Monday, 20 October 2014

Cutting loose.....

A few weeks ago, after over a month of researching, humming and hawing, and doing a lot of justifying, I bought A Thing.

It came in a big box.

The Thing in the box was this.....

It's a cutting Thing.  

A devilishly clever cutting Thing which can cut all sorts of other things.  When I have learnt to use it properly it will transform my working life, but in the meantime it's mostly performing the function of a desk ornament.

I find it increasingly difficult to apply enough pressure to cleanly cut the thick card by hand which I use for the scenery and components for my little toy theatres.  I can only do it for a very short time and my hands take ages to recover afterwards.  In theory, with my new Thing, I should be able to upload my designs and it will cut them out perfectly, time after time, to the nano-millimetre.

This will open a whole new world of creative endeavour, as I have ideas for dozens of miniature toys which have been languishing as I didn't think I'd be able to manage if I had to cut them entirely by hand.

Also.  Boxes.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that boxes would be a snap to make?  They look so easy.  A base and a lid. What could be simpler?

However, if you've ever tried to make a box, by hand, from scratch, you will know that they are anything but simple.


Here is the result of a week of experimenting and learning how to work The Thing.

I am ridiculously and inordinately proud of this box.  I have lavished love and care on its design and its subsequent creation.  It is perfectly square.  The lid fits perfectly.  The sides and corners are perfectly crisp and even.  It measures 3" wide, by 3" deep by 2  1/2" high.

And it contains......

Little Violet, (who measures less than 2" tall!) is dressed in a hand-sewn silk costume, with pleated dress and bustled silk jacket, and reclines on a luxurious silk pad.  Her accessories include two tiny dresses, a bonnet, silk parasol and an almost microscopically tiny pair of gloves.

As this little presentation case harks back to the heyday of French dollmaking in the 1890s, there is even a tiny Eiffel Tower silver charm to celebrate its Parisian origins.

For a first go at using The Thing to make a box, I think c'est magnifique..... even if I do say so myself 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Mitigating circumstances......

I've been soft cleaning for what feels like forever.  This is what I get for spending weeks doing a massive batch of casting.

I've finished the head/torsos of all the little toy dolls and now only have the Alice in Wonderland toys to do.  The Mad Hatter, March Hare and White Rabbit are relatively easy although their tiny limbs will be a challenge.

However, Humpty Dumpty is just a right royal pain in the arse!

He has spindly little legs and teeny, weeny ineffectual T Rex arms and no matter how carefully I try to fettle the seam lines,  holding my breath and barely even touching the fragile soft-fired greenware, inevitably one of his legs will ping off, usually just as I'm on the last nano-millimetre.

If there were a market for one legged Humpties I'd be a shoe-in.


I find myself muttering...... "Please, PLEASE don't break.  Don't break.  ohpleasedon'tbreak. Just. One. More. Tiny...... *ping*  OH BUGGRIT!!!"

It doesn't help that he has a a smug, supercilious smile on his fat, egghead face.  He seems to mock me.

"Well, well, well (he has a high, cracked, nasal voice)..... so you couldn't even manage to clean me up for firing without knocking one of my legs off?!  That's just great.  Fine and dandy. Call yourself a 'dollmaker'?  Pshaw and tush."

He has a fine line in sarcasm and can continue in this vein for some time......

The urge to pummel him into his constituent porcelain atoms is almost irresistible, and I can't say that I haven't occasionally succumbed to an uncharacteristically violent (although extremely satisfying) act of retribution.

What can I say?  I plead mitigating circumstances. I was driven to it.

I have another 5 of the whiny little buggers to do today and I'm not looking forward to it. They're all lying together in the tray now. Plotting and sniggering.  Sniggering and plotting.

I can't say I'm surprised at his nursery rhyme fate.  I don't think he fell off that wall.... I'm convinced he was pushed.  There was probably a queue of potential pushers.  With all the King's horses and all the King's men jostling for position.

And as for putting him back together again.  Forget it!

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Big Book of a Miniature House - Book Review

As we move from summer into autumn, the thoughts of many miniaturists (myself included) will be turning to projects old and new.  My own languishing project, which I'm itching to get back to, is an evocation of a French-style doll shop from the 1890s, the zenith of French dollmaking, so I was delighted to be invited to review a new book published this month by The Guild of Master Craftsmen, The Big Book of a Miniature House.

Written by Christine-Lea Frisoni, it was originally published in France, but is now available for the first time in English translation.  It's a satisfyingly weighty, sumptuous hardback which aims to take the reader step-by-step through the creation of a 1/12th scale French country house. As you would expect from a GMC Publication, this is a beautifully produced book and the photography throughout is wonderful.

As a veteran of no end of doll's house builds I was particularly interested to see the construction of the house.... always the most daunting part of making from scratch. Thankfully, the level of detail is excellent, although I think that a reasonable level of woodworking experience would be required.

The author takes nothing for granted though, and starts off with a comprehensive list of tools and supplies, as well as information on basic techniques which would prove invaluable to anyone tackling the build.  Clear and detailed plans and diagrams, as well as a wealth of photographs, illustrate the assembly of the house, and there are lots of ideas and suggestions for a variety of different styles of house, based on the original.

Exterior and interior finishes, decoration, window dressings and soft furnishings and period lighting effects are also explained, with the emphasis on achieving the elegantly evocative, faded grandeur of an old country house. Every room is shown in detail, from kitchen to nursery, floor to ceiling with no nook or cranny left unexplored.

The final chapter, Furniture and Fittings, also has instructions for a range of gorgeous pieces, from a Proven├žal armchair to a Louis XVI Bergere chair, from beds and tables to dressers and mirrors.... everything needed to recreate the genteel shabby chic look of a French country house.

There is something for everyone within the pages of this book.  Even if you don't want to actually make the house itself, there are over 230 colour photographs to help spark a multitude of ideas and inspiration for many other miniature projects.  

It's currently my favourite bedside reading and I've already noted several ideas which would be ideal to enhance La Mignonette and add impeccable French style.

With Christmas just around the corner it would make the perfect addition to any miniaturist's 'wish list'. 

The Big Book of a Miniature House is published by GMC Publications Ltd.
ISBN 978 1 86108 954 0
Available to purchase HERE

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Time management..... I doesn't has it :(

I'm trialling a new time management strategy.

It's called the "Get Off The Damn Internet and Do Stuff" plan, and I'm hoping it will yield amazing results.

Basically, it involves breaking down the working day into manageable chunks and switching tasks after a set amount of time with a short break between each one.  This is supposed to ensure that you don't get bogged down in one thing, and approach each new task with a fresh mindset.

The time period can be anything you want, but I'm aiming for 1 hour chunks.  Although that's not very sensible as I have to build in a 10 minute break at the end of each time slot. However, 50 minute sessions just don't sound right, even though I could neatly fit one work session PLUS my 10 minute break into neat one hour parcels which would dovetail perfectly with Radio 4 scheduling.

Hm.  Decisions, decisions.

I think I'll try both versions and see which works best.

And the reason for this new working practice.......?

After several weeks of porcelain doll and toy casting I am faced with the prospect of masses of soft cleaning.  Every tiny, delicate piece in all those tray and boxes must be soaked in water and carefully fettled with a scalpel blade to remove seam lines.  Then each piece must be gently rubbed with a tiny abrasive pad to smooth the surface and remove any blemishes.

Some of the tiny limbs, such as the Musical Mousie arms measure just 5mm long.  And that includes his trumpet.

To say it's a daunting prospect is a massive understatement.  I normally take a run at it and spend entire days methodically working my way through a gradually diminishing pile. However it's a tedious task which must be done extremely carefully so as not to break the fragile pieces. I can't relax while doing it, so I find myself holding my breath for minutes at a time.  My shoulders creep up around my ears and stay there, and after a few hours my hands resemble desiccated claws.

It's not a good look.


With my new and improved work regime, I will limit myself to just 2 time slots per day for soft cleaning.  Although it will take much longer to complete the whole batch, I'll be able to do more interesting creative stuff in the interim periods, which is good for morale and for what remains of my sanity.

As the esteemed Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step"


Sunday, 21 September 2014

The wanderers return......

This past week has seen several momentous events.

PP celebrated a milestone birthday while on holiday on the North Devon coast.....


On Thursday we decided to go on a boat trip, along the Exmoor coastline.  From our holiday flat we had glorious views out over the harbour to the sea beyond and from this elevated vantage point the sea appeared relatively calm, with only the odd few white horses cresting the waves, so off we set.

Once on board Small Dog donned her life jacket, much to the amusement of our fellow passengers.  I overheard one chap say to his wife "Blimey.... d'you think that little dog knows something WE don't?" and we all smiled knowingly at each other.

The initial stages from the inner harbour, to the outer harbour and beyond were relatively calm, but once we rounded the headland, out of the shelter of the bay, the force of an easterly wind hit us, and the boat started to pitch and roll, struggling up increasingly high waves, then slamming down into the troughs.

The skipper, who was giving us a running commentary on the coastline, described the sea conditions as 'lively'.


My knuckles were white with gripping onto the rail  as we struggled along the coast, each wave higher than the last.  Several people surreptitiously retrieved plastic bags from pockets and rucksacks and even Small Dog was looking green around the gills.

As we were buffeted by wind and wave, the little boat strained to crest each rolling sea peak and I was reminded of that film.  You know.  The one with George Clooney.  The Perfect Storm.  Where at the end they try to run up a truly mountainous wave and fail.

That was nearly us that was.

By 20 minutes into the trip, children were screaming and even a few adults on the lower deck were wailing as the boat crashed down heavily after yet another huge wave so the skipper turned into a small bay, before informing us that in view of the 'lively' seas he'd head westwards away from the wind which would make things more 'comfortable' on board. Thankfully he was right, and we raced along at quite a clip with the wind at our backs. However, after an hour, we had to turn back into the teeth of the gale again to get back to Ilfracombe.

I don't think I've ever been so pleased to see a harbour in my whole life and my legs were shaking as we climbed the steps up from the boat onto the quay.  Everyone who'd been on board  sported amusing experimental hairstyles and more than a few looked decidedly peely-wally, myself included.

Small Dog was first to recover her composure and so the three of us staggered off to the nearest pub to fortify ourselves with a glass of the local Wizard Ale and muse on our sea-faring credentials.

Or rather the lack of them.

It was a lovely holiday though,  and the resulting effect on our waistlines will help serve as reminder of the good times we had.

Back at home now and there's the usual post-holiday chores to tackle....a mountain of clothes washing, piles of post and an overflowing email inbox.

Oh..... and the other momentous event this week?

Saturday, 30 August 2014

5 things I can't work without......

One of the most useful blogs I subscribe to is called Work From Home Wisdom.  As its title suggests, it's aimed at those of us who run a business from home and is always chock full of helpful hints and tips, such as "Oy.  You.  Yes you!  Get out of bed and get some work done!"
Or "Step away from the Facebook page... how many times do I have to tell you?"

Recently there's been a series of posts submitted by readers, entitled '5 things I can't work without' which set me thinking.

What 5 things could I not work without......?

There's the obvious things, like the kiln, or my power tools.  On a different tack I could even include Radio 4, which forms the soundtrack to my working day.

But when really thought about it, the answer came down to these.....

Not very exciting or glamourous I'll agree, but absolutely indispensable nonetheless.

Going from left to right:

1.  Bowmaker.  I have several of these in different sizes.  I use it make tiny silk ribbon bows (well d'uh) as well as ribbon rosettes and pom-poms.  It makes a tedious job almost enjoyable and ensures perfect results every time.  What's not to like?

2.  I'm not sure what to call the next thing, but if I ever lost it I would have to give up porcelain dollmaking completely.  It's what's left of a longer thing, which broke several years ago.  I've been using it for over 25 years so it has stood the test of time.  I use it to make the stringing holes in porcelain greenware...... the soft, malleable castings which are removed from the plaster moulds.  It is just the absolutely 100% perfect size.  As I live in constant terror of misplacing it, or losing it entirely, I have searched constantly over the past quarter of a decade to find another thing EXACTLY the same thickness.  I've tried no end of almost exactly the same size needles and bodkins, but none of them are exactly right.  Even a nanomicromillimetre too big or too small and it's useless.  I might request that it is buried with me.

3.  The humble cocktail stick.  I get through dozens of these a week.  They're great for transferring teeny tiny dots of glue. For picking up teeny tiny beads and crystals.  For mixing two part glues. For stirring small pots of enamel paint. For impaling tiny items to be painted.  For making small holes. For poking things into other things.  Stuck into polystyrene to support glued joints and painted pieces.  The list is endless.

4.  Sewing needle.  But not just any old sewing needle.  This is another of my 25 year love affairs.  This needle is the Shangri La of sewing needles.  It is the thickness of a human hair, and much shorter than most needles.  If you can manage to see it, pick it up and thread it, it practically guarantees that your stitches will be tiny and perfectly spaced.  Unlike ordinary needles it doesn't make big holes in delicate silk ribbon.  I bought several packs of 6 years and years ago and I'm  now down to my last two.  Over time, as they are so very small and fine, they inevitably get lost.  I've lost count of the hours I've spent on my hands and knees carefully doing a fingertip search for ones I've dropped on the floor.  They also bend very easily.  And don't even get me started on threading them.  However, I use one almost every day and I couldn't work without them.

5.  Tweezers.  I'm a bit of a tweezer geek.  Over the years I've tried hundreds, but I always come back to these.  I got them from a dental tools supplier 20 years ago.  The angled tips are set at precisely the right angle for picking and placing tiny things.  There are ridges on the inside of the tips to hold even the smallest items securely.  They are perfectly aligned and squeezing them doesn't make my hands tingle, like many others do.

So there you have it.  Five things I can't work without.

What are yours?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Forward planning......

This post is aimed primarily at my customers (trade or retail) who regularly purchase undressed toy dolls.  

As we slowly slide into September, then hasten on to Halloween, before we know it we'll be in Christmas crisis, crying in bewilderment "What!  Is it that time ALREADY?!"

Admit it. We've all been there.  Some of us *cough* are repeat offenders.

Our pre-Christmas sales period begins at the end of September which is only 4 weeks away *eeek!* so here at the international headquarters of Tower House Dolls (Amalgamated, Consolidated, Incorporated) we're already hard at work stocking up on kits and toy dolls.  In fact this week I've started on a batch of casting which has to include enough of everything to see us through the next 4 months.

First on my casting list are the outstanding special orders for porcelain dolls or toys which are currently out of stock.  Then comes the low stock items which are likely to run out in the next few weeks.  Then (and this is the exciting bit) during a recent reorganisation of my mould cupboard, I discovered some moulds for dolls which I didn't even know I had.  So I'm casting some of those too.

The porcelain dollmaking process (from first pouring to final stringing) takes on average 6-8 weeks.  So the batch I've started this week won't be completed till mid October, assuming all goes well.  But more to the point, once I start firing in two weeks time, I won't be adding any more to the list.


If anyone out there is planning to purchase a specific doll(s), or porcelain toy(s) in time for Christmas could you PLEASE let me know as soon as possible.  This won't commit you to anything.  If you change your mind that's absolutely fine.  I just want  to avoid the annual problem of being contacted mid November asking if I can supply two of this, or four of that and having to say "sorry, I can't."  I'd much rather have too much than not enough.

Incidentally, the newly re-discovered doll moulds include the following:

  • Tiny Googlie doll
  • Kewpie doll
  • Pouty doll
  • Sulky doll
  • Smiler doll
  • 2 new tiny crawling babies.
I can't post photos until they're completed but if you think you might be interested in any of those in particular, do contact me.

In the meantime, here's the view of my desk today, in the midst of casting chaos.