The Midnight Factor: Faces of the Moon Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces of the Moon basement

Faces of the Moon basement

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

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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9 Responses to The Midnight Factor: Faces of the Moon Part II

  1. rogerslaw says:

    Well, I put real Chevrolet rust on the bottom of my Aurora model of my ancient Biscayne Chevrolet. But I am amazed at your determination and fortitude in creating this mini world. Roger


  2. Linda Master says:

    Oh I love your filth!

  3. We did have fun with it.

  4. nancyenge says:

    The midnight factor. Not much more needs to be said. But thanks for saying it, and thanks for the Charles Simonds link. Now I have even more to aspire to.

  5. Catherine says:

    That was fascinating. I loved hearing about how you accomplished the wonderful realism of dirt and age. Blowing dirt through a straw! haha I have wondered how much of my own DNA is in my work.

    There is always a wonderful surprise in each of the structures you have created. Those things infuse so much charm into the entire piece. I have always found those things so exciting.

    Thank you for shariing.

  6. Barbara Ann Shields says:

    Once again—-totally wonderful and another example of why ya’ll are the Master of the Masters in mini world interpretation. So enjoyed this article. Barbara Ann

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