The Road to Ruins: Walking Rome, Florence, Venice, Siena…

The Italian Ruin, with chair by Catherine Soubzmaigne

The Italian Ruin, with chair by Catherine Soubzmaigne

Noel and I spent our month in Italy combing side streets for out-of-the-way monuments. On foot we hoped to acquire a sense of that country’s architectural flavorings. In Rome’s alleys we ferreted out lesser hunks of ancient ruins, in Venice the cloistered courtyards and canal gardens pocketed off the stony, maze-like footpaths they call streets, and in Florence we spent a warm Sunday morning exploring a section of the ancient and fragmenting city wall that skirts the Oltr’arno district.

City gate and wall in Florence

City gate and wall in Florence

Just beyond the city gates we picked up the scent of roasting chicken and rosemary which we followed to a line of people leading to the neighborhood Rosticceria (a place we could never find again for a return engagement, but I digress…) where we bought a whole spitted chicken and crispy flatbread (aka carta di musica) intended for dinner later, but consumed instead during the rest of our walk. That would sum up our trip—following our noses, fired by our combined appetites for structural eccentricities and casual food. What’s so great about foreign countries is, of course, that they’re different from home. And older. They give one a chance to see with new eyes (and taste sensations one will never forget, nor find again). If I were to get started on the music, we’d never get back to the story. But it’s all part of the story.

We were looking for something old to reproduce in a classroom setting—the lesser-known marvels of Italy. What caught our eyes—beyond the dazzling museums and cathedrals of Carrera marble and Breccia limestones, and around the corner from the fortress-like Renaissance palazzi—were the intimate, unassuming Medieval structures of stone, plaster, and brick the color of the surrounding hillsides. What we warmed to were the doorways framed in sandstone (two kinds: pietra forte and pietra serena in earthy grays and ochres), walls of rudimentary bricks fired from fine, terra cotta clays, and the motley facades of rose-to-ochre plaster on the region’s less imposing homes and churches.

Florence: the City Wall

Florence: the City Wall

On the way to the Rosticceria

On the way to the Rosticceria and pollo arrosto.

Detail of Florence's city wall

Detail of Florence’s city wall

Back home, our task was to condense this month-long visual feast into the bite-sized ruin we promised to teach at the Guild School in a two-day techniques class called Added Attractions. Two days was easy, in theory, not so much in reality, but a great goal for our trip. Months later I would say to Noel, “Just draw what we liked.” While I was working on our week-long class, it was up to him, as chief designer, to leaf through the stacks of trip photos: close-ups of paving stones, weeds dripping from ancient drain pipes, lichen-covered roof tiles, and decaying doorways that led we knew not where. He’s the one who had to revitalize the clouded travel memories and come up with a plausible design–how to introduce people simply to our aged brick, plaster and stone techniques.

Early sketch

Early sketch

After a series of sketches, he came up with the two-sided piece we called Garden Door #7, Italy–aka The Ruin

Starting with a jig saw and 5/8” ply, he cut a ragged outline to suggest the shape of a fragment of a whole garden wall. To build up a door frame and sill, he added pieces of stripwood. The base of ¼” ply is a frame for the surrounding landscape, in this case the stone-paved street on which the wall was situated.

Lunch on a slant in Sienna, where we had to hold onto our plates and glasses. Ghost unknown.

To vary the levels of street-side terrain, Noel made a thick paste of sawdust and Elmer’s glue, to which he added a little water, then grayed with a little Bug Juice. Because a hillside is more engaging than a flat street, on one end of the base he molded a slant with the sawdust and glue mixture, spread with a 1” putty knife. He also made a mound in back by the door, into which he countersunk pieces of stone, brick, and a sprinkling of dirt. For this project we used both dimensional brick (the plaster kind, made more or less to scale) plus our own flat vinyl flooring brick. The stone and sandy dirt we dug out of the yard. To make a finer-grained dirt I baked it in the oven for ½ hour at 350 degrees (to dry it as well as kill the critters), then sifted it through window screening.

Paving stones and aging detail

Paving stones and aging detail

One consequence of air pollution and the flooding endemic to Northern Italy is the deterioration of brick and plaster walls, which makes for picturesque if precarious architecture. To the benefit of the visitor, hungry for the Old World, the Italians have learned to live with it.

GAteway in Venice

A courtyard gateway in Venice, home to some of the city’s legendary cats.

Our aim was to suggest a wall, similar to the one in the photo, once covered with plaster, but now eroding from the ground up. To achieve this, Noel laid whole and broken bricks in an irregular pattern, rather than the running bond commonly seen here in the States. To add more characteristic eccentricity, he then glued a second and occasional third layer of bricks—enough so the bottom rows, with some chinks out, would stick out further than those higher up, as if the wall were still shifting and breaking away. The address tile was a glazed porcelain mini floor tile, sanded with 600 grit emery cloth to reduce the sheen. The #7 came from a sheet of press-type.

Next, he applied both full and flat bricks to the face of the project in an irregular pattern to achieve the illusion of the rubbled contours of a crumbling wall.00256_s_10af8pvwbk0357

The top of the structure, in the notched pattern called crenellation we saw all over Italy, is also brick over ply.

Crenellation at the top of the Ruin

Crenellation at the top of the Ruin

To save on bricks for the workshop, Noel first built up the thickness of some areas of the wall with additional stripwood. The plaster bricks at the top had an odd way of repelling the Elmer’s, a problem remedied by laying heavy bead of glue along the base of the crenellating bricks, then sprinkling them with dirt, for “tooth”, which held everything in place until the glue dried.

The “sandstone” door frame was made from our favorite Bondex Quick Plug, mixed with water and cement adhesive and applied over the stripwood framing. We later “eroded” the face of the brickwork using an Exacto and 400 grit sandpaper, then grouted them with Quick Plug, wiped off with a damp sponge.

The versatile Quick Plug also makes up the surface of the stone walkway. Once the sawdust and glue mix dried enough to form a good crust, we spread on a thin, even layer of cement, then spritzed it with water to smooth it more. We then carved in the paving stone shapes with an Exacto and a putty knife. Once the walkway was set, but not totally hard, Noel went back with 400 grit wet/dry emery cloth, and, with a circular motion, further glazed the surface.

Front view, bricking and plaster detail

Front view, bricking and plaster detail

To achieve the rough, stucco-like wall, we used Plaster of Paris, applied with a putty knife (which some students may remember went south in one class, for unknown reasons, and wouldn’t stick). The addition of a small amount of cement adhesive to the plaster may have saved the day. You’ll notice some rows of bricks are plastered over, then scraped away later to expose only parts of the bricks.

The faded ochre color Noel chose to reflect the soil–hence the stucco–of Florence and surrounding Tuscany, where we spent most of our trip. In Venice the wall would have peach tones, while in Rome the plaster is often a pinkish-rose. To paint the piece, he laid it on its back and saturated the dry plaster with water before applying the color with various Grumbacher acrylics and a #10 watercolor round brush. To make the bricks look more Florentine, he also painted on washes of the wall colors, adding deeper colors to indicate the illusion of brick where there was none. The inside, or courtyard-facing wall is entirely indicated brick, which saves time and bricks, and gives the artist some play time with paints. Rust stains, algae, general dirt and grime are also achieved with the paints. If you’re new to painting, sneak up on it—begin with a lot of water, and apply the color sparingly in built-up layers. If you don’t like what you get, flood it with water and wipe it out. It may be that what you have left is the color you want.

Back, or courtyard-facing side of the project.

Back, or courtyard-facing side of the project.

The non-functioning door is made from the bottom 6” of an old weathered shingle, rescued from the kindling box. Noel cut the shingle into board widths—the side planks approx. 5/8” wide, the middle one 1”, to fill the space–using the unadulterated weather side of the shingle for the door’s street side. He then ran the boards through the table saw to plane the shingle taper to an even thickness of approx. 1/8”. This left a new cedar surface for the inner, or garden side. This “clean” side of the boards was aged by wire-brushing, to bring back the grain. Next, Noel grayed the boards with Bug Juice, and tinted them with muddy green washes made from various leftover cans of green latex paint. Sorry to be so vague on color, but this is how we worked–a little of this, a little of that. He then distressed the door bottom with more wire-brushing and an Exacto knife.

The door cross-braces were cut from the same shingle, distressed to match the rest, and glued to the door. They were then spiked with 5/8” steel brads rusted by soaking in a shallow dish of Bug Juice which was then allowed to evaporate. The brads are cut to length with wire-cutters. Noel started a hole for each “spike” with a push pin, then tapped in the brad, leaving the head slightly protruding to give the illusion of the wood having eroded from around the spike.

Workshop in Florence, with greenery

Workshop in Florence, with greenery

At the end, I stepped in as the gardener, adding the sprigs of creeping thyme, a ground cover I grew in the yard and dried in silica gel. To green-up the dried leaves, I painted them with Grumbacher sap green tube watercolor, thinned with a little water. Once they were dry, I dotted the back of the stems and leaves with tiny beads of Elmer’s, then carefully held them in place on the wall until the glue took hold.

Rubble, painted-on brick, and vine detail

Having built our miniature reputations as purveyors of the old, Noel and I found Italy–our 20th wedding anniversary gift to ourselves– to be right up our alley. We wanted to soak up as much as we could. To pursue the charm of the streets. To savor every doorway, every crumbling wall, every gritty evidence of Italy’s volatile journey to the present. The added attraction to hoofing it 10-15 miles per day was that we could absorb, without added poundage, endless mouthfuls of pollo arrosto, biscotti, cappucini and gelati.

Venice, our favorite day. The old photo doesn't begin to convey the thrill we felt as we stepped off the train, but there it is--Venice in all its crumbling and drowning beauty.

Venice, our favorite day. This old photo doesn’t begin to convey the thrill we felt as we stepped off the train, but there it is–Venice in all its crumbling and drowning beauty.

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The Care and Feeding of Dollhouse Makers…

Sushi in the Desert

Sushi in the Desert

or, Fueling the Muse

Part I: Get a Job

The Mini Muse started a hunger strike about ten years into our stint as miniaturists. For most of those years we lived, mind and body, immersed in work (even though work was dollhouses, it had to pay the rent) spending seven days a week, 12-17 hours a day in our miniatures studio. The studio was the largest room in the house. Located at the bottom of the stairs and right next to the front door, it was hard to miss, or avoid. More times than not, we ate there—it seemed simpler to stay with the project on the table. After a while, and about 30 Victorians, we grew tired of moving the same house parts into new configurations. When inspiration yawned, we opted to take 6 months off and get, as they say, “real jobs.”

Noel, with his experience as a fry cook at the first Jack in the Box (San Diego), along with being an Army cook, signed on to peel garlic at a friend’s restaurant. Let’s just say it was by mutual consent that two days later he found himself  jobless. Another friend took him on as staff chef and chief biscuit maker. The main problem there was that his bad math skills and dyslexia made baking and serving “biscuits for three” (3X2) a comedy routine, but the laughs (and great biscuits) kept him employed.

Another friend with a printing shop hired me to help run a press. It was an old and ticklish  offset press, used mainly for flyers and throw-aways, and the owner was the original Mr. Jury-Rig (I’m talking string and chewing gum), so I spent much of that 6 months fighting with and swearing at the recalcitrant machinery. We lost a friend in the process (restaurant #1), but made it through our commitments. Barely. The big lesson learned was that we were unemployable—too long under our own rule, it was agony working under someone else’s, even a friend’s. And, the mini studio never looked so good.

Part II: The Sushi Solution

It was a find, that little cafe at the end of a long day on the road. We were on our way home from delivering our 38th dollhouse—the big Greene & Greene–and had driven along in silence for hours. We just wanted some food and a bed. The road delivered, in the middle of nowhere, a motel on one side of the road, a cafe on the other. The fact that the café was Japanese, with a sushi bar, was serendipitous—our first date had been at a sushi bar, and we sought them out wherever we traveled. This one was a gem–family-run, with Mom hosting and waiting table, Dad and Grandma in the kitchen, and the kids doing their homework at one of the tables. With GREAT sushi!  As I recall, we were the only customers. After toasting our day with a little sake, Noel said from across the table, “I want to get back to painting.” I nodded, because all day I had been thinking about how to make time to get back to writing.

I had written since childhood, starting with doll stories at a desk in my bedroom, then on through high school and college until I eventually found ways to write for pay, including advertising copy (where Noel and I met), and more recently in my miniatures column for Nutshell News. But I was getting the itch to see where creative writing might take me.

Noel was painting long before I met him—several decades and careers before. Two of his student watercolors hung in our dining room, and in our bedroom we slept under two large acrylics—one of his shoes (6 pairs, from Italian leather dress shoes to desert boots and worn tennies) and the other of a hangerful of neckties he had worn to brighten up his Madison Ave. suits, each signed Noel ’66.

Though we slept under Noel’s paintings, our dream lives connected us like umbilical cords to the miniatures studio. Of course the dollhouse Muse was again begging for refreshment–our days were resembling a menu with no variation. We needed some juice, some fire for the operation to continue. The question wasn’t what, but how. The answer was clear: to feed the Muse, use the Muse. Miniatures would become our day job, and the rest would be for fun and replenishment. “Deal?” Right there at the table we resolved to act like real people and start taking evenings off, and spending weekends pursuing the other talents we were fortunate enough to be born with. “Deal!”

Part II: The Italian Connection

Fast forward to 1995. Noel was painting on weekends out of his studio across the river in Oregon, and I had staked out one end of the dining room for writing. Over weekend meals we compared the ups and downs of our solitary time. Clinton was President. Toy Story introduced the first ever wholly computer generated film, the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian Mir space station, peace was declared in the Balkans, and The Dead announced their break-up. By then we were beyond knowing anything about pop singers or the top 40. Our big news was we were heading to Italy for a month.

After 21 years of dollhouses, it was my parents who convinced us we weren’t getting any younger, and it was time for a travel break. We were stumped over what to teach next–the Guild School was proposing double classes, a 3-day, followed by a 6-day, so, two projects per year. We also felt empty-headed about the next commissioned piece—a gift really, from a client who posed the challenge of what did we want to make next? We were turning away commissions, as we had no idea how to fill this one.

Over the years, clients and students had requested European buildings, but without living with them, we didn’t feel we could do them justice. And that kind of travel seemed like more than we could swing. My dreamy father suggested we ask Noel’s painting clients to pay in advance for any paintings to come out of the trip, which somehow didn’t mesh with my version of how to stay sane and/or fiscally solvent. Then a friend spent an afternoon and evening hooking us with stories of his year in Italy—the history, the art, the food! How does one decide to throw caution to the wind (yet again) and spend a month in Italy? The same way we left Los Angeles and advertising for dollhouses and a beach in Washington.

October 1. It’s 5:00 a.m. at the airport. After a sleepless night churning over small potatoes, like the Italian word for “fork,” and locking ourselves out of our motel room (twice) in the flurry of leaving, we’re pacing. We are also headed for a room in Florence (one star), armed with Eurail passes and an invitation from friends in Vienna. The dog and cats are parked with the dog & cat sitter. At the last moment my parents gift us with the cost of the airfare.

A One-Star View of Florence

A One-Star View of Florence

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The Last of the Bungalows: A Labor of Love

Bungalow teaching  project1994 Bungalow teaching project, currently residing at the National Museum of Toys & Miniatures in Kansas City

Our obsession with Charles & Henry Greene, and the Arts and Crafts Bungalow style, reached its finale in late 1994 when we started the Craftsman Bungalow teaching project. By then we’d been making miniature houses for twenty years, and teaching week-long techniques workshops for around fifteen of those. Most years we taught 3-4 times at various locations around the country, including our favorite, Castine, ME, home of the IGMA Guild School, and the amicable locals who liked to call us The Little People (we arrived with the lilacs–between the mud season, and the blackfly season). The School required we dream up a new class every couple of years, which was good, on the one hand, because it insured that both we and our repeat students would keep returning. On the other, it was a challenge to design something new that often. By ‘94 we had done nine different classes, many of which we kept in rotation, and what to do next loomed large.

A little bungalow class was tempting, considering our love of the style, but teaching all that detailing felt like biting off more than we could chew. As it happened, one early morning in Ventura, CA, where we were teaching a workshop, we walked the beach to the newly restored pier. At the near end was a compact, well-conceived and executed Greene & Greene-inspired information center. A little gem. A sweetie of Greene-ish bungalow, and just the spur we needed to see that our favorite style could be hugely abbreviated and still maintain its integrity.

Besides being new and fun, a teaching project had to be doable in 5-6 days. It had to employ readily available materials, and, at the end of class, fit into a 20”X 15”X 15” shipping box for the student to take home. It also had to utilize new techniques, and look different from anything else we’d done. To keep it simple, we decided to make it a house fragment—a “house” containing just one room.  Even though there was no time to teach interiors, we needed one for the prototype, to show the students what might be done. For ours we chose a living room. Because the Bungalow Era ushered in the notion of the living room  (as being more “democratic” than the Victorian parlor), that was the natural choice. Noel then set out to design an overall, simple configuration for the exterior that would evoke the feeling of a whole house, as well as capture the underlying spirit of the style.

Before and after porch decks

Before and after porch decks

The essence of Bungalows is the harmony of textures, both visual and tactile, which became our next priority. One of the first elements we tackled was the cement (or “gunite,” which was cement sprayed on under pressure) base and porch. We made ours from Bondex Quick Plus Hydraulic Cement, a quick-drying patching cement available through builder’s supply stores in 3 lb. boxes, along with cement adhesive to hold it together.

To apply, we moistened a small batch of cement with a little water and a few drops of adhesive, mixing it with an old fork (not your favorite dinner flatware) in a small, disposable yogurt cup. We then spread it on the plywood porch walls and floor, quickly, with a putty knife. Noel then performed his magic, texturing the walls with his fingers, swirling and patting the cement as it (rapidly) dried. The aim is to have a thin, smooth surface overall. Bungwkshp3 The red brick trim on the top step—more texture and color—continues around the inner periphery of the porch floor, and needs to be applied and dry before the cementing process. Use a damp sponge to clean the cement off the brick. Timing, our Bungalow students will recall, is everything, especially in the case of spreading cement.

Creeping fig/thyme

Creeping fig/thyme

To simulate the tiny-leaved creeping fig that grows along the Greene’s Gamble House porch, I used gray-green wooly thyme, a common ground cover I grew in the yard for that purpose (don’t forget, this is our third Greene & Greene project). The thyme retains its leaves and color best when dried for a few weeks in silica gel (a florist’s supply). After that, I touched up the color with undiluted Winsor Newton Sap Green tube watercolor, painted sparingly onto the individual leaves. Once they were dry, I cut the thyme into sprigs, and glued it to the cement with Elmer’s white glue. Yes, Elmer’s takes forever to dry, so I would apply a few pieces and hold them there until sticky enough to stay on the wall, then move on, checking back from time to time to give them a little push. In my experience, instant glues just attach your fingers to the wall. Plus, the Elmer’s gives the leaves and branches a little cushioning, so you don’t flatten, or break them in the process. The grass underneath is our usual Pacific Northwest moss, harvested from the dunes and glued to the dirt (real dirt) terrain.

Bungwkshp016 2The shingled siding was a major element in the design. The Greene’s weathered-shingle houses not only fit into the surrounding landscape, they seem to grow from it. We liked the way the houses of inland Pasadena weathered to an ash brown rather than the silver-gray we think of for coastal houses. To achieve this color on our mahogany shingles, we darkened them with Bug Juice before gluing them to the project. Once they were in place, and dry, we painted on a wash of 50/50 chlorine bleach and water, to both lighten the color, and further age the grain. Bleach also lends the wood a subtle greenish cast, which adds to the illusion of age. To further develop the aging, we lightly sanded the shingles (with a downward motion, only) with fine emery paper, then applied a final coat of full strength Bug Juice.

The base, house and porch trims—the exterior grid of supporting posts, beams, rafters and banding–are as visually weighty as the shingles. To achieve the signature Greene brothers’ green stain, Noel first cut the trims from fine-grained cedar, then rounded the edges of each piece slightly with emery paper. Rafter ends were angled on the table saw, and the outermost edges rounded. He then grayed all with Bug Juice, and let them dry. Next, he brushed on a very thin, transparent acrylic patina-green wash (a thin stain, with lots of water) of 4 parts Titanium White, 1 part Permanent Light Green, and 1 part Thalo Green). By “part” I mean a small squirt of acrylic tube paint, as directed, mixed in a jar with water until you have a transparent wash to paint on the wood. Less is more–it is best to start with a thin layer of wash, then re-apply as necessary. Our aim was to have the grayed cedar grain show through the color.

cloud lift

cloud lift

Two signature elements of the Greene’s style our students would need to make are the cloud lift, and the scarf joint.  examples of these are found both inside and out. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see an example of the cloud lift (above the porch deck), and the scarf joint (about half way down the horizontal banding on the right wall).The best interior photo on our our version is in the upper horizontal banding, and inside in the picture molding opposite the inglenook, it is not only elegant and functional, but brilliantly conceived. The genius of this joint is that when the pegs (in full-size houses) shrink with age, and loosen, they continue to fasten the joint together. The balance of the long joint and the pegs’ wiggle-room allows some give, so when the earth trembles and heaves, the joints can glide without breaking.

scarf joint

scarf joint

The black composition roll roofing provides yet another texture and color. For this we used fine emery cloth, a tricky-to-work-with but ultimately satisfactory substitute material. The tricky part is when the black grit wants to lift off on your wet hands, leaving bare blue patches where the paper shows through. Bungwkshp017To simulate roll roofing, we cut the cloth in 3” wide strips, then laid it face down on fresh newspaper to apply Elmer’s glue. The glue is dripped on, then rubbed carefully over the entire back of the strip, enough to meet the edges, but not leak around them to the grit side. I then pressed the strips in place on the roof with dry, clean fingers, starting at the bottom edge of the roof, wrapping the edges of the cloth around the roof edges. At first the emery paper is stiff and difficult to work with, but you will find it soon reaches a pliable stage from the penetration of the glue, as well as the warmth of your hands. It’s a crucial time, as that is also when the surface is most likely to start disintegrating. Working my way up the roof, I overlapped the strips by ¼.” You can also “tar” the edges with right-from-the-tube Mars Black acrylic paint.

Rolled roofing in progress, edges taped down with masking tape while drying.

Rolled roofing in progress, edges taped down with masking tape while drying.

My familiarity with the grittiness of rolled and tarred roofing comes out of my heedless post-college summers in New York, rooftop sunbathing under the smoggy skies of the 60s. Not only did the sky pepper my skin with cinders and ash, but the sticky tar beneath softened in the heat and glued lumps of itself to me and my bathing suit.

To age the roof, we made a milky-dirty wash of water, Titanium white, and a little raw umber, all Grumbacher tube acrylics. One method is to apply this mix gingerly (once the glue is completely dry), with a foam brush. It’s tricky, as the cloth quickly reaches a stage of saturation where the grit comes off on the brush. Alternately, one can use the brush for the edges and under the eaves, and apply the rest sparingly from a spray bottle, allowing each application to dry fully before applying the next. This being a residential structure, the end result should be muted—just enough to take the ‘new” out of the black surface.

Interior in progress

Interior in progress

The detailing of the Craftsman interior was a labor of love—Noel’s. Once again, I was amazed at how much light and subtle texture the Greens worked into their stained, hardwood interiors. Noel’s job was to translate the original materials and craftsmanship into miniature terms. As with the originals, he was able to cut flooring from oak, ripping 1/16″ X 3/16” floorboards from our cache of full-size oak flooring. He then laid the individual strips with Elmer’s, and when the glue was dry, hand-sanded the floor and stained it with McClosky’s Tungseal transparent Light Oak stain. When the stain was fully dry, smoothed the wood further with 0000 fine steel wool, and applied a coat of McClosky’s Dark Oak, which he then wipes off with a paper towel and allowed it to dry. Finally, he applied Johnson’s paste wax by hand, and buffed it with a soft cotton cloth. (Note: McClosky’s is no longer available—a real loss for miniaturists and cabinetmakers alike).


Note the inglenook to the right, with the windowseat lid open.

The rest of the woodwork is basswood, instead of the fine hardwoods of the originals. If you buy enough basswood stock, you can find almost any grain you want to stand in for hardwoods. This he finished with the same method as the flooring. A trademark Greene & Green feature is the use of ebony pegs to fasten the paneling. For these Noel used a dyed-through black paper—in this case a cover sheet from a pad of tracing parchment, which he cut with an X-acto knife, and glued to the wood’s surface. I think the pegging makes the room—it’s such a subtle yet elegant detail that the viewer discovers along the way.

Note the light switches to the left of the door.

Note the light switches to the left of the door.

Another killer interior Greene detail is the ebony baseboard outlets, and light switch covers with Mother-of-pearl push buttons, made from modified Metal Miniatures covers. Noel trimmed the corners, sprayed it all flat black, and used pearlescent nail polish for the buttons.

The Craftsman wallpaper frieze (at the top of the walls) Noel designed by combining stencil patterns from a period reproduction book—The Craftsman, an Anthology, ed. by Barry Sanders, 1978, Peregrine Smith, Inc.

Original frieze painting.

Original frieze painting.

He drew his repeat tree design on the back side of strips of old wallpaper (for its surface texture and time-yellowed color), and colored them with watercolors. He started with 3-4 trees on a sample strip, and asked what I thought—great, I said, and so fast! So fast we decided he could teach that in class as a bonus for the students. Then he began the step and repeat for real, enough to go all around the room, which took a lot more time than planned.

Frieze applied before trims.

Frieze applied before trims.

More than just repeating a tree design, it was about maintaining spacing, anticipating how the pattern would change at the corners of the room, and keeping the colors consistent, so no one tree stood out from another. Once he drew in enough to band the whole room, we photocopied the design for the students to then trace back onto wallpaper. Neither way was an easy process, but the end results gave the room another subtle boost, a little more warmth.

Finished interrior. Bridge lamp is by the Kummerows. Noel built the hanging fixtures from opalescent glass, photo-etched brass, and basswood

Finished interior. Bridge lamp is by the Kummerows. Noel built the hanging fixtures from opalescent glass, photo-etched brass, and basswood

With this little house–our fond farewell to the ghosts of Charles & Henry Greene, et al–we and our students found that even a little Greene & Greene is a lot–a lot of work, but also a lot to enjoy. Their houses have been called “art as architecture” and, like a good painting, book, or piece of music, can be savored again and again. And, we were set for teaching for another couple of years, and could take a breather. Or so we thought…

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Inner Workings: Faces of the Moon, Pt. V

Interior, Faces of the Moon

Interior, Faces of the Moon

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.

“Leaded” window detail made by cutting wavy glass to fit, wrapping it with copper foil tape, soldering the joints and setting the whole into a twig frame. The knot in the twig made the perfect ledge for a birdhouse.

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).

Front room with flooring detail

Front room with flooring detail

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.

Weights for holding down flooring.

Weights for holding down flooring.

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.

Fireplace detail. Note the tiny ladder coming out of the floor on the lower right.

Fireplace detail. Note the tiny ladder coming out of the floor on the lower right.

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.

Front door detail.

Front door detail.

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?

Twig chair and footstool.

Twig chair and footstool. Pull-toy lamb by Renee Delaney.

Twig bed and handrail. Note the “ironing board table” to the left. Cedar chest by Noel. Shaker boxes by Barbara Davis.

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.Facesotm133

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.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Wave Coursing: Faces of the Moon Pt. IV

Faces of the Moon 1994 - Version 3At 4:03 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1994 the Northridge earthquake shook southern California awake, including the future owners of the Faces of the Moon project. Paula Jones was about to slap President Clinton with a lawsuit, and movies–for us Forrest Gump and Four Weddings and a Funeral– cost $4.00. On TV it was Seinfeld, and later that year, OJ Simpson fleeing the police in a white car in heavy traffic for what seemed like forever. This was our entertainment for the final year of Faces of the Moon.

That January I was working on translating some photographs—provided by our client, of a wave coursed roof in Carmel, CA–into miniature reality on our imagined toymaker’s workshop. In October, Noel would finish up the final 2” of shingles while I wrote my Nutshell News column for March 1995, noting that, “shingling is a true test of persistence, and one’s sense of humor. Eight months ago I wrote to Melanie, our ever-patient client, that I was “inching up” on the wave coursing, confident we would be done by Easter. Today, a smoky-gray October day, we are nearing the top, and hope to be finished by Thanksgiving.” Granted, from May through September we also had workshops to prepare for and teach, but the balance of my months were swallowed by this undulating, textural, time-consuming and gorgeous process called wave coursing.

As noted in my last entry, miniature shingles (1/2”wide X 1”deep X 1/32nd thick) would normally be spaced in ½” deep courses (horizontal rows), or two courses per vertical inch. Wave coursing in scale needs six rows per inch, or roughly three times the normal amount. Multiply that by 550 sq. in” of roof, and that’s a whole lot of shingles (No, I never counted).

So why commit to triple the work? Well, because we liked them, and we’d never done them before. There’s a kind of magic about the way the subtle, organic waves of shingles help blend together all the other elements, without drawing undue attention to themselves. Plus, it’s such a romantic way to roof a house, especially an imaginary toy shop in a time-warp

Noel’s original design for the project incorporated Anton Pieck paintings of Olde European buildings (say, 400 years old), wattle-and-daub construction, along with Disney, and Carmel, CA elements. As it is doubtful a 400 yr. old building would have had wave coursing–we were asking the viewer to accept the illusion that this roof fits on a structure that exists in a later time, but also an imaginary time. Our job was to supply enough clues and craftsmanship to make this all come together.

To stress the look of 400 years of aging, Noel designed sag into the roof structure. He swayed the back, or ridge, of the roof. And he added a bulging eyebrow window—to emphasize the swells of the wave coursing—and broke the hips and rounded the gables and overhangs for the same reason. Facesotm134To apply this to the structure, he made a poster board model, using eyeball geometry. He started with the larger shapes, taping them in place, then began to fit in the smaller sections. It was like a cheater’s jigsaw puzzle, where you can alter the shapes of the pieces until they fit the hole.00049_s_10af8pvwbk0024

With these pieces as patterns, he then cut and sanded the 1/8” plywood that would make up the final roof. Each section was glued (Elmer’s) and nailed (5/8” brads) in place, and then taped down to let the whole thing dry. For the curved gable and eave ends, he scored the underside of the ply so they would take the desired curve.

The Elmer's painted over the eyebrow gives it that white color, and you can see the score marks in the ply over the eave end. The flashing in the gutters is rolled-out and aged wine bottle lead.

The Elmer’s painted over the eyebrow gives it that white color, and you can see the score marks in the ply over the eave end. The flashing in the gutters is rolled-out and aged wine bottle lead.

Concerned about the weakness of the scored sections, Noel “painted” the eaves with successive coats of Elmer’s, building up a 1/16” glue thickness around the curve and into the joints of the adjacent roof sections.

To further enhance the wavy quality he was seeking, he built up a rise over and behind the eyebrow window. He did this with a “putty” made from sawdust and Elmer’s, mixed to the consistency of tuna salad, then spread it on with a putty knife, and molded it with his hands. He also used a utility knife to carve a deeper sway into the already curved spine of the main roof.

Then it was my turn to start shingling. As with all our shingled roofs, I began by gluing down a series of narrow strips of scrap wood (about 1/32” X 1/32”) along the lower edges of each roof section. I call these “lift strips” because their sole purpose is to lift the lower end of the first row of shingles. This lift is necessary to establish a slant for the first row, and all ensuing rows of shingles. Otherwise the second row of shingles wouldn’t lie flush against the first.

Rather than cut down our 1/32” mahogany veneer shingles, I started sheets of the shingle stock. Using a T Square and utility knife I could quickly and easily cut the veneer into strips 1” deep X 6” long (the width of the stock).

The challenge was getting into the “swing” of the undulating roof. I started at the back, with the least obvious section. For the first row I laid down a straight veneer strip on the roof, and with a dark lead pencil, drew on it the bottom curve I wanted. I then cut that waveline with scissors, and laid the now wavy strip against the roof to see how it looked. Once satisfied with the shape, I used an X-Acto with a #11 blade to cut shingle #1, approx. 3/8” wide, from the strip. I then ran a thin strip of Elmer’s along the top and bottom of the shingle, and glued it to roof. I continued with more of the same across the first row, leaving a tiny space between each shingle so my labors wouldn’t look like a single strip of wood.

For the second row I repeated the process, with some additions. Once I had cut the desired curve into the shingle strip, I then traced a penciled guideline of the curve onto the glued-down row beneath. I also traced a straight line at the top of the strip, onto the roof, to help keep my shingles lines horizontal. In the process I discovered that, unlike the uniform width of conventional shingles, these looked better if they varied in width from 1/8” to 5/8”.

Here I'm using tape to hold the shingles in place around the curve while I cut the next shingle.

Here I’m using tape to hold the shingles in place around the curve while I cut the next shingle.

Then the job got interesting, because, to achieve the flowing, free-form look, each new row required a slightly different curve from the last. I learned that the spacing and curves weren’t random; each row needed to visually relate to the last. And the longer the row, the more undulations, and relationships to undulations were required. To further augment the feeling of waves, every few rows I lifted the top or bottom of a curve by shimming it with thin strips of shingle trims. This added an eye-pleasing bulge and unevenness to the waves.00051_s_10af8pvwbk0039

Because the spacing between rows needed to vary “naturally,” and because I needed to lay six rows per inch, the depth of the courses (or rows) ranged from a hairline to as much as ¼”. Then, to reduce the thickness of the built-up layers of shingle, each row had to dry and be sanded back to a taper before adding the next. Mostly I had to go by feel, rather than ruler, and learned to appreciate what a great job Mother Nature does with her waves.

As I worked my way up, I got into the eaves and eyebrows, which required each shingle to be shaped into a little pie wedge. Each day I had to develop a rhythm, a feel for the process. Some days I had no rhythm at all and just had to quit. The worst days were when I chipped out the work of the day before because I didn’t quit in time.

Early on, Noel and I had worked out how to work together—if there’s trouble with the other person’s work, don’t say anything. Eventually the one tripping up will become aware, and ask for an opinion. Even then, the rule was not say it, but throw the question back—What do you think? By that time the one in trouble already knew.

This shows how the thickness of the overlapping rows can get tricky.

This shows how the thickness of the overlapping rows can get tricky.

On the best days everything came together and I could see encouraging results by supper time. I do confess, though, to bottoming-out at the top, where even the depth of every shingle had to be trimmed to fit—my mind said, “Enough!” That’s where partner work pays off. Noel was ready for a break from wattle-and-daubing, or whatever he was doing, and wanted to try his hand at wave coursing.

Completed roof before aging.

Completed roof before aging.

Facesotm137Then it was on to what we’d been working toward all along, the aging, adding years and weather by sanding to smooth, then wire brushing to accentuate the grain. Next, we applied a coat of Bug Juice to darken it, then worked in a dilution of household bleach and water, about 50/50, which softened the appearance of the whole roof, and added a tinge of green. More Bug Juice to darken what the bleach had lightened. From there we fiddled until it looked right—more steps than I can remember. In a month we would be off to California with our delivery–#50–with the next project already in mind.

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The Stair People and Other Nomads: Faces of the Moon, Pt. IV


With the question of what to do with the space between the chimney and the entry still hovering, we continued our work on the toymaker’s workshop. While Noel was devising all kinds of fun exterior details, and figuring out the interior, the last of the chimney stones were frazzling my nerves. To give me a break, Noel did his eyeball geometry, first in poster board, then in ply, for the undulating roof form so I could move on to covering it with wave-coursed shingles.00049_s_10af8pvwbk0024

Wave coursing is often described as mimicking thatched roofing, but to me it’s definitely watery–an ocean of ground swells, built tiny wave by tiny wave. One vertical inch of wave-coursing in miniature–which I’ll take up more in my next post–translates into six wandering and unevenly spaced rows of shingles, individually sanded thin and cut to fit, or three time the normal amount of shingles, a fact I was happy not to know at the outset. This one job would take over a year to complete. As time-consuming as it was, once I got the hang of it, it was easier on the hands and mind than stone-fitting.

00052_s_10af8pvwbk0025As I pieced the shingles together, I had time to think about the influences and associations that made our work peculiarly ours. We miniaturists deal in a fairy tale or fantasy life, one way or another, and each of us is drawn to those details that come from our own particular make-up. For me, the influences included the creaky, weathered houses of New England—in particular the 200-yr. old farmer-tenant house where I grew up–the attics and closets we played in, basements that smelled agreeably of must and paint like my grandfather’s, fairy tales with a twist–like the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson—that my sister loved to scare me with, and my lifetime exposure to books, theater, music and art.

Because Noel and I worked as a team, we had the advantage of being able to draw upon each other’s spheres of imagination and inspiration. Noel’s influences were more inward. He was born with a piece of paper and pencil in his left hand. Well, almost, maybe he stole it from the delivery room nurse, but he was born seeing the world through the eyes of an artist, and with the ability to set it down on paper. Drawing was his escape, his obsession. He spent World War II recording it, battle by battle, in drawings that filled a roll of butcher paper. Drawing dollhouses wasn’t a real stretch for him.

And, in the case of this project, our client contributed her influences in art, architecture, travel, and the make believe of movies. She grew up in Hollywood, her imagination shaped by, in particular, early Disney animation. And we all shared a fondness for the Old World-inspired paintings of the Dutch artist Anton Pieck. Noel’s and my job was to select which features, which inventions from all three streams of influence would best enhance the project. Or how to swirl them all together.

One night, after a week of particularly slow progress for both of us, I walked the dog and went to bed early. My state of mind was like the state of the worktable—a mess of slivers and rejected shingle shapes. Noel stayed up as he often did, holed-up in the back of the darkened studio with just a small light on the project. Ruminating. In the morning I came down to find this fragile-looking settlement of tiny buildings clinging to one side of the chimney.00055_s_10af8pvwbk0034 It consisted of a few rudimentary houses connected by a catwalk, and supported by a precarious system of buttresses–an inexplicable colony of dwellings built from the splintered leftovers from the roof shingles. We were colonized!

It had been almost two years since the idea of an other-than-one-inch-scale civilization began to take shape. Noel and I had talked about introducing evidence of a smaller “people” into the toymaker’s domain. It began with that opening in the chimney that invited a tiny staircase, a passage for beings of unknown origins. And then there was that tunnel and tiny ladder in the basement (see ). The idea of a needing home, or base camp for these ”Stair People” took hold, and now, there it was, right out of Noel’s nighttime conjuring.

Inspired as it was, the new encampment did not solve the problem of the increasingly noticeable blank space between the chimney and front steps. Then, on another of those late-nights, Noel, who had returned to full-scale watercolor painting a few years before, got out his miniature traveling watercolor set, and some acrylics. He began what he thought would be decorative wall painting of the kind he saw on centuries-old buildings in Germany while he was in the Army. But this space, and the whole project-to-date, invited more than plants and birds.00054_s_10af8pvwbk0038 The structure of the chimney, and the Stair People’s settlement, suggested the more architectural forms of stone buttresses arching over a small path, all in diminishing perspective. Maybe it wasn’t a road for the Stair People, but it was leading them someplace interesting, and who’s to say there might not be (or have been) another realm of inhabitants, or passers-through?Facesotm133

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Rocking Gepetto’s Chimney: Faces of the Moon Pt. III

Facing the rock pile.

Facing the rock pile.

In more ways than one, this posting is about splitting rock—1) the literal task of splitting rock for a miniature chimney, and 2) the more cerebral task of bashing my mid-20th Century brain against the rock of Millennial technology to get it to spit out the photos I want to write about. I hope you will laugh with me when I tell you the solution was as simple as, yes, tripping over a rock—look at the screen long enough and you’ll see the button you’re looking for. It’s a good thing it wasn’t a rattlesnake. Which leads me to one more aside—our recent vacation in the Arizona sunshine (with no snake sightings, but lots of spiny flora)), which included an afternoon talk at the wonderful Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson. It was a thrill to see the museum, and to re-visit the Greene & Greene House–probably our most accomplished piece—as well as our funky Airplane Café, giving you a hint as to the eclectic nature of this very personal and wide-ranging collection. The museum is beautifully and imaginatively conceived, and well worth the trip to Tucson.

Edging toward the subject at hand—the building of The Faces of the Moon, and in particular the construction of its stone chimney–in August 1983, I wrote in Nutshell News that, “Dollhouses are our work. Our nine-to-­five job to pay the rent. The adventure for us is the working-out of problems in our heads and with our hands. The small scale gives us a certain freedom, rendering our mistakes mostly time-consuming, not dev­astatingly costly as in full-scale building. We spend a lot of time thinking and talk­ing about what comes next, what will keep the design in balance, not just decorate it. We thrive on exploring the boundaries between “craft” (manual dexterity) and “art” (emotional and intellectual flexibility).”

“In our current project–an Old Euro­pean/Disney/Thomas toy shop– we are exploring borders, discovering our own blend of design and technique. This partic­ular building lends itself to exploration. Its design is defined by no single style of architecture, but is influenced by several. And beyond the design component, we are playing in our other margins: between fan­tasy and reality, childhood and adulthood, waking and sleeping.”

As with every project, Noel made a watercolor sketch before construction, as much for the client to see what they were getting as for us to see what we were aiming for. Often the hows were not articulated or even thought about—we just knew we’d figure out something. In this instance the “how” of how we would make a stone chimney was the problem, and a sizable one, as the stone façade was a massive feature on the project—a major architectural element we needed to execute well.

Plywood chimney form

Plywood chimney form

First Noel made a hollow plywood chimney following the design he had put down in the original sketch. Then came the stones.Facesotm126

Originally we wanted a buff-colored stone, such as that found around Carmel, CA, but without reasonable justification for the long trip to Carmel, we explored other options. One morning, Noel headed out to the nearby Columbia River, and brought home a carload of  hunky rocks in a warm gray color—probably basalt, given the location, though it’s usually a darker color (Karin Corbin says it’s probably limestone). He spent an afternoon splitting, shaping, and gluing some of them to the chimney base with Elmer’s white glue.

Day one.

Day one.

Satisfied with the results, he went back to the walls, and the stained glass windows framed in windfall holly twigs from the yard, and I took over the rock pile.

My tools at hand were an old metal butcher tray (supposedly to contain the mess), a concrete paving stone, an iron firewood-splitting wedge, chisel, and a large hammer. Eventually I found that reducing rock to stone with a wedge or chisel (with the paving stone underneath so as not to go through the table) requires more timing and position than hard-hitting. I started splitting the rock by giving the end of the chisel a solid whack with the hammer. The trouble was, the whack attack caused the stone to shatter horizontally, sending pieces flying everywhere. Not only were they hard to find in our messy studio, but flying stone shards are dangerous to the occupants. Step 2 was to set up plywood baffles around one part of the room, so the pieces would mostly bounce back into my work area. I can only hope I was wearing goggles.Splitting chimney rock - Version 2

After randomly chipping for a while, I discovered what stone masons have known for centuries–rock has a language. I could “talk” (or maybe it was listen) to it. I began to get a feel for the material, the individual rocks, and where to locate the best splitting spot. After more trial and error, I learned to better anticipate where and how to find the smaller stone forms within the larger ones. When I hit that spot just right, it was a medium tap, et voila!, a handful of usable sizes lay on the table.

The shapes of cut stones could further be adjusted on the sanding wheel of our scroll saw–this is hard on the motor, but the remaining life of that saw was limited anyway. Once I split a rock close to the sizes needed, I sanded off points, and flattened edges, sides, tops and bottoms on the sander, as needed. Back on the worktable I could also make finer adjustments with pliers, and a sanding block with 100 grit paper. The rest of it was just getting into the Zen of the stone shape and sizes, the puzzle pieces, and how they fit on the plywood chimney form.

For extra adhesion, and to fill the gaps between the rough-edged stones, I made a “putty” mix of sifted sawdust mixed with Elmer’s, a little water, and Bug Juice to gray it. I then stuffed the mix behind and around the stones, forming a contoured bed. Eventually these spaces, along with the stones, would be dirty water washed, colored and mossed to bring it all together.

As I worked my way up the front of the chimney, a narrow slot more or less formed itself in the stonework. Faces Chimney constrc - Version 3Rather than fill it in, we hollowed out the wood behind it. I decided it could make an entrance, a link to where Noel’s mind was taking the interior—the suggestion of another mini-mini civilization inhabiting the project. After all, it was a fantasy building–home to Gepetto. Inside the slot, I made a smaller-scale, rudimentary staircase–going down into the dark interior—carved from plaster of Paris mini bricks in a color barely distinguishable from the stone. It’s subtle, as I didn’t want to draw attention to the stairs, but to allow a viewer to discover them. Anyone probing beyond the staircase might find an opening in the ground, where another staircase presumably goes down. To what and by whom, was the mystery.

The project was finished in this photo, but it gives you an idea of how the chimney and entrance looked together.

The project was finished in this photo, but it gives you an idea of how the chimney and entrance looked together.

Once the monumental rock job was finished, we realized something was missing in the overall design. The front of the building had two major architectural elements—the chimney and the entrance–with a narrow stretch of wall between. Rather than join the two, the wall just became a blank white space. Something else was needed to unify those two major features. If we stared at it long enough, and/or dreamt about it, the answer would come.

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Tower House for sale, Nutshell back issues

The messages below came through the blog site recently, so I thought I’d post them separately so you wouldn’t miss them.

1. I have a Tower House looking for a new home. Please see

inquire at

2. has back issues of Nutshell News to donate.

Please contact the above people, as I have no further information.

Yes, soon I will have another posting about our houses–the summer is running away with me.



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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.)

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A Roof, Gepetto, and the Moon: Faces of the Moon, Pt. I


In 1984, a new client (whom some readers will know as Melanie Wilson) called to say she was smitten. She had just seen the newly-completed Pippen Hill–our semi-fantasy Old European toymaker’s workshop inspired by the paintings of Anton Pieck–and asked if we would build her something similar. Having just finished the project, we weren’t sure we wanted to, or were even capable of inventing another fairytale structure with unknown materials. However, as such things go, the three of us clicked right away—Melanie is one of those people with an irresistible spark that is impossible to turn away from. Luckily, we had a waiting list and could put the idea on the back burner while we worked on other projects. We went our separate ways, but the idea of working with her on a fantasy project simmered along in our minds like a be-ribboned package left on the doorstep.

Melanie is a dreamer with a great imagination. One dream involved an ageless toymaker with a modest but comfortable place in which to work, sell his toys, and live. She knew what she liked and was able to verbalize it. She also knew she liked what our minds did with architecture. Together the three of us entered into an unspoken contract in which she would trust us enough to produce the best piece of work we could, and we trusted her to embrace our aesthetic choices. And to wait.

For the next eight years, a string of other commissions took over, but as we worked, our thoughts strayed to what the new toymaker’s shop might look like. Neither Noel nor I think sequentially—I’d think about what we’d name it, what its secrets would be, and, practically, what we’d do for a roof–the slates we’d used on Pippen Hill were no longer available, and were way to much work even if they were—maybe thatch, but no, I hadn’t seen any I thought was successful. I don’t know what Noel was thinking, but every now and then he’d say something like, “Twig furniture. ” “It could be a story and a half with a cellar,” or, “We could do a stone chimney,” and I’d know what he was talking about.

Mail arrived, and there would be a photo from Melanie—some architectural detail she’d seen that might make our hearts beat faster. One was of a house in Carmel, CA with a wave-coursed roof—narrow rows of fluctuating courses of wooden shingles. Wonky, complex, and romantic, it seemed perfect for the building, and we already had miniature shingles enough for a lifetime. Once, it was a Disney drawing of Gepetto’s workshop. And, most memorably, she sent a small silver charm—it looked like a mask of a grumpy man in the moon.

Faces of the Moon sign

Faces of the Moon sign

She said she didn’t know why she sent it, but thought it might help. It sat on the table like an enigma, a charm in the sense of a spell, a totem, or mojo. Mr. Moon looked like the dark side of a fairy tale, the other side of Gepetto.

It came to us one morning at breakfast, the name of the project—Faces of the Moon. So, we had a roof, Gepetto, and the Moon, there was no turning back.

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