The Magic of Electricity

The Rainier House, 1977

Between November 1977 and Nov 1978 we would produce three more houses, this time on commission. When we returned from the NAME show in early November we had two years worth of orders, but only a little money, so we went to the bank to take out our first loan. Naïve as I was, I was thrilled that they were so willing to loan me the $1000.00 it would take to get us through to our customer’s next payment. Biding time at the loan desk we stared at a poster for home improvement loans, featuring an unusual Victorian house with twin towers and a third floor center cupola. Our little lightbulbs flashed on, as simultaneously we decided that house would be our next mini production. The ad campaign was over, so the bank gave us the poster (you can see it in on the wall behind Noel wiring the house in our studio in the photo below). Months later we would discover the photo was a concoction of the advertising agency—the original house had one tower and a cupola, and the art director made a mirror image of the one side, flipped it, et voila! a house with twin towers.

Wiring Diagram

As you can see, wiring a dollhouse requires a lot of ingenuity, especially if you are of the school of thinking that believes electricity is basically magic, a theory we proved again and again over our years of wiring mini-houses. We didn’t bury the wiring in the walls, as we decided electricity wouldn’t have been built into these houses, but added later. That allowed us to run wiring from each light fixture across the ceilings, snake it down the corner walls under u channel basswood strips (substituting for metal electrical conduit), and, eventually down to the power supply—bell transformers in our early houses—in a drawer at the base of the house. In a house as large as the Rainier, this became a major puzzle. As a rule, we tested each light fixture before and after installation, then went on to the next. Eventually clumps of wires from 2-3 rooms would be braided together, attached to smaller wires , then squeezed through a hole drilled in the bottom of the house. All that spaghetti was eventually woven into two bundles of wires that wrapped around the neg and pos screws on the bell transformer. Volts and amps were never a part of the equation—if we had too many wires, we added another bell transformer.

To test the final outcome we would wait until dark, wire the transformers onto household electrical cord and plug it into the wall. More often than not, the electricity gods were kind to us, and all the lights went on. Sometimes not, as with the Rainier. Noel then spent days tracking back, tinkering with mini lightbulbs, re-braiding different clumps together, and changing transformers until we had lights that would stay on reliably. Other times we just unplugged, went to bed and tried again in the morning to find everything shining as it should. Our mini friends are not doubt howling with laughter and/or horror that we could be so blase about electricity, but neither of us seems to have a single ion of electrical thinking in our brains. The houses were what was fun.

Rainier: View through dining room into living room.

Once all the lights were working, we called the client to arrange for a delivery date. The buyer indicated on the phone that there might be a problem getting it into her house, but that she’d “arrange for maybe a crane, or something.” Sure enough, it wasn’t going through the narrow entryway, so we drove around back and parked at the bottom of an ivy-covered hill below her patio door. She had some burly men on hand, and together we negotiated it up through the ivy (all the while I’m thinking snakes live in ivy), over her railing and in through the door, but then where? The only space large enough was her coffee table in the center of the living room, surrounded at fairly close range by a couch and a couple of chairs, and that’s where she wanted it. The house, at close to 5 ft. tall, 30 in. w X 4ft. l, ate all the space in the room. We sat down and had some iced tea, bumping our knees on the house as we tried talking around it. The customer was thrilled, and allowed as how her friends and family wouldn’t be much fun if they couldn’t enjoy the house when they came calling.

About smallhousepress

In 1974, my husband Noel and I began building aged miniature houses for collectors and museums. We were 70's dropouts. We quit our careers in advertising--art director and writer, respectively--and escaped Los Angeles in a VW camper and a Bug for a simpler life on the coast of Washington State. From a tiny studio in our home, we built 64 houses and buildings. Our specialty was aging--making a structure that reflected the scars and wrinkles of time, the elements, and human habitation. In the 80s we began teaching our techniques in workshops around the country, and I began to write our how-to's in Nutshell News and Miniature Collector. In 2000 we migrated across the Columbia to Astoria, OR, where , in 2011, we retired from miniatures. We are Fellows of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans and taught at their annual school in Castine, ME. By avocation I am a writer and poet. The blog is my way of working back into a writing routine, as well as recording what we did, and what we learned along the way.
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2 Responses to The Magic of Electricity

  1. Wanna Newman says:

    Dear Noel and Pat,
    I first discovered your work in the old but beloved Nutshell News and learned so much from your articles on aging. I still have the original bottle of Bug Juice I purchased so long ago; boy, a little of that goes a long way!
    It is such fun going back in time with you. As a storyteller myself, I love sharing in all those moments from your youth.
    Thanks for the memories,
    Wanna in El Paso

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