You should read through the Greenleaf Warm Up Sheet before beginning your dollhouse. Besides the tips I will give here, it also has useful information for your assembly.
Though dye-cut, plywood dollhouses have a reputation for parts not fitting correctly, 99% of the time it's because the shell was not assembled properly. The other 1% is a misalignment with the dye stamp, which is extremely rare.
Dollhouse shell assemblies start from the base of the dollhouse on up and if the base is just a millimeter off alignment, the entire dollhouse will not come together properly. The more parts you add to it, the more parts will not fit. By the time you reach the roof, you entire dollhouse will look more like a fun house. That little neglected millimeter, at the base when you first started, has turned into inches by the time you reach the second floor.
But why does this happen? The main reason is simple, tabs are not fitting into slots. Sometimes the slots are too narrow for the tabs to fit into them, other times finished parts will swell with moisture from paint or wallpaper paste, causing tabs to swell larger than the slots they have to go into. Whatever the reason, one tab not going properly into a slot, can mean disaster for your project.
A lot of first time dollhouse builders can become very frustrated when this happens. Many will simply just cut their losses and leave the tab out of its slot and proceed with the rest of the build. Sometimes they will leave a large gap where the tab did not go fully into the slot because they are tired of struggling with it. Unbeknownst to them, they just made a serious mistake.
Like it or not, tab and slots serve a purpose. They are there as a guide to make sure that the dollhouse's walls and floors are aligned properly for correct assembly. They also help add strength to the dollhouse joints and keep the dollhouse together. You have to make sure that all of your tabs go into their slots fully. The best way to ensure this, is to begin this process from the base.
Below I have a list of tips for assembling a dollhouse shell correctly and to successfully cross over the tab and slot hurdle. Though I made this guide specifically for dye-cut, tab and slot dollhouses, the tips below work for any type of wooden dollhouse kit.
Check Your Materials
After you have prepared your work area, make sure you have all of the materials needed for the assembly on hand. The materials needed to build a simple dollhouse shell are:
- Craft/utility knife
- Black marker
- Wood glue
- Tacky glue
- Masking tape
- Medium grit sandpaper and a sanding block
- Nail file
- Small, sharp scissors
- Rubber mallet
- Binder clips and clamps
- 2lbs hand held weights (2 or more)
Never use hot melt glue to assemble your dollhouse shell, even if the instructions suggest it. If you want a long lasting, well built dollhouse, you need to assemble it using a combination of tacky and wood glue and you will have to wait out the drying times. The disadvantages of using hot melt glue are listed below.
- It can loosen and crack with time causing a failing structure some years later.
- It makes the dollhouse too rigid causing parts to not fit properly.
- It dries thickly between surfaces not allowing for parts to fit tightly and flush together.
- It is aesthetically unpleasant with it's many blobs and "spider webs". Both of which will interfere with the application of finishes.
- It dries too quickly, not allowing for parts to be positioned correctly.
- It can cause serious burns as you struggle with a glue gun while working with a complicated assembly process. You need both hands free for proper assembly.
Check Your Dollhouse Kit
When opening your dollhouse kit for the first time, be very careful to cut the packing tape, at the box seams, only. Do not try to cut the box in half as this can damage the windows, instructions and schematics which may be laying on top of the sheets.
- Open your dollhouse kit box and find the windows, schematics and instruction sheets. Store your windows away from your kit and work area. They are extremely fragile and can be scratched easily. Do not remove them from the film they come in or bring them into your work area until you are ready to install them.
- Read the instructions all the way through before assembly. This will help you become familiarized with each step and with all of your dollhouse's parts. Sometimes the instructions have specific tips for each step that can be missed if you try to read through them while assembling. Also, some instructions offer kit specific recommended finishes which you might like to use.
- Check your kit to make sure that it is complete. Sometimes a kit can come with missing sheets or scratched windows. Compare each sheet in your kit with the schematic drawings and use a black marker to mark each plywood sheet with its number. This makes the number easier to read and the sheet easier to find. Make sure you write the number over the original stamped number on the sheet so you don't accidentally mark a needed part.
If your dollhouse is from a manufacturer that is no longer in business you will have to make the missing part yourself. Many times the missing parts can be made using existing parts as templates (e.g, a right missing wall usually will be the same as the left wall, which you might have.) In this case, you can just use the left wall as a template to make your missing right wall. This is also usually true for missing floors. This would be the best case scenario and you have several options for doing this.
- Using Wood From The Hardware Store: If you have power tools, you can make the parts out of the same thickness plywood as your kit. These plywood sheets can be found in the lumber section of most hardware stores.
- Using Foam Core: If you don't have power tools, you can make the missing part from the same thickness, as your kit, foam core using a box cutter. Once foam core is finished, it is indistinguishable from wood. The only downside is that you can not stain it. You must paint or cover it.
- Using Basswood Or Balsa Wood Slabs: If you wish to stain your part or need smaller, missing parts, you can buy a slab of basswood or balsa wood from your local craft store, in the same thickness as the rest of your kit. You can find these in the wood craft section where the strip wood is. Though the slabs they sell at the craft store are not large enough to make missing floors or walls, for a one inch scale dollhouse, they are ideal for making missing window, door or porch trim. Balsa wood especially is ideal because it is very soft and light and can be easily cut with a craft knife or box cutter, using existing dollhouse parts as a template. Balsa wood can also be sanded easily, with a fingernail file, into more detailed, elaborate shapes.
Hopefully you will not have any missing parts and if you don't, then you can move on to the next step of preparing your kit.
Preparing Your Dollhouse Kit
Preparing a dollhouse kit requires a little decision making. There are two methods that can be used and they both have their positives and negatives.
Method 1: Leave all of the parts on the sheets and only remove them when the instructions tell you to. Sand them as you need them. (Recommended method for new builders.)
- It helps you identify parts quicker when you keep them neatly in their sheets.
- You don't have to worry about mislabeled parts or small parts becoming lost.
- It is far less confusing when your parts match your sheet schematics.
- Leaving all of the parts on their sheets until they are needed can be time and space consuming. You need to position large, wooden sheets in an area where you can flip through them easily and find the sheet you need.
- You will have continuous wood scraps everywhere as you remove more and more parts from the sheets. Handling the sheets continuously to look for parts can loosen them and you will have falling parts everywhere.
- It can be very annoying to have to pause the build in order to sand parts as they are needed. You will have to deal with sanding dust daily until your build is done. This can take weeks or months.
- Everything you need is already prepared. You don't have to pause your build in order to sand a part so you can move to the next step.
- You don't have to store large plywood sheets anywhere because your parts are neatly bagged and waiting for you.
- You only clean up wood scraps and sanding dust one time during your build and never have to do it again. Sometimes the scraps on these plywood sheets can weigh more than the assembled dollhouse!
- You must follow the schematics very carefully when labeling your parts so you don't become confused later and not know what a part is.
- A dollhouse kit can come with dozens of tiny parts that may look all the same, like a bunch of tiny, indistinguishable squares for example, and you can easily loose track of what they are.
- Removing parts from their sheets can easily cause you to lose a part, if they aren't labeled, bagged immediately and stored safely.
Always cut out the box photo of the dollhouse, if available, before you discard the kit box. Many times the box photo is the only good quality photo you will have of the assembled dollhouse and you would be surprised how helpful it will be as you build.
Keep the bottom side of the kit box your dollhouse came in. Flatten or cut off the sides and you can use it as a turntable while building, for easy access to your dollhouse from all angles.
Never use a sealant on your dollhouse. I am asked this question many times. I know that there are older dollhouse kit instructions that recommend sealing your dollhouses wood with shellac to protect it from paint, glue and paste. These are all of the materials needed to build your dollhouse so sealing it from these basically seals it from assembly and none of these materials will adhere or dry properly on your dollhouse.
Your dollhouse's wood does not need to be treated in any way. Later on, when you are ready to apply finishes to your dollhouse, you will use a light colored, matte primer to prepare the wood for wallpapering.
Punching Parts Out
You must always punch out pieces from the front to the back. The front side of your parts sheet is the side you can clearly see the dye cuts on. This is also the "good side" of your parts sheet and the side you will apply finishes to like paint and/or stain. You can use the eraser side of a pencil to help you punch out stubborn parts.
Sometimes, you will need to use a utility knife to help you punch out parts where the dye machine did not cut all the way through. This is rare with new kits but some older kits will have this problem.
Once you have decided how you will prepare your kit, there isn't much else to do than to begin.
Always follow the instructions when assembling your dollhouse shell. The instructions will take you step by step on what to do next. If you jump ahead of yourself, you will find that you may not be able to install the top floors because the walls are in the way. If you accidentally skip a wall, you might not be able to install it later because of other walls and floors in the way. It is vital that you take it one step at a time and are familiar with the sequence of steps.
Assemble using tacky glue. It does not drip easily and it's thick enough to remain where you put it even if you turn parts in different angles.
Be sure you are aware of the next step in the instructions as your finishing the current one. This will help you decide if you can stop the assembly and return to it later or not. Sometimes you must continue the assembly before the glue dries or you will not be able to fit parts properly afterwards. A rigid shell can cause unforeseen issues.
Using tacky and wood glue to build your kit, gives you more time to fit parts correctly, since the glues drying time is longer but be cautious. You need to be aware if your kit needs some flexibility in order to continue or not. The instructions will let you know ahead of time of this issue. That's why it's vital to not get ahead of yourself. Proceed in sequence.
Once the shell is assembled, go over every seam and joint with wood glue. This reinforces the structure. Wood glue is very runny and will easily fill in any spaces that the tacky glue did not cover. It's all right if it's a little messy. This is the dollhouse's shell and it will all be covered with finishes in the end. Wood glue is highly visible when wet but soon it will soak right into the wood and become semi-transparent.
Remember that wood glue does not dry clear, so never apply it on finished areas or areas you wish to stain.
If you want to write the date the dollhouse was assembled or sign your name, now is the time to do it. Just turn it upside down and sign on the underside of the dollhouse's base.
Never apply any finishes (e.g., wallpaper, flooring, ceiling paper) to your dollhouse until the shell is completely finished. Not only can you damage these finishes during the assembly process but they can also impede the proper placement and fit of parts. The only time you apply finishes to a dollhouse, during assembly, is when an area will become inaccessible later (e.g., stairwells, closets).
As you assemble your walls and floors, take note on what will become inaccessible. These areas will have to be finished as you're putting the shell together or they will not be able to be reached later on. This is especially true of L shaped dollhouses like the Garfield Dollhouse and the Pierce Dollhouse.
Dollhouse assembly instructions do not take into account the application of finishes. If you see an area will not be accessible after assembly, you must finish it prior. Sometimes the instructions will tell you to not assemble a certain area yet, even though you know you must because you need to apply finishes before you can move forward with the build. If you are caught in a situation like this, assemble and apply the finishes to the area, regardless of the instructions. Ability to apply finishes always takes precedence over assembly instructions. There will never be a time where you can not finish an assembly because of this problem.
Do not let smaller, fewer room dollhouses fool you. Just because all of their areas will be accessible once assembled, you might find yourself in a pickle when it comes to finishing an assembled attic.
Most attic rooms are filled with slanted walls and tiny nooks and crannies which will make wallpapering difficult. The majority of these attic walls are the interior of the roof panels. It is always best to wallpaper and finish these walls before the roof goes up. This takes careful planning and measuring to find which area of the roof panels will be the attic walls and which will be the exterior eaves. Usually the slots along the roof panels will be a guide for you to decide this. The slots are where the walls will go so anything between them would be attic wall space. That's where your wallpaper would go.
If your dollhouse has a slanted wall attic space, you might want to stop your assembly before the roof panels go up and finish the bottom floors before proceeding.
Make sure all of your wallpaper designs are going in the right direction as you wallpaper the interior of unassembled roof panels. It can be quite confusing so never paste or glue anything down until you are certain of how it goes. Dry fit and do test runs as much as necessary until you have no doubts. Always order extra wallpaper for attics because they have a lot of walls to cover.
Never apply ceiling or flooring trim to your dollhouse before it is fully assembled unless you encounter an area that will not be accessible after assembly. Applying trim beforehand can cause parts to not fit properly on your dollhouse.
Delaminated And Warped Wood
You may encounter these as your building your dollhouse and neither of them will prevent the structure from coming together.
- Delaminated wood can be easily repaired by sanding and smoothing down with spackle or wood putty. Going through this extra step is really not necessary though. The plywood of these dollhouses usually delaminates on the rough side, not the side you are going to finish. These rough sides are either glued together or wallpapered. Wallpaper smooths out and hides delamination, so unless you plan on painting your interior walls (not a recommended option for plywood dollhouses) you will not have to worry about it. You will get a much better finish if you add a cover to your interior walls like stucco or wallpaper.
- Warping will not prevent you from assembling your shell and there is really nothing you need to do to correct it. It corrects itself as you assemble your dollhouse and you force parts to fit together. If you are extremely bothered by warped sheets, you can always go through the extra step of submerging them in water and letting them dry in the sun, with weights on top to keep them flat.
Prevention is better than having to fix this issue. It is best to finish front opening panels on both sides, at the same time, to avoid warping. If your panel is already warped then you should correct the warp using the method described above or get a replacement panel from the manufacturer.
Parts sometimes can break when coming out of their sheets or from sanding. Some dollhouse parts, like gingerbread, can be pretty delicate and you will have a broken piece from time to time. Just glue it back together, clamp and sand the seam smooth. It's just wood which can be repaired and once finished no one will ever know.
Fitting Tab And Slots
Get those tabs into their slots any way you can. Like I said before, it is extremely important to do so. Your dollhouse is made of some pretty strong plywood. It can take a lot of pressure so you can really use your muscle, without fear, to get parts to fit. Below are some tips to help you fit tabs and slots.
- Sand down the edges of the slot with a fingernail file so the tab can fit. Vice versa, you can sand the tab down if it's too thick so it fits in the slot.
- Use the tip of a flat head screwdriver and insert it into the slot. Gently turn it so the screwdriver opens the slot wider. Sand down any splinters.
- Use a rubber mallet to hammer the tabs into the slots. Be careful, but firm.
- When all else fails, cut the tab off. It's better to just cut it off than to have it cause a gap because it could not be inserted into the slot correctly. Only do this when all of the above fail. You do not want to get into the habit of cutting off tabs.
Remember, tabs not only reinforce the parts so they stay together, they are also alignment guides so your structure stays straight. Tab and slots also straighten warped sheets, this is especially true of floors.
Sand down tabs that are protruding from your walls and floors. Protruding tabs will interfere with the placement of flooring and siding. Make sure you do this on your interior walls as well or a protruding tab will break through your wallpaper or cause it to have a lump.
Use spackle to hide sanded tabs on surfaces you plan to paint and stainable wood filler on surfaces you plan to stain.
Gaps And Misalignment
Many first time dollhouse builders believe that neither of these should ever be present, as you're building your dollhouse, but that is just not true. More often than not, you will have to deal with one or both of these problems.
- Gaps are unavoidable. Your dollhouse shell will have gaps in some places. The gaps should not be excessive or highly visible if the shell was correctly assembled. All gaps are hidden when finishes are applied to your dollhouse. Use lightweight spackling compound to smooth out gaps on painted surfaces. Minor gaps along floors and ceilings are easily hidden with trim. Sandable and stainable wood filler will hide gaps on surfaces you wish to stain.
- Misalignment of certain parts are another common problem you will have to deal with. This usually happens on roofs where two gable panels meet at the top. As long as all of the tabs are correctly and completely in their slots, this is not a problem to worry about. It is not caused by incorrect assembly, so you did nothing wrong. This is just slight inconsistencies in the dye stamp cuts. Shingles, roof trim and finials hide this slight defect and that's why your dollhouse kit has them, aside from their added beauty.
You will have glue along the edges of your interior floors. All joints in your dollhouse will have glue if you assembled your dollhouse correctly. The glue will appear to be a wet area along the edges of your floor.
It should not be excessive but if you plan on staining the dollhouse kits original floors, you have to lightly sand around the floor edges to remove some of the glue. This will help the stain penetrate better along the edges. You should also apply stain around the glued area rather than on it. That way the stain soaks into the wood, under the glue, allowing it to match the surrounding floors.
Baseboard trim will also hide any glue when applied after you finish your floors.