Rehabbing Dollhouses – Tips, Advice, and My Rehab Houses

Like so many dollhouse collectors, I just can’t bear to see a once-loved dollhouse falling into neglect and disrepair. I am always on the look-out for reasonably priced dollhouses that need to be brought back to life, and I don’t mind admitting that it is a LOT harder to “rehab” a dollhouse than to build it from start to finish.  For instance, getting old wallpaper off can be incredibly difficult . . . but, if you don’t, you cannot apply fresh paper in an attractive or secure manner. Often, when I want to repair the structure itself, I have to gingerly remove trim, balconies, stairs, etc. . .  It is also quite possible that all of those features may have to be replaced with new ones.

Why, you might ask, would I even bother with all of this? Well, besides the fact that I think all dollhouses should be preserved and appreciated (believe it or not, they are a valuable asset to historians as well as to people who just enjoy them as dollhouses), there are many truly unique “custom-built” houses that have been painstakingly built to replicate actual houses . . . many of which no longer exist.

Another aspect of dollhouse rehab that has been quite a dilemma for many of us is that of lighting. With traditional lighting techniques, it is necessary to drill holes in walls, ceilings, and floors. This is not a problem when constructing a house from start-to-finish, but it would be a real shame to damage beautiful flooring or interesting ceilings in an existing structure – especially if that structure is a vintage or antique piece. The very recent introduction of miniature battery-operated lighting to the retail market has been hugely beneficial to miniaturists – most especially to those of us with the preservation concerns experienced during rehabs. These lights are somewhat more expensive than the comparable traditionally-wired lights, but the need for expensive transformers, copper tape or hard wire and all the accompanying hardware that one would normally use is no longer necessary and therefore, counterbalances the extra cost. These “immediate use” lights are also a real benefit for the rehabber or beginning dollhouse builder who is terrified of learning how to wire a house.  Another nice aspect of the battery-operated lighting system is that one can turn on individual lights in the dollhouse instead of all of them at once. I think this adds to the realism . . . after all, in a real home, there are usually lights on in only the rooms being inhabited at any given time.

I have several dollhouses that I will be rehabbing that will benefit from the new battery-operated lights. I also plan to add this type of lighting to my “College Street” house (which may be viewed in my “Dollhouses -1:12 Scale” section). Since this was the very first dollhouse my father ever built, I decided, at the time I rehabbed it, that I would prefer to leave lighting out altogether than to cause any structural damage. I am so pleased that I will now be able to add the charm of lighting without the harm of traditional electrical methods.

Note: It is not recommended that batteries be left in a lamp that will not be used for a protracted period of time. Simply remove and store the batteries for when you do want to use them. One additional word of caution: most of these new lights feature LED bulbs which are noticeably brighter than traditional miniature bulbs and have a different tonal cast. Mixing the two styles of lights may be somewhat discordant. The battery-operated chandelier shown below is one I am currently using in a house that I am working on .

There is another relatively new product on the market that is a huge boon to miniaturists . . . it is “paint and primer in one” (various manufacturers) and I love the idea of saving a lot of time by not having to prime. Of course, when working on the interior of a dollhouse, you will probably still want to prime so that you can add tile, wallpaper, and other creative embellishments. Speaking of primer . . . I swear by Kilz (in fact, it is the ONLY primer I use). Not only does it provide a high quality work surface, it also kills mold and odors . . . truly beneficial when working on an old dollhouse that may have been stored improperly!

Many custom-built houses will have elements that are somehow “off” and it is imperative that these mistakes be rectified. On many custom-built houses, the builder did not understand or take the time to configure elements “to scale”. Even one out-of-scale, badly made, or historically inaccurate element can completely ruin the overall effect of a house. It would be a terrible shame to spend countless hours trying to bring a house back to glory, only to fall short by cutting corners on something that should and could have been corrected. I always take multiple photographs of each house (front, sides, and interior) with my digital camera and then load them onto the computer so that I can closely scrutinize them. Believe me, a digital camera will capture flaws that our human eyes can somehow overlook. Then, I make a list of all the elements that must be corrected prior to starting the actual design work.

One of the things I enjoy most about “rehabbing” a house is searching for interesting elements that I can integrate into my piece. I find a plethora of useful items at garage sales, the Goodwill store, and even around my house . . . I am very cautious about throwing stuff away until I’ve “looked at it with my miniature eyes”. It is amazing how many regular items can be adapted for use in miniature. And, don’t forget . . . if you aren’t comfortable with your own construction skills, there are many lovely windows, doors, and trim pieces available on the retail market. With careful measuring and planning, these can be used very effectively on a rehab house.

In addition to the many custom-built “rehab” houses I have waiting in the wings for their turn to be revived, I have some kit houses that will have to be re-done.  Often, I find that when people buy a kit, they cut corners or rig something when they are baffled by how something should go together. Another problem I come across on a fairly regular basis is that the builder did not use the proper type of glue and because of that, the structure is not secure enough or as neat as I want it to be.

Follow the links below to see dollhouses that I own that I will be rehabbing.

My Dollhouses to Rehab – Custom Built

My Dollhouses to Rehab – Kit Houses

Last modified on: April 27th 2013.