Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Not much room at the top

Hooray! My loft space is finished and only waiting for the things that will eventually go in it.

I decided to have joists after all (see Up aloft, 16 November) but because there's so little headroom, I cheated and used flat strips of wood, 7 mm (1/4 in) wide. I tinted them first with a dirt-coloured wash of paint (add just a touch of white to the mix and you'll get a 'dusty' look when it's dried). Then I trimmed them to fit, remembering that the loft panel slots tightly into the house walls on either side and so the strips had to stop short of the ends. And then I glued them into place.

Where I've used watercolours (poster paints or gouache) I've sprayed the painted area afterwards with a layer of matt-finish fixative (from good art suppliers). It needs to be suitable for sealing pencil, charcoal, chalk and watercolours, so that the pigment won't rub off or mark. 

I applied the same fixative to the loft walls, which I'd painted all dark and swirly, having previously hinged the main roof panels together and given them a coat of ivory paint and the old teabag stain, to blend with the yellowed ceiling on the reverse side of the loft floor.

And here is the loft floor in position, as if looking up from the lodger's room and bathroom on the next storey down.

What no one will see, until the front half of the roof is raised, is the loft interior complete with joists. Not only is there going to be a water tank but I'm hoping to construct a brick chimney stack to align with the chimney outside on the roof. It'll be a challenge, as this interesting shot shows!

The real fun will be dressing the rest of the loft with whatever has been pushed up there out of sight in times gone by. I fancy a bundle of secret letters that someone couldn't bear (or dare?) to throw away, or perhaps a heap of toys, abandoned and long forgotten.

I've recently bought a very handy tool that cuts wooden strips and mouldings to whatever angle you want. I've been trying it out on mitring a frame for the skylight I made earlier (A little kit bashing, 3 October). 

Hm, not too bad for a first attempt, though there's clearly room for improvement in making the pieces fit flush.

Finally, I'm afraid, a note of complaint from Charlie Brennan himself. OK, he's delighted with the Fair Isle pullover and the scarf, but says he would rather have a head of a hair than wear a woolly hat that only lacks a bobble to make him look a complete fool. Above all, he flatly refuses to appear again until somebody has made him some trousers to hide his long johns. Just how many pairs of hands does he think I have?


Monday, 10 December 2012

Vintage caboodle

Although my shop/house is being built from scratch, not everything that goes into it will be new or unused. Like the art deco teapot I've already shown, there will be a few relics from the dolls house that my sister and I used to play with.

The Barrett & Sons Hoover, yellow Dol-Toi tea set, and gilt candlestick belonged to our old house. We also had a set of grey Dol-Toi saucepans with blue handles, which unfortunately didn't survive, so these are replacements that I found on ebay. They go really well with the Crescent gas cooker, don't they? The cooker (also from ebay) is my favourite vintage piece so far and arrived complete with the original oven shelves. It's just worn enough to look as if it's been on duty in the Brennan kitchen for years. 

The green portable fire was manufactured by F.G. Taylor and Sons, who traded from 1945, which makes this style exactly right for 1948. The pink Barrett telephone will look a bit odd in the shop, I know, but I couldn't resist it while I keep searching for the smaller, late-forties Post Office design - if it exists in miniature. 

Running the cooker a close second for favourite is this 1/12 tubular metal chair. I have never seen one before (there's no trademark), the olive paint makes it look rather 'military' to me, I think it's going to be the office chair that goes with the cash desk in the shop.

The alarm clock looks capable of waking up the entire house! It's a brass novelty and only just fits a 1/12 setting. The rusty, beaten-up  electric fire by Barton needs no further distressing and will be perfect as a piece of salvaged second hand stock! The coal scuttle (also Barton) no longer has the tiny shovel that slots on the back but I expect I'll be able to make something similar from heavy tin foil. 

I do have some vintage furniture in wood and plastic but to me the metal pieces are the most desirable. There's something about their colours too - the plain serviceable greens, creams and flecked greys - that bring the atmosphere of those times so close.

To finish, I thought I'd share three of my favourite reference books with you, they could be useful if you're working on either the Edwardian or the postwar eras:

Helen Long's The Edwardian House covers both social history and technical developments in Edwardian building and interior design. Most of the illustrations are in black and white but many feature contemporary advertisements, which are fascinating. For example, as you can see from the one above, it took a while for electric lamp manufacturers to divorce their designs from the styles associated with gas lighting.

Nella Last's Peace is the postwar diary of a northern English housewife and mother, written from 1945-1948 for the Mass Observation project, capturing the everyday events and concerns of ordinary people. This is the book for telling details about food, clothing, rationing, housing and employment.

Austerity Britain 1945-51 by David Kynaston contains a hugely well-researched account of the Attlee era and manages to be both evocative and entertaining in the process. 

If you can't borrow them from your library, all three books can be bought second hand through

Next time, I shall be up in the roof finishing the loft . . .


Thursday, 29 November 2012

Kensington Christmas Festival

Last Saturday, being inside Kensington Town Hall was the perfect antidote to our miserable November weather. Engineering works on the Circle and District line had closed the tube at High St Ken, which meant the added hassle of waiting damply for buses but we got to the fair in good time nevertheless.

I made for the Sid Cooke stand where Steve and Megan Messenger were already very busy. Steve reported a growing interest in the large houses, whereas in recent years most customers have favoured smaller projects; it seems people may be turning to longer-term, home-based hobbies again. I took the opportunity to check out the completed Bon Marché model and was re-enthused by the scope it offers. Charlie Brennan's shop/house will be terrific when it's finished!

All too aware that I must install the electrics before going much further, I went and collected my order from Small World Products,

It consisted of a 12-switch power controller and more lights of various kinds. At the left end of the switch board, there's a black socket for the jack plug of the 3-Amp transformer that I bought from Martin last month - anything that simplifies this wiring business is what I like. And see the round pea bulbs? They're just the right scale for the incandescent bulbs we can no longer buy in real life. They will go under wide 'coolie' shades in the kitchen and bathroom, where they can be seen in all their functional glory.

We went right around the main exhibition hall. Twice. So much to see, including a good number of international exhibitors. 

Though not my era, I love everything that Delph Miniatures produce. You name it and these specialists in modern miniatures can provide it, from a complete hair salon to an OAP's mobility scooter.

Another favourite was the Fine Design stand and all the marvellous animals and birds made by Annie Willis, using fur and feathers recycled from items found in charity shops and jumble sales.

I stopped by Ray Storey to purchase a pair of 2-armed downlights for the shop ceiling. Very old-fashioned, even for 1948, but  these are left over from the days of the Bluebell Tea Rooms and, like the blue-painted exterior that he inherited from them, Charlie Brennan has never felt the need for a change. See

Colin and Yvonne Roberson's is another stand not to be missed. Their son Tim has produced a faux-bamboo range and I fell for a chair and the neatest little umbrella stand to furnish the house hallway,

The bentwood chair below is French, from Piamini. We don't seem to reproduce mini bentwood furniture in the UK, which is surprising since the classic Thonet chairs were once a staple of restaurants and classrooms everywhere. This looks too pristine for Brennans, I'm going to 'bash' it by spraying it brown and replacing the seat with a solid disc.

On the practical front, I plunged into Jennifer's of Walsall, who occupied a whole room in the lower foyer. It was rammed with customers, all armed with shopping lists. This was serious mini shopping and I added a couple of glazed doors, more flooring and brick cladding to my luggage, plus a Chrysnbon bathroom kit. 

Upstairs at DCT Miniature Fashions, I called in for one of the most important items on my schedule: three undressed dolls (plus wig hair for the men), discontinued lines from the late Joy Parker of Swallowhill dolls. 

Now you can meet the very earliest versions of Charlie Brennan, his son Frankie, and Edna the daily help.  What attracted me to these dolls when I found them online (apart from the very reasonable price!) were their facial expressions. I wanted Charlie to be a genial sort of fellow; and both Frankie and Edna have strong 'ordinary' faces with distinct character, neither impossibly handsome nor too pretty.

So much for the brand new stuff, I have been uncovering a few vintage pieces as well, which I'll show you next time.


Friday, 16 November 2012

Up aloft

There are times when I find the sheer size of this shop/house quite daunting and long to have at least some tiny corner of it done! The smallest space is the loft up at the very top, and so I decided this could be the first place to attempt a finished look. It's basically a single strip of floor with a hatch cut into into it for access - and most importantly, for young Frankie Brennan to reach the leaky old water tank whose pipes regularly freeze up in the winter. 

The basic style of Brennans is postwar austerity, the era of make-do-and-mend. Surely it wouldn't be too difficult to paint a dusty floor on the top side of the strip and a discoloured ceiling underneath? And so I assembled my 'distressing' outfit:

The bench hook is a really handy device for pushing a piece of wood against while you are cutting or chiselling into its surface. In this case, I was cutting parallel lines into the MDF hatch cover with the V-shaped blade of a lino-cutting tool. As you can see, the bench hook itself simply consists of three wood offcuts screwed together at right angles to each other. It makes working with a blade far steadier and safer.

Lightly sanding a newly painted surface is an easy way of distressing an item but don't get too carried away and overwork the effect. And for a nice bit of dirt, I find that mixing odds and ends of poster (gouache) paints together produces a satisfying shade of sludge (if you don't have any old paints you can just as well use inexpensive children's water colours). If the old paints have dried out in their pots add a little hot water and leave them to soften a while. I like using gouache because it has good covering power and dries to a matt finish. You can create your own special effects too, for example, by spraying varnish into the wet paint or pressing crumpled tissue or kitchen roll into it.

All sorts of brushes are welcome for distressing, don't throw any away unless they are completely without bristles. Toothbrushes are great for scrubbing and splattering paint. One of my all-purpose favourites is a flat, wide, nylon brush that washes out easily and never sheds any hairs.

I began by painting the underside of the loft section with a matt ivory from a 40 ml tester tube. The old water stain from the leaky tank was produced with a wet tea bag and a handful of kitchen roll. The stain was created in stages and allowed to dry each time. You can change the shape of a stain by tilting the surface this way and that so it spreads. If it appears too dark then soak up the excess tea with a paper towel.

The rest of the ceiling extends over the lodger's bedroom. The lodger is a smoker and so I wanted to yellow it just a bit. I took another wet tea bag, squeezed it out a little and rolled it over the clean paint layer. 

You could leave these marks to dry as they are, but I only wanted a hint of nicotine yellow so I blended the tea into the background by rubbing with the kitchen roll. 

Finally, I slotted the loft piece into the top of the side panel to see how it looked. I'll have to reproduce the same colouration inside both sloping roof sections but I've kept the tint technique simple enough to repeat (I hope!).

The top side of the strip forms the loft floor and was treated to a few swirled layers of the 'sludge'. I don't know yet if I'm going to add joists. However, the water tank is in progress, that will eventually sit to the right of the hatch, over the horrible stain.

This rather dramatic angle shows how tight a space I have to fit the tank into!

Last week I promised that I would show you some more of Anne Dalton's ceramics. Here are four of them, including the posy vase, a candlestick and two beautiful examples of  painted fruits. The rug was embroidered by a friend, the colours are perfect with the china, I think.

Next Saturday, 24 November, is Kensington's long-awaited Christmas Festival. I have a few interesting orders to collect, but more about those next time . . .


Monday, 5 November 2012

In at the ground floor

I got two sheets of plain wood strip flooring from Jennifer's of Walsall at the same time that I bought my brick cladding from her. The planks measure 11 mm (7/16 in) wide, held on a backing sheet so after I've cut it to fit, I should be able to lift or slide out the entire floor if ever I need to reach the wiring beneath. The trick is to allow 1 or 2 mm (1/16 in) wriggle room all round the edge, which you can conceal under the skirting boards, so long as you don't fix them flush to the base.

I stained the boards with Colron's Jacobean Dark Oak wood dye; it's easy to sponge or brush over a small area like this. It came up really well, exactly the right colour, and the individual planks took the dye in a natural-looking way. If you want to highlight worn areas of floor, put some methylated spirit on a piece of rag and wipe away the dye to a lighter shade where needed.

Next came the exciting bit of trying the floor in its future surroundings (nothing is fixed permanently yet, the walls are just taped together - hmm, still looks awfully big though!). From this angle you can picture the front panel opening and also the narrow two-storey panel on the far right, which contains the house entrance door and fanlight. If you click to enlarge the image, you'll be able to make out the low side wall and railings that swing outwards together with the house door and doorstep.

I love the shot above, the floorboards stretching back from the shop entrance make it seem much more real as a space. Don't forget I'm adding a yard to this side as well (currently researching how to make convincing 1/12 corrugated iron from cardboard - the corrugations can't be too big, I need the right sort of cardboard!).

This picture was taken with the three entrance hall sections in place (the reel of tape is supporting the stair wall).

And this is the same area viewed from above. I have an idea to give the little hallway a colourful tiled floor, for relief from all the dark-stained wood.

The caboodle this time is a piece of furniture from Charlie's living room upstairs. My grandmother had a sideboard almost the same as this, and it's still in the family. This one - and most of the ornaments upon it - were the pride and joy of Charlie's late wife Molly.

I had to photograph from an angle to avoid reflections in the mirror and I'm afraid the ornaments on the left are not sharp, which is a pity because the Anne Dalton posy vase is beautiful. I shall post more of her ceramics another time - and in focus!

The brown slipware bowl and china shoe are the work of Muriel Hopwood, and since her pieces are rather rare nowadays I feel very lucky to have them. The art nouveau lustre vase was produced by Glassblowing of Greenwich. 

The bowl of fruit is lovely - a gift made by a South African miniaturist - I know oranges and bananas were seldom seen in England in 1948, let alone heaped up luxuriously in a bowl, so this is going to have to be a display of wax fruit if Charlie is to have it at all. 

I see from my statistics that this blog has reached viewers as far apart as Brazil, South Korea and Lithuania and I just want to say welcome to everyone who has visited so far. I hope you return often to see how the shop/house is developing. I shall be putting faces to Charlie, Frankie and Edna for you before very long - and the mysterious lodger too - so do drop in and make their acquaintance.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Adapt and alter

Long ago I tried building a shop/house that I had designed myself. I didn't really know how to go about it properly and, sure enough, the plans foundered as soon as I reached the second storey! Yet certain things had worked and I found a few of them the other day, stashed away in a box in the spare bedroom.

I'd taken an ordinary panelled door, similar to the one below (left) and altered it by removing the upper panels (centre) with the help of a sharp blade. These I replaced with two rectangles cut from food packaging conveniently patterned like mini-frosted glass (I used the same idea for the skylight in 'A little kit bashing').

The rediscovered door is going to lead us from Charlie's kitchenette out into the yard. It replaces the MDF door that came with the Bon Marché kit. An extra alteration will be to remove the bar across the the threshold, so the ground floor tab fits under the door instead. At present the door is hinged on vertical pins (right), once the threshold bar has gone, I'll be able to swap them for standard hinges like those on the floor in the centre picture. By the way, it saves time and temper to glue the hinges in place with a contact adhesive first and then to tap in the little brass pins - preferably before the walls are assembled so you don't have to turn yourself into a contortionist.

I don't think that either of the MDF side doors looks right, especially when all the rest are genuinely wood-panelled. It's the only quibble I have with the kit; the MDF doors are fairly wide and completely blank on the reverse. However, both will make excellent dummy doors elsewhere in the house, so they won't be wasted.

What I particularly like about my 'new' door is the paint that I mixed from four separate Humbrol colours: emerald, white, cream and flesh. It reproduces the utilitarian mid-green seen all over the town in the 1940s and 50s. They painted it on railings, lamp-posts, factory gates, even on our council dust-carts (refuse trucks) - hence the general name'Corporation green'.

Because paint would have been scarce, like everything else soon after the war, my guess is that Charlie and son Frankie had a few friends among the council workmen who came to buy their boots and overalls from Brennans, and paid for them in part exchange with remnants of green paint that the Corporation wouldn't miss! 

Along with the door, I also found a length of card in the same green. It was meant to line the kitchen wall and has been scored with a fine ball stylus to imitate tongue and groove matchboarding. There's a matching length of moulding to neaten the top edge. I'm thinking this can go upstairs in the Brennans' main kitchen, next to the sitting room.
Yet more Corporation green from the stash. This square window should fit neatly over the sink  at the back of the shop. There won't be a view through it, only more frosted glass. . .

. . . but there are many patterns, and you can be sure none of them match in the Brennans' household. Below are two small plastic food trays that look like reeded glass.

One pattern is slightly larger than the other so I'll use that in just one of the square window panes, where Frankie's done a repair and couldn't manage a perfect match.

Finally, this touch of chinoiserie among the caboodle actually started out in Taiwan as a European-style display cabinet. I converted it to Chinese lacquer with a coat of black enamel painted directly onto the wood. Before painting, I removed the acetate glazing; it sticks back in quite easily with contact adhesive. 

When the enamel had dried, I painted the dragons and pagodas etc in gold with a very fine brush. I didn't need any varnish, but if you ever do apply varnish to gold paint be sure and test it first in case it runs - some of the golds do - and it's heartbreaking to watch all your artwork dissolve in front of your eyes. For the mother-of-pearl inlay, I cut up iridescent sequins and stuck them here and there, then I dulled the red-brown of the shelves with black ink.

The cabinet contains an exquisite crazed white pot bought from Elisabeth Causeret this year at Kensington. It also holds a small perfume sprinkler made of bone, two tiny clay birds from Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, and an Aladdin's lamp off an old charm bracelet. 

The Chinese scene in the glass showcase is a gold-star find from a seaside gift shop. As children, my daughters were invaluable scouts for treasure among the tat. Never walk past one of those places without a swift look round, I can't resist them and Charlie's taste in curios knows no bounds.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Think electric

This past week I have been away in Suffolk, staying in a lovely cottage beside a mill stream, looking out across a huge water meadow. I can thoroughly recommend the soothing effect of watching cattle grazing and swans gliding by - with just the occasional appearance of a flashy little kingfisher for a change of pace now and then.

Martin Butler of Small World Products lives in rural Suffolk, in a village not far from Woodbridge. We drove to meet him in his new studio one afternoon and enjoyed a very amiable 'tutorial' on the dolls house wiring system. I left with a 3-Amp digital power supply, which can cope with 1-60 wired bulbs (that'll do nicely on my calculations for Brennans, plus plenty to spare). Other purchases were Grain of Wheat (GOW) bulbs on brown wires rather than white, which will look really authentic in a 1948 setting. I also got some ready-wired LED strips - less soldering for me - which can be stuck discreetly in recesses, window pelmets etc for a fill-in light where needed. 

With apologies for the rubbish focusing (my fault not the camera's), here is the ideal place for an LED strip, right at the back of the shop under the stairs, near the back door (the opening on the right). This is Charlie's kitchenette. There'll be a gas ring for the kettle, and a sink, and probably a dummy window. The main shop lights won't illuminate this area but a hidden LED strip will. And no worries about a harsh blue light, LEDs are available in warmer 'candle colour' as well.

Last week I taped the house and inner walls together with black duct tape to help decide precisely where the wires should run. Below is another fuzzy shot (sorry again), showing the entrance hallway and stairs this time. It's taken from the other side of the doorway on the left in the picture above. As you can see from the position of the stairs, I won't be able to feed many wires directly from light fittings through the rear wall to connect with the power supply.

Instead I shall have to use skirting boards and ceiling covings to carry concealed wires to the 12-switch power controller that I plan to site out in the yard. This is the special piece of kit I shall collect from Martin next month at Kensington. I'm going to have fun organizing which lights are to go on and off with each switch!

A by-product of the duct-tape exercise was to swap the interior walls between floors 2 and 3. The bedrooms on floor 3 seemed better candidates for having two separate doors. (That's a book you can see through the left-hand doorway, temporarily supporting the inner wall). 

On Floor 2 I will also gain a larger living room that reaches the full depth of the house in one corner, which would definitely be more interesting than just another plain flight of stairs seen through the side opening panel.

The caboodle this time is the art deco style plastic teapot that came with the wavy plate in my first dolls house. It's hugely out of scale - like the not-quite-so-old pearlised cup - and sadly it dwarfs any 1/12 table. But I love it, especially the colour, and shall find a place for it somewhere in the shop, possibly as a left-over from the Bluebell Tea Rooms.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Back to the front

I pasted the first of the fibreglass brickwork sheets to the front opening panel a couple of weeks ago. I used an entire sheet and left it to dry over twenty-four hours. Though it feels fairly thick, it folds back around the edges quite readily. In fact, I found it just as easy to apply as ordinary paper. And like all wallpaper, it should be glued thoroughly on the back (here with a PVA adhesive). This fibreglass brickwork comes with a realistic sprinkling of sand in the mortar lines, so I smoothed it all down by pressing the surface firmly with a soft pad made from an old T-shirt.

I laid the panel face down on some thick cardboard and cut out the windows from the back with a medical scalpel. Best not to try cutting while the sheet is still damp, it can pucker and tear. 

Scalpels and craft knives are great tools so long as you're careful not to slice your other hand (though I'm afraid most people tend to do this at least once!). When not in use, any cutting tool without a retractable blade should be stored with the sharp point pushed safely into a wine cork. Please don't be tempted to use the same old blade for too long; a blunt tool is actually more dangerous than a sharp one because it won't cut cleanly in one go.

Two more pieces of brickwork sheet were needed to fill in the rest of the front. The trapezium shape you can see sticking up is the floor section that slots into the bay. I fitted the bay window assembly on top to see the effect.

And having finished cutting out the window spaces, inserting the cream plastic window frames, and setting the shop front in position . . .

this is what Brennan's looks like so far. You could almost expect to see someone standing at one of those windows . . .

but no, because below is what it really looks like from the other side . . . 

 see, there's no one there after all. And so much more to be done!

Just a little caboodle this time, some of the antique shop stock from Brennan's pre-war days. On the floor is an eighteenth-century wine cooler or 'cellaret', I have it on Charlie's authority that early wine bottles were short and squat. The majolica fish jug and leaf dish are set on the spindly Taiwan table together with an eighteenth-century tea caddy (another lockable item, like the cellaret, apparently servants were not much trusted in those days).

Next time I shall probably be talking about amps, volts etc because I am due to visit the home of Small World Products,