Hanging dollhouse bookcase (August 11 2005)

My daughter wants a dollhouse. Why, I'm not sure, she doesn't play with dolls. But we could use a bookcase, provided it didn't take up any floor space. They sell dollhouse bookcases, and hanging dollhouses, and hanging bookcases, but not hanging dollhouse bookcases.

My Grandfather's Dollhouses

Here's a dollhouse that my grandfather made.

No, really. There's not a dollhouse hiding in the other room. This is a picture of the inside of one of his dollhouses.

He had a heart attack at age 63, then built dollhouses nonstop until he died (heart attack again) at 73. He designed and built four dollhouses, one for each of his children. Two years per dollhouse.

This is the standard that I have to compare my dollhouse to. I am NOT going to try to compete. My dollhouse is going to be decidedly crude. Maybe when I'm retired and I can spend two years on a dollhouse I'll try to compete.

Got that? It's not going to look like this. It's going to look more like a bookshelf.


So, I predict that I'm going to build a hanging dollhouse bookcase, about 2'x3'x1', out of half-inch-thick solid wooden boards, looking something like the picture to the left.

It's a dollhouse. It's got a staircase, fireplace, chimney, windows, passages between rooms, and doors. Dollhouses are usually 1/12 scale, 1 inch = 1 foot, so this is big by the normal scale. The only dolls we have are Raggedy Anns, which are about 1 foot tall (12 feet tall by the scale of a normal dollhouse), so all is well. I'll make the doors and passages all 4" wide so Raggedy Ann can go through them. There's a passage behind the stairway that's hidden in this drawing. Maybe I'll put a closet under the stairs. Oh, I forgot to draw in a ladder going up the back wall from the left top room to the roof. I'll probably wallpaper the rooms. A board could be laid to the left or right to serve as a patio. I might construct a balcony that could optionally be hooked off to the left of the top floor. Anything else dollhousish I can add that won't detract significantly from this thing's bookshelfhood?

It's a hanging bookcase. The bottom shelf is 9" tall, the top is 8" to 13" tall, the top of the bookcase is level (except for the slanted trim) so you can pile stuff on top of it, and there's a thin plywood backing to give it some rigidity. The hole for the staircase (not drawn terribly well) will be 6", with 2" of wood in front and 4" in back. I need that piece in front to give the shelf enough support.

And finally, cabinetmaking. I've varnished and put together precut bookshelves, but this is the first time I'm making anything like this from scratch. What should I use? Dowel rods? Nails? Screws? Glue? A fully loaded 2'x3' hanging bookshelf is a little over 100 pounds. Right now I'm planning on suspending it from two nails pounded into studs; there'd be two holes in back beneath the top trim to hook onto the nails.

I asked my daughter what she wanted in a dollhouse. She wanted it green, with a purple roof. And flowers painted on the chimney. And colored tissue paper for smoke and flames coming out of the chimney. So far, that's compatible with what I plan to build. I showed her what I had in mind and she said that's OK. Her picture is to the left.

Construction (October 4 2005)

I'm aiming at decidedly not-fine craftsmanship. It's going to be painted green with a purple roof, and probably wallpapered. Plus I haven't done anything like this before, so I'm bound to make really dumb mistakes. I'm using visible wood screws to hold it together (flat head, I first drill a hole for the screw then a bigger impression for the screw head so when I screw it in it doesn't stick out). The wood is also not high quality.

First I toured Home Depot with my daughter to pick out wood. She picked out some maple-melanine particleboard, which did look really nice. What the heck, I'll give it a shot. I took it home and my brother-in-law pointed out it's twice as heavy as real wood, chips easily, can't be sanded, and won't hold screws. Twice as heavy as it needs to be, and I want to hang it from a wall? Won't hold screws? I toyed with nut-and-bolt arrangements for awhile, then gave up on the melanine. Now I've got four 4' x 11 3/4" melanine particleboards hanging out in my trunk.

Next I went with pine. Much lighter, easier to work with. I had three 4' x 11 1/4" pine boards in my garage from who-knows-where, badly knotted and stained. Perfect. I bought one more (clean) from Home Depot. I tried sanding off the stains, but it gunked up my sandpaper. "That's oil," says my father-in-law. "Once you get that in boards they're ruined. There's no getting it out." Oil? Throw them out? Since they're useless as-is, I got the floor sponge and scrubbed them off with soap and water. Took the surface gunk right off. There's still oil seeped into the wood, but I'll keep the boards and see what happens. The knots are full of sap, too.

I already had a power drill. I knew I had to cut out windows from the middle of some boards, which none of my existing saws could handle. So a trip to Orchard Supply found my a Skil 3.5 amp jigsaw and a few blades.

Next I decided how I wanted the pieces to fit together and how long they all should be. I got out a 12" ruler. (I have many yardsticks and tape measures, but they were all unfindable when the time came to actually mark the boards.) I sat on the curb marking boards while all the kids rode their bikes around. I made the first shelf 11" high and the second 12" to 13 1/2", taller than my original drawing, because I measured some bookshelves and decided those were more useful dimensions. I'd originally wanted to keep it under 2 feet tall so it could fit under a table, but I decided that wasn't compatible with the shelves being able to hold most books.

I had an extra-big drill from some previous project, which I used to drill holes in the middle of the windows. I put the jigsaw in those holes then tried to do a curved cut to the boarders. It turned out that the radius of the curve I could make was bigger than the windows, so I resorted to drilling a hole by each side of each window then cutting from there. The saw got the job done, but it bogged down some in the knots. I think the sap was melting and greasing the blade.

I used my ladder as my sawhorse. I had no clamps at all, I pressed the wood against the ladder with my hands, or against the fence with my feet. Eh, the project was small and imprecise enough that it didn't matter.

After the boards were cut I sanded down all the edges, and especially the corners. I've seen three kids go to the emergency room from cuts they get from running into the edges and corners of furniture, so I want those edges and corners well-rounded.

Once the boards were cut, I discovered my screws were too short. The boards are 3/4" thick (that seems to be standard). The screws were 1 1/4" long. However, those first screws did fine for attaching the plywood back, and they were good for holding the boards in place while I drilled and screwed in the real screws. The real screws I got were 2" zinc-plated ones. Their phillipshead socket was unfortunately tapered, so if the screw's having a hard time going in, it pushes the screwdriver out of the hole. Several screws got stripped that way; I had to unscrew them and replace them.

I started with the vertical boards and the second shelf. Both sides of the second shelf have to be screwed into the vertical board opposite each other. But, once one side is in, how do I screw in the other side? I'd placed a staircase on one side next to the vertical board. So, first I drilled the holes for the left side where the staircase would go. Then I screwed in the right side. Then I got this funny side-lever screwdriver to screw the screws into the holes for the left side. I had my father-in-law try to hold the boards straight while I was doing this. I attached the left and right vertical board to the center board too. I had the floorboard and back against them while I did this drilling and screwing, in hopes of getting the boards aligned so they would be flat against the back and floor when I finished.

Once I had the vertical boards and second shelf together, I had a floppy contraption that I could stand up or lay on its side. I found I'd cut the plywood back 1/2" too short (note to self, don't cut the back until you can measure it against the final product). I screwed on the back (countersunk flat-head screws again) which made the structure rigid. That was it for one day.

Two days later I screwed on the base. I found the center vertical board was about 1/8" too long, so I trimmed the bottom (sloppily) with the jigsaw. The back also does not attach to the base, so there's a slit that things can fall through. And, like the back, it's 1/2" shorter than the width of the dollhouse. Note to self: only cut the base when you can measure it against the final product, and have the back screw to the base as well. Also, the base is held entirely by vertical screws. (That means you can't see the screws. It also means the base isn't held as securely as if it were done from the side. Which is more important? I don't know.)

Here I still need to do the roof, stairway, doors, ladder, and chimney. So far the kids are already happily playing with and sitting on the dollhouse.

When I put the roof on, I realized that I needed more than 2" strips for the back (to adequate screw the strip to the verticle boards, since the whole weight of the bookshelf has to be transferred to those strips when it hangs on nails on the wall), and I had to cut away a large part of the back. Plus the back didn't come down far enough to screw into the base. Shoot. So I unscrewed the back and redrilled and rescrewed it in 3/4" down, so that I didn't have to cut away as much on top and so it screwed into the base.

Making the roof kept me rotating through measuring, cutting, sanding, drilling, measuring, cutting, sanding, drilling. I kept unplugging the saw to plug in the drill, and unplugging the drill to plug in the saw. Next time, I should use both sockets in the outlet, eh?


In this picture all the roof pieces are in place, but they're only tacked in with short screws. I've got to remove them one by one, countersink the holes, and put in the final 2" screws. Still needs strips along the shelves, and doors and stairs and ladders and a chimney and paint and furniture.

Doors (October 23 2005)

It's got two doors and a trap door. Here's the right door open, the left door closed, and the trapdoor open.

On the doors, the handle rotates, so it is latched shut when the handle rests on the peg in the wall. If you slam the doors the handles swings out and prevent the door from closing. I should have put the rotating handle in the wall and the fixed peg in the door instead. Next time. My daughter bought the oak for the doors with her own money.

The trapdoor (which is just pine), note the peg in the wall that it rests on when closed. I'll have to put in a ladder up to the trapdoor next. Also note the piece of wood I added between the two pieces of the roof (the light strip in the lower righthand side of the picture). The grain runs opposite of the roof pieces. I screwed that into the diagonal trims, and the roof pieces into that, in hopes of preventing the roof pieces from cracking in half.

Ladder (October 30 2005)

Here I've built the ladder going up to the trapdoor. At first I made the two anchors level with the trapdoor, to hold up the trapdoor. But, because this is not a precision operation (you may have picked up on that), that caused the ladder to hang markedly skew. I redrilled the anchor on the right so the ladder now hangs straight. (That means only the anchor on the left contributes to holding up the trapdoor.)

I had thought I would need a latch of some sort to hold up the ladder, but it turns out, I don't. The ladder actually stays up on its own. I used 1/4" dowel rods on the anchor, drilled 1/4" holes in most spots to give a snug fit, but drilled 9/32" holes in the top rung of the ladder so it could swing. Due to the nonprecision of this project again, the top of the ladder rubs against the wall when I swing it up. This pushes the dowel rod against the ladder, preventing it from swinging back down.

I should have held the two sides of the ladder together with clamps when I drilled the holes for the rungs, but I only held them in place with my hands. As a result some of the rungs aren't level, or aren't parallel to the back. I also eyeballed where the rungs should go rather than measuring it. That was probably a bad idea too, because I had to squeeze the top few rungs closer together to put the top rung in the right place.

Stairs (November 3 2005)

I did the stairs today. There were many possible stair designs, for example a dowelled railing around the stairwell on the second floor, solid plywood going from the stairs to a railing going up, or a staircase that you couldn't see through. I didn't have anything protrude into the second floor so that the whole second floor can be used as a bookshelf. That's why I didn't do a plywood railing leading up too. I made the stairs see-through so that the dollhouse is easier to play with; you can see the dolls going through the door behind the stairs.

I could have had the stairs end immediately below the stairwell, rather than coming out to the edge of the dollhouse. That would have been steeper. I still probably would have done that, except my daughter herself pointed out I could extend the stairs to the edge of the dollhouse to make them not so steep. So with her blessing I did it that way.

I tried sawing those funny angles at the ends of the long bars, but the saw and I disagreed at what angle to cut, and the saw won. After that I did those funny angles just by sanding the ends on very coarse sandpaper. That worked pretty well.

I attached the stairs by nails at two points on each side. Just pounding in the nails split the plywood, so I drilled holes. But my smallest drill was bigger than the nails, so they just slide in and out. After assembling the thing I dabbed each nail with Elmer's glue. Hopefully that will hold it. I don't expect it to have to withstand much stress.

I clamped the long bars together and drilled each hole through both bars , placing steps 1" apart. I drilled all the holes for each step before assembling everything. Unfortunately I didn't drill straight down. That was fine for the first three nails for each step, but I had to redrill the second hole on one side for most of the steps.

I thought I measured carefully, but the stairs were still a quarter inch too wide. As my daughter pointed out, it was easier to make the hole bigger than make the stairs narrower, so I made the hole bigger.

The staircase turned out a little lopsided, leaning to the left. The center divide isn't straight either it leans to the right. I fixed this by flipping the stairs upside down from how I originally wanted to put them in, so now both the stairs and the divide lean the same way. I should have forseen that that might happen, but I didn't. The stairs aren't as even the way they are now as they would be if the staircase weren't upside down. There's a gap between the top stair and the second floor; I could have avoided that too.

I had to use my funny sidearm screwdriver to attach the stairs by two screws at the top and one screw at the bottom. I was going to hammer & nails, but I couldn't fit in the hammer. Note the screw at the bottom isn't all the way in. That's because the sharp end pokes through the wall if I screw it all the way in. I tried hacksawing off the end, but that dulled my hacksaw. I tried filing off the end, but the screwtip dulled my file. Woah, mega ultra screw there. So it's not screwed in all the way. Maybe I can dig up a shorter screw.

Bob Predicts the Future

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