Celia Thomas speaks candidly to DHPP and welcomes you to take a peek behind the scenes at KT Miniatures.
KT Miniatures officially started 17 years ago, when Celia began making 1/12th scale miniatures off her kitchen table. Who would have thought that all these years later KT Miniatures would still be going strong and in such a diverse way too, producing handmade miniatures, running miniature workshops as well as selling antique and vintage dolls houses .... plus a bit more besides.
Celia with an antique dolls house in the process of being restored.
What did you do before you started this business?
I started my working life as a qualified nursery nurse working in various establishments in and around London, including running a playroom on a children's ward at a London hospital. A large part of the job was to initiate and undertake artistic projects with my young charges which stretched my creative and imaginative skills greatly .... and I loved every minute!
How did you get into miniatures?
It was a long gradual process and suppose it stems back to early childhood when Grandpop H made me a front, back and side opening dolls house, complete with tin Romside windows and doors. Being the youngest and only girl, with five older brothers, my lovely dolls house was a haven for me to escape and transported me into a tiny fantasy world. I saved up pocket money to buy a mixture of Barton, Combex and Kleeware furniture, then when my grandparents bought me a Tri-ang metal and plastic Spot-On bathroom for Christmas (which was expensive in those days), I thought I'd died and gone to heaven! I'd spend hours making and experimenting with furnishings "Blue Peter" style from oddments of materials and junk. The much played with house is currently tucked well away in a far corner of my loft and one day it will be restored.
At the age of nine, my aunt took me to Longleat to see an exhibition of old dolls houses .... it was a pivotal moment and can still remember clearly to this day that feeling of magical exhilaration walking into a room filled with antique dolls houses, all fully furnished with the most exquisite old miniatures! I still get that same excited feeling over old dolls houses ... even now. Many antique and vintage dolls house collectors will recognise that feeling I'm sure!
A KT Miniatures miniature workbench scene.
Then whilst training as a nursery nurse back in the mid 1970s, formal woodworking lessons were part of the course. Using proper tools, I learnt basic techniques and found that I really enjoyed working with wood ... at the end of the two years I'd made a jigsaw and fort I seem to remember. At the same time, for coursework we had to produce a toy made out of ordinary everyday materials. So I made a dolls house (of course) from a cardboard box and furniture from household junk - inspired by a feature from my grandmother's Woman's Weekly magazine!Some years later, by then married with two young sons, those woodworking skills were put properly to the test when to earn much needed cash, I scratch built a dolls house for a friend's daughter for Christmas. Word got around, other friends and neighbours asked me to make them dolls houses too, then friends of friends and so on .... all of a sudden, it seemed that I'd become a dolls house maker! Before long I'd made over 50 dolls houses, all hand cut from plywood and then later from MDF.
Thomas & Sons, built in the late 1980s from scratch, which ultimately led to the beginning of KT Miniatures.
Eventually, the contents of dolls houses became more alluring than the actual construction of the houses. For my own amusement, I scratch built a 1/12th scale Victorian shop - Thomas & Sons (see photo above), and filled it with my own handmade furniture and accessories, as back in the 1980s/early 1990s, affordable miniatures were not easy to come by. By then I was well and truly hooked on making miniatures and there really was no looking back.
This is a photo of my very first fair at a hotel in Cheltenham in the spring of 1997.
Along came a daughter in the mid 1990s and priorities changed. After much encouragement from family and friends, I officially started trading as KT Miniatures in January 1997 and began to make miniature scenes in room boxes initially, then developed alongside a mail order range focussing on the 1930s-40s era, including aged pewter ware, simple 1930s/40s style furniture and printed items. My daughter was very young at that time, so working from home was ideal.
A promotional photo from a few years ago, showing an example of some of the furniture and accessories I was making back then, some I still make occasionally even now.
However, all this was in the days before internet and home computers. The miniatures industry was very different back then and dolls house fairs were a must for any trader. So consequently I attended many, including some of the bigger events such as Miniatura at the NEC and the Scottish Miniatura up in Glasgow, Alexandra Palace, London Arena etc. It was hard work but gradually I built up a customer base and the mail order side of things. Later, when the internet became mainstream, Mr KT Miniatures (husband) helped me set up a website .... which opened up massive opportunities all over the world. And now most of my business is actually conducted off the website. The only fairs that I do still attend is the wonderful annual Thame Dolls House & Miniatures Fair every February and occasional small charity fairs.
What training did you have in making miniatures?
I suppose my "training" would be those two years of woodworking lessons plus all the years spent working with children, honing creative and imaginative skills. Miniaturist artisans drift into miniatures from various backgrounds .... our skills and disciplines are so utterly different. But one thing that we all have in common is that we are passionate and enjoy what we do, you have to because this is most definitely not an easy way to earn a living. Being self employed and working from home, one has to be extremely disciplined and be prepared to work long hours.
How did your interest in the 30s and 40s arise? Has that always been your focus?
Now that's an easy question to answer. I grew up in a 1930s Cotswold stone lodge house in the middle of Gloucester cemetery, due to my father being the cemetery registrar and superintendent! I loved that house with its lead mullioned windows, picture rails, flycatcher lampshades, walk in pantry, maid saver in the kitchen etc. So that house, along with family stories of what life was like back in the 1930s and 1940s, fuelled my intense love for that era. It just made sense to focus on the period which I find the most fascinating, when creating.
Here is Superintendents Lodge, in Gloucester cemetery ... my childhood home built in the 1930s.
The very same house being built in the mid 1930s.
However, saying that, over the years I've undertaken many commissioned projects for both customers and magazines on a variety of themes ..... including attic and shed scenes, living rooms, kitchens and even shops through different eras. Amongst some of the more unusual projects was a Dickens' Curiosity Shop in a book, a 1950s lean-to, a 1940s wartime hospital ward at Xmas and more recently ... a Victorian Seaside Scene!
I was commissioned to make this 1940s hospital ward for a customer and the Victorian Seaside Scene was a joint feature with my workshop partner, Robin Britton, for the Dolls House & Miniature Scene Magazine.
Why do you make things that look worn and used?This has been my trademark for a long while now .... it is purely for my own satisfaction. I like dolls house miniatures to look realistic, loved and a little worn, just like in real life rather than everything being immaculate and spotless! My own real life sized family home has that real "lived in look" with which we as a family feel comfortable and relaxed with, so my miniatures reflect this mindset.
I prefer to create miniatures to look much used and loved.
Maybe having grown up with five older brothers influenced me in this aspect too ... as you can imagine, our childhood home was rather chaotic at times! I like to think that my aged handmade miniatures can sit easily at home in vintage dolls houses just as well as in modern reproduction houses. As our real life sized homes are usually a mixture of old and new possessions, why not use this same concept in our miniature houses too? But it comes down to personal choice and I recognise that aged handmade miniatures are not everyone's "cup of tea".
Where do you work?I work from my home in Thame, south Oxfordshire, UK. In the earlier days all the dolls houses and larger projects were constructed in my garage then would be decorated on my kitchen table. Looking back now when the children were young, I don't really know how we managed ... suppose we just lived in constant organised chaos.
Restoring a broken 1930s miniature rocking horse.
A few years ago, we had a loft extension which has allowed me to have the most wonderful attic room where most of my creating takes place. It is my little magical hideaway where I can shut myself away from the world and simply concentrate on creating. If you ever try to ring and get my answer phone, that's where I probably am, covered in paint or glue!
An old rusty tin Marx dolls house and assortment of vintage jugs, utensil jars etc. are all useful for storage on my workbench.
What tools do you use? Also, why do you like to make fixed arrangements, rather than just individual items?My tools consist of a variety of small saws (an electric jigsaw for larger projects), craft knives, scalpel, chisels, files, electric mini drill and all sorts of makeshift implements including cocktail sticks and pins! Acrylic paints are my preferred choice for handmade items and if used on wood, is often sealed with wax polish. Occasionally I use enamel or emulsion paints, depending on the effect I'm trying to achieve.
A variety of some of the fixed arrangements.
As to the question on why I like to make fixed arrangements rather than just individual items .... I suppose after having been creating for so long, I am bored making singular items and like to extend my creativity further. To me it's been quite a natural progression.
Why did you start selling vintage miniatures?By the year 2000, customers were asking me more and more to create 1/16th scale furniture to fill their old childhood dolls houses, so it made sense to stock some of the actual vintage 1/16th pieces. Actually by then I was already completely immersed into the antique and vintage world of dolls houses, in fact you could say, I was obsessed .... and still am! Needless to say, one thing led to another and the antique/vintage side of my business escalated. Nowadays it accounts for about 60% of my business ..... consequently I just don't have as much time as I would like to spend on creating.
This collection of over 50 Grecon dolls was recently sold by KT Miniatures., including Charlie Chaplin, Harlequin, Clown & Columbine the dancer.
I learnt very quickly that buying an old childhood dolls house or lifetime collection of miniatures from someone can be quite an emotional experience and it is not unknown for an owner to shed a tear as I drive away with their old treasures. I genuinely feel a sense of responsibility to try and find good homes for these wonderful items, equally it's incredibly important to me that customers are happy with their purchases. Collecting antique and vintage dolls houses is not a cheap hobby so my advice to people when starting out is not to rush into buying any old thing - impulse buying can be costly.
How long have you been collecting miniatures and what dolls houses do you own?I suppose I've been collecting for over 30 years ... nothing special but just miniature oddments that caught my eye. An old wooden printers tray hung on the wall became ideal for displaying tiny miniatures such as china dolls head, lead figure, miniature china, etc. I still have it now but have pinched many of the "bits" to put in my own dolls houses.
A 1930s Hobbies 186 Special Dolls House was the first old house I ever restored.
There is a constant flow of beautiful dolls houses that pass through KT Miniatures and understandably I become rather attached to many of them but go they must, as I am supposed to be running a business! However I have succumbed once or twice and kept a couple (well three actually). The very first dolls house that I restored, I simply could not part with and is a circa 1930s "Hobbies 186 Special" which was a wreck when I got it. Recreating missing window struts and the front door were a challenge, and the decor was created using a mixture of KT Miniatures antique wallpaper and paint techniques. Scale is not an issue for me with the contents and have simply collected whatever takes my fancy that is relevant to the era.
My unusual 1930s bungalow.
Another acquired dolls house is an unusual fully furnished 1930s bungalow totally in original condition. It is unlikely to have been created as a dolls house, and was probably a developer or architect model, as access is via the heavy roof which has to be lifted right off. It sits above my computer on a shelf and is such a lovely thing to look at as I sit and work at my desk.
This Victorian dolls house is made from dark varnished pine.
More recently I purchased at an Oxfordshire auction a teeny antique Victorian dolls house, very different from anything that had come into KT Miniatures before, with dark varnished exterior and I just fell in love with it! It is very small, so tactile and sits perfectly on a hall shelf that holds our coats! Furnishing something so small may be a challenge but that will be part of the fun.
Then of course I have Thomas & Sons ...... which is currently sitting in my attic workroom, stripped of its 20-30 year original handmade contents, waiting to be turned into a junk/antique shop. Yep ... I got bored with my Victorian style contents and the plan is to fill with quirky or broken vintage bits that no-one else would want ... we shall see. If I ever get the project off the ground, I will put photos up on KT Miniatures Journal (ie. my blog) .... am quite excited about it actually.
Where does your trade name KT Miniatures come from?Haha...you have no idea how many people think my name is Katie! However, when the decision was made all those years ago to set up the business, we toyed with the idea of amalgamating my maiden name with my married name to form a trade name - then it suddenly dawned on us that if we took the first letter "K" from my maiden name Kendall .... added the first letter "T" from my married name Thomas, then put together it sounded like "Katie". We tended to call my daughter Katie when she was tiny, even though she was officially Kate, so it seemed so apt and just meant to be.
Tell Us About KT Miniatures New Website
Earlier in 2013 I had to create a brand new website as my old website was found to be lagging sadly behind with technology. Customers with ipads and mobiles were having difficulties getting the links to work. With the help of Mr KT Miniatures, a brand new template was created, using vintage images from my collection of gorgeous vintage children's books to illustrate some of the pages.
The new website has umpteen sections of items to purchase including handmade miniatures, old dolls houses and accessories, old miniature dolls and restoration materials, as well as Marion Osborne's latest Tri-ang and Dol-Toi books. Also there are various galleries including customer creations and old dolls house collections, along with recommended resources for 1930s-40s miniatures and recommended reading, all with the aim to inspire and provide information. Hopefully now, visitors to the website will find it much more pleasing on the eye and easier to use.
New Beginnings ..... Nostalgia In Miniature WorkshopsA couple of years ago, Robin Britton, a great friend of mine who trades as Coombe Crafts, started up a new initiative with me called Nostalgia In Miniature Workshops, which is a series of miniature workshops in Oxfordshire. We specialise in teaching alternative techniques and methods, often using ordinary everyday materials, to make realistic miniature scenes in 1/12th and 1/24th scale, based on nostalgic themes. The aim of our workshops is to inspire, give confidence and encourage attendees to use the techniques learnt from us in their own further creations.
Here is a photo of four various different workshop projects made over the past couple of years, side by side together to make a whole scene.
It is very rewarding for us to see people leave our workshop at the end of the day with such a great sense of achievement and satisfaction. Our next workshop "Round The Back Of The Old Cottage" will be in the spring at a brand new and exciting venue in Oxfordshire, just off the M40, very easy to get to with an abundance of parking plus lots of shopping opportunities. Specific details and booking for this workshop will open at the beginning of January 2014 (sorry - this new venue will not allow us to officially book until January).
During the 17 years KT Miniatures has been trading, there have been huge changes within our industry and there is no doubt that the internet has had an enormous impact, mostly for the better. For a start, there is this amazing DHPP website!!! Am hopeful that KT Miniatures can continue for a good while yet - I simply can't imagine doing anything else now.
It sounds very clichéd but I do feel very fortunate and privileged to be able to work full time doing something that I love. Through miniatures I've met some amazing, inspiring people from all walks of life and made some great friends in the process. No two days are ever the same, and it can be quite exciting at times. I never know who could be at the end of an email or phone next. When I started KT Miniatures all those years ago, I never dreamt that one day I would end up discussing miniatures on the phone to a famous author; giving advice and information on miniatures to a Radio 4 presenter for a radio programme; being asked permission by a singer from a band to use KT Miniatures images for an album cover; "talking miniatures" to a fashion house on antique dolls houses for their advertising campaign; being interviewed in my kitchen by a radio DJ or have a BBC Breakfast time presenter sitting in my living room haggling price over a vintage dolls house! Only the other day I had the Town Crier here talking miniatures over coffee! Hahahaha .... life is never boring at KT Miniatures.
Celia Thomas - KT Miniatures
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