Saturday, 21 June 2014

All Lit Up!

Here we come to the more complicated part of the blog... Not because the work was any more complicated - most of the really tricky stuff was either done or planned out. It's complicated for a slightly embarrassing reason.

At this point in the proceedings, my involvement with the refurbishment had basically dropped off entirely so, while I have photos - taken by my mother - I have no personal notes to make on the work. From here on, it's likely that most of my remaining posts will be of the "and here are a few photos of this part of the job" variety, with any comments that may occur to me or things that my parents told me about the work.

I'm hoping things will get a bit more interesting when my sister starts posting...

But, for the moment, here's another bit about the wiring... which was basically complete by the time I next visited. As you will see in the first photograph, the wiring was all neatly bound together in the loft an all the sockets were occupied...

...but, hang on, eleven lights and twelve occupied sockets? How does that happen? Especially when, in theory, the two ground floor hall lights should have been wired together... Well, it turns out that, at some point, the decision was made to add a second 'extension lead' into the lounge, giving three additional sockets on either side of the room, demonstrated here by the appearance of a floor lamp and a smaller table lamp in the lounge.

While some of the lights don't seem to give off a great deal of illumination (most notably the dome light visible in the top right room in the lower pair of photos which, I believe, became the bathroom), having all these lights does make the house look all the more 'cosy'. The chandeliers in the lounge hang down a bit too far (the floor lamp would probably bump into them), but they do suit the room pretty well.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Glazing Over

After trying out several of the more ornate options, my mother settled on the simplest form of window frame for the dolls' house. Part of the issue was that we needed a total of eighteen windows - four each side, with five front and back - and, by this point, we didn't have time to fuss over finding matching sets in several sizes... or the funds, for that matter. We did discuss the idea of blocking up the side windows, both to simplify the eventual task of adding brickwork to the outer surfaces and to reduce the number of windows we'd need to prepare and install. My feeling was that the side windows added immeasurably to the overall look of the house, and to the natural light that could get in for daytime play.

The most basic form of window frame available came in two thin MDF halves, each featuring space for two panes. Since our test fittings had already installed (more ornate) central windows above the front and back doors, we only needed sixteen more frames, a total of 32 pieces. Each one was given a coat of white gloss paint to make them look as close to proper (albeit simple and toy-like) window frames...

But that's not all... The dolls' house's original windows were glazed... albeit with plastic barely thicker or more rigid than cling-film (slight exaggeration... but most of them had warped to some degree, several had broken 'hinges', and the 'frames' were largely painted on) and we did want to have properly glazed windows, even though we weren't installing windows that would open this time round.

Glazing was achieved simply by gluing the frame to a sheet of clear acetate, ensuring the parts were clamped together securely to allow them to bond adequately. Once the glue had set, the excess acetate was cut away from the outer edges of the frame.
Fully tooled up: that's a total of five clamps being used

The end result - glazed dolls' house windows
At first, it seemed like a shame to have all the windows the same size. I had hoped we'd make it look more like a real house by having different sizes of windows - larger ones for the through lounge in particular - but this project had a budget, in terms of both time available to work on it and money available to pay for the parts, so these cheap-and-cheerful window frames made sense. They also look just right as dolls' house windows because, when you think about it, when children first start drawing houses, they tend to have square windows with four panes...

Sunday, 18 May 2014


One of the coolest aspects of the dolls' house my father built was that, like a proper house, it was fully wired for electricity. I don't just mean that it had lights, I mean it had individually switchable room lights as well as a set of wall sockets in the lounge, enabling my sister to plug in extra features, including a miniature TV and a free-standing lamp.

Originally, this was accomplished by running wires from the lights, via a switch embedded in the back wall of each room (in the ceilings for the hallways) up to a junction block in the loft. The extra sockets in the lounge were on an entirely separate spur, without a switch, which also connected into the junction block. From this block, a single power cable was fed back down through the bottom of the house and out to a mains transformer, kept safe from prying fingers in a large metal box affixed to the base, outside the house.

For its time, it was a pretty good solution but, to a perfectionist like my father, sprucing up the rest of the house was an opportunity to re-do and improve all the wiring. All of the light fittings were being replaced, and the new fittings came with surprisingly long wires ending in their own individual plugs. Rather than wire them in fully, as originally, it seemed most logical to take advantage of this more modular approach and have all the lights plugged in to a fused socket strip (such as this one) in the loft, which would then connect to the mains via a new, smaller transformer.

This raised some very important questions, though. If the lights were going to be 'plug and play', would they still need switches? Was there really any necessity to have light switches at all, considering it was "just a dolls' house"? Would it not be acceptable for all the lights to be either on or off, dependent only on whether or not the house itself was plugged in and switched on at the wall?

Well, if my father tends towards perfectionism, I have a tendency to insist on the most impressive and complicated option available, if only because making it happen is more satisfying. Besides, that's how it was originally, and I saw no reason to downgrade that feature. Wiring in the lights would be easy... adding the switches into the wiring supplied with the lighting set would be fiddly... but the end result would be all the better for it.

Step 1: Making Ready
With all the technical decisions made, the first thing that had to be dealt with was the rather excessive lengths of chain attached to some of the light fittings. Since the house is two-storey, the ceilings aren't especially high and, straight from the packaging, the light fittings dangled pretty much half way to the floor. The solution was easy enough: yank the wire through the part that attaches it to the ceiling until the lamp hung at a more sensible height... then shorten the chain. This was accomplished with fine-tipped pliers, and the discarded links stashed in a handy plastic pot in case they came in handy for something. Some of the light fittings ended up having the entire chain removed, leaving only the two larger rings from either end.
You can see clearly that there was a huge excess of chain

As far as I know, we never did find a use for the chain

Most of the light fittings gained about 3-4cm of wire
once they reached a more suitable size for this house

Some of the additional light fittings we bought later, such as the chandeliers for the lounge, were fitted with rigid metal tubes rather than chain, so they weren't shortened.

Step 2:Exploratory Work
Next we had to ensure we had a suitable length of wire - each of the fittings seemed to have a heck of a length, but if we needed to order more, we ideally needed to know before we made a start on things, as the availability of wire might determine how some aspects of the wiring were accomplished. The socket strip, being the hub for the rest of the electricals, was installed first, up in the loft. I place it on the framework of the roof simply because that was the smoothest surface available... but then it struck me that the socket strip would be in the way if we wanted to add another floor in the loft. My father reckoned it'd be possible to work around it, though, and we all agreed that this was about the only sensible location for the sockets.

Next, it's trailing cable was fed down through the house - seen below in what would be the cavity between walls at the front and back of the house...

At this point, the existing connectors at the end of the wires - a pair of forked connectors, intended for screwing down to something - had be to removed. First and foremost, they weren't needed for what we were doing. Even if they were, though, the wires had to be fed through a small metal pipe embedded in a slot cut out of the base - one of the many improvements my father made to the model.

Originally, there was only a very shallow groove cut out, and the trailing wire tended not to stay there. Since the intended recipient of this refurbished dolls' house is far younger than the original owner was, safety is a greater concern. This pipe keeps the wire in place and reduces the likelihood that it would be pulled just through moving the model around.

The trailing end of the wire was attached to a new socket, into which the power feed from a newer, smaller transformer can be plugged. The transformer then plugs straight into the mains.

Step 3: Choices, Choices...
All of the lights then had to be assigned a room. This turned out to be quite tricky since most of them came from a multipack containing a variety of styles... some of them didn't really fit anywhere (being a bit too 'traditional' or old fashioned) and there wasn't a single matching pair among them, so we had to be both pretty creative and open to compromise. Once their locations were decided, their plugs were stripped off and their wires fed through into the roof. Removing the plugs was incredibly easy as their construction is very simple - pluck out the pins and the wires are loose, they can be pulled out without effort.

At this point, there was more than enough slack on all the wires for them to reach the roof area, but we were still in some doubt as to whether they'd all stretch to the sockets... Some of them almost certainly wouldn't but, for the time being, all the wires were taped in place, with some slack, just to keep them in the loft.

The socket strip has twelve sockets, sufficient to cover the light fittings and the additional sockets for the lounge. It also features a power switch of its own, a fuse and a small light that goes on when the fuse blows. This would make diagnosing any future lighting failures a bit easier, since if only a couple of lights won't work, we'll know that the bulbs need replacing, but if nothing works, it's more likely to be the fuse.

In the original house, both the ground floor and the landing each had a single ceiling-mounted light fitting. This led to the area behind the staircase being in shadows and, since we had a spare wall-mounting lamp, I figured it'd be cool to use that to light the area behind the stairs.

By this point, however, carpet had already been fitted to the staircase, and my father was concerned that the wire would have to trail over the carpet to get to the point where all the wires feed up into the loft. Undaunted, I gave it a go. It was simple enough to feed the wire through the gap between the wall and the staircase, while the carpet was able to cover over and keep the wire in place for the short distance between the top of that gap and the top of the staircase. Not a perfect solution, maybe, but it should keep the wire from being played with by a certain precocious youngster.
If you look closely, you can just about make
out the wire hugging the wall on the left at
the top of the stairs...

Obviously the lamp will be the right way up
when it's mounted on the wall...

The extra socket block would replace of the original, roughly halfway through the lounge, at the bottom of the outer wall. Considering the route it would have to take, up to the first floor then through into the room where all the wires come together to access the loft, it was pretty obvious that there wasn't going to be enough wire to fit it immediately. Attaching it to the inner wall might have improved matters, but additional wire would, eventually, become necessary to complete the project in any event.

Step 4: Soldering In
Since we were keeping the individual switches for each light fitting, we needed to insert them into the existing wires. This meant cutting one of the two wires feeding each light, stripping back some of the insulation, soldering in the switches we'd taken out of the original wiring, then fitting the switches back into the walls. It sounds pretty simple, but working within the constraints of a house that was already built and could not be easily disassembled beyond a certain point, the practical side of things was tricky. First and foremost, we knew that some part of the original system was faulty because some of the lights didn't work when the house was first brought out of storage. Blown bulbs were the obvious culprit, but some time spent testing the switches with a multimeter suggested that some of them were also faulty. If a two-position switch doesn't have a position where its resistance reads as something other than 'infinite', that means there's no longer an 'on' position.

Next up, due to the positioning of the light switches - on the rear wall of each room - the wires from each room had to loop down from the ceiling to the switch before heading up into the loft. This reduced the length of wire available to reach to the sockets. The wires had to be cut reasonably precisely to patch in the switch with enough slack that the switches could then be easily attached to the walls. The switches we used are a fairly basic type which come with a threaded area at the base of the switch and a nut to hold it in place. The drawback we had was that, with the walls made out of hardboard, the holes had to be widened at the back to allow enough of the threaded section to pass through for the nut to even attach, let alone attach securely.

The switches had initially only been roughly clipped out of the original circuits so, before they could be soldered in to the new system, the remnants of the old wiring had to be removed. Here's where things get tricky, because excessive use of a soldering iron can easily damage small components like these switches. I volunteered to start the soldering, just to see how fiddly it was. To begin, I wound the wires through and around the contacts so they'd at least stay connected while I attempted to solder them together. Trying to work around the walls was difficult - the wire had to be held away from the rear walls so I could reach them - and, at one point, I even tried sticking the soldering iron in through the side window to get a good angle for working. The trouble was, I need two hands free for soldering - one to hold the iron, one to hold the coil of solder - meaning I had no hands free for holding the switch and wires away from the wall. Since there wasn't enough space to have someone else hold the switch while I was working, and attempting to make the joint while someone else held the coil proved next to impossible, I ended up balancing a kind of lever (a screwdriver or similar tool) on one of the window frames. Very delicate, but it just about worked... eventually.

It took a lot longer than it should have done, but I'm not exactly experienced with soldering under good conditions, let alone inside a tiny room in a dolls house. Eventually, though, I got there... One switch down, eight more to go!
One light switch, soldered into place!

Before proceeding with any others, however, I just had to fix the switch into the wall and give it a try. Would it blow the fuse immediately? Would the switch turn out to have been too badly damaged by my fumbling attempts with a soldering iron? Would there be smoke? Fire?

It worked! It was pretty cool to see the room lit up but, in spite of all the strife I'd had with the soldering, I'd been dealing with one of the easier fittings, onto one of the fixed walls. Adding switches to the walls that had been removed was going to be far more difficult... However, in between this visit and the next, my father completed the rest of the wiring.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Alternative Roofing Materials

Even before trying the faux-brickwork paste on the walls, my mother had some misgivings about attempting a similar trick for the roof. In theory, it wouldn't be that complicated - possibly simpler than the walls, even, because the roof is made up of large, flat, even surfaces, broken up only by the chimney stack on one side. Frankly, it seemed like a bit of a faff because the roof was a much larger area to be covered, larger than the tile template and so requiring and awful lot of matching-up, whereas each wall section was smaller in width, at least.

Thankfully, other options were available. The roof was originally just papered but, as the photo in the very first post shows, paper didn't really pass the test of time, and much of it was peeling back in the 80s. Sticking on individual tiles would have become even more of a chore than using the tile paste, and strips of tile would still need to be carefully aligned. The most practical solution available came in the form of large sections of embossed MDF, such as these from The Dolls House Emporium.

At 206x618mm, they were certainly large enough to cover the front and rear faces of the roof, though until they were cut to requirement, we had no way to be sure they would be sufficient to cover the sides as well.

There was the additional complication that a solution like this would require the corner seams to be covered, lest they clash or appear uneven, but there were solutions for that, too. Rather than filling the gaps with Polyfilla or glue, there were L-shaped wood strips available which could be cut to the required length to simulate a row of ridge tiles. The only problem then would be accessibility to the wires and sockets in the 'attic'. We had also started to discuss a full 'loft conversion' for the house, adding another floor to cover the trailing wires. Affixing 'ridge tiles' might complicate that sort of thing and, if we were planning on hinging the roof, we wouldn't be able to add it to the summit of the house as it would block the hinge...

...Still, however you look at it, it was going to be far simpler than mixing up the roofing paste and larking about with the template, and certainly better than working with individual tiles or even strips of tiles... Plus, these are embossed to look like overlapping tiles, whereas the paste-and-template option would still look more like brickwork.

Since these parts were ordered during the run-up to Christmas, we got a free gift along with the order - a rather cool-looking miniature Christmas sack filled with individually-wrapped gifts. Quite a nice and unexpected gift with the order, and something to add a seasonal touch to the dolls' house in years to come...

Monday, 21 April 2014

Experiments in Brickwork

In earlier posts, I mentioned that my mother had bought materials for adding a brickwork effect to the exterior of the dolls' house. It's basically a powder that is mixed with water to create a grout-like paste which is then applied over a thin plastic template and allowed to dry, then fixed in place with a spray.

There are two obvious problems with this, looking at our dolls' house:
  • Sections of wall are inset versus the house's framework, making it difficult to fit the template and get an even application of the paste
  • How were we supposed to represent the mortar between the bricks?
There were several solutions to the first, not least my idea of adding Polyfilla to the outside wall to give us a nice, even surface. At this stage, I'm not sure that's likely to happen, but my mother had a go at painting the outside wall panels with a mortar-ish yellow before trying out the brick texture mix for the first time...

The template is a bit of an awkward size and shape, not to mention rather flimsy - it is nothing more than a very thin sheet of plastic with lots of holes in it, after all. We knew it would have to be cut down, one way or another, but for a first attempt, the less cutting, the better - we didn't want to have to order a new one if it went wrong.

As the photos above show, applying the paste to the inset wall panels wasn't easy - around the edges, where the paste had to meet the raised framework, it became incredibly difficult to keep the paste even and accurate and, as the template was pulled away, the excess invariably pulled away with it, leaving the surface very rough and slightly concave.

Thankfully, it all washes off easily enough without the fixer spray applied...
As a first experiment, it was instructive and suggested that, if it was done with a smaller quantity and with the template cut precisely to fit (tricky in this case, because the wall panels are not precisely the same size), the end result should look great.

Apologies... and back to work!

Apologies for the rather long and unannounced hiatus on this project. Just about all of my blogging got went through a slump, for no real reason, between last November and this March, with a couple of them grinding to a complete halt between December and February. It's not that I was too busy, just that I wasn't in the mood for any kind of writing, least of all the kind I have to do for any of my blogs. What can I say? I'm a bit of a blogging diva.

For this blog, specifically, there was an almost-reason for the slump. The idea behind this blog was that, while not permanently employed, I'd be assisting my folks in the refurbishment of the dolls' house. It didn't really turn out that way, and many updates - certainly the few more to come - are largely me putting together some kind of commentary to photos my folks took while I wasn't around.

I am very grateful for these photos, and deeply regret not being more involved in the work that went into it. The dolls' house was more-or-less completed around Christmas/New Year, and has been with my niece since then... so I feel that I didn't do enough with the opportunity to get involved and thereby let my family down. There's really no excuse - I was 'between jobs' and frequently at home, idle, while the bulk of the work was done and only got back into permanent employment about three weeks ago.

Still, the dolls' house is done, bar the inevitable additions, improvements and (dare I say?) repairs which will be spread out over the next few years, while my niece enjoys playing with it. My original plan was to have had the whole refurbishment written up by this point in the process, and do a semi-formal handing over of the blog to my sister, so she can write in whatever thoughts and observations she has, and maybe add in some stories of her own, from all those years ago.

At this stage, I have four more posts at the Draft stage. Aside from those, I need to start a post on the finished lighting and the final touches to/reassembly of the house before it was declared 'finished' and transported to its new home. At that point, unless something else turns up, my part in this blog is theoretically over.

My aim today is to do at least one 'proper' post here (after all, I've added posts to most of my other blogs by this point), and fill in some details on the remaining drafts, so I can get on with completing it more easily soon.