Dolls' Houses Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern. Plus furniture and accessories.

To Restore or Not To Restore- Part Two        By Wendy Gater

 Antique/Vintage Dolls Houses

Further to my brief article in the August Magazine, in which I was writing from the view point of Collector's deciding whether to buy an all original Antique/Vintage Dolls House at normally a high cost or whether to choose the cheaper option of buying a house that has been over painted or has parts missing and would therefore require some degree of restoration or renovation work.

I must add that when I commented in my last article in the August magazine that some Collector's prefer the "freshly painted look" I was referring to houses that have no original paint or features remaining and a choice some collectors prefer over the "aged distressed added paint look".

I was NOT suggesting that anyone should paint over a house that had any original paint/features remaining, this is something I would never advocate.

We have to remember that these houses are very old, so to find a house in an all original condition is quite a lucky find. In the past many Dolls Houses were passed down the family from one generation to another, some being repainted to give to a young child member as a Christmas/ Birthday present. If it were not for this practice there would not be anywhere near the amount of houses surviving that there are today. So as much as we all as Collector's wince at this fact it has in fact meant these houses are still around for us to enjoy today.

It seems obvious to me that anyone with an all original Antique/Vintage item be it a Dolls House or other collectable would not repaint or alter the piece in anyway but then I think we must all understand that non Collector's do not always appreciate the historical value of these items and would not think anything of repainting an old Dolls House they no longer require, to put on ebay, so that in their way of thinking it looks new and doesn't look tired and old and therefore will be more sellable and obtain a higher price. I can offer no solution to this problem, the people who would do this to old houses are unlikely to visit websites such as this one or seek the information about the house, they would not have the interest in the subject.

My advice to anyone who has come into the possession of an Antique/Vintage Dolls House is to stop and think before doing anything, research into the Dolls House's history, if possible find out how the house would have looked originally, the chat forum on this website is most helpful for this purpose and fellow members are keen to help with information.

Many Doll's House makers made variations on their houses over the years so don't assume that a picture of a house offered to you as the same model of your house must be correct as to how your house should look. There are often indications from your house that can date it, the windows are one of the best ways to roughly date, the fireplace design, the trademark if still remaining and also if any original wallpaper can be found (sometimes in over papered houses there is a small remnant behind an original fireplace).

Please do also remember that on very early houses they were sometimes made to the customers specifications, so will not always be uniform looking to the houses that most us would know of certain models. If in doubt I advise to leave, rather than to lose what could be possibly the Dolls' house's history.

The very old early Doll's House/Toy catalogues are printed in black and white which is ideal for identifying, gaining information and dating houses but really not very useful to us when restoring, to know what colours the houses would have been painted or wallpapered in originally.

Once you feel confident that you know the maker, model and age of your house you can then decide whether to restore/renovate or leave as is.

When presented with a Doll's House that has been totally over painted in gloss paint I would advise removing this added paint to try to get down to the layer of original paint, I have had houses that have had 4 coats of painted added one on top of the other, I remove one coat at a time. It is extremely time consuming so you must be dedicated to your hobby to warrant the amount of time this process will take.

To remove gloss paint I sometimes use a thin wood stripper tool but apply very little pressure to scrape the over coated paint off, I also sometimes use a very sharp fine craft knife but this does take "forever"! It really depends on how easy or difficult the paint is to remove. Often old paint is quite dry and so will come away relatively easily but this is not always the case, the worst gloss to remove I find is the recently added paint!

If you feel you don't want to or can't do this then it would be best to save and buy an all original house that will require no work at all or buy a homemade house that has no original features remaining so you will have a "bare canvas".

Once all of the over painted gloss paint has been removed you may be lucky and have the original paintwork all intact, this however isn't always the case. There may be patches of bare wood were the paint has peeled off, this is a point at which you have to make a personal decision as to whether you should leave the house as it is or add "new paint". Some houses that are not too bad can be left and some that are worse can be made as wartime houses etc.

If there is to much bare wood and the house is, as I would describe "sad and empty" then there are other options. The best option that I would recommend is to use only water based paint, I would personally never use gloss paint on an old house and advise and urge others to do the same, water based paints can be removed at a later date if required.

Try and mix up a paint colour to match the existing remaining paint on the house, try some of the new paint on a small place on the back or side of the house (there are some excellent paint techniques/tips to acquire "the aged look" on the Members Restoration Tips Page in this magazine). Then just apply the "new paint" to the areas which are bare leaving the original paint showing. The house may look a tad on the patchy side but this actually looks very good on an aged house.

Often old houses have metal windows, it is very hard to remove over coated paint without the original paint coming off, also you will find that often the original paint was gone before the over coated paint was applied, old paint did not adhere to metal very well, again it depends on how much paint is missing and the level at which you will find the look acceptable. If you need to paint metal parts I recommend Humbrol enamel paints they give the required look and have the colours required for most houses.

If your house has missing parts ie. front door, doors, roof etc I would choose personally the option of making a replacement to give the house a "complete" look. If you can, use old wood, if this is not possible, use new wood and paint or varnish to the same look as the original would have been if you have been able to find this information. Sometimes the whole roof is missing, often these are missing on the old Tri-ang tin houses, some of the models had plastic roofs which were very brittle and prone to splitting. You can use your imagination and be creative, maybe make a roof garden or a sun trap as the old Tri-ang art deco houses have, possibly a tennis court or you can remake a roof. If you can get away with making repairs to a damaged roof this is the best option, leaving what is left of the original roof. Also if parts of window sills and suchlike are missing you can make a piece to add in to the exisiting part or leave as is, it is a personal choice as to how you want/think the house should look.

Missing chimney pots can often be sourced on ebay, they do come up from time to time. You can leave the house without chimney pots or you can recreate ones similar to the original ones, if style and design is known.

If you find you have a Doll's House with wallpaper that is not original but the paper is very old and you like it and it is in keeping with the house, you can leave it (I say this as you could remove the added paper and no original may be left underneath, then you will have to add "new paper").  If you do not like the added wallpaper or it is in bad condition, then please do not just start ripping it out, there is a chance the original wallpaper may be underneath. I use a fine mist sprayer filled with water and gently dampen the added paper until I can pick/scrape off with my nails, I also use a fine sharp craft knife, I find other tools to hard and can do more damage than good. Finding the tools you like best is trial and error so try at first in a back corner of a room.

If the majority of the original paper is remaining but there are a few pieces missing, these areas can be covered by using furniture and pictures appropriately placed.

If not all of the original paper is present but you are able to loosen a piece with a complete piece of the pattern on, it is possible to recreate the original pattern (please see members tips article) and use this to fill in where the original paper is missing.

If no original paper is anywhere in sight, you can either buy reproduced vintage wallpapers (Dolls House Restoration sell a Lines/Tri-ang selection, available on this website For Sale Page), buy original vintage papers ( sell such papers), look on the website Photo Gallery where members have offered to share their vintage papers for others to copy and print or the option that would personally be my last choice, add new wallpaper.

If the house has wiring for lighting but is very old, then I would strongly advise not to use this old wiring without having it professionally safety checked, I leave wiring/lighting if it is original to the house but do not attempt to have it "working" for safety reasons. I would not take the wiring/lights out if they are original to the house and would not add new wiring to an antique/vintage house. I like my houses to be as original as possible and if it wasn't made with wiring for lights then I feel I have to be true to the house and the maker and keep the house as it would have been intended originally. Please remember I am speaking about my own personal preference/choice, many collectors do add lighting and it does seem to bring the houses to life, a decision only the current owner of a house can decide.

If you find yourself in possession of a house that has no original features remaining, sometimes this is due to fire/water damage then you have a "blank canvas" house, some collectors do not like the "freshly painted look" and I will confess that I prefer houses to look old, even if tatty but I can understand collector's who like to repaint these"blank canvas" houses in a style of how the house would have looked like originally minus the aging process. "Blank Canvas" houses can be painted in this way or painted to look "aged".

A very important tip I learnt from Marion Osborne in my early days was that any changes that are made to an antique/vintage dolls house, however large or small should be documented then attached in an envelope to the underside of the Doll's House, so any future owners will know what is original and what has been added.

I do not feel it is my place to tell or dictate to others what they should or should not do, it comes down to Collectors using their common sense and making their own personal choice preferences. I can only advise as I have done in this article, if I am asked, then I will give my personal opinion but I respect all Collectors and their opinions, even if these differ from my own.

To summarise, I believe that we as Collector's are keeping these Antique/Vintage houses for future generations to enjoy, we are keeping a part of history safe that could easily be lost. It is most helpful if we encourage each other and share our knowledge so that this practice can continue with new Collector's.  

All Collections are of great importance how ever large or small and the "well played with" restored houses are I believe just as important as the rarer houses that are in original condition.

If only these houses could "speak to us" what interesting tales they would have to tell.

One of the main reasons for starting this website and magazine was not only for existing Collector's to enjoy the benefits of being part of a group but also to encourage new Collector's and for there to be somewhere they can visit to obtain help and information.

Competition Winner - May Website Magazine

The winner of the May Website Magazine Competition was Linda Bancroft who answered all of the questions correctly, her name was chosen at random from all of the other correct entries. She won four Tri-ang dining chairs which are displayed in one of her Dolls Houses in her photo gallery.

Competition- November Website Magazine


This competition is to win four c1908 Tobacco Rugs, (details of the history of these items are on Mag Web Page 4 of this magazine)

To enter the competition just answer the following three questions and email your answers to before the closing date which is the 31st January 2010.

The competition is open to members only, this includes all members UK based and International.

All of the answers can be found within this current online magazine.

Question 1 : What is the name of Celia Thomas's Dolls House that she has recently written a book about?

Question 2: Bertie Samuel Bacon was born in West Ham in what year?

Question 3: In what year did Moses Kohnstam die?

Good Luck

Thank You

I would like to thank all of the members who have contributed articles to this edition of the magazine.

Wendy Gater

(Site Manager / Magazine Editor)

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