A reader recently asked how Noel and I divvied up the jobs on a project. It’s a good question because I’ve spent a lot of time writing about what I did, and sort of waving to Noel who was slogging along on something else. It’s also a good question because I’m not sure of the answer, but will start with the fact that none of this would have happened if Noel weren’t a gifted designer—he could draw, he understood the fundamentals of art and perspective, and knew how to put our ideas on paper. Transferring that vision to wood was another story. Because he was not an architect or engineer, and was/is terrible at math, not to mention moderately dyslexic, he had to rely on his art, ingenuity, along with trial and error once we started building, which I think is what gave his designs so much appeal and originality. He had to let the project (not to mention his spouse-and-partner-in-crime) suggest details that he had overlooked, or miscalculated, which he was able to do effectively—even brilliantly–time and again over the years.
Otherwise, as with most facets of our lives together, the tasks arranged themselves pretty much by serendipity, or whomever felt most confident, or had the most patience, or energy, for a particular job. Noel was the faster, tighter craftsman, so he took on most of the furniture, trims and inlay work. He also was the guy on the big table saws, which meant he did the major cutting of walls, and milling of flooring, beams, window stock, etc. Plus, he was a whiz at carving Craftsman brackets, or furniture, with nothing but a #11 X-acto. Noel was also the glasscutter and leaded-glass window builder.
For Faces of the Moon, he pretty much took over the interior work. As mentioned before, we were trying to make a lodging for a solitary and mythical toymaker, someone who, in a previous life, might have visited or read about Geppetto & Pinnochio. It would be a modest, somewhat primitive, but comfortable place in which to work, sell his toys, and live. Each time we made a decision about his living space we tried to think like him. Our aim was to create an illusion of reality, rather than a conventional building. This was the sort of place, our thinking went, where bathrooms and closets could be overlooked in favor of the inventiveness of a few rooms with basic furnishings—a workroom and shop which could double as a living space, with a single upstairs bed and sitting room. As mentioned earlier, we also included an extensive basement under the shop.
Starting at ground level, a rudimentary staircase leads from the basement to a trapdoor in the floor by the fireplace hearth. For flooring, Noel cut 5/8”planks from a rich, red fine-grained cedar. He mistakenly used a dullish blade which burred and feathered the surface of the planks. Instead of cutting new boards, he took advantage of the mistake, realizing that this added texture would augment the hundred or so years of aging he planned to add later. To further the illusion of age, he hand-sanded the planks and added a few more dents (from boots, dropped tools, and furniture).
For finishing, after the initial sanding he painted on a coat of Bug Juice for graying, then immediately wiped it off. When that was dry, he stained the boards with a clear, dark oak stain, which he also wiped off immediately. The stain warmed the grey color without darkening the boards too much. When that was completely dry he buffed the boards with cotton sheeting.
Before gluing them to the sloping and curved (with age) plywood sub-floor, Noel burnished the sawn edges of each plank, rounding them by rubbing the round handle of an X-acto knife along each edge. The boards were then ready to be glued down with our favorite glue—Elmer’s white. For the second story, he laid the boards directly over the top of the ceiling beams (cut from beach mahogany, the grain accentuated by carving it with an X-acto,), as in actual construction. The narrow slivers of light that show between some of the boards adds a touch of realism. He also bowed the beams, allowing the floor to gently undulate. He used pushpins and weights to hold the flooring down to the curve of the beams until the glue dried.
To add further character to the floor, Noel resurrected a childhood memory—his frugal neighbors had covered the knotholes in their garage and barn floors with nailed-down sections of flattened tin cans. To replicate this, he cut a few patches from rolled out wine bottle lead. For the look of nailheads, he used the ground-off end of a push-pin to indent the underside of the soft metal before gluing the patches to the floor.
Noel also built the fireplace and andirons. We had worked hard to make a “working” chimney with a hollow, draft-free flue so that incense could be burned in the fireplace, allowing smoke to arise from the chimney. We needed “working” andirons. The problem with most commercial mini andirons is that they had a low melting point. From his collection of scrap rust and metals, Noel constructed andirons and a fire grating that could withstand the heat of incense. The other fireplace furnishings you see are from Old Mountain Miniatures.
The front door also uses Old Mountain’s latch and knocker. Noel made the hinges from lead serving tape, a heavy, pliable lead similar to roof flashing (ask at the hardware store). The lead makes a hinge strong enough to hold a reasonably heavy, functional door. The arched door itself he made from weathered beach mahogany driftwood we found on one of our walks (the same wood used for the beams). Wire brushing and Bug Juice brought out the natural age of the wood. His design for the workbench was a cross between Geppetto’s storybook bench and the crude worktable in our own studio.
American rustic furniture, made from driftwood, branches and twigs, was a popular turn-of-the-century (20th) craft. It was especially popular here on the Northwest coast where we have lots of driftwood, winter storms, and an average of 6 ft. of rain per year. The rains kept even the most intrepid outdoorsman inside and needing something useful to do. We have always liked the homey look of this folk art, and enjoy living with a few old and humorous pieces (a side-table whose legs look like it is running away). We figured our hermit toymaker would also enjoy such things, and he would make his own furniture—after all, where would an imaginary character buy it?
Noel made him a bed, three-legged stool workshop, and an easy chair with a footstool, all out of windfall holly twigs from the yard. He learned to let the shape of the twigs suggest the designs, which meant having a patience, and a diverse selection of twigs on the ready. He joined the pieces with pegs, holes and Elmer’s. He built one piece intended to be a sideboard, but when the twigs shapes began to speak, something else to him, he listened. What evolved was a piece of practical whimsy we called the first ironing board. As Noel became more absorbed in twiggery, he added a twig handrail on the staircase to the second story.
The upholstery was one of my few touches on this interior. For the chair, footstool and window seat I chose quilting cotton in a wine red to enhance the warmth in the rooms. The pieces are mostly held together with Alene’s fabric glue. The mattress is a pinstriped cotton/poly blend because I couldn’t find the tiny stripe in cotton (which is easier to handle). I seamed the mattress box edging on my antiquated Sears sewing machine, stuffed it with cotton batting, closed it off with hand stitching, and tufted it with quilting thread which I tied off in knots in lieu of buttons.
The fun was in the aging of the fabrics. I sanded the red upholstery with 400 and 600 grit emery paper, thinning and slightly fraying the fabric. I then muted the color with an application of dirty water wash: lots of water and a little Mars Black tube acrylic warmed with some Raw Umber. I readjusted the loose stuffing in the chair and stool cushions to show the weight of years of the sitter’s rump and legs. To set the indentations I sprayed them lightly with water and weighted them down with assorted nuts and bolts until dry. With the mattress I was more liberal with both the sanding and dirty water wash. To keep the utilitarian bedding from looking too dreary, I made a pillow with a fresh pillow case, leaving the rest of the bed-making for its owner.
It’s doubtful that our toymaker would spend much time replacing upholstery and mattresses, but I imagined his furniture magically aging just to the point of ultimate comfort, and remaining that way forever. As I upholstered, Noel was finishing up the last of the aging, painting the years onto the interior and exterior, and creating tiny details we’ve both forgotten.
I hate to say goodbye to the toymaker, but it’s time to move on to something new. I’ve gone on at length about this particular project, partially because we never taught most of these techniques, but also because it was fun (and amazing) to revisit some of these almost forgotten elements.