Sunday, April 26, 2015

Adobe Dreams Part 3: Moving Upstairs

On my last post, I had found the stick for the adobe house canales, to my great delight and Robert's embarrassment, and the canales turned out just right, to my great satisfaction! The next step was to build an adobe wall around the house. The wall was fast and easy; I just glued styrofoam pieces onto the nails that had plagued me with injuries until it occurred to me to cover them for my protection. The wall, even unplastered, was a big improvement over the chunks of protective styrofoam that I'd lived with for months.   

The adobe wall and entrance have been built. Only a small portion of the house front remains to be stained, along with the wall, of course.

 Here is the bowl full of messy mud that I mixed up to use for the rooftop and the courtyard of the adobe house.

The rooftop mud has been spread on to dry; the courtyard will be next.

The horno, or outdoor oven, has been placed just outside the kitchen so that Ana Luisa has easy access to tend to her baking.

 Staining the adobe wall was another easy task - hardly any nooks or crannies to deal with. You can see that I've finished staining the horno as well.

I have finished all the staining and am putting the finishing touches on the courtyard. In addition to the "mud" that I applied on the courtyard and roof, I sprinkled on liberal amounts of loose sand to make it look windswept. But Ana Luisa resents the term windswept, because, as she likes to say, "The wind may blow, but the wind does not sweep!"


The adobe house is almost finished; time to move it from my basement work space to the upstairs dining room, its final resting place.

 I had a few things to finish up before the construction was complete, but I could not wait to start furnishing the interior of the adobe. So I just rushed right into it, ready or not!

 I needed two rustic benches for the courtyard, so I glued together some "planks" of balsa wood, painted them a traditional turquoise color, and glued the planks onto wood "stumps" for the base.

This is a rather blurry photo of one of the finished benches - a good spot to place a geranium and a rabbit hutch. That post in the foreground is part of my final bit of construction: an "eyebrow" that will provide shade for part of the upper courtyard.

 I used hand-hewn wooden dowels for the "eyebrow" frame, just as I did for the vigas  and the portale.

The frame of the "eyebrow" is ready for the latillas to provide a shady place to sit on a hot New Mexican summer's day.

The "eyebrow" is finished; the upper courtyard is complete. 

Actually, the entire house is complete! Now I have only to finish the furnishing of the interior - the BEST part! I wonder if other miniaturists feel the same way? As much as I do love the construction phase, the anticipation of the fun and satisfaction of making the "house into a home" is the driving force that keeps me diligently working.

Tune in (or check back) next week for Adobe Dreams Part 4 - the end of the adobe experience. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Adobe Dreams Part 2: A Tale of Two Canales

This post continues the saga of my miniature adobe house. I'm trying to condense about ten months of construction into a few posts of somewhat reasonable length, so I hope that I haven't skimped too much on the photographs and that you'll be able to follow the construction process without confusion. 

I promised in my last post that I would add duct tape and plaster to my usual construction materials  - and so I have done; my slightly slap-dash methods sometimes yield satisfactory results!  

The first level of the adobe house is in place; it's time to add the second level, which will be comprised of a bedroom that opens onto an upper courtyard.

The styrofoam wall pieces have been cut, and the upper-level ceiling is all ready for the vigas to be glued on.

I'm not sure why the house seems to lean drunkenly in this photo. My construction skills aren't that bad, surely, so my photographic skills must be lacking.
The upper-level walls are in place, and I have built a kiva fireplace in the corner of the room.  

The door and window frames, made from pieces of barn wood, are in place.

 My husband, Robert, is my electrician; he's shown here completing the wiring for the display and fireplace lights. (And oh my, how young he looks twenty-three years ago!) My choice of the 1850s vintage for the house precluded having electricity for actual household lighting. The occupants, Joseph and Ana Luisa Cantrell, who are only ghostly forms in my mind at this point, must make do with candles and kerosene.

Here I am, cutting and staining the boards that will be used for the upper-level floor. Thankfully, sawmills had been established in New Mexico by the mid-19th century, so when Joseph Cantrell learned there was actually one in their vicinity, he wasted no time in ordering the lumber to use for the new floor. My only regret is that he hadn't known about the sawmill in time for me to avoid the fiasco of pouring the earthen floor for the lower level!

The wood floor for the bedroom is finished. I also built in an adobe stair banister.

The vigas have been glued in place on the upper-level ceiling/roof piece, and…..the ceiling is on!

The portale, or entrance, is complete. The portale was constructed from hand-hewn dowels just as the vigas were. 

I found that duct tape was a good solution for the small gaps and cracks left between the styrofoam pieces during their assembly; it adheres well to the styrofoam and also is easily covered over with plaster.

This photo shows the roof parapets and chimneys that I cut from styrofoam; the pieces were installed on the roof using toothpicks and glue. Styrofoam is amazingly forgiving of errors; mistakes are easily corrected by adding on a sliver here or by slicing off a sliver there. (I am not admitting that I ever make a mistake; just stating a fact.)

Parapets and a chimney have been added to the upper roof, and parapets have been built on the small balcony outside the bedroom.

I have begun plastering the upper level, using a vinyl spackling compound.

The plastering continues on the adobe house.

I stained the spackling compound after experimenting with various combinations of stain colors. This looks a bit blotchy, but when the staining was complete, I evened it out by using a thin overall wash.
Note the canale at the upper right corner. (You must look very closely; it hardly shows.) The close-up below shows the second canale at the opposite end of the house at the top of the outer kitchen wall.

canale is a trough, or canal, made in this case of wood, that serves as a drain spout to remove water from the flat adobe roof. Following is the true account of my acquisition of the canales:

A Tale of Two Canales

I had been on a quest for canales since I began to build the adobe house. I never seemed to come across any material that would work well; the canale had to be curved, and it had to be hollow. Among other experiments, I cut a wood dowel in half lengthwise and tried to hollow it out, but that proved both difficult and dangerous, since I repeatedly broke knife blades and suffered stab wounds. I was patient, though, and bided my time, knowing that I would eventually find just the thing.

My husband, Robert, and I walked the few blocks from our house to the nearby junior high school one evening to attend our daughter's parent-teacher conferences. As we walked up the concrete steps that led from the sidewalk to the school yard, I saw a fat stick lying on one of the steps. I took a second look and bent down to pick it up. I knew immediately that I had found a stick that would surely work for the canales. I was prepared to carry the stick, which measured approximately 6 inches long and was about an inch in diameter, into the school. Robert intervened. Adamantly.

"You are not taking that stick into that school!"

I had neither a purse nor a pocket, but I wanted that stick. I needed that stick. I decided to hide it behind a metal railing at the edge of the steps. 

"You're trying to hide that stick?" Robert was incredulous.  And sarcastic. "Do you really think that there's even one other person in this entire town who might possibly, for any reason whatsoever, have any use for that stick?"

"I don't know. Someone might. It's a really good stick." So I hid the stick while Robert rolled his eyes and walked on.

The stick, miraculously, was still in the hiding place when we came out of the school. I carried it home triumphantly. The stick was exactly right for the two canales - weathered, bark already peeled off, firm on the outside but wonderfully pulpy and pliable inside and easily hollowed out. I carved out a small tunnel at either end of the adobe house and inserted the two canales. And they were perfect.

Thank you for reading these posts; I'd love to hear about the experiences you've had with miniature ownership or construction, and I'm always happy to hear your observations and opinions about my "offerings" on this blog - which is an exciting new endeavor for me.

I hope you'll check back soon for my next post, Adobe Dreams Part 3, in which I finish most of the construction and prepare for the fun of furnishing the house. So much work ahead - and so much play - using all my favorite materials: sticks and stones and styrofoam!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Adobe Dreams Part 1: The Walls Go Up

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for five years, from 1970 until August of 1975, when I lost my mind and moved to a small town near Lincoln, Nebraska. (Oops - I meant to say that I lost my heart to a native Nebraskan and moved, etc.) All was better than well for a long while, until I began to think more and more of the adobe house that I had owned in Albuquerque. I missed those thick old adobe walls, the beamed ceilings, the corner fireplace, the chill of the tile floors, the little wall alcoves where I placed my favorite pieces of pottery. I wanted my adobe house back. On the other hand, I loved my old Nebraska farm house, with the big front porch, the hardwood floors, the leaded-paned windows, the front door with the beautiful oval glass inset, and the convenient tornado shelter. (Oops - I meant to say the basement-level fruit cellar.)

And so the faint glimmer of an idea for a miniature adobe house was born. I knew the final, finished form that my adobe house should have, but the creativity of my mind was no match for the clumsiness of my hands when I began to cut up pieces of wood and try to get them to stay together. The wood was too wobbly; the saw was too large; the nails were too long; the whole thing was too impossible. It was a great relief to just dry my tears and give up.

A number of years later, during one of our annual visits to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, trips that we took just to enjoy the northern New Mexico cuisine, I happened into a shop where there was a miniature adobe house for sale. It was made of wood, plastered over to resemble adobe; it had a price tag that was truly exorbitant, and it wasn't remotely like anything my mind had conjured up. It was just a wood house pretending to be adobe. I was discouraged beyond measure; if an obviously able carpenter had put together a wood structure that looked not at all the way an adobe house should look, then how would I ever, ever attain my dream of a miniature adobe house?

But then, sometime later, I was reading a copy of Miniatures Showcase - a magazine, needless to say, for those interested in miniatures. And there was an article with photographs depicting an adobe house that looked exactly like an adobe house. In miniature. Constructed not from wood, but from styrofoam. Styrofoam. The flash of a thousand sun-bright light bulbs exploded in my mind. Styrofoam! Yes! Of course, styrofoam. The stunning serendipity of that revelation still astounds me, the result of which follows in a four-part post. I hope you'll follow through to the end, which will, I promise, come much sooner than the three winters, beginning in January 1990, in which I labored happily to realize my adobe house dream.

I decided on a mid-19th century vintage for my adobe house, and the books pictured above proved to be my favorites for researching the history and the construction techniques of adobe houses - aside from my personal experience of living in one.

 I started with a 4' by 8' sheet of 1 1/2" thick styrofoam and cut the pieces with a long, serrated bread knife. The very rough plans for the house were drawn out on graph paper with many mathematical corrections. I will try to remember not to reiterate my shortcomings in the world of numbers; suffice it to say that I struggle. So, converting a line the thickness of pencil lead to the reality of 1 1/2" of styrofoam thickness for each wall was a challenge that I did not always meet with success.

The plywood base for the adobe house measures 48" wide by 28" deep by 3/4" thick. I drew the basic floor plan for the lower level on the plywood and hammered in nails from the bottom so that the styrofoam wall pieces could be slipped onto the sharp points. I did take the precaution of applying glue liberally to the protruding nails to provide additional stability to the styrofoam pieces.

The cut pieces of styrofoam for the walls have been mounted on the plywood base. All the upright pieces are connected by toothpicks and glue.

The kiva fireplace in the main room, left, has been built with a "banco" (bench) as an extension. I built a "shepherd's" fireplace in the kitchen on the right. The kitchen fireplace provided a shepherd with a warm bed on the shelf above the fire embers. The staircase that leads to the upper floor is completed. 

I found a big piece of old barn wood on a friend's acreage and used it to trim the doors and windows of the adobe house. After many scrapes, scratches, and punctures on my hands, I learned to place small chunks of styrofoam over the exposed nails on the base board for my protection. 

Pouring the mud for the adobe's earthen floor. Creating the floor was a nightmare of mishaps, mistakes, and miscalculations. I will share details of that unique experience in a later post. 

The earthen floor is finished at last. I contrived a mixture of fine wood ash and a reddish stain to simulate the blood and ash finish that was often used to seal and polish an earthen floor. The window trim is also finished. Because of the scarcity of glass or metal, windows were small and could be protected by wood grills made from thin poles. I collected the sticks used for my window grills from Wilderness Park in Lincoln. (Am I a bit late in hoping that was a legal act?)

An exterior end view that shows the kitchen window and door and what will be the kitchen dooryard. The high doorsill was common in the early adobe houses.

More sticks from Wilderness Park were used for the latillas on the ceiling pieces. (Yikes! I had forgotten that I actually picked up so many sticks from the park.) The latillas, usually sapling trees, are used on adobe ceilings to provide additional support to the vigas.

Making hand-hewn vigas, or wood beams, for the ceiling. I hesitated to bring more of Wilderness Park home with me, so I purchased (legally) wooden dowels from the hobby store to use for all my vigas. After hand-hewing the dowels, I stained and "aged" them by rubbing with dirt and ashes.

The vigas have been glued to the latillas on the ceiling piece. I used Liquid Nails to glue all the wood pieces onto the styrofoam. The ceiling is ready to mount.

And…the ceiling is on! Note the stairwell opening at the back. The lower level staircase will open into this space, which will be the second floor bedroom.

I have placed styrofoam underneath the vigas so that the ends of the beams appear to protrude through the adobe walls. (Just like in real life!)

Next up: Adobe Dreams Part 2 - The second-storey construction phase, which will include the addition of duct tape and plaster to the usual sticks and stones and styrofoam.

Monday, April 6, 2015

It All Started With Aunt Dorothy's Barbie House.

In the 1960s, I had an aunt who hired a craftsman to build a house for her collection of Barbie dolls. I admired the house beyond measure, and my admiration extended to all the furniture, including the kitchen sink, which had a tiny faucet with running water. That house was my first real experience of covetousness. I was determined that I would someday have my own doll house, although I knew that mine would not be so large; my aunt eventually had to build an extra room onto her home to provide space for the ever-expanding Barbie house. Unfortunately, I have only my memories of that house; no photos.

In the 1970s, determination turned to action. A friend gave me several pieces of 1:12 scaled furniture from a miniature shop that he happened across in San Francisco.  Now I needed a house for the brass bed, the white ice cream parlor set, and a porcelain bathroom set. I knew nothing about building; I had no tools; but there was that determination. With my friend's help (he knew as little about building as I did and also had no tools) a house of sorts was contrived.  It was a basic open box structure with slightly crooked walls and a lavish use of quarter-round edging. We didn't think of building a staircase, and someone gently pointed out that we had put the roof on going the wrong way. But it was a start.

Eventually, in the 1980s, I finished painting and papering the rooms, put down floor coverings, added wood trim, and collected more furniture pieces. I couldn't decide whether I was a little embarrassed by my creation or shyly proud of it. Shy pride won out, and the doll house was hung on a wall in my upstairs hallway, safely out of sight of anyone other than family and my closest friends.                                                                     
Also in the '80s, my friend, by this time transformed into my husband, (who is still my friend!) gave me a miniature house that he found in an antique shop. It was crudely built but had a closed front, open back, with doors and windows and a staircase! Every room was papered in a different full-scale wallpaper, and the flooring was a full-scale piece of carpet - a different color for each room. The challenge was irresistible, and I spent two weeks renovating the house, turning it into what I call my Victorian Townhouse. I have it in a corner of my workroom, the front turned to the wall and the open side facing into the room so that it is always in view. (All my houses have an open front that I prefer over houses with hinged fronts - those always seem awkward to me.)

This is my Victorian Townhouse viewed from the front.

The parlor of the townhouse in its original state. This is an example of the condition of all the rooms before restoration.

An overview of the townhouse after I had it stripped down and ready for its makeover.

 An overall view of the Victorian Townhouse after restoration was completed.

The parlor of the townhouse. Yes, I know that the framed picture on the mantle is too large, but it's a small print of "The Gleaners" that I found in an antique store - and I can't make myself remove it!
The floor-length curtains are made from the softest netting fabric that I could find, and it drapes beautifully.

The kitchen, where Hannah Holmes, the sole occupant of the townhouse, gets a bit carried away with her weekly baking. The window valance is made from an antique handkerchief, and I cut the stencil that borders the top of the wall with the tiniest point of my smallest stencil knife.

 The study, where Hannah enjoys afternoon tea beneath paintings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
I cut the window pelmet from cardboard and decoupaged the rose-patterned paper onto it. The curtains are made from the same soft netting as the living room curtains.

Two views of the bathroom, where another portrait of Queen Victoria reigns. 

Two views of the bedroom. I made the window valances and the bed linens from old handkerchiefs that I found in an antique store. The softness of the old fabric makes it very pliable. 

This comprises the FIRST post of my FIRST blog, so I'm feeling very pleased, excited, intimidated and downright terrified just now. I'm trying to muster courage to actually press that "publish" button, but if I do, and someone reads this and would like to read more, just stay tuned (yes, I'm from that generation) for the stories and photographs of my New Mexico adobe house and my French farmhouse - both built entirely from sticks and stones and styrofoam! Following those posts, I'll introduce you to my next project, a Tuscan villa fattoria, still in the planning stage but getting close to the "starting-construction" stage. And - it will be constructed using sticks…... and stones…… and……styrofoam!