Renovate or leave? What to do with a vintage dolls' house

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Daniel Brookbank offers decorating advice for owners of a vintage dolls' house

You are wandering around your local car boot sale looking for toys for the grandchildren and some fresh vegetables for Sunday lunch when you see a dolls' house. It's quite old and in a pretty poor state but you like it so get the £10 asking price out of your purse. Once you get the house home you start making it fit for doll habitation - and this is where the great quandary lies; do you renovate, conserve or leave the house as it is? 

Stick or strip?

Renovation will mean totally stripping and sanding, removal of old flooring and replacing everything with new: papers, paint, flooring, fireplaces maybe even lights. Conservation means keeping what is there but making it stable. So sticking back broken bits, removing later additions, copying some of the original papers to fill in the gaps, cutting in missing pieces of wood, putting in new glass. These measures keep the house as it was but make it fit for habitation. Or you could just leave it exactly as it is, or maybe just clean it. 

A total renovation, in fact even a partial renovation, is a difficult decision to make. If the house has come to you in a poor state but it has its original paint and interior papers then it will always be more valuable in its original state, even if you think it looks run down and sad. If you strip out original papers and replace them with new ones, even vintage papers, you are taking away its history for ever. So do think carefully before you do a total renovation. A good rule of thumb is that the older the house the worse it's going to be to do a renovation. Conservation is a better option. By conserving what there is not only do you keep the house in as original condition as possible, you stabilise it, thus preserving it. 


Houses often go through redecoration in their lives so you might find that there are old papers lurking under the later additions. Gently spray the top paper with a fine mist of water and leave it to soak in. As it does so it will loosen the top layer of paper and reveal the old underneath. You will probably find that the old paper is in a fairly poor condition so you might need to loosen a piece of the old one too to copy, or you could just position furniture over the holes. 

If you find a good piece of the old original paper, why not leave it on the wall and cut your replacement paper around it? When you are showing off your house you can explain that you found some of the old paper. I have done this in the bathroom of a house dated from about 1900. Most of the old paper came off with the nasty top paper so I was unable to save it but this piece did survive and it makes an interesting addition to the bathroom. 

If you do need to put in new papers, go to an antique fair or a vintage dolls' house fair and look for some vintage papers. The smaller the pattern the better and, of course, the older the better. They are available, but they can be quite expensive. 

Original features 

If you are lucky enough to get some original features with your house, do not, under any circumstances, get rid of them. Even if they are in a poor state. If they came with the house they should stay with it. So if there is a rusty old fireplace that looks sad and neglected, by all means clean it up and straighten it but put it back, it could be 150 years old! If you are lucky enough to find a tin range in the kitchen you are on to a winner and if it is coupled with a rotating spit or if there is a wooden sink just keep them and put them back. 

Old flooring 

Early flooring was often painted on, so lifting later additions can often reveal it. Gently lift what flooring is there to see what's underneath. If it's glued down you might need some spirit and a cotton bud and it will take quite a time. Once the glue is removed then some gentle cleaning with a wax polish will bring it up. 


I find the vacuum cleaner is a great tool. Get a paintbrush no more than one inch wide and gently brush out the rooms with it, following it with the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner. This way anything that is loosened gets removed and does not settle anywhere else. If you just dust it out all you are doing is disturbing the dust so it will resettle. 

Outside paintwork 

You will often find that the outside of your car boot find has been repainted, usually with gloss paint (why oh why!). A good tip for removing this, besides scraping with a fine craft knife, is to use sticky tape. Gloss paint does not stick well to smooth surfaces, hence the use of undercoat, so if it has just been slapped onto the original surface it will probably come off quite easily. Tear off a strip of masking tape, stick it onto the surface of the house and pull it off. I managed to do an entire house in about an hour with this method, and yes, it's just like having your legs waxed (I believe).

Replacing glass 

Often you will find some or all of the glazing missing. If you are doing the dolls' house up for a grandchild then I suggest you get some acetate to make it safe, but if it's for you then you will want to put glass back. While at the car boot sale, buy the cheapest picture you can find, make some comment like 'ooh that's lovely' to the seller, take it home, take it apart, burn the picture but keep the lovely 2mm thick glass. Picture glass is perfect, ordinary window glass is much too thick. I used to go to a glazier who kept picture glass especially for me. You can take yours to a local glazier and have it cut and sanded and they will probably only charge a pound or two. 

So there you are, a few ideas to get you started on conservation rather than renovation. Try to conserve as much as you can. Stick back broken pieces and only replace missing ones. Use as many old papers as you can find, use picture glass and if you need paint there are lots of vintage colours that do an excellent job. You might end up with a dolls' house as beautiful as this Gottschalk one pictured on the right. Good luck! 
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