vintage tin model pre-dates fiberglass. The metal stall was made from aluminum printing plate, salvaged from a job I had at the local printery, those many years ago. Now they are probably to be found only in the recycle bin. These negative plates, on which letterheads and brochures were printed, were a little thicker than beer can aluminum, and cut easily with an X-Acto knife. The shower bottom is a tabbed open box to which the walls are glued.

The shower was 2” deep X 2 ¾” wide X 6” high, to fit the cabin bathroom. We only built the two side walls and the bottom. The back shower wall was left out for viewing, since it was designed to be built into the open wall of the project. To cover the sharp edges and add strength to the front framing, Noel cut edge stripping from the original sheet of aluminum, scored them with the knife before he glued and folded them over the edges. (A more explicit set of directions can be found in the September 1991 Nutshell News).

The shower drain was made from a small steel washer aged with Brass Black before being glued in place. The grunge detail and rust-edged shower floor were achieved with our standard wash of Burnt Sienna tube paint, accented with Sap Green tube watercolor for a touch of mold (it’s always good to have shower slippers packed in your bag for such situations). Applying the green to the still-wet edges of Sienna makes a good, subtle mold mix. Do this lightly—you want the look of rust and mold, but a still useable shower.

Scan 6  Another delving in our Salvage Department resulted in the shower plumbing. The water pipes, leading from the wall to shower head, are made from 1/16” copper tubing. Run a length of wire in the tubing before you bend it to prevent crimping. Noel the soldered the tubing into the upside-down T shape with the cross of the T leading to the hot and cold faucets. The length led up to the shower head. He then bent the curve into the “pipe.” The shower head is a bell-shaped brass ceiling cap left over from a Lighting Bug light fixture. The cap is filled with lead solder, and the spray holes drilled with a manual drill press. The solder was then aged with Caming Darkener (stained glass supply), and the rest of the metal with Brass Black.

00265_s_10af8pvwbk0450     The shower faucet handles are mini brass sink-mount faucets of unknown origin (possibly Houseworks or Realife). Noel cut off most of the stem end, leaving a short tip which he filed to a point and instant glued into the T ends of the copper pipes. The handles were still mounted on their original bases, which served as the wall mount. Once the handle apparatus was glued into the pipe ends, the whole thing got a final aging with Brass Black, plus a little patina green on the pipes, shower head and faucets.

Our custom soap basket is made from old metal wire window screen, and more of the aluminum printer’s plate. We flattened the wire with a hammer, cut a square out of it, clipped the corners and made a shallow box the same way the shower bottom was constructed. The framing is a strip of printer’s plate, as are the hangers over  the copper pipes. And, yup, the soap is carved from a bar of soap.

00267_s_10af8pvwbk0452            And to hang your towel, Noel made glass rods from chem lab pipettes (alas, no decent photo available) given to us by a friend. He bracketed them with some indescribable hardware he shaped to fit around the rods and attach them to the wall. Best of all, to secure the brackets on the rods, he used the heads of two brass straight pins, inserted into the ends of the glass tubing. I say best of all, because several years before that I bought a 5 lb.box of pins for a song from a JerryCo Catalog, thinking someday we might need them.

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As a postscript I wanted to mention that as we dismantled our miniatures studio, I tried to find homes for most of our collected goods. It finally came down to too many little boxes and drawers of uncategorize-able surplus to try to dole out bit by bit, and certainly too much to ship anywhere. A past student volunteered to take it all, sight unseen, and that she did one day last October, to my great relief. Relief until she drove out of sight, when I realized I’d said goodbye to something firmly attached to my heart.

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Maine Idyll, # 48, 1991: The Outers and Unders

         

Maine Idyll, project #48, 1991

Maine Idyll, project #48, 1991

  To unwind from the 1990 Guild School workshop in Castine, ME, we took the slow, winding route down the Maine coast. Just north of Freeport, where Route 1 prepares to enter the Maine Turnpike, we came upon the Maine Idyll Motor Court, a cluster of old-timey, generic little-white-cabins-with-green-shutters, porches and screen doors seeming to grow from the duff under the pines. For a moment it felt as if we were lost in some 1930s movie dream sequence–The Miracle on Route 1.

Something in the simplicity of the cabins, something amiable, tugged at us. For several years we had explored character buildings for our workshops–Pine Lake Park roadside stand, The Airplane Café, the fish-shaped Fish & Fries stand. For those, old photos in books were our sources. Besides giving us a chance to play in quirky, these structures left lots of room for invention, filling in the spaces the photos left out. But here along the roadside, the enigmatic charm of the real thing once again tugged at us. The Maine Idyll– “Cottages Among the Trees” according to the owners’ business cards—seemed like the perfect vehicle for our next Maine workshop.

We turned into the driveway and drove under the trees to an open cabin. There an agreeable cleaning woman allowed us in to see the tiny rooms, and to measure and draw details. Each cabin had a fireplace, old fashioned roller window shades, and a bathroom. Top to bottom, the interior was finished in unpainted knotty pine boards. From the ceiling hung a single simple light. The room was just big enough to hold a double bed and small bureau, and maybe a table and chair, and still have a path to the bathroom and front door. The baths were barely wide enough for toilet, sink and shower stall, but the cabins were clean, welcoming, and quintessentially Maine-like. Unlike modern chain motels, these looked as if people actually relaxed in them. Noel sketched and photographed while I wrote down details and personal observations. The hominess, humanity and history of the buildings spoke to us.

Then came the cosmic leap between inspiration and getting the job done. Once home again, Noel drew his interpretation of what our miniaturized version of Maine Idyll would look like. What it would look like included multi-level terrain to show the understructure and mess of plumbing pipes at the back of the building. That meant the base had to be built in levels, three, to be exact. I nixed the idea as way too complicated from the aspect of building, and teaching, multiple structures efficiently, but Noel was deaf to my reasoning—it was going to “make” the scene, and it was scenes as much as structures we were fabricating.

Maine Idyll porch detail

Maine Idyll porch detail

The above photo gives you a closer look at the porch deck boards, the terrain we made by sprinkling sifted sandy dirt over Elmer’s glue, the rust on the door hinges–touched in with raw sienna tube acrylic paint–and the aging at the bottom of the porch post. The narrow lap siding looked great on the project, but was laborious, eating up class time that we needed to work on other things–we retired the project after three classes, to save the students, and ourselves, the aggravation of things not getting done.

As for cosmic leaps, 1991 provided some eye-poppers for the world, including the opening of the Internet, and the invention of the web-browser. It also brought The Silence of the Lambs (which we did not leave the studio for), and Hook (which we did). That April, while the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted into the Florida skies, Noel began the job of building the prototype plywood shell and tiered base onto which we would begin the building-up of the details. Because neither of us is truly a builder, or carpenter, the construction phase was always more a chore than a pleasure. Wood and nails just happened to be the means to the end—the fun was in the design, then the bringing it to life with finishing details.

Once we had the structure, we made daily decisions about what to include for class (we only taught exterior treatments)—juggling size and positioning of the door and windows,  depth of the deck and roof overhang, what kind and how many shutters. For siding, instead of our usual shingles, we opted for the narrow, horizontal drop siding of the original cabins—the linear quality of the siding was what made the cabins so archetypal. Then on to the chimney size and shape. Each of the elements needed to echo that remembered sense of cohesiveness and habitat.

The fine tuning of the project, like the frosting on the cake, is our favorite part of the work. After everything is cut, built, and painted, after the roof goes on and the landscape is dry, then we get into the details that bring the piece alive. The small human and natural details of dirt, moss, weather and habitation that will involve the viewers by reminding them of something they once, saw, knew, smelled or read—this is where we get back to inspiration.

Woodplie detail

Woodpile detail –note the drop-off  and plumbing pipes at the back right

To stoke Maine Idyll’s brick fireplace, Noel made a woodpile for the porch. He cut and split windfall twigs from our holly trees out front. Their rough bark and grain looked more like oak than Maine’s famed pines, but we hoped no one would quibble over our choice. Plus, there are oaks in Maine. For your own woodpile, it’s best to gather twigs in advance, and allow them to dry indoors for several months before cutting them into miniature logs—dry wood holds a tighter grain. For kindling Noel sliced and split cedar scraps from under the work table.

After the porch was “done”, Noel decided it still lacked something. Since this was a coastal summer cabin, there must be someplace nearby to swim, resulting in wet bathing suits and towels. He made a clothesline from narrow wire, which he strung over the woodpile from porch post to the front right cabin corner, attached at either end with small brass screw eyes aged with Brass Black and painted white to match the siding. To draw the eye to the wire, he added one tiny clothespin, carved from an ornate toothpick given to him years before by Hawaiian miniaturist Carl Nakahara. To see how subtle the effect was, look hard in the upper left of the photo above to see the line.

Chimney construction

Chimney construction

This photo shows a student constructing the chimney. She has glued on the bricks, and is going back with an Exacto knife to clean out the grout lines, and straighten as needed.  The un-bricked side is where it will glue to the project wall. We make the plywood chimney base, which the student then marks with horizontal pencil lines to keep her brick rows straight. The bricks were cut from the old kitchen brick-pattern tiles from which we had removed the self-stick backing with gasoline, then sanded and scored with the brick shapes. Elmer’s white glue was then applied to the base, the bricks broken off one-by-one, and glued on. The chimney was then grouted, cleaned up again, and glued to the project. At the end it was aged with acrylics to simulate rust stains from flashing, soot and creosote from the fires, and general drippy grunge from weather and the pines.

Among the final touches were the plumbing pipes, the whole reason for the labor-intensive tri-tiered base, exposing the nuts and bolts of the cabin understructure. Inexplicably, we have no good photos of this. The next best thing (or maybe better) is for you to find some old house or building and crawl around in the crawl space, or investigate your own basement ceiling to see what a maze of plumbing pipes can look like. In miniature we chose a few crucial pipes (under the bathroom), joints and elbows, enough to catch the eye and jog the memory without taking over. You can have fun making pipes from painted and aged dowels, cutting elbows in pie-shaped slices from the ends, reassembling and gluing them together for the desired turn, and wrapping the joints in narrow strips of masking tape. Then paint and age the whole thing, adding some dirt or rust dust for effect. It’s an illusion, a funky one, but one of those details that makes the rest fall into place. And yes, Noel was right about the tiered base.

Our mini-Maine dream sequence came to an end when it was time to pack up for the real Maine. It’s good we had deadlines, as we might have gone too far–there’s always the next project for dreaming up something new.

In my next posting, I’ll discuss the interior, including the bathroom plumbing.

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Frosty II: Putting It All Together

Interior mock-up

Interior mock-up

The customer for Frosty was an avid fan we could never say no to. She liked our work so much she built a room over her swimming pool (the same pool we and our dog swam in on previous deliveries) to house her ever-expanding miniatures collection, including our houses. When it got to Frosty, she knew we were beginning to tire of the work, but this was such an idiosyncratic, funky building there was no question as to whether or not we’d do it. Plus the story of it being their first restaurant and, the photos of the post war era were heart-grabbers.

Behind the kitchen counter looking toward the front. Duckboards on the floor.

Behind the kitchen counter looking toward the front. Duckboards on the floor.

One of my favorite minor details was the duckboards on the floor behind the counter, reminding me of the summer during college when I fry-cooked at a small snack bar on the Massachusetts coast. I love the name–duckboards, those springy slats on a framework that helped keep your legs from tiring while standing for long hours. Plus, spills could slide between the boards so the cook wasn’t skating around on the mess. They come in sections, for easy removal to take outside and hose off every week or so, and, maybe, to scrub the floor beneath. In miniature they are easily made of aged (Bug Juiced) 3/16” X 1/16” wide basswood strips glued over framing slats of the same width. Frosty’s duckboards are barely visible, but they’re so characteristic of counter restaurants we couldn’t leave them out. Plus they add another visual treat for the mind, if you should happen to see a corner of them. And, yes, there were stains on the floor under the boards.00179_s_10af8pvwbk0146

Noel’s art director’s eye picked up on the utilitarian black electrical outlets lining the cream-colored walls—one of those little visual tricks to suck you into believing this is all real. Part of it was remembering how the light switches in the Greene & Greene house had subtly brought the rooms alive, though probably few recall seeing them. He made the outlet plates from thin black plastic sheeting. The plug receptacles were then indented into the plastic with a nail set, and the plug holes made with the tip of an Exacto blade. The plug itself was made with a small wooden bead, cut in half, painted black, and glued to the receptacle. The cord was a length of miniature electrical wire—one end glued into the hole of the “plug”, and the other end into the appliance. And each of the appliances—the malt blenders, toaster, coffee warmer, etc–would have black cords leading to the outlets. The mind could believe an appliance worked if it was plugged in.

counter close-upThe “stainless” counters and sink were wine bottle leads, rolled out flat and glued to the wood counters. The “stainless” counter edging is a trip of 1/16” basswood double bead painted silver—it’s all an illusion!

Building appliances like the fridge, hotplate and coffee warmer is far too weird and detailed a subject to cover here. Suffice it to say, they were the products of our endless drawers of miscellany, auto primer, and Noel’s deviant (and, I might add, broccoli-stoked) mind. I touched on the subject in the July 1990 issue of Nutshell News, if you can find a copy. For smaller items like the syrup dispensers we found useable look-alikes from Metal Miniatures’ white lead selection, and inventing bases, or adding jewelry findings as needed. The malt machines were also re-worked Metal Miniatures, mostly filing off the excess casting sprue, painting them 40’s green, and adding a straight pin for the blender rods. The customer supplied the wonderful napkin dispensers, coffee carafe and mugs from her collection.

Gas wall heater and neon flourette details

Gas wall heater and neon flourette details

Window view of ice cream machine

Window view of ice cream machine

The vertical log exterior façade is the anomalie of the structure–the rest of the building was built in traditional horizontal log fashion (which, to save time, we took artistic license with by turning into board & batten). By 1946–the project’s time-frame–the bottoms of Frosty’s logs had rotted and were filled with cement, roughly in log shapes. For our logs, we spent an afternoon at the mouth of the Columbia river searching through huge, washed-up swirls of driftwood for logs of the right dimension and knottiness. We were rewarded with a supply of miniature replicas, almost knot for knot, crack for crack. They were cut and glued in place over the front plywood walls, and the “rotted” out bottoms filled with Bondex patching cement. 00170_s_10af8pvwbk0153

Another oddity of the front was the upside down doorknob plate, with the keyhole over the knob. I doubt many have noticed it, but it is part of the character of the building.

The utility side of the building and alleyway

The utility side of the building and alleyway

Utility pole detail

Utility pole detail

Board and batten wall behind booths

Board and batten wall behind booths

Frosty roof neon

Frosty roof neon

The miniature Frosty is its own little museum of details, but the last I’ll talk about is the crowning glory neon sign announcing BIG BEAR FROSTY MALT SHOP, with the word FROSTY in neon. For this, Noel would build, two metal light boxes,  joined at a 22 ½˚ angle, with the light shining through the carved-out letters of Frosty and some clear tubing that would look like neon. To achieve this illusion, he had the FROSTY letters photo-etched, in duplicate, in brass sheeting the size of the signs. Once we had the etched plates, he painted them blue, and hand-lettered on the BIG BEAR and MALT SHOP type with white acrylic paint. For neon, he tried fiber optic tubing, but wasn’t able to tame it into realistic script (the tubing has  “memory,” wanting to uncurl into its original form). Living in salmon country, he then looked for fishing line, but couldn’t find any of the right diameter. The ingenious woman at the bait shop suggested Weed Eater filament (it’s always good to ask an “outsider” for help). Noel was able to form the filament into script, letter by letter, by heating it with a candle. A plus was its milky translucency that softened the light passing through it. He then glued translucent drafting plastic to the back of the sign–to further diffuse the light that would come from the back–and glued the filament on top of it, through the lettering slots, with Super Glue. Because the line was thicker than the slots, it protruded from the front of the sign the way neon would. He painted the connectors between the letters in black, as in real neon, and faked some tubing clips with silver paint. From there it was a matter of building and aging a framed box to hold the metal plates together, as well as to house the miniature flourette (miniature “florescent” tubes) fixtures that would light the letters. Once assembled the whole thing was attached with simulated iron brackets of basswood, and guy-wired to the roof. The power cording was then twisted loosely to resemble heavy-duty exterior wiring, then draped over the rooftop and back to the utility pole, with electrical meter, and then down through a hole in the base to the transformer. For more specifics on the sign, and the rest of the project, you’ll need to find a copy of the October 1991 Nutshell News.

Finishing the project meant having a party to show the friends we’d ignored for months, then packing it up in the van for the long drive to southern CA. By then we were shipping most of our work, but because this was such a personal project for the customer, we wanted to be there when she first saw it. When we saw that initial spark in her eyes, we knew we’d done it right.

Back door detail

Back door detail

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Frosty Malt Shop: Part I

Frosty Malt Shop 1990

Frosty Malt Shop 1990

Started soon after the Greene & Greene was delivered in 1989, the Frosty Malt Shop was completed in late 1990. The months while Noel and I built counter stools and neon signage in miniature, the newly launched Hubble Space Telescope probed the depths of the cosmos. Somewhere between those worlds, George H.W. Bush took a breather from deploying troops to Kuwait to declare to the media, “I’m the President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli. “

The project was a rendition of the real-life Big Bear (CA) Frosty Malt Shop (most certainly broccoli-free) opened in 1946 by a longtime collector and friend, and her husband. It was the first in a series of restaurants and chains they would establish over the years. The family opened so many, she kept a list in her purse for when she traveled. Alone, she traveled frugally, eating a sandwich in her hotel room, but with friends she was big-hearted. There was one night in Honolulu when she wanted to treat us to dinner. After leaving her apartment, we stopped on the sidewalk. Asking us what kind of food we’d like, she took out her list to see which ones they owned. As I recall, there were a dozen or more to choose from.

On Frosty our pace slowed—we were beginning to feel the toll of years of  7-day work-weeks and multiple deadlines. After delivering the Greene & Greene, a huge project, we promised each other time to pursue other interests. For Noel it was painting. For me, writing. We continued to teach, but cut our studio time down to Mon.-Fri., leaving weekends to ourselves. When we were developing a class, the big project on the table went on hiatus. But Frosty had a charm that was hard to leave alone for long. What really hooked us into the project were some old B&W snapshots of  the original building–an appealing little slice of history.

Counter construction with source photos

Counter construction with source photos

The photos reminded me of the Archie comic books I devoured as a child. In my favorite, our friend and another young woman were sitting at the counter wearing Betty and Veronica-type sweaters, sipping malts, while their husbands stood by looking callow and proprietarial. In particular, Noel was won over by the quirky exterior wall structure of vertical log-cabin-style logs painted white.

Frosty roof neon

Frosty roof neon

And then there was was the huge, two-fold neon sign advertising Big Bear Frosty Malt Shop guy-wired to the roof. How would we ever do that?

Frosty was a 1940’s brand of soft ice cream. At the time, Big Bear was a small mountain getaway for people from Los Angeles. Through the front window of the shop you could see the white porcelain machine.

Frosty machine viewed from inside

Frosty machine viewed from inside

Window view of ice cream machine

Window view of ice cream machine

It was easy to imagine lines of kids in the summer, waiting at the window for their ice cream cones. In our miniaturization, we edited down the original building, selecting the details that would create the illusion of the whole—what would give the viewer the feeling of the place, without it all being there. Because the real heart of the place was the main room and counter, we eliminated the kitchen addition, and trimmed the number of stools and booths to make it all more workable as a miniature. As we had learned, time and again, you don’t need all the details (fill-in-the-blank, i.e. stools or the exact counter length) to show what a particular room or building felt like.

On the topic of editing your work, after a year or two of building miniature houses we were whining to fellow-builder Jim Marcus about how many pieces of wood we had to cut to build a window—64! It took forever. He pointed out the obvious—you’re not building a real window. Find the minimum number of pieces necessary to make the illusion work. If it looks like a Victorian window with 20, or even 11 pieces (it did), people will accept that and move on. Structures are full of details to entertain the mind. And who dictated how many pieces there should be, anyway?

For Frosty, we saw the challenges were endless–recreating things like the linoleum tile floor, appliances and the big neon signs—none of which were found in our current bag of tricks. And there was the alley side of the building we had to invent for ourselves in a way that would convince the customer that’s how it really was, or close enough.

Interior mock-up

Interior mock-up

To get an idea on how it would all come together, we built a boxboard mock-up. Then, working from the bottom up, Noel built the base of ¾” ply, then cut the floors and walls from ¼” ply.

While Noel went on to lay cement sidewalks and build the booths, I started in on the grey and white linoleum floor—adapting full-size sponge-painting techniques from Paint Magic by Jocasta Innes. Today you could probably find directions on the Internet, or better yet, YouTube. For lack of a sea sponge to apply the paint, I cut tiny ragged pieces from a cellulose kitchen sponge. As a surface I chose bond paper for its smoothness, thickness, and ability to remain flat after painting. For paint I used Grumbacher tube acrylics—sponging on thin layers of light grey, medium grey and then touching in black and white, allowing each color to dry before applying the next. The key was applying paint in small areas at a time, to keep an even texture over all. Once done, I sprayed the whole sheet with Matte Finish Clear Spray which, despite its name, leaves a slight surface sheen. From there I cut out the individual tiles and began the game of mixing them up and gluing them to the floor. To age it, Noel went back in and cut some cracks with an Exacto, after which I added a dirty water wash, accentuating where wax and dirt would naturally accumulate. And I lightly sanded in areas of wear from the front door, past and behind the counter and under the tables and benches. Yes, we were that nuts, but that kind of detail is the fun part. Unfortunately we have no photos to show the results.00179_s_10af8pvwbk0146

To my readers: I’ve had another request for detailed information on how we did what we did. I thought I would do more of it on the blog, but found it a painstaking job–the stories of the projects are more fun, and I’ve forgotten so much. The directions to many elements, like the appliances, were never written down, as they’re too complex. As our students can attest, much of our teaching was in live demos, as the directions made no sense on paper. I did write in detail for Nutshell News, covering many of our projects and techniques. The issues are, unfortunately, out of print, and I’m not allowed to copy them here. My best suggestion would be to contact The Camp, or Small Stuff, two mini chat groups, to see if any of the subscribers would be willing to copy the articles they have. Make sure to offer them a reasonable price for copying and mailing. I wrote about Frosty in the October 1991 issue.

Thank you for your patience and comments. Please stay tuned for more, and eat your broccoli!

Posted in Memoir, Miniatures | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Yes, More to Come!

To those of you wondering, and asking, when the next post will be, it’s in the works. Our summer turned much busier than anticipated–Noel is painting like crazy, we have a new dog (Alice, see below), the yard doth sprout weeds, etc.  I apologize for the delay in getting back to the blog. Coming soon: a two-parter on the Frosty Malt Shop, once I get the photos edited and in place. Thank you for remaining my loyal subscribers, I’ll try to do better for you in the future. Please stay tuned!

Alice surprised

Alice surprised

IMG_0361

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