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Welcome to a miniature world of possibility...

Join me as I chronicle my progress building 1:12 and 1:24 scale dollhouses full of steam power, stars, invention and yes, clockworks...

An Update and A Fireplace

Dec 19, 2014

I haven't posted anything in a good long while because, while I have dinked around with the house here and there, I haven't made any real progress beyond conceptual stuff.  I've had some pretty major life changes as well - I moved to a completely different state and I got pregnant.  Both of which have contributed to nearly zero house-building time.  And finally, there is that old, nagging problem of "every time I sit down to work on the house I want to change what I'm doing to the house."  It makes it incredibly frustrating to make progress.

FINALLY, I think I have a working plan and something to show off. I guess being 8 months pregnant with no real desire to move above sort of puts the building table front and center for me.  I CAN sit in a chair and I CAN mini, even if I've got a giant belly and swollen feet and an aching back.  So let's see if I can actually accomplish some things!

First things first, the Fairfield is changing. My original goal was to build it stock, without bashing things too much, and that has all gone out the window.  Rooms are getting expanded, more rooms are getting added, a grand staircase is in the works and no, it won't really look anything like a Fairfield when it's done. But, I feel pretty happy that the overall concept will let me accomplish my goals in every which way possible, so there is that, at least.

The front parlor is first on my finishing agenda.  Before I can lay floors or paint the wall or frame in the bookcases, I need a fireplace, and not just any fireplace.  The style of this Fairfield is "modern Victorian."  Which basically means I want antiquated elements, but I want them to look "renovated." This is a house that was once a very grand old Victorian, but it's current owner has updated it to reflect a more modern style.  She's throwing out all the dark colors, the busy wallpaper, the heavy wood - and knocking down walls, adding windows and re-painting in favor of a house that is airy and full of light.  It's a comfortable place to relax, write, quilt, watch a storm at sea and live in - with all the convenience of a modern home. So, my goal while building is to keep/embellish a lot of Victorian thematic elements but also modernize them a bit.

Enter the fireplace. Fireplace surrounds are expensive (in the real world) and the craftsmanship and artistry on a Victorian-era mantel or fireplace surround is often one of a kind, so this is one of those elements that feels like it has to be there. Because the parlor in the FF is just off the entry way and would be the main room guests would be ushered to when visiting, I decided that the fireplace here would need to have a very rich aesthetic to complement the higher level of ornamentation. But how to create something that was ornate (read: lots of carvings) in such a small scale?

There are fabricated options out there. Most of what I could find easily on ebay or at other retailers either looked out of scale to me or wasn't the look I was going for.  Sue Cook from has some phenomenal plaster fireplaces (among other things), but with a minimum of FOUR fireplaces in the Fairfield (I'll probably add one or two more), I just couldn't justify that kind of cost. 

So meet my secret weapon - The Paper Studio's "Gemstones" collection. 
These are 3D plastic stickers that come in two sizes that are scaled remarkably well for using in 1:12 and 1:24 scale trim work. You could use them for the obvious - fancy picture frames (the little one is perfect for a very large overmantel)- or get a little crafty, chop them up, and reassemble into a carved marble fireplace.  What?   A carved marble fireplace?

First, I measured the size for my fireplace.  Half scale can be tricky to do right - I always try to make my measurements match real world measurements as much as possible because otherwise, even though the difference between 3" and 6" in half scale is a mere 1/8" of an inch, it really can add extra bulk that the eye can see.  One of the biggest turnoffs for me in the "pre-made" fireplace category was that they all seemed to stick out into the room, taking up valuable floor space and making the incredibly tiny Fairfield parlor feel even smaller.  Since depth was the most critical part from a bulk standpoint, I created a basic cardstock "frame" that was a mere 3" deep - or about 1/8."  Then I cut my sticker out to frame the interior opening.  Because these are just plastic stickers, they're extremely easy to cut in any which way with an x-acto blade.
Just looking at this got me really excited!  I'm not quite done here though.  That's a nice start, but I wanted a fully ornate marble fireplace, and that meant adding corbel supports.

Here are a couple of real Victorian marble fireplaces I used for inspiration: 

To finish my fireplace, I added some gentle arches from the larger sticker to create what would be in real life 4.5 foot tall marble corbel supports.  I cut two pieces for each side and stuck them together to create a truly 3D corbel.

Then  I used my fingers to gently bend them to give them a more rounded, natural appearance.  Here are a couple of shots of the fitting process.

For the mantel, I laminated three pieces of 1/16 matte board together and sanded the edges for a nicely beveled, crown molding sort of look. 

And finally, I added a base and fireback out of matte board. Because these were going to be painted to look like iron, I wanted them to be nice and smooth and the matte board definitely has the right texture for that.  Here I am checking the final fit, and you may notice that the mantel is just a tad wide for the wall space. This is actually on purpose - it wasn't an uncommon design element in antiquated days, especially with flanking bookcases, and it's one of those quirks left over from the "old house." It also adds a little extra grandeur to the fireplace wall without taking away any space. Here are some more real-life inspiration photos to show you what I mean:

It was quite tempting to do this as an iron fireplace at this stage - the black and silver just make such a nice combination.  But I really think it will look exquisite as marble.

Awhile back I purchased some metal firebox inserts from Phoenix Models.  They were a little on the spendy side ($15 each) but these are quintessential Victorian fireplace elements and I knew I wanted them in my fireplace. I decided to use a hob grate with a custom fireback for the parlor fireplace.  This would hold a glowing ball of coals and flickering fire flames, and be set inside the firebox of my fireplace.  Here I have added my first two coats of white primer.

Now it's starting to come together!  I used gesso as a primer, partly because it has a great texture and partly because it really helps fill any holes or gaps in the pieces, sort of like wood glue.  Now begins the sanding/painting process...gesso, sand, paint, sand, glaze, paint, sand, glaze etc.  I'm not going to go through an entire tutorial on how to paint marble because there are plenty of those out there, and really, it comes down to a lot of tweaking and a lot of coats until you feel you've got the look you want.  My general process generally goes something like this (with light sanding (220 and 600 grits) between each layer):

1) Prime with base coat. In this case, the gesso was bright white, and since I was emulating Carrara marble, it just used it as my base coat as well.
2) Using Dove Grey and Licorice (FolkArt colors), I created two medium gray tones - one light, one dark, and dabbed a few lines here and there.  Then I used a flat brush to blur/smudge them.  This helps create the illusion of depth to the marble, as if there are veins deep under the surface.
3) Glaze with white again.  This creates a layer over the smudges and adds depth.
4) Second glaze of white.  Also touch up smudges that are just too smudgy - Carrara typically has very light veining, so you don't want a lot of color on the white.

****Note:  you may find you want to repeat the above white glaze several times until you build it up to your standard. Don't be afraid to experiment.  You have sandpaper, so the worst that can happen is you sand down your entire last coat and start again.

5) Lay down a very thick, wet base of glaze.  Working quickly before this dries, use a liner brush dipped in more glaze mixed with your medium gray tone and draw the liner quickly through the glaze base.  These are creating your fine vein lines. You want a lot of glaze for very fine, easy, squiggle lines. Don't press hard and allow the liner to skip in spots.  For Carrara, you want the vein lines to generally all run in the same direction.  Use accents of Licorice or a dark gray tone to add depth to the lines.  Let this dry and lightly sand.
6) Glaze with white.
7) Add a layer of triple thick gloss. Note how much depth suddenly pops out!
8) Lightly sand the Triple thick.
9) Wash with plain white (no glaze.) This helps dull the Triple thick, unless you really want a "polished" marble look.  I haven't seen too many shiny polished fireplace mantels, so I went with more of a flat marble look.

You may feel the need to add more or less paint than these steps suggest, and you may feel like you have to add or subtract white a lot to get the look you want. Do a test piece first to get the technique down and don't be afraid to experiment! Marble is natural stone and has lots of variation. The more layers you add, the more real it will look.  

And here is my nearly finished product:


Some close up shots to show the veining, and also you can really see some of the places that could still use some smoothing.  It's really amazing what the camera (even slightly out of focus) can show you that you don't see as well with the naked eye!  I've come to rely on taking macro shots just to see the imperfections I need to touch up.

There are still some little things I need to tweak.  Up close you can see some lines from the stickers and some uneveness in the paint coats - those need to be sanded a bit so they look less like plaster and more like smooth stone. I've also decided to replace the decoration on the fireback - it's just too large for the scale.

One really cool, unintended thing that I like is that you can see that when the light isn't directly hitting it, the marble veining really pops out.  To me, that adds some realism, because that's how light affects real stone as well. I also like how the pattern of the carving has a little bit of an Octopus-tentacle look to it - to me, it adds a little bit of a nautical/deep sea feel, and since I envision this house sitting on a bluff overlooking a stormy bay, I think that is perfect.  Maybe I'll add some more sea-themed touches as I go to complement. I can totally see this house having belonged to a sailor once, and when he was out to sea maybe his wife would stand on the balcony and brave the salty winds, looking for his return.

The above pictures makes the fireplace look a bit crooked, but it's really not - that's the warpiness of the Fairfield's chimney column behind it, which doesn't sit fully level and will be adjusted further along in the building process. I'm also happy that the tab slot is still open above the mantel here, because I'll be using that to thread the wire for some candles for the mantel a little bit down the road, and it saves me a little work drilling holes. (Those should be exciting, I'm going to try fiberoptics.)

The total fireplace depth ended up at about 15 inches, or 5/8" inch. That makes for a deep mantel, but the corbels are set at an angle, so the real depth is actually only about 3" or 1/8".  The effect is that the fireplace looks in scale, but maintains that ornate, somewhat imposing styling that is so typical of Victorian homes.

I'm pretty happy with how this turned out.  All in all, the fireplace surround cost me about $3, and the Phoenix Model was $15. That's still a little pricey for one fireplace, but the satisfaction of getting what I want and doing it myself is <insert corny smile here> priceless. Not bad for a custom marble fireplace!  I've definitely got plans for the rest of the fireplaces in this house.  I might try going for an iron look in the bedrooms, and maybe - maybe!  another marble option for the upstairs bathroom.  I'd also really like to do a fancy wood-look fireplace too. Those Paper Studio stickers are definitely giving me good ideas!

I think the colors in this room will echo the cool marble tones - perhaps a cool light green, or even a seaglass blue.  For the fire itself, I used a flickering led from a tealight candle which I wired to a battery pack that will also power the other fireplaces. The coals were made from crushed plastic beads, which I painted a layer of soot onto and then added the flames - made from jagged cut pieces of plastic blister packaging and painted orange/red with glass paint.  I still have some work to do on the fire, both with the installation (the durned led does NOT want to stay in) and because I plan to wire all the fireplaces to the same circuit.  But that's more for another day.
To finish this room, I'll be adding bookcases to either side of the fireplace, a set of pocket doors, wood floors and a coffered ceiling. The pocket doors come first though, since the rest of the room dimensions will change once the pocket wall is installed.  I'll be working on those next...and hopefully be able to show them off soon.  I'm really ready to get this room finished...I can't wait to set an armchair in front of that warm, cozy fire :)  If only I could shrink myself to fit!


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