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 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.charles-simonds.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.

Posted in Houses, Miniatures, People | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Miniatures, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

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!

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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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The Summer House: “A Simple Cottage”

The Summer House,  project #45, 1990

The Summer House,
project #45, 1990

Sitting out a thunderstorm in Atlanta on our way home from teaching the Airplane Café in Maine, I suggested we go back to the ABC’s–come up with a simple project for our students. As fun as the three roadside stands were, the wonderfully painted signs and false fronts gobbled class time and energy. By the last class day everyone was bleary-eyed and only able to watch demos of the work they had to finish at home. And, because we only taught the exteriors, students were also left to design and build custom appliances for the interiors. For many of these people, workshop week was their vacation, and they didn’t have a lot of home time to finish their projects.

“For next time,” I said, “let’s come up with a simple cottage, give ‘less is more’ a whirl.” Noel, zonked from the long class week, agreed. This was the perennial plan—let’s make something the students can come close to finishing in class, with less pressure and angst– but somehow over the months, in Noel’s mind, “simple” always morphed into slap-your-granny dazzling(-ly complex). But he needed a challenge, and the students always wanted something new.

At home we pulled out a favorite, but so far untapped source book, Tiny Houses, by Lester Walker. There we found the ground-plan for a narrow, wooden mid-19th century campground cottage, designed for the Methodist camp meetings on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Hungry for more details, we then found the book that chronicled the houses and camp meeting lifestyle—City in the Woods, by Ellen Weiss. What began as narrow, one-and-a-half-story tents on platforms, cheek-by-jowl, arranged so that all front doors faced the main preaching tent, eventually sprouted plank walls, and double doors to mimic the open feeling of tents. Small, full of charm, and perfect for a workshop.

View into the porch

View into the porch

The design of our Summer House is, as always, eclectic. Its shape and basic proportions derive from the camp houses, which traditionally measured just 11’4” wide X 19 ½” deep. Because of their proximity to neighboring houses, their white-painted gingerbread trims were predominantly on the front, making them perfect for a miniature project. But then we deviated. Where the Oak Grove houses had open balconies on the second floor, ours was roofed, inspired by a beach cottage near our home on the Washington coast. Local architecture also provided the models for the Carpenter Gothic trim in the front eave, as opposed to the ornate curlicues of the camp houses–a nod to simplicity. And, Noel made the upper half-story of ours shorter, to work better as a class project, as well as fit in our shipping boxes.

Featured on the cover of the Spring 1992 Hammacher Schlemmer catalog

Featured on the cover of the Spring 1992 Hammacher Schlemmer catalog

Inside cover (and, no, it didn't sell for the astronomical amount they asked).

Inside cover (and, no, it didn’t sell for the astronomical amount they asked).

View up the upper and lower decks and doors

View up the upper and lower decks and doors

Bowing again to workshop limitations, Noel designed ours as a partial structure–just the front rooms, upstairs and down. Handily, this meant the staircase would have been in the next room back. The open back gives you an illusionary connection, a glimpse into a traditional family retreat. It is up to you to fill in the other rooms and their inhabitants. And what would a summer house be without screen doors for children to slam, and shingles to weather and age along with the adults? These details would also heighten the fun of the project, and the difficulty factor.

The kicker to the Summer House was the inescapable number of hours needed to make two porches with railings, three screen doors (from scratch), a storm door (upstairs), and double French doors during a 5 or 6 day class. Not to mention the windows with screens, upper deck floor cloth, gingerbread trim, plank porch deck, shingled walls and roof, and brick front walk.  However, the accumulation of these details was necessary to create the illusion, the charm of the original houses, the thing(s) that made it all dazzle.

Main room with white-pickled walls, painted floor and grass mat.

Main room with white-pickled walls, painted floor and grass mat.

Upstairs with balcony door, beaded wood ceiling and speckle-painted fit floor

Upstairs with balcony door, beaded wood ceiling and speckle-painted fir floor

The project turned out to be more time-consuming and frustrating than ever. People adored it and signed up in droves, but many hit the wall about day three after struggling with screen doors from scratch, and the fact that almost every shingle had to be custom-shaped.

Porch detail

Porch detail

The last time we taught it was in Colorado—a game group, but two students wound up in tears, and walked out of class. They did return, but we decided the frustration factor wasn’t worth it, and retired the workshop. It was back to the drawing board to find that elusive, “simple” structure.

Student projects on graduation night at the Guild School

Student projects on graduation night at the Guild School

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The Airplane Cafe: Lunch on the Road

The Airplane Cafe, #44, 1989

The Airplane Cafe, #44, 1989

In the late and frivolous 1920s, Americans loved flying aces, motion pictures, and automobiles. America was motion crazy. We idolized the daring breed of ex-fighter pilots who flew the U.S. Mail Service by the seat of their pants. On the silver screen our romantic hero was WWI “pilot” Buddy Rogers, better known than most real-life flying aces. And, our developing system of highways beckoned those of us on the ground out in our new cars to picture shows, roadside restaurants, and the countryside. By 1927 we were primed for Lindbergh’s trail-blazing solo flight from New York to Paris in The Spirit of St. Louis. We wanted to be thrilled! Lindy thrilled us, sprinkling us with his stardust, and we in turn lionized him with awards, celebrations and parades. He piloted The Spirit throughout the U.S. on a barnstorming tour to encourage “air-mindedness,” leaving in his slipstream cheering crowds, popular songs and roadside attractions. Soon airplane-themed restaurants and filling stations decorated the American landscape. If we dared not fly ourselves, we could drive to an airplane for lunch.

One such tip of the hat to Lindy was the original Airplane Café, built in 1927 on U.S. 101 in Los Angeles. Noel and I found the original Café in the book California Crazy (Heiman and Georges, Chronicle Books, 1985). At the time I was working in a bookstore, and had first access to all the crazy architectural books the owner ordered to feed our hunger for the quirky and clever. Noel adapted the design for our 1989 Guild School miniatures workshop by downsizing the original 12-window, 2-door eatery to a more teachable 4-window, 1-door project. In the process he had to maintain the proportions of the original to accommodate the highlight of the structure–its wonderful signage. The café, basically, is its own billboard.

The body we made from ¼” mahogany ply. Before assembling the wall sections, we scored them to resemble individual tongue and groove boards. In the process we grayed them with Bug Juice. Before painting the body colors, we brushed on a thin coat of rubber cement, which would allow us to later remove areas of paint to reveal weathered wood, enhancing the building’s aged look. The photograph of the original was in black and white. To choose colors for the miniature, I decided to try for the rich hues found on the labels of our collection of old cigar boxes. I experimented with several combinations before coming up with the green, orange and gold.

Noel hand-lettered the signs, first on paper, then transferred them to the wood using carbon paper for the light areas, and white fabric transfer paper for the dark sections. We would later transfer them back to paper for our students, who “merely” had to trace them onto the rough wood, and hand paint them.

Exterrior detail

Exterrior detail

A number of building supplies came from non-miniature sources. The balloon tires came from a science and surplus catalog—those irresistible pages of what-not that some of us thrive on. These we aged by sanding down the pronounced tread, and then applying acrylic dirty-water washes. The hubcaps are domed upholsterer’s tacks, sanded, then rusted with alternating layers of dirty washes, highlighted with dabs of out-of-the-tube burnt sienna. The rusted look was enhanced by sprinkling rust dust, sanded from an old tin can, over the wet paint. Before rusting the rims, we popped them out of the tires and soaked them in Patina Green, which corroded them nicely. The front handrail is made from ready-aged old bicycle spokes.

Front detail with prop

Front detail with prop

The wooden propeller came from a hobby shop. It was made of exceptionally hard wood which we aged with everything we could think of—furniture Strip-eze, sanding, lifting out grain with an Exacto, and a painter’s wire brush.  This too was grayed with Bug Juice and aged with more paint washes. In turn we put our poor students through all these steps, too.

The “engine” consists of another mish-mash of supplies and finishes, beginning with layers of wooden disks and metal washers, primered and spray painted to conceal the wood grain. Noel then carved sockets out of the back, and strung tiny lights (which we frosted with glass etching acid to tone-down the light) through them. He then layered on a few more aged and rusted disks to give it more heft, and the whole unit was glued and bolted to the nose of the airplane.  To create period atmosphere, like the old lighted movie marquees, we decided all the bulbs shouldn’t work. We kept at least one slightly unscrewed until some actually burnt out.

Engine diagram for students

Engine diagram for students

Unfortunately we have no good photo of the wing and roof structure, which we built like a real airplane wing, complete with wooden ribs over which we stretched white-glue-and-water-saturated muslin to fill out the wing shape. Once dry this was painted with more dirty washes, plus Payne’s Gray and Thalo Silver to look old and airplane-ish. The final touch was to stud the wing edges with rusted ¼” nails.

And then there was the interior, but at least we didn’t have to teach it—students were on their own to come up with their own interpretations at home:

Interior layout

Interior layout

Cooking area. By the details, you would guess correctly that we each worked as short order cooks in our early years.

Cooking area. By the details, you would guess correctly that we each worked as short order cooks in our early years.

Coffee warmer. Hand-made by Noel, but the convincing detail is that readily-available coffee can to the left.

Coffee warmer. Hand-made by Noel, but the convincing detail is that readily-available coffee can to the left.

Gas hotplate detail.

Gas hotplate detail.

Deep fat fryer

Deep fat fryer

Double sink--basswood structure covered in pressed-out wine bottle leads

Double sink–basswood structure covered in pressed-out wine bottle leads

More details on the interior are available in my column in the September 1992 issue of Nutshell News.

It’s one thing to create something like this once. We later built two more for collectors. But the mystifying part was how we recreated all those parts of all those puzzles for every student, who then aged, finished and put it all back together, painted all the signs, in 5 days, as well as eating and sleeping. Admittedly those were marathon weeks, and we were all young, but the energy and enthusiasm required remain astonishing to me. Even more that some students dared to come back for more, and some even remain our friends today. We must have all harbored some of “Lucky Lindy’s” spirited stardust.

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