Seven steps — and 70 hours (!) — for Kate to build a dollhouse from scratch

dollhouse-patternKate-Builds-a-DIY-DollhouseAre you ready to read the epic tale of a modern girl trying to build a vintage dollhouse from an original pattern? You can take the trip in warp speed — in comparison to the 70+ hours it took me to construct this 1955 McCall’s Do-It-Yourself Dollhouse. Yes, 70 hours. This one was not a walk in the park. My journey was filled with frustration and required loads of patience, but the end result: nothing short of amazing, if I do say so myself!

Midcentury Dollhouse

Step #1: Decoding the dollhouse pattern — what a headache

When the vintage 1955 McCall’s Do-It-Yourself Dollhouse pattern arrived in the mail, I excitedly looked at it right away. My excitement soon faded when I realized just how much work building the dollhouse would entail. The kit included multiple pattern pieces embossed on to four sheets of thin tracing paper and one instruction sheet. There were so many different pieces to be transferred from pattern to plywood, cut out, sanded, assembled, etc. and the instructions themselves were not terribly clear. But, the urge to build a miniature house was strong, so I took a big deep breath, and started trying to figure out my plan of attack.

Making sense of the four large iron-on transfer sheets was not only confusing enough — but also:

  • Not marked on the sheets but in the instructions, it said I needed to draw several other large, rectangular pattern pieces for the base of the house and the roof onto the plywood.
  • I had to carefully read the instructions to gather several different sizes of dimensional scrap lumber and square dowel for parts like the fireplace, chimney and stairs.
  • I had to sort through all of the pattern pieces to understand each and every one, because I did not need all of them — I opted not to make a “front” to the dollhouse that would have completely enclosed the house.
  • There were several long, skinny strips on the pattern sheets that were supposed to be cut from the plywood and used as an edge for the dollhouse’s roof. Because I was using power tools — and value my fingers — I opted not to try ripping these tiny pieces from my large sheets of plywood. Instead, I found some leftover thin wood lattice scraps that I had laying around from a different project to use. Fingers saved…
  • … but ouch, my headache making it through all this … minutiae.

And this was just start…

Step #2: Iron the pattern on to the plywood

My original 1955 Betsy McCall dollhouse pattern featured tissue paper-like sheets with embossing that was supposed to be ironed directly on to plywood. 60 years later: Would the iron-on still work? Time to see if the (expensive) pattern that Pam purchased for me on etsy.com would work.

Once I figured out exactly which pattern pieces were needed, I set to work transferring the pattern onto my plywood using my iron. I also marked the additional large rectangular pieces from the instructions and tried to find lumber scraps around the house to make the rest of the parts, like the stairs and chimney. Hurray: Yes: For a 60-year-old pattern, the iron-on transfer ink still worked fairly well, much to my relief, though I had to be very careful not to tear the fragile pattern.

Step #3: Cut out the wood pieces

I managed to cut out all of the parts with my power saw and other various power and hand tools in about 6 hours. The instructions say that power tools can be helpful in speeding along the construction process and they aren’t kidding. I can’t imagine trying to cut every single piece carefully with a hand saw — it would take forever.

Midcentury DollhouseStep #4: Assembling the house

I’m not going to lie — assembling the house was one of the most difficult, frustrating projects I’ve done thus far for Retro Renovation. Pam asked me if building this dollhouse was more frustrating that gut remodeling my retro pink master bathroom.  “After doing your bathroom,” she asked all nonchalant like, “how frustrating can a little dollhouse be?” Well, a dollhouse is tiny, which means there is a tiny margin for error. Every millimeter counts, which makes it frustrating in a totally different way than say, tackling a bathroom remodel. Trying to hold one piece of 1/8″ thick plywood straight… while holding a second piece perpendicular to it… and then connecting the two by hammering a 3/4″ wire brad nail in straight without popping through the plywood… was very challenging, to say the least.

Midcentury DollhouseI did not take any photos from the assembly because I was so frustrated. At one point, I thought that the house simply would not come together. The directions do not tell you which way is up for each piece, so you kind of have to guess. Many times I decided to kick the whole thing out into the back yard I had to take two pieces apart because I had mistakenly put something on upside down or backwards. $%&!!!!

Midcentury DollhouseThere were some choice words and expletives flying around, but in the end, I am quite stubborn and managed to buckle down and get the house together. Phew.

I would like to give mad props to any mom or dad or grandparent or relative from 1955 who single-handedly attempted to make one of these houses for their child at all — but especially in time for the holidays. I hope they started months ahead of time — and had the help of a power saw.

Midcentury DollhouseStep #4: Trim and siding

The directions said to use the same size square dowel rod from the carport posts to trim out the windows. Since my window openings were far from perfect and square, I decided to put trim on both the outside and inside of each window — instead of just the outside like the instructions suggested — to give the house a more finished look. Thankfully, the trim was attached with wood glue, not brad nails.

Midcentury DollhouseNext, I cut and applied the roof edging, which immediately gave the house a much heftier feeling. Hey, this might turn out all right after all!

Midcentury DollhouseI also added a common midcentury home feature — a built in planter — on the inside of the dining room window, which I will later be filling with miniature greenery.

Step #5 — Add siding

It was at this point that Pam asked me how the dollhouse construction was progressing. I shared the whole long ordeal with her and instead of showing me too much pity for the epic and frustrating journey I had just completed, she said, “So what are you going to make the siding out of?”

Siding? Wait a minute, I was just going to paint it.

The instructions said to create siding by making lightly scratched indentations along the exterior of the house with a nail, which didn’t sound like it would be very easy or end up looking that great, so I was planning on skipping it all together until Pam asked about it.

Uh oh — the Pam idea machine had kicked into high gear. “Why not use popsicle sticks?” she said, even though that would require me to cut both of the the curved ends off of each stick before applying it to the house. Initially, I scoffed at her idea. But she encouraged me to go an expedition to Michaels et.al. to see what I could come up with. Soon enough, I was out the side door, in my car, then home again from the craft store with a box of 200 jumbo popsicle sticks (think tongue depressor sized) to use for the siding. Just. Shoot. Me. Now.

Midcentury DollhouseUsing the popsicle sticks meant that I had to cut the curved ends off of each stick before applying them one at a time to the dollhouse.  Thankfully, with the help of my trusty mini mitre box and mitre saw (*affiliate link) — a tool I had begrudgingly purchased in art school thinking I would never use it again, but which I now use constantly — I managed to cut five sticks at a time to make the process go a little faster.

Midcentury DollhouseIt was difficult to trim the sticks around the windows, but I managed — slowly. Then several days later, Pam again was eager to see my progress. I hesitantly sent her the photo above — which she loved — but of course, she had more ideas. This time she suggested that I apply some of the siding horizontally or apply stonework to create some interest and contrast on the exterior of the house where I had not yet finished siding. I knew what she was getting at, but couldn’t really envision suddenly changing the direction of the siding without changing the material I was using, nor did I want to add a second material that was noticeably thicker than the tongue depressor board and battenish.

Midcentury DollhouseWhile I continued my siding application therapy, I tried to think of a way to add more visual interest. It wasn’t until my husband suggested “bricking” the chimney with stone piano tile commonly used for modern day backsplashes, that the lightbulb went off. Yes, that was it!

Midcentury DollhouseI left a gap in the siding the width of the chimney for stone installation at a later date.

Midcentury DollhouseStep #6 — Priming and painting the dollhouse

When it comes to painting a house, there’s no color to choose beside grey, right? I kid, I kid. The blah paint job (above) is actually just the primer. Even I was shocked, because I though I bought white primer — oops. Don’t worry, I would never dream of making the inhabitants of this doll house live inside a storm cloud.

Midcentury DollhouseI primed every surface with the grey primer, inside and out, which took another several hours.

Midcentury Dollhouse

exterior paint colors 1960sWhile the primer dried, I tried to figure out what color scheme to use on the exterior of the house. Typically, I love pinks and pastels, but I didn’t want the dollhouse to feel overly girly. Remember, I’m making this for grown up Kate, not six-year-old Kate. I also needed something to go with the “bricks” aka tiles that I would be using on the chimney. I perused our archive of midcentury paint colors, and landed on Pam’s story: exterior colors for 1960 houses, where I found the color sheet above. Ultimately the red/colonial red color jumped out at me for the siding, and I decided on ivory for the trim. I picked a sandstone color for the roof. This paint scheme will make the house have high contrast, and the colors are bold enough so that the house feels like a miniature instead of a little girl’s toy — call it the grown-up’s dollhouse.

Midcentury Dollhouse Midcentury DollhouseI saved some time by not-so-carefully painting the the ivory first, since I would cutting in around the windows when painting the siding with a deep red, thus covering any outside-the-lines ivory paint.

Midcentury DollhouseI also used the ivory color paint for all of the ceilings and the carport.

Midcentury DollhouseThe red did not cover well… it took time to cut in around the windows… and the grooved siding took extra effort to paint… so painting the exterior siding was a four-coat, time consuming job. Difficult paint job aside, I absolutely love the way it turned out, so it was worth the effort.

Midcentury Dollhouse Midcentury DollhouseFinally, I carefully painted the roof the sandstone color.

Midcentury DollhouseFinal step: “Bricking” the chimney

Finally, it was on to “bricking” the chimney. First, I needed to remove scores of itsy mosaic stone tiles from their mesh backing. I found these honed marble mosaic tiles at Home Depot. They were not cheap at $14.99 per sheet, but I only needed one sheet to complete the chimney, and they were perfect for the “Roman Brick” look I was trying to achieve.

midcentury dollhouseI attached the tiles to the dollhouse with some leftover tile mastic from my bathroom project.

midcentury dollhouse midcentury dollhouseThe “brick” really ties the whole look together, doesn’t it? Okay, Pam, you get props for pushing me on the whole ‘balanced asymmetry’-add-another-material-to break-up-that-long-run-o-siding thing. And on the popsicle stick board and batten, too!

midcentury dollhouseI even added a small cap on the chimney using the same tiles standing up on end. It was difficult to trim the tiles at an angle, but despite the chimney not being perfect, I still think it turned out very well.

Constructing this dollhouse: How long did it take? How much did it cost?

Surviving, intact, iron-on patterns from 1955 are not easy to find and therefore, expensive. Pam shelled out a whopping $73 to buy the pattern itself — a far cry from the days that they sold for 60 cents as printed on the pattern sleeve. Pam said she later chased the same pattern on ebay, for her hoard collection, but let it go once it passed $20. It sold for just over $20, but who knows how high it would have gone and/or how long you’d have to wait for one.

The cost to construct the basic dollhouse — not including the interior decoration yet to come — thus far is $80. That includes plywood, paint, primer, nails, trim, wood glue, tile for the chimney and the popsicle sticks for the siding. It also takes into account that I had some wood scraps and mastic on hand to use, as well as tools and sandpaper.

This brings the total cost for pattern and basic construction supplies to $153. Cost to decorate: Yet to come. Pam has given me $100 budget, with the stipulation that I cannot buy anything new. All must be vintage or homemade.

Most of the “cost” of this dollhouse was in the form of time. From the moment I first unfolded at the dollhouse plans until I laid the final brick on the chimney, I estimate I invested a good 70+ hours into the dollhouse’s construction. 70 hours for: reading and understanding directions, transferring pattern, cutting it out, sanding all pieces, putting all pieces together, light sanding, attaching siding, putting on trim, prime, paint, and finally, bricking chimney. Phew.

With the outside of the dollhouse finally complete, now I can move to the fun part — decorating the inside rooms. I’ve already started trying to find vintage furniture that is the right scale within my $100 budget, and Pam has sent me a box of goodies — vintage wallpapers, cork and small tiles she bought from the World of Tile liquidation sale. Let the decorating begin!

Read the entire series —
Kate builds and decorates a 1955 Betsy McCall DIY Dollhouse


Categoriespostwar culture
  1. betsy gundry says:

    Hi, I have the betsy McCall dollhouse that I purchsed already built but it is in rough shape. I see yours does not have a door. This house has a front that comes off with an ugly fixed door and a missing window, I don’t know where to start. Outside or in. But I will use your oictures as a guide. Did you have a front that latches on and off. And any helpful advice to get started. Now that we are stuck in doors. Might be a good time to start.

Comments are closed.