Recipe for a Rooftop Artist’s Studio

rooftop studio 1

Rooftop Artist’s Studio, Miniature by Noel & Pat Thomas, 2002

  1. To make an artist’s studio, start in 1960 when you are 14. Into a large bowl pour one trip to New York City to see your art student/coffee house waitress older sister. Sprinkle in one bitter espresso brewed in her tiny stove-top pot. Next, walk around the Lower East Side and Canal St. At Katz’s, bite into your first pickle. Fold in a blintz and celery soda. This will take about an hour. Head uptown and a little west to find a friend who lives in a building with an AS Beck shoe store downstairs, and a dying potted palm leaning out over the rooftop. Hike the 6 flights to the roof. Be careful while following the duckboard path past the palm tree to the peeling door of the one-room rooftop house. Or studio. Or shack? Savor the light-filled room and city views, the mess of sheet music, books,  bedding, pieces of instruments, and a whole harpsichord. Leave with one $5.00 guitar and a love of rooftop nests. Mix together all of the above, set aside, and wait 40 years.


    Looking across W. 11th St. NY, NY 2000

  1. Whisk ahead to the year 2000. On a Greenwich Village rooftop, sip a morning coffee with your spouse/partner-in-crime Noel, and friend Michael, upstairs from his W 11th St. apartment. Soak in the crusty neighboring roof-scapes—the jungle of water towers, electrical wires, skylights and chimneys, mixed with steam stacks, prized pocket gardens, and mysterious slant-roofed structures. Sift some stories of the Village’s legendary attic studios. Toss around the idea of a free-standing miniature artist’s studio, with a north-facing glazed wall–perched on a roof like this. Poke it and turn it. Stir in the first part. Pour all into your biggest saucepan. Turn up the heat.

It may have taken 40 years to cook up our rooftop studio, but it finally boiled down to a simple, teachable building with a utilitarian city roof for landscape. As with most of our work, the final piece is an interpretation of existing structures, tweaked over time by our imaginations and memory flashes.

Rooftop skylight diagram120.jpg

Home from New York, Noel made the above sketch for the 2002 Guild School workshop. The building itself is a pretty simple board-and-batten box with a slanted glass front—the fun part was seeing what kind of detail we could bring in to make it feel real in its setting, and then to set our minds on how we would make that happen. For example, Noel designed the roof (the “ground” on which the project sits) with a skylight (similar to the one in the hall outside his full-scale painting studio in downtown Astoria). A great, unusual detail for aging, and a great place for a hidden light, but in a 5-day class?


And so, we come to the diagram, complete with corrections and changes and which, if you weren’t in class, may seem close to incomprehensible, but please read on.

Rooftop skylight diagram121.jpg

Skylight Ingredients: wine bottle lead, 1/8” window glass, ¼” plywood, Elmer’s white glue, black ballet dress netting (tulle), black & metallic spray paints, Blacken-It, Brass Black, Patina Green, Thalo green and Permanent white acrylics.


To save class time, Noel cut and assembled the basic skylight structures—a glass box with a wooden base–for the students to finish. The base is simply a box of ¼” ply strips. For the glass structure, he carved a wooden form to build it around. Next he cut 1/8’ window glass panels with a glass cutter, beveling the edges with a glass grinder. He tested the fit by setting the pieces over the wooden form. The beveled edges were then glued together, with lots of, yes, good old Elmer’s. It was tricky, but eventually he got all the glass to stay together. He did not try to make the top edges meet. Instead he carved a wooden cap that the students would glue to the top edges of the glass, giving the whole piece more stability. Finally, he glued the base to the bottom glass edges.

skylight in prog 1

While Noel wrestled with the glass, I glued on battens and flooring.

Skylight glass needs wire mesh reinforcement, so it doesn’t break so easily (remember the “chicken-wire” mesh in school door glass?). Some late-night thinking led to my trying tulle, the stiff netting fabric used for ballet costumes. The most realistic color turned out to be black netting, sprayed with metallic paint, then lightly dusted with black (not that anybody would ever see it, but we knew it was there, and maybe a little showed through the glass). Using the glass panes for a pattern, I cut the netting to fit. Tulle, even with paint on it, is not as stiff as imagined—when I tried gluing it to the underside of the glass it became floppy, and wouldn’t stick. Next trick was to stiffen the netting pieces first with Elmer’s (before spray painting), on the table, laid on a strip of wax paper, painted with glue and allowed to dry. Then spray paint, and dry again. Next, I painted a light coat (thinned with water) of Elmer’s on the underside of the glass, and pressed on the stiffened netting sections. The glue residue gives the glass a desirable cloudiness, but if it’s eye-catchingly messy, you’ll have to do some cleaning up.

The best part was making the whole look like a metal structure, starting with cutting and gluing on strips of wine-bottle lead to cover the cap, base, glass edges and imagined reinforcement mullions. Then the aging–applying Blacken-It, Brass Black, and Patina Green (lightly applied & dried until you get a patina that looks right). When dry, we went back in with an acrylic patina wash (water, Thalo green, Permanent white) to soften the effects and meld the colors. And maybe the tiniest bit of bird poop (white tube acrylic dotted with whatever color food they might have had for lunch).


As you can see, the roofing strips (and later a lot of tar goop (black tube acrylic)) laps over the bottom edge of the metal framework to act as flashing.

With that food for thought, I’ll set this aside for now. The next entry will include side dishes such as rooftop vent pipes, electrical wiring, and painting faux bricks.

*Last but not least, for those of you who made it this far: a reader recently found a current (Feb. 2017) website for old mini magazines, including many with my old Creative Notebook articles:

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An Ode to the Odd: The Castine Gallery

Castine Gallery "about 1988"

On almost any day in June of 1994, at about 8:00 a.m., if you were to head to downtown Castine from the Maine Maritime Academy–home to the IGMA’s annual Guild School mini camp—you might cut across Deadman’s Alley, turn down the hill on Main, walking past the poet Philip Booth’s white clapboard house, past Town Selectman Paul Manning’s white clapboard house with its driveway full of un-split firewood, past the Post Office, the Castine Inn, the pocket-size McGrath-Dunham Gallery, and on down to the foot of Main, a block up from the town dock, you’d probably find Paul Manning’s rig–an old wooden wheelbarrow full of redeemable bottles and cans–parked in front of the Variety, where you could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit at the community table with Paul, in his yellow Sou-wester looking for all the world like the Gorton’s fishcake fisherman–and find out what’s been going on for the past year. He always introduced us around the table as “the Thomases–they’re from away, but they’re okay.”

After coffee, you might follow Greg Dunham, watercolor artist and new owner of the circa 1885 Ricker—now McGrath-Dunham—building, back up the hill to open the recently refurbished shop. While Greg’s a pretty straight ahead guy, his building is as idiosyncratic as many of the townspeople. The one-story, glass-fronted shop is sandwiched between an alley and a staid, Federal-style building it seems to poke out of the side of like an aberrant gem. A textbook example of vernacular architecture, it doesn’t fit any particular style, but draws from its surroundings, including the slant of the hillside it sits on. In a history-laden town, the Gallery is one of those unsung places where Washington never slept, fought the invaders in front of, nor left a famous tea set. While its history may be unwritten, everyone in town has a story about it.

Among our favorite features of the building is the multi-paned, wiggly-glass bay window with stained glass transoms. Next to that, more glass—an inset 9-paned entry door, with its own transom, and a wood-framed screen door. Capping all is a false-front Mansard roof covered in tiny fish-scale shingles. Inside the walls and ceiling are paneled in whitewashed pressed tin, recently restored floors of wide, unpainted pine planks, and overhead a crawlspace attic. The window box of geraniums, an add-on, and hardly a major architectural element, lends itself to the appeal of the building. Each detail is a facet combining to form a little jewel box of a space, the kind of place that both reflects and magnifies the town’s personality. That summer, it all but jumped into our arms as a great teaching project.

Castine Gallery drawingWith other projects on the worktable at home taking precedence, it wasn’t until June of 1997 that our students would see our proposal for the following year. Even then we had little idea of the amount of detail required for the project.

Diagram for the multi-paned front window

Diagram for the multi-paned front window

The front window–the building’s crowning glory–made for a lot of mullions and measuring, and measuring was never one of our fortes–we believed in the concept of eyeball geometry, but that eyeball still had to have square corners. The window was made from a single sheet of old glass (with the cut edges darkened with black felt marker to mask the thickness of the glass), framed in cedar channeling. The 1/16th basswood mullions were glued to both sides of the glass, creating the illusion of individual panes. Packing that many sheets of glass to travel cross country unscathed was another challenge. Only one piece broke en route to Maine, which gave us a chance to visit the resourceful Paul Manning (of the yellow Sou-wester), who invited us in and steered us toward his “old glass department” in a kitchen cabinet. Sure enough, we were saved–he had exactly what we needed.

scalloped, or fishscale shingle roof, capping the stained-glass windows.

Scalloped, or fishscale shingle roof, capping the stained-glass windows.

For the false-front Mansard roof, Noel cut 850 cedar shingles (approx. 1/4″ wide) per student, which gave them a good supply of extras for breakage and loss. Cutting that number for the prototype seemed doable, but by the time he was done with ten batches for the 1998 Castine students, more for the 1999 class, plus another 10 for a New Orleans class, he called it quits, and felt lucky to have all fingers intact. We glued the shingles on with Elmer’s white glue–16 rows, 1/4′ apart. Once the glue dried we sanded them lightly, with the grain, to remove burrs, then applied Bug Juice, to darken them, with a 1″ foam brush. Bug Juice can make cedar too dark, so we next applied household bleach, daubed off with a paper towel. From there we experimented with dirty water washes (a lot of water, a dab of Grumbacher acrylic Mars Black, warmed with a smaller daub of raw Umber), and more Bug Juice. It’s just a matter of playing with it to get a nice, weathered look.

In the photo above, you may also notice the leaded stained glass windows, a design we adapted from the original building. Fred Hultberg of Fotocut made the photo-etched brass patterns as a base for the “leading.” In class, to simulate the leading, we applied solder, followed by caming darkener to the top side of the brass designs, then Brass Blacked the backs. The blackened side of each brass piece was then glued to the window glass. When dry, we painted in the color with liquid glass stains. The individual “panes” were then framed with painted stripwood. In retrospect, this process sounds like it could have taken the whole week, but somehow we all managed to work this in with all the other facets of the project.

Doors included a front, a back, and, just for fun, a front screen door.

Gallery Back Door

Gallery back door

Castine Gallery 2000 - Version 2

Gallery front and screen doors.

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Generic screen door diagram, cut and assembled to fit the space.

The screening we used was a fine mesh brass sink drainer material we bought years ago from a plumbing supply company in California. To age it we combined wire brushing with applications of Brass Black to the screen. Again, it took time and experimentation to achieve the most reallistic-looking results.

Alley side of the building with shiplap siding and water meter

Alley side of the miniature project with shiplap siding and water meter

Dunham McGrath Building life-size version

Dunham McGrath Building life-size version










As you can see by the photos above, we chose to age, rather than age and paint the narrow siding. Again, the siding is cut from cedar, which, to save class time, we wire-brushed and Bug Juiced at home. The students glued it on with, yes, more Elmer’s. Then they got to age it with washes. The mossy look at the bottom corner is watered-down Windsor Newton Sap Green watercolor, with real bits of moss glued on. The water meter is a stock miniature item, with various pieces of electrical wiring added. The metal keepers holding it to the building are cut from wine bottle lead, and rusted with burnt sienna tube acrylic.

The photo shows the side of the miniature attached to a breakaway section of the building next door

The photo shows the side of the miniature project attached to a breakaway section of the building next door

And, because we can’t leave anything alone, Noel cut a wider shiplap siding for the cutaway building next door.

Down the open side and around the corner brings us to the back view, showing more of the breakaway building on the left, the Gallery back wall wooden shingle siding, and the alley-side to the right. The kickplate at the bottom of the door was wine-bottled lead aged with caming darkener.

Castine Gallery back view

Castine Gallery back view

The breakaway side of the building allowed for access to the interior, and gave us a chance to include one of our favorites, an overhead attic crawlspace, borrowing cobwebs from our full-sized basement.Castine Gallery

This side is framed by the interior walls of the building next door, as well as a glimpse of the gallery interior

This final side is framed by the interior walls of the building next door, as well as a glimpse of the gallery interior

The prototype interior flooring is cut from 12″ oak planks, because we had bundles of it (so much so that we’re now using the last of it for fireplace kindling). Because this was an exterior only class, the students were free to choose their own floor, along with the rest of the furnishings, once they got home. The cabinet under the window is made from oak veneer covering a  1/4″ plywood base. To replicate the pressed tin ceiling of the original, we used our stock of embossed business cards, acquired in 1980 for our first commercial building, the 2oth Street Emporium.

Then there’s a mystery, another facet of the jewel–along one of the interior walls, Noel attached a large section of mirror, so that when you looked in through the front windows, you saw a reflection of the interior space, making it feel twice the size, and closer in scale to the full-sized building. It was a fake-out, as most people didn’t notice the mirror. It had to have covered the interior left wall, but it has evaded all our photos, and certainly the cobweb-ridden corners of our collective mind.

Last but not least is the fearless Guild School class of 1998, posed in front of the Gallery, that little gem a few doors up from the foot of Main St., where you’ll probably still find Paul Manning’s rig, and if you look a little further, you’ll find the man himself. Say hello from us.






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Wrap Party: Curtain Call for the Davis Theater


Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set

Most of the year 2000, while the world recovered from Y2K madness, we spent in the studio wrapping up the lagging miniature theater project. It became a matter of, finally, shelving everything else to finish in time for the client’s 60th birthday celebration.

What began as the germ of an idea over dinner at the client’s home, would be presented in full bloom at his birthday dinner at the top of Seattle’s Smith Tower. The 7 or so years-long path between the two events was littered with starts and stops, victories and defeats, hair-pulling, time bending, tricks and theatrics, and at least one bulk pack of #10 Exacto blades. With the deadline in sight, we had a lot of pieces to tie together, and needed quick resolutions to postponed decisions. Specifically, the brick wall needed finishing, along with all the little painting details, the proscenium arch needed cutting and assembling, and there were sets to be painted.

The project was designed to resemble a theater interior on three sides, with a brick exterior wall and stage entrance at the back.


Theater rear view. Note cutaway wall at the bottom for viewing the dressing and make-up room.

If you do much nosing-up to brick buildings, you know that there are distinct brick patterns, designed both for aesthetics and strength. In miniature, the “fun” is determining a pattern, outlining it, then making it work within the confines of the wall. A common pattern found on the walls of many Victorian buildings in Port Townsend, WA, was 5 horizontal rows of full bricks—the length of the brick facing out–then one row of shorter brick “ends” –the width facing out–representing bricks turned 90 degrees to run crosswise into the building for strength. Aka five rows of long bricks, followed by one row of short bricks, and repeat, up the wall. But then, when we looked harder, we discovered there was variation in the numbers of long and short rows–you don’t have to be a slave to rules, just be sure you know them.

As I have written before (see my entry A Brick in Time), we cut our bricks ( 3/16″wide X 5/8″ long X 1/16″ thick) from old brick-pattern vinyl floor tile, which is no longer available. (For making a similar Fimo brick, see our website at There are many other good brick solutions—individual brick facades cut from stripwood, or sculpted from various polymers, paper clay, gesso, or cut from mini brick sheeting. Whatever you use, you’ll want to apply individual bricks, not sheets. Sheets of molded brick, applied as is,  just look like sheets of molded brick, and will detract from the other painstaking, wonderful work on your project. And while I’m being preachy, measured-to-scale full bricks (as opposed to thinner  (approx. 1/16th”) brick facades), will add excess weight, thickness, and calculation headaches to your project. And it will look heavy, out of scale. Less is more, as the old axiom goes. You’re not building a wall or a chimney, you’re creating an illusion by adorning a piece of plywood with a suggestion of brick. Trust the viewer to fill in the rest.

Rule 1: There is no perfect solution. Rule 2: Whatever you use will need some paint and texture alterations to make it look “natural.” Rule 3: It’s all about illusion, the illusion of reality.


Outer brick wall construction, where individual bricks are cut from a scored sheet oh vinyl floor tile, then glued on individually, in rows.


Further along, this shows how you can apply bricks on top of bricks to frame door and window openings.


After mixing a grout of Bondex Quick-Patch cement with water, it is applied by scrubbing it into the bricked area with a sturdy 1″ foam brush.


Before it dries, most of the grout is then scrubbed into the spaces between the bricks, and off the surface.


Adding the owner’s name to the back of the building. Notice how the edges of some bricks have been aged by carving with an Exacto knife.


Stage door area finished, complete with a Thomas garbage can made from old wine bottle leads.

When I joined my college theater department, a very small department, in my junior year, they were thrilled, not because of my great acting skills, but because, due to lack of interest, and the small number of theater majors, no one was the head of the scene shop. Despite the fact I had never touched a power tool, and was afraid of heights (theater ladders are very tall), it turned out to be a good match–I liked the backstage area better than the front, and wanted to include some of this in the project. Thus I convinced Noel to paint a scene shop and costume area on the side walls of the base. Regrettably, these photos don’t do the work justice. Using watercolors, gouache and acrylic washes, he painted the scenes as more of a hint of the theater workings, so as not to detract from the grand splash of the proscenium and stage front.  I think of it as a voyeur’s-eye-view of what’s going on inside. Not too much is explained, but enough to nudge you toward the illusion of theater.


Side view of the stage area, with a frieze of the scene shop and costume areas covering the side of the project base, painted by Noel with watercolors and gouache.

A theater needs an orchestra pit,  and an orchestra. The inspiration for this one came, again, from the book on toy theaters. Here you can see Noel’s original sketch, and the finished frieze.


Orchestra illustration.

From the start, the proscenium frame construction was The Big Problem we kept in the back of our minds. In keeping with the tradition of toy theaters, we wanted it to be ornate, extravagant, even flashy, in the mode of Broadway and major world theaters. Given our limited carving skills, and entire lack of knowledge of casting, we knew it had to be a found material. I don’t remember if it was a trip to a museum, or when Noel took some of his paintings into the frame shop, but one day there it was, practically jumping off the walls at us–gilded picture frame molding. Our local framer just happened to have one strip of the golden cherubs left over from another order, and perfect for our purposes. After that they found coordinating framing for the top and sides. As the cherubs were the last of their kind, the tricky part was going to be finding where to cut the strip so that there was a balance of similar figures on either end, and a center of interest the center. One mistake could ruin the piece and set us back to hunting again. Like all good procrastinators, we decided to think about it some more. But then one morning, Noel made the fateful cut, and with only a little putty and gold paint to fill a joint, got it right.



The sets were left to the end, more or less as a treat for Noel to paint after the hard work of the theater was done. The theater’s owner-to-be lived, year round, among his huge collection of Christmas decor, full-size and miniature. He was also nuts about (no pun intended), and a supporter of, Seattle’s annual Nutcracker Suite production, with its outsize sets by children’s book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Both these traits made it easy to decide what sets to make for him.


Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set



Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set

With the theater complete, we had only hours to pack it into the van for the trip to Seattle, and dress for the birthday party presentation. I was always nervous about transporting our work, as it was not secured in the back, just sitting on its own weight, padded with quilts and pillows to soften the blow should we have to stop fast, or get bumped. Smart people would have built a barrier, some kind of gate closing off the front of the van, but we were too busy trying to meet deadlines to think of that in time. Again the gods smiled on us and we made it safely to the basement parking garage of The Smith Tower. The gods were less kind when when Security would not allow us to park, or unload near the elevator. We found a restaurant busboy to loan us a rolling metal bus cart, and loaded the theater on, with the edges of the base hanging over the edges of the cart. From there, with Noel pushing ,and me guiding and holding the project to the cart, we negotiated a long, sloping ramp up to the next floor, wobbling our way, finally, to the elevator, only to find we had two elevators to take to the top, and no one was happy about it. A little frazzled, we made it to the dining room filled with people, acting as if this had all happened by a little magic.




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The Homecoming or, All the World’s a Stage…

00419_s_10af8pvwbk0387 - Version 2

Sketch of the Davis Miniature Theater-to-be

 It’s late. Two dog-tired travelers are trailing roller bags. It takes a beat or two to register–their motel parking space is empty. The car is gone.

That was us on October 30, 1995, just off the plane from Italy. The title quote–Sean O’Casey’s version–ends with, “and most of us are unprepared.” Sure enough, during our month of eating, walking and Eurailing around Italy, someone had availed themselves of that cute little ‘85 Honda hatchback parked at the back of the lot, a consequence we were unprepared for. The world whirled on, and no kind of magic would bring the car back. On the drive home the next day in the rental car, we repeated the family mantra—“It’s just another adventure.”

Despite being out of wheels, we had had a great adventure (beginning with locking ourselves out of that very same motel (not once, but twice) the morning we left for the airport). Our minds were full of the trip, miniature theater ideas, and the reality of other mini-projects awaiting our attentions. There was hardly time to notice that in our absence the Grateful Dead had announced their break up, or that Ebay was the newest quirk on the Internet.

Theater constr.080

Sketch of the Davis Miniature Theater-to-be

Once home, we hit the floor running. I’ve forgotten when, exactly, we began the Theater, but over the next 5 years we juggled teaching projects and travels with its construction. With the Italian toy theaters still fresh in mind, Noel sketched a design for the client, but then we were on to class preparation. More than a year later a floor plan evolved. Even later the base was constructed, flooring laid, and walls were cut so that bricking could begin. And there were the floating unknowns of how to make the elaborate proscenium, and what kind of scenery we’d build.

Theater constr.081

Rear view, with stage door at lower right, and cut-out for the dressing/make-up room

My favorite part was the make-up/dressing area, the one backstage room we finished, with a cutaway wall for close viewing.

01 theat091

Dressing/make-up Room, Davis Theater. Just by luck, and to add to the realism, some of the bulbs in the mirror light were out even before we installed them.



View showing finished exterior and cutaway wall. The orange door to the right is the open door to the small bathroom.

To me this room is the hub of the theater–the transition space where actors change themselves from daily life to the character on stage. The feeling of the room we made, if not the design, was a direct steal from the one-time Skidmore College Little Theater, where I spent the better part of my Junior and Senior years, so many lifetimes ago.

DR floor

DR floor constr

Taping off the floor for concrete






Laying out the floor

cement floor DR

Spreading the Bondex patching cement floor with a wide putty knife

The other finished room under the stage is the bathroom,  which we squeezed in to the right of the make up room and under the stage door stairs. It can only be viewed from the far left side, or with a dental mirror, but here are some construction shots

Theater bathroom detail.083

Aging a corner of the lathe-and-plaster bathroom wall


Just the basics…


01 theat089

Mirrored bathroom door, outside view, using an old, de-silvering piece of mirror edged with 1/16″ double bead framing.

So much of theater (and miniatures) is magic, a slight of hand, and so much of that comes from (beyond the playwright, director and actors) what is created backstage in the scene shop, the lighting booth, the costume and property rooms, and of course the Green Room—that other nest between stage life and reality. And miniatures share that kind of theatrical magic. One of my favorite quotes, which applies to both, comes from the sweet, Vaudevillian, long-running musical, The Fantasticks. It is spoken at the end , “It’s all an il-lu-sionnnn…” in a swirl of enchanted dust.


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Madama Butterfly and the Toy Theaters of Siena: The Davis Theater, Pt. 2


The illustration is of unknown origin. I have borrowed it from The Museum of Everyday Things website, an adventure not unrelated to toy theaters, and worth exploring.             

            The world of toy theatre is filled with eccentrics                                                                                                … Peter Baldwin, Toy Theaters of the World

With our upcoming miniature theater commission nesting in the back of our minds, we set out for Italy in October 1995. Florence was our destination, our home for a month in a one star hotel room at one end of the Ponte Vecchio–a base station for exploration and further travels on our Eurail passes. In particular, we were looking forward to the side trip to Siena to see the antique toy theater collection, which we hoped would furnish us with some greatly needed inspiration–details and stories about the genre, its designs and traditions, as well as about the collector himself, Dottore (Doctor) G. Anyone who collected such a trove was bound to be a fount of information, and a quirky character. To pave the way, I wrote to the Dottore before our departure. From Florence I phoned a few days ahead to confirm the date of our visit.

Up early for the morning bus, we caught the local to Siena, winding through hill towns famous for their wines and music festivals. At 10:15 precisely, as scheduled, we arrived at San Domenico Square. From there we phoned the Dottore, as arranged, about seeing his toy theaters. He said to take a tassi, and that any cab driver would know the way to his home, Villa L’apertita. Our driver denied knowledge of the place, but drove us far out of town on a road that eventually ended in the countryside at a pile of major road construction. The driver shrugged, and abandoned us at a driveway in front of some garages. We took a chance on a path that indeed lead to the door of the Dottore’s villa—a striking and spacious home in the converted stables of a 12th-18th century Tuscan farm. (The house and property can be seen in the book Living in Tuscany, by Leonardo Castulucci).

We knocked. The man who answered looked puzzled, or maybe disappointed that we didn’t look more promising. Or something. I forged ahead in broken Italian about the miniature theaters, our research, etc. He asked if we were there to see the gardens. Before I could answer, we were off on a tour of his espaliered roses, native plantings, views of and from the famed Tuscan hills, along with a people-size small stone amphitheater on the property where he and his friends performed plays, ballets and operas.

Once inside the villa, we discovered the “friends” were luminaries. He was, it seemed, also a collector of famous personages–celebrities whose autographed photos covered every wall and table surface that art and books did not, including the Pope, Fellini, Nureyev, and jockeys of the Palio, Siena’s famed breakneck horse race. For winter entertainments they used the indoor theater built into one room of the house.

Eventually the Dottore led us back to the rooms of toy theaters–a museum’s worth–many commercially produced, some one of a kind, the simple and ornate, a good number made by famous scene designers, and many inscribed to “Nanni,” our host. Some were made from stone or wood, but mostly from paper, with hand-cranked scenic cloth or paper curtains, wobbly scenery, and dollhouse miniatures in varying scales. Every one was different and every one triggered our curiosity. The Dottore spoke animatedly about each piece he rushed us past, underlining the value and rarity of it all, and refusing to slow or answer our questions.

Finally he stopped before a paper theater set for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Only the elaborate proscenium faced out, with the theater itself recessed into the wall, behind which our host disappeared. The familiar notes of an old recording of the opera rose, along with the lights and curtain to a performance of the final act. The ship steaming across the back of the stage, the paper doll characters playing the scene were all on strings guided by the Dottore, who sang softly along behind the heartbreaking music until, finally, his voice quavered and broke, as it no doubt did in every performance. The music ended abruptly, the curtain squeaked down. After a few moments, our host reappeared and ushered us back to the enormous living room, where he left us. After some noisy negotiations with the housekeeper, he returned with two juice glasses of wine, and, Noel recalls, a cup of dry roasted peanuts.

The Dottore was then called away for a lengthy phone call. Noel and I sat mostly in stunned silence, sipping our wine and soaking it all in–the house, the collection, the performance, the collector. When he returned he had called a tassi, and, end of play, showed us the door.


Before I leave the Dottore, to wade, next time, into our own toy theater, I’ll leave you with this final quote from Peter Baldwin’s book:

 I will go so far as to suggest that it is these things—trifling things—that the world stands most in need of, and that the weighty ones are absorbing all our strength…might it not be wiser and more sociable to concern ourselves with trifles for a few decades…I have seen in most lands that I have visited, even miniature theatre held by grown men…to be…of great value.

Edward Gordon Craig 1932



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Once Upon a Theater: The Davis Theater, Part 1

The Davis Miniature Theater 1995-2000

The Davis Miniature Theater, 1995-2000

The roots of our miniature theater project are so old and intertwined it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll start with Once Upon a Time. Once upon a time—some 200 years ago, before the distractions of TV and electronics–children of Western Europe played with toy theaters made from papers printed with elaborate prosceniums, character, and set designs which they cut out, pasted on cardboard, and assembled so they could perform plays on the little stages. Some say it was geared more for boys, but the girls were enticed away from their dollhouses when they saw how much fun it was to stage things like battles and weddings. Needless to say, the adults got hooked, too.

“The world of toy theater is filled with eccentrics…”  –Peter Baldwin, Toy Theaters of the World.

One might say the world of miniatures is peopled with a similar cast of characters.

Once upon a time—close to 40 years ago—Mr. Peepers, a miniature shop in Seattle, started selling our dollhouse kits, which began a long relationship with the owners, Babs & Allan. Mr. Peepers is where we taught our first workshop, which is another story altogether.

Once upon a time—maybe 25 years ago–Allan and his wife Nora asked us over dinner one night to build them a mini project of our own choosing. The commission had no strings—just to build whatever we liked, whenever we got around to it. Noel and I looked at them, and at each other, and found that absolutely nothing came to mind. By then we had built almost 50 projects in varying styles, had classes and a commission on the work table, plus other commissions still on the books. In the back of our team mind that whiney little mosquito that didn’t care about paying the rent nagged us to refuse any more big projects.

Once upon a time Allan and Nora discovered we liked theater, and took us to a performance at the Seattle Repertory Theater. On the drive home Noel and I talked about making a miniature theater. But where would we start–a whole theater was a gigantic project. A few miles down the road I said, let’s start with the front two rows of seats and make the fun parts—the stage and backstage where the real magic takes place. And Noel said, forget the seats, let’s start with the proscenium.

Time passed. We hashed it over with friends and relatives. A friend sent us Peter Baldwin’s book, Toy Theaters of the World chronicling the history of toy theaters, a world we knew nothing about. A cousin told us about a collector she’d visited in Italy.

Toy Theaters of the World

Toy Theaters of the World

Once more upon a time—October of 1995 to be exact–we spent a month in Italy. Included in that trip was finding an antique shop in Florence with a worn red box the size of a small toy chest which contained the pieces to a paper theater. They wanted $200.00.  I hesitated–we were hand-to-mouth dollhouse builders traveling on credit. And there was the trivial matter of how to get it home. And where to put it. I still kick my practical mind for leaving that treasure behind. But there was also the day’s visit to Sienna, and the home of one Dottore G., the collector of vintage toy theaters.

“We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously.”–Oscar Wilde

Il Dottore treated toy theaters very seriously.

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The Breeze, Pt. IV: The Nitty-Gritty of Utility Sinks

The Breeze utility sink

The Breeze utility sink

Once again it is my aim to come to the aid of metallically challenged miniaturists—those who want the look of metal, without the heartache of soldering gun or anvil. Whether you pine for a period stove, ice cream freezer, Monel-metal counters, or a full-fledged diner, these techniques should give you a jump start. Using our experience equipping “The Breeze,” (our version of a Maine fried clam stand) I’ll describe how Noel and I built a metal utility sink and its aging plumbing with relatively basic tools and supplies. Rather than a step-by-step how-to, these solutions are meant to help you cook up your own pieces. I apologize for the shortage of good photos–over the years, slides, like memory cells, have been lost

For the sink, Noel began by making box and backsplash from 1/8” plywood, glued together with Elmer’s white glue. Custom-built for our project, the box is 1 5/8”dep X 3”wide X 1 ¼”high. The backsplash extends up another ¾”, making the overall height of back wall 2”. The sink rim is cut from 3/32” quarter round basswood (1/16” might work too), and glued to the top edge of the front and sides of the box (the backsplash doesn’t get a rim).

Once the glue dried, Noel rounded the rim’s 45° corners with fine sandpaper. He then sprayed the whole bare-wood sink unit with Rustoleum Bright Metal paint, building coats to fill the rim seams and wood grain, and give it a neutral, metallic background color. Then he burnished the high gloss off the rim with 4/0 steel wool.

The rim and bottom of the box were left painted only, the rest to be covered in metal sheeting. For this Noel used aluminum printing plates, which may no longer be available (see previous posts on appliances for more information). Substitute sheet lead, wine bottle lead, or very thin aluminum sheeting, if you can find it, and wing it from there.

First, Noel covered the outside of the box with a single metal strip, cut flush to the top and bottom of the box and long enough to wrap around the sides making a seam at the center back. To insure a good fit, make a paper pattern first. Before gluing the aluminum to the box, rub it (shiny side up) with 4/0 steel wool, in tiny circles (to avoid evidence of the “Giant Hand”), giving it the look of brushed stainless steel.

steel-wooling the metal sink stock

steel-wooling the metal sink stock

Then, coat the back of the metal with a thin layer of Elmer’s white glue and fold it around box. Wrapping the whole with masking tape swill snug it in place until dry.

The sheeting to be applied to the back wall of the sink

The sheeting to be applied to the back wall of the sink

Using the same methods, Noel cut the next metal piece for the back wall of the sink—a piece that wraps from the inside bottom, up over the backsplash and down the back to meet the first piece (all seams are in the back, where they won’t show once the sink is glued in place). This piece is cut wide enough to make angled flaps to wrap around each end of the backsplash. After steel-wooling this piece, he glued and taped it in place. The rest of the sink insides are similarly covered.

We didn’t cover the exterior sink bottom, as it would never be seen (unless you were obsessively inquisitive with a dental mirror and flashlight). To make drain holes in the sink bottom, we drilled three 1/8” holes (for a triple sink) through the metal and box bottom with the drill press. A pin vise would make similar holes. For drains, Noel inserted 1/8” brass grommets in the holes, aging them first with Brass Black (brass aging solution, available through gunsmiths or Whittemore-Durgin). To divide the sink in three sections, Noel cut two partitions from 1/16” basswood, wrapped them in metal, and glued them equidistant inside the sink. Again, the rim is left uncovered, with just the metallic paint showing. You’ll find it achieves a convincingly aged, mottled look when you rub it with steel wool.

Inserting the sink legs

Inserting the sink legs

For the sink legs, which were inserted into the 1/8” holes near the four corners of the sink bottoms, Noel cut 3/16” diameter wood dowels, 1 7/8” long (1/8” longer than the actual legs). He whittled and sanded, rounding the top 1/8” of each leg to form pegs that were inserted into the holes. He did the same shaping on the bottom 3/16” to give the illusion of level-adjusting feet (yes, one more fanatical detail on something that could barely be seen).

Noel layered Bright Metal spray paint on the legs to disguise the wood grain, steel-wooled them smooth, and painted the bottoms with a band of black paint to simulate rubber tips. Once the leg tops were glued in place, he banded them with a 5/32”wide strip of chrome automotive tape (auto supply stores), adding a dimensional, textural detail that distracts from the wood grain.

The heavy-duty plumbing underneath is built from the junk box–your junk box may turn up some better gems than ours. For the three vertical drain pipes (connecting the drains to the transverse pipe that carries all the water down the pipe in the floor) Noel used 1/8” round plastic framing sections (or “trees”) left over from a Chrsynbon bathroom kit. The drain pipe furthest to the right, connecting to the long transverse pipe, is all one piece.

Utilizing one of the curves in the plastic “tree,” he cut the vertical pipe 5/8” above the curve, then cut the other end long enough to reach the far end of the sink and curve down into the floor (it helps to cut a piece of wire for a pattern). Noel then bent the far end of the transverse pipe down, in the direction of the floor.Breeze sink055 For this step he wrapped the plastic with masking tape where he wanted to start the curve, heated it briefly with an adjustable-wick oil-burning candle (who knows where you’ll find one of those now, maybe a thrift shop) at the lowest setting, and bent it by hand. If this scares you, practice on a sample piece. The middle vertical drain pipe was cut a little longer than the first, to give the transverse pipe a slight, downhill slope; the third section was cut slightly longer than that.

To mark where the pipes connected, he set the long, curved pipe section in place in its drain hole, and marked it with a felt tip pen where the two other pipes will join it. Using a hobby knife, he carved a concave shape in one end of each of the two vertical pipes, so they fit smoothly over the curve of the transverse pipe. He set them in their drain holes and glued them to the long pipe (but not yet into the drain holes) with plastic cement or Super Glue gel. At this stage he had a single unit of all the drain pipes, minus detail.

For the illusion of plumbing elbows and joints, Noel wrapped the pipes with 1/16”w strips of masking tape. He laid a 3 “strip of masking tape on a piece of glass, and cut 1/16” wide strips using a metal straight edge and hobby knife with a fresh blade. (As with underwear, blades should changed daily, at least).

Check out your own home or favorite cafe’s plumbing to get an eye for detail and spacing. At the first pipe bend, Noel wrapped a tape strip around the pipe several times to achieve a thickness convincing enough to be a joint. He repeated this procedure at the lower end of the curve, then went on to make T connectors where the other pipes joined, plus one more connection below the lower bend of the joint leading down to the floor (see photo).

After the wrapping was completed, he coated each connection with a little white glue to seal the tape on the pipe. When the glue was dry, he sprayed the whole plumbing unit with Bright Metal paint. When it was dry he “dust” sprayed over the surface with enough flat black paint to finely speckle and darken the “metal” to an old galvanized look.

For the final transverse pipe detail, Noel spot-painted it with Burnt Sienna acrylic tube paint, using a small brush (#2 watercolor round) to darken it and create an overall look of warmth and a little rust. It’s important not to go overboard here; you want to leave an implied visual impression of plumbing (with room for the viewer’s imagination), not have the pipes or aging draw attention to themselves. Keep it subtle. When done, Noel glued the tops of the three drain pipes in the drains.

Before and after

Before and after “chroming” the faucet

Lastly, Noel built the double, wall-mount faucet assembly from another conglomeration of parts. He cut off the curved spigots of two ledge-mounted pot-metal faucets with cross handles. He made the cut at the curve, retaining the straight stub ends. To make the pipe connecting the handles, he cut a ¾”long section of 3/32” wide copper tubing (wide enough so the stub ends could be glued snugly inside the tubing). The long-armed swivel spigot was another Chrysynbon left-over: a section of “chromed” bathroom sink drain pipe. The bottom of the Chrysynbon pipe has a small flange which became the joint where the spigot arm mounts on the connector pipe.

Noel cut the spigot long enough to extend over all three sink sections. He bent both ends over the flame (one bend above the flange, where it attached to the connector pipe, another to direct the water down into the sink). He also cut a concave shape into the flange, so it would fit over the connector pipe. To give the illusion of a moveable spigot, he glued it on the connector pipe at an angle, as if to fill the left-hand sink.

For faucet mounts (flanges that connect the piece to the backsplash) Noel used two more grommets (as for the sink drains) into which he inserted the faucet stems. Once the assembly was plastic cemented together, Noel sprayed the unit with Bright Metal paint. He held the unit to the back splash, marking and drilling where each faucet mount would enter it, finally gluing the assembly in place.

As with all our miniature projects, we learned how to build The Breeze as we went. The key is to visualize what you want, then go find the materials and adapt them. In this case the aluminum plate will probably not be available, but if you want it enough, you’ll find a good replacement. Our best sources–outside of miniature shops and art/craft supply stores–were clerks in smaller hardware stores. When we told them we made miniatures, and explained what we wanted to do, they often knew just the item we needed and just the bin it was in. Or they had an idea about where else to look.


These last few posts have been of a more technical nature than most because I recorded the details in my miniature magazine columns, and some of you have asked for more explicit instructions on these odder pieces.  This project marked my last column. From here on, I’ll be returning to more of the stories of our work, starting with our final major piece, the Davis Theater.

Posted in Appliances, Miniatures | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Cooking Up the Breeze: Interior, Pt. 1

The Breeze Appliances

The Breeze Appliances

In 1996, two years after we began work on miniaturizing The Breeze fried clam stand in Castine, Maine, a friend wrote in a Christmas card that it had sold. When Noel and I began the design, the then current owner invited us in to photograph and measure his new venture. For him it was a retirement business—a possibly fun and profitable way to spend his summers. For us it was architectural history in the making—a piece of the town saga worth its salt. The next summer, when we brought the miniature Breeze back, he liked it all right, and welcomed our students in to poke around and photograph the aging shingles, and jury-rigged interior, but he didn’t quite catch on to our affection for the place. He was too busy breading clams, cleaning fryers, and setting up for a busy summer day.

Aside from the vent fan, the grittiest part of the Breeze is the interior, the working part of the kitchen with its gas grill, metal fryers, stove and sink. Even with 54 miniature structures under our belts, creating the interior of the food stand (cousin to the greasy spoon, defined by Urban Dictionary as serving “food that is often delicious, and always bad for you) was no simple task. We specialized in illusions made of wood and paint–recreating “the look of metal” was a most mind-and-materials-stretching venture. The following directions could be titled: “Metal-Working for Those Who Failed Metal-Working 101.”

What we devised for the interior is perhaps best described as the essence of appliances. These built-in pieces can be viewed only from a distance—through windows and the removable roof access. They are fabricated from bits of wood and aluminum held together with glue. If the items were meant for hand-held inspection, we would have commissioned a real metal-smith–someone of Bill Hudson’s caliber–to make more refined versions of the real thing. The bad news is, the interior photos of the finished project after aging are missing (and, oddly, or scarily, so is our memory of doing the work). The good news is that I wrote about it at the time, and still have the files.

Our aim was to make these stationary pieces in scale, looking well-used, and “feeling” enough like the real thing to be believable. We worked from photographs of the full-size Breeze, backed-up by notes and our own recollections. Our having both worked as short-order cooks gave us another level of practical experience to draw from. It helps to have a feel for the surroundings you want to recreate in miniature; your imagination kicks in when knowledge, measurements, or photos don’t quite cover it.

Fryer box and baskets before aging

Fryer box and baskets before aging

For the deep fat fryer, Noel began by building a rudimentary utility table with 1/8″ X 5/16” basswood legs, and with a top and lower shelf made from veneer ply (aka doorskin) covered with aluminum printing plate (described below). The table was designed to hold both the fryer and the hamburger grill and fit along the structure’s back wall. He let the available space determine the size of the table and appliances.

The behind-the-scenes deep fat fryer box can be built from 3/16″ or ¼” thick plywood, either of which is hefty enough to be held together with glue. Build the box—no fancy corners needed—and cover it with aluminum sheeting attached with Elmer’s white glue.

We bought the hand-bendable sheet metal from our local printer. It was called Western Linotech single-sided aluminum printing plate (the same material used for roofing in my Putting a Roof on It posting). Now that computer printing has taken over, you’ll be hard-pressed to find this, but rolled-out wine lead, or lead sheeting (see below for sources) make decent substitutes. (For a different approach, see the entries for The Airplane Cafe, and Fish and Fries).

Once the glue is dry, shape a single piece of printing plate to cover the sides and front (the back will never be seen). To cut the pieces to size, use the tip of an Exacto knife guided by the edge of a metal straight edge to scribe—without cutting through—the aluminum plate. Bend the piece along a sharp table edge and break along the scribed line. Hand bend the cut piece around the box, and glue it on with Elmer’s. The non-working doors in front–where the fryer grease is cleaned out of the real thing–are cut from 1/16” airplane ply (Micro Mark catalog), covered in the same metal, and glued on the front of the box. Whatever material you use, it helps to make a paper pattern first, to determine where to clip the metal corners to make a snug and true fit.

The door handles are made from 19 gauge aluminum wire (hardware store). Noel bent the handles into shape with round, fine needle-nose pliers. He drilled holes in the doors with a pin vise, and glued the wire ends into the holes. The red “brand name” logo plates on the left door he cut from wine bottle “lead,” the kind that seals some corked wines. (These days this material is really a malleable plastic that looks like metal, and may have some metal content, but it looks right). Noel embossed the sign lettering from the back, writing with a defunct fine-tipped roller ball pen (the brand name is HOT!), then colored the front with a red felt pen, and glued it to the door with Elmer’s.

The inside and top lip of the box are lined with strips of thin lead sheeting, because it is easier to mold than aluminum plate. If your miniature store doesn’t have any, try hobby or stained-glass supply stores. Finish the box by adding two wire handles on which to hook the fryer baskets. The handles are simply longer versions of the wire door handles, set into the top edges of either side of the box.

Wire framing and hammered screen mesh used for fryer baskets

Wire framing and hammered screen mesh used for fryer baskets

The fryer baskets take some practice. Make the framing from two pieces of aluminum wire, the same kind used for the door handles. Referring to the photos and diagrams, cut and fold a paper pattern to determine the basket size: smaller than the fryer box interior, and with room for a comfortable space between the two. Also, the bottom of the basket should be narrower than the top. For ours, Noel shaped the basket around a section of ½” sq. basswood, standing it on end to form the lower corners and the width of the basket bottom.

Fryer diagram

Fryer diagram

Once you have a suitable paper basket, use another piece of paper to draw an outline of the shape and size of the handle and frame for the rim of the basket. Make it a little larger than the top of the basket pattern because it will be glued to the outside edge of the basket mesh. With the drawing as a guide, use the round needle-nose pliers to shape a single piece of wire into the handle and top-of-the-basket framing (wire #1). Have patience. The process will work, although it may take a few tries to get it right. Glue the wire together at base of the handle and the back of the basket (opposite the handle) with instant glue gel. Repeat the process for the second basket, using the same pattern so the baskets match as closely as possible.

Before shaping the rest of the framing, feel free to pound out your frustrations on the basket mesh. This piece is made from aluminum window screen flattened with a hammer. Lacking any screen scraps, we bought a whole roll at the hardware store for about $9.00. You might be able to buy just a piece at your hardware store, or maybe find an inexpensive window screen at Goodwill.

With wire cutters, cut out a piece of screen about 1 ½” sq. for each basket, and hammer the mesh wires flat on an anvil. With your paper pattern and the wood form, trim the screen and clip the corners to hand-form the basket. To help prevent the screen from unraveling, paint the whole piece with water-thinned Elmer’s. Thin the glue enough to prevent the mesh from filling with glue. Noel used a hairdryer to blow the thinned glue out of the holes.

Breeze fryer043Once the mesh is dry, mold, fold and crimp the screen around the wood form to create straight edges. The depth of Noel’s basket (where he made the first bend) is five screen squares down from the top edge. The length of the basket is determined by the size of your frame. Work gingerly, and run a bead of Elmer’s along the rim edge of the basket to further reduce the screen’s tendency to unravel. Work to keep the mesh square across the sides and bottom.

The screen must overlap somewhat at the front and back of the basket to have ample gluing surface. Some overlapping works to give the illusion of holes clogged with pieces of breading and clams, but too much will look like—well–too much. An illusion is a suggestion, not a justification for clunky work. Trim away any excess screen and glue the ends with instant glue gel.

Bend a second piece (wire #2 in diagram) to frame the sides and lower part of the basket and form the side draining bracket. Use the basket and top frame (wire #1) as a guide, bending the wire around the wood form with the needle-nose pliers. The trick to making the basket symmetrical is to make the bends in the wire even lengths on either side of the basket. Once wire #2 is bent into shape, glue it and the basket to the top wire frame with instant glue gel. Be patient, and give it your best. Then give it another day before deciding if you need to make a better one.

At last comes the fun part, painting on the grunge that will transform your labors into a credible, almost smell-able, fryer. (For research, I recommend a field trip to the nearest greasy spoon to try some of that oh-so-good-but-bad-for-you food.)  Our dirty grease formula consists of Grumbacher tube acrylics in Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, and Mars Black. These colors, in varying combinations, are the same colors we use for rust. If you’ve ever really looked at a short order kitchen’s working parts, you’ll see the boundary between grease and rust is pretty iffy. That’s where it becomes grunge.

Deep fat fryer

A different example from The Airplane Cafe, made before we used aluminum plate.

Pour about 2 tablespoons of water on a plastic plate and squeeze a little of each pigment around the plate’s rim. With a watercolor round brush, draw a little of the two siennas into the water, making a drippy wash (more water than pigment). When you have a good thin grunge color, paint it on the fryer basket mesh and down the sides of the fryer box. There should be more grease at the top of the box, with drips down the sides.

Play with the strength of the washes and color combinations. Start with a really thin wash, allowing each layer to dry, adding until you get a color you like. Finally use a bit of a very thin black wash to tone down the reddish color where needed. As the paint dries on the metal box, the pigment will separate out into visible, but not dimensional, little globs of color. The paint will heighten the already slightly “chunky” look in some of your basket mesh. If you can find a Cadmium Orange felt-tip marker (at better art supply stores), smear a little ink over the paint to slightly enhance the overall color and add a convincingly greasy sheen. As always, go gently, don’t tell the whole story–leave room for the viewer’s mind to fill in the details.

The full-size version of The Breeze, or some earlier incarnation of it, has been a part of Castine from before the first time I saw it as a child. Locals say it was originally a trailer, towed home to the driveway at the end of each summer. For a while it was called The Salty Breeze. During the 28 years Noel and I visited there it had at least five different proprietors, one of whom was a woman who was also in charge of cleaning the town restrooms at the other side of the pier parking lot—she added the touch of a vase of fresh flowers every day, at least in the Women’s. Due to the number of ownership transitions, I suspect The Breeze at first appears as a dream of a slower-paced life, of taking things easy, of frying a few clams to salt away some extra cash. As is all too usual, full-scale reality is grittier than the dream.

Living the dream--the full-size Breeze in 2011, with no awning.

Living the dream–the full-size Breeze in 2011, with no awning.

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The Breeze, Pt. II: The Question of Awnings

The Breeze miniature awning

The Breeze miniature awning

In Sunday’s funnies, a man encircled by boisterous children confesses to his wife, “I thought I knew all the answers, but they keep thinking up new questions,” which reminded me of one of our workshop students. “Why doesn’t my work look like yours?” was, I think, how she phrased it—a student comparing her work to Noel’s and mine at the end of the first day. Wow! Now there was a huge question, and I am not a speedy thinker. The woman was relatively new to miniatures, but a good craftsperson with high standards. I think she felt a little cheated. Pointing out that Noel and I had about 50 years more combined experience didn’t do the trick, so I batted the question around for a while. Days later another part of the answer filtered through: the student had come to the right class, because we were teaching something she didn’t already know, and isn’t that the point of learning? It was days more before I uncovered the next pieces of the puzzle.

For the Breeze clam stand project, one big question was how to build a miniature awning. The green canvas awning was one of the Breeze’s most distinctive elements, and something new for us. What’s great about an awning, especially in this day of prefab, plastic-arched eateries, is that it not only adds color and texture to a structure, but it also deepens an intangible and dated comfort factor—that feeling of refuge that comes from fabric overhead, as with tents and beach umbrellas. It reminded me of the cocooning effect of the awnings that once shaded the south-facing windows of my grandmother’s house. The awning question, being one of fabric— my domain—fell to me. This answer too, came in pieces.

Because Noel and I worked as artistic partners, when one of us took on a particular problem it never entirely left the other’s mind. While I grappled with fabric possibilities, Noel asked about the metal framing—two people approaching the same problem from different angles. I felt that once the fabric question was solved, the frame would follow—my reading of form following function. The fabric question was trickier than I thought, and the beginning of the solution came out of Noel’s stash of “saved” items. While in my mind I painted and sized muslin (my all-time fallback treatment, left over from college theater days), Noel nudged me toward his pile of faded green window shades, the kind backed with yellowing muslin-like fabric that he’d salvaged from garage sales and The Salvation Army. (To digress a moment, I Googled old-fashioned window shades to see what they were made of, and, yep, it was called window shade cloth, sometimes Nonpareil shade cloth, but there’s a dearth of information on the subject, not even a Wikipedia entry, so, for those of you aspiring to make a name for yourselves on the Net, here’s your chance).

At first the shades didn’t grab me–the material was too stiff to drape gracefully, and a lot of it was pretty ratty and moldy. Noel reasoned that we wouldn’t have time in class to color muslin, and the shades were already green, and aged. He was right–the new problem became how to soften and shape the shade fabric, until I remembered a theater trick about muslin and sizing.

Once I bought into using the shades, I went on to figuring out the framework. Because of class time limitations, basswood promised to be more practical than metal. It was lighter, would be barely visible under the fabric, and we could paint it to create an illusion of metal. Plus, we knew little about working with metals, and I could envision a whole week’s workshop lost to soldering and fabricating awning frames.

Frame diag.For the main framework I went with basswood stock we had on hand–two strips of 1/16” X 3/16” (for the top horizontals and vertical braces), 1 strip of 3/32” X 3/32” (bottom back and front horizontals), and one strip of 3/32” quarter round added to the front bottom horizontal—providing extra rigidity and a rounded “drop line” for the fabric. For the 60/30 degree triangular end brackets, I cut six strips to length from 3/32” X 3/32” stock, angling the ends to match the slant of the roof. Before gluing them together, I aged the strips with Bug Juice to tone down the newness of the wood. Once the Juice was dry, I cut and assembled the frame, using a paper pattern I had made to fit the building, and glued it together (liberally) with our old standby, Elmer’s white glue.

If you’re going to try this yourself, before cutting wood, make a paper or cardboard model, adjusting until you find good proportions and correct angles; before gluing, cover your work area with wax paper to avoid gluing the frame to the table; build the end brackets first, squaring the back of each bracket with a squaring jig, or small engineer’s square (I particularly like the handy, 3” steel machinist’s square available through Micro Mark); once the brackets are dry, re-touch the joints with glue, and allow to dry thoroughly before assembling the rest of the frame. Build the main frame between the brackets. Once assembled, trim and sand the leading edge of the brackets flush with the lower, rounded horizontal framing, then paint gray (or with aluminum craft paint) to create the illusion of a metal frame.

When the frame is dry, you can cut the front fabric covering to fit. Starting with the off–the-roll stiff shade fabric, I cut it into 3 ½” wide strips, across the width of the shade. This width covered the framework, and then some, and the drop allowed for a scalloped edge, as in the original. Once you have cut your strips, set them aside.

Awning scallop patern

Awning scallop patern

Trace the scalloped edge (see diagram, or design your own) onto plain white paper. I did it diagonally on the paper, to get the longest possible strip. Then, carefully cut around the curves to make a smooth, evenly-waved line. With a T-Square and Exacto knife, trim off the excess paper to make a scalloped strip approx. 7/16” deep. Next, lay the frame on the back of the awning fabric strip, and mark the fabric at 3/8” wider (longer, not deeper) than the frame. Using the T-square and Exacto, trim the fabric at that mark at a 90 degree angle to the top or bottom edge of the strip. Now place the frame back on the fabric, and draw a “drop line,” indicating the bottom horizontal edge of the frame. This is where the top (the straight edge) of your scalloped paper strip will go. Using transparent Removable Magic Tape, tape the scalloped paper strip to the lower edge of the back of the fabric, along the line, and cut out the scallops. Again, keep your curves smooth. When done, remove the paper, and save the excess scalloped edge for end pieces.

Before gluing fabric to frame, paint a narrow “white” border along the lower edge of the scallops. Yes, paint. A fabric or thread border will look too bulky, and break the illusion of reality. In this case it is better to simulate cording, rather than try to replicate it in miniature. For The Breeze, we mixed an old-ivory colored paint, using flat white latex warmed with a little ochre tube acrylic. Stark white looked cold and unconvincing. The ochre adds a credible look of age to match the weathering of the window shade fabric.

Now, here’s the trick to softening the shade fabric: once the border is dry, lay the fabric face-down on the worktable. Then, using a foam brush and water, dampen, don’t soak, the back of the fabric only, leaving it wet for a few minutes until it becomes soft and pliable. Keep water off the green side, or it will disintegrate. Dab the backing with paper towels if it seems too wet. Next, to keep it from curling, flatten the fabric on a table with weights for a few minutes (still wet) before gluing.

Once the fabric becomes pliable and will lie flat, fold the scalloped edge over a T-Square to finger press a crease along the “drop line” you drew earlier. This is where the fabric will fold over the lower part of the frame. Then, run a smooth, solid bead of glue (Elmer’s white) along all the facing surfaces of the frame (not the fabric), smearing the glue with your fingers so no excess will leak out around the edges, then lay the fabric on the frame, beginning at the top edge. Gently press the fabric with your fingers to ease in a few soft puckers (not ridges) and sags, smoothing it down along the rest of the frame, and tugging slightly from the bottom to give the puckers a vertical direction.

Draping on the full-sized Breeze

Draping on the full-sized Breeze

Finger-press out any hard lines or pleats. Don’t try to work all of the excess fabric into the puckers, or the awning will look baggy and badly made. The slow drying time of the Elmer’s allows plenty of time to work the fabric onto the frame. Allow the excess to overhang one end until the glue dries, then trim to fit the edge of the frame.

With the fabric glued in place, turn over the whole frame—so the fabric is lying flat, face-down on the table—and weigh down the frame for drying. Hold down all edges, weighting it down with everything you’ve got: miter boxes, squaring jigs, stones, snack-sized Ziplocks filled with sand, etc. Use a hairdryer to speed drying, then, while the glue is still slightly tacky, lift off the weights and turn over the whole thing to see that everything’s glued where it should be. Adjust if necessary, turn the awning back over, and weigh it down until dry, preferably overnight.

Awning end detail

Awning end detail

Awning end pieces: Using your scalloped paper strips, make a pattern piece to fit the end bracket by first tracing a length of scallops onto another piece of plain white paper. Then line up the scallops with those at the corners of the awning, so you have an unbroken scalloped pattern from front to sides. Standing the awning on end, and using the end bracket for a pattern, trace and cut a sample triangular end-piece 1/8” larger than the frame bracket (to allow for draping) from the paper. Hold it in place on the awning frame and trace a “drop line” along the base of the triangle, lining up the length of the scallops with the front. Adjust as necessary, making certain you have a good, close fit at all the seams, and have allowed a little room for easing, especially at the corners. Once you have a paper pattern that fits, write “green” on the side of the paper that represents the green side of the fabric, trace the pattern onto the fabric (making sure the green side matches that on the paper, and that the fabric fibers run vertical to the base of the triangle). Cut out the fabric end-piece, and paint on the scalloped edge. Dampen the back of the piece to soften as before, and glue in place. Repeat for the other end of the frame. You can further customize your awning with such details as additional bracing, and tie-downs made from fishing line or old kite string.

As for answers to that student’s question—“Why doesn’t my work look like yours?,” more came to me, as it often does, in bed, late at night. For the student, I remembered what Robert M. Pirsig said about creativity in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “You want to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Just make yourself perfect, then paint naturally.” For the teachers, there’s an old hieroglyph: “No limit may be set to art, neither is there any craftsman who is fully master of his craft.” And for all of us, from a friend, poet, and teacher, “There are no answers, only choices.”

Guild School Breeze class photo 1996, or 97.

Guild School Breeze class photo 1996 (I think)..

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The Breeze and I—Putting a Roof on It

The Breeze, 1997

The Breeze, 1997

I was born under a lucky star. Not only did I grow up in a picturesque New England town, but for part of many summers my family explored coastal towns from Mass. to Maine by boat. I have in memory a cache of what I think of as my “summer towns,” those dreamy Brigadoons that can be called upon to flower in my mind even in the depths of winter cold.

One of my summer towns is Castine, Maine, where for twenty-nine years Noel and I taught at the Guild School’s annual “camp,” a gathering of miniaturists on the grounds of the Maine Maritime Academy.

Main Street, Castine watercolor by Noel Thomas circa 1993

Main Street, Castine watercolor by Noel Thomas circa 1993

I first visited Castine at approximately age 12 (when gas cost. 25, and we were singing nel blu di pinto di blu), the summer my parents chartered a sailboat to cruise the Maine coast. That first time, if memory serves me, we motored into the harbor in late afternoon to tie up alongside the town dock with its sun-bleached floats, mussel and seaweed-encrusted pilings, and long creaky gangway. At the top of the gangway stood a scenic, slightly seedy fried clam stand. From the first whiff I knew, before my mother spoke the words, that we would be breaking the “no snacking before meals” rule. Once we had loaded ice on the boat, found a guest mooring, and walked up the hill to buy milk, we sat on the pier and spoiled our dinner with plump, greasy, salty, heavenly fried clams. Scrolling forward 25 or so years to when Noel and I first visited Castine, there it stood in its latest incarnation—a recently renovated structure called The Breeze.

This photo of the full-sized Breeze was taken the year we first taught the class. As happens with time and weather, the building had changed from the years before--the awning was gone. The new owners decided to replace it with lobster pots.In a recent photo I found online, the pots were gone and a flashy plastic banner had replaced the awning. We're glad we found it when we did.

This photo of the full-sized Breeze was taken the year we first taught the class. As happens with time and weather, the building had changed–the hand-painted rooftop signage was gone–replaced with lobster pots. In a recent photo I found online, the lobster pots and awning were gone, and a plastic banner had replaced the awning.

A few years down the road, about the time we were watching Frasier and humming Oldies, Noel suggested we build The Breeze for a class project. I thought, no way–we’d be trying to recreate a dream. Every visitor stops at The Breeze—for ice cream or a hot dog if they don’t hanker after clams. In a picture-postcard town of elm trees, tidy gardens and formal, white Federal-style homes, the commercial, weathered-shingle Breeze beckons from the town dock like an odd-duck cousin from the other side of the family. Yet, even for a food stand, it’s pretty plain. Away from its romantic harborside backdrop, The Breeze is just a shingled box with an awning, tin roof, and a catchy sign (and sometimes a lobster pot) on top. But everyone loves it. How would we ever make it look as good as a schmaltzy memory, the dreamy idea of it? And it presented so many unknowns–the awning would be a can of worms, and how would we make a tin roof that could be replicated by students?

We might have forgone the tin roof—in full-scale no one could really see the roof—but there was the additional feature of the metal siding on the back wall where the vent over the deep fat fryers dripped its greasy residue. In both cases the metal was a practical solution as well as an interesting architectural feature. In miniature the ribbed metal would add texture, interest, and something new to age.

The solution came from our friend Rick, the local printer. Over the years, we visited Rick in the back of his shop while he inked-up and loaded the press with thin aluminum printing plates. Rick had a way of rattling the plates like thunder sheets as punctuation for his corny jokes, and a penchant for saying, “You ought to be able to use this stuff for your miniatures. How about aluminum siding? How about a trailer, or a Quonset hut?” With The Breeze in mind, Noel brought home a sheet for a trial run, and found it to be just the thing for the project.

The material was Western Linotech 16” X 17 ½” aluminum printing plates, thickness 006, Aqualith-D-SC (probably as scarce now as Royal typewriter ribbons, but worth the search). We paid $2.00 a sheet, which may have been wholesale, but they would have been a bargain at twice the price. The plates were pliable, and thin enough to cut with an Exacto knife. Another advantage was that one side was shiny, the other dulled white, giving you a choice of finishes. For this project we used the dull side out. (For another application, the shiny side, when buffed with 4/0 steel wool looks like stainless steel.) What I describe below is not dictum, but rather a description of how we used the material. Because it was so easily cut, moldable, and easy to paint (on the dull side) it is adaptable for many uses.

Using our project roof dimensions as a guide, we decided three horizontally laid sections—each 5” wide X 3 ¾” deep–of roofing would look best, with the two end sections folding over the ends and bottom of the 1/8” doorskin sub-roof, and the one in the middle folding at the bottom edge. We cut the metal using a metal T-square and Exacto knife, first by scoring the metal, then folding it over the table edge—down, then up—to break it along the score. This produced a cleaner, straighter edge than cutting it through with the knife.

Roof ribbing and edge detail.

Roof ribbing and edge detail.

To simulate ribbed roofing, Noel scored the underside with a 1/32” nail set and T-square. He placed each section shiny-side up on a mat board, and scored the lines at ½” intervals. Scoring makes the metal curl, so he first taped the edges to the mat board, scoring through the tape. Once scored, the sections were un-taped, and the upward curve flattened by rolling the metal gently in the opposite direction.

To simulate roofing nails on the edges, Noel again used the 1/32” nail set, laying the roof sections shiny-side up on the mat board, then tapping the end of the nail set with a hammer into the metal, making a bulge, not a hole. He chose to place a nailhead at the base of each of the ribs because it looks right, though it may not be the way a real roof would be done. To enhance the look of the nailheads, he then turned over the finished pieces on the mat board, and tapped each bulge lightly with the hammer. This not only flattens the nailheads, but convincingly dimples the surrounding metal, making, as a Noel says, “ a nice reverse pucker.”

Roof detail under sign.

Roof detail under sign.

The scored edges of each section were then folded down over the roof edges by pressing them with the rounded Exacto knife handle. Next, they were glued down with Elmer’s and pressed onto the roof. The glued edges were again burnished down with the Exacto handle, and the whole thing was taped down with masking tape. To keep the aluminum flat while drying, he flipped the whole roof section and laid it flat on the work table, and weighting it down with bricks. He then made the ¼” flashing strips to cover the seams between sections using the same methods as above.Breeze roof with flashing seams

Breeze fan vent

Back wall with fan vent and grunge, along with a view of the tin wall. To the left is the back extension tarpaper roof.

Depending on the imagined age of the project, various aging methods can be applied. For The Breeze, the metal was fairly new. We didn’t anticipate how shiny the cut edges would look—they had to be darkened with black felt pen. It didn’t blacken them, but dulled the shine enough to neutralize the overabundant reflection of light. We also applied minimal dirty water washes (using Grumbacher tube acrylics in Mars Black, warmed with a little Raw Umber, mixed with water) over the matte white surface. Noel would later use a lot more of this mix to sufficiently grunge-up the greasy back wall around and under the vent.

The many textures of the Breeze--shingles, tin roofing and siding, and all the utilitarian details of what goes on out back.

The many textures of the Breeze–shingles, tin roofing and siding, and all the utilitarian details of what goes on out back.

Another roof detail would be to tease a little “rust” into the metal surrounding the nail heads and flashing seams. Rust equals a mix of Grumbacher Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna touched in with a small (#4) watercolor round brush. Being careful not to exaggerate, some rust could be made to “drip” downhill from the nails and seams. The idea with all aging is to suggest, leaving room for the viewer room to imagine the rest. As in music and poetry, the silences make the difference. Time after time, we had to stop ourselves from overdoing a technique that was working well—you don’t want the viewer to notice the artist’s hand in the picture, just be convinced of the illusion of what they are seeing.

Of course, I don’t remember, really, how The Breeze (or its predecessor) looked when I was a child—I was more interested in that red and white paper box mounded with fresh fried clams. What I do remember was the idea of the food stand, and the exotic allure of food that would never be served at home. To me, The Breeze embodied what was great about summer—an escape, eating outside, the creosote-y/seaweedy smell of the dock, gulls bickering from the pilings for scraps, clear, cold blue water and green islands. On returning to the Castine dock for the first time as an adult, I had to order fried clams right away, even though it was 10:00 in the morning. Sitting on that pier 25 years later, eating clams, I was transported. For a moment all my senses were awake, absorbing as they’d absorbed in childhood. For a moment dreams of summer were true. In reality the clams were, well, greasier, but still, they carried the taste of all good summers.

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