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.

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

  1. Mary Madden says:

    I’ve been a fan since I discovered miniatures in 1978. Your work has always been the most deliciously detailed eye candy ever produced in the world of miniatures. My dream was to attend one of your classes in Castine, but Real Life kept interfering. I do, however, still have my $8 bottle of Bug Juice. Thank you for all the years of projects and articles that you have shared with us and the inspiration you have provided.

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