A while back, I pinned an idea on Pinterest of a nifty playset background for dolls built inside a 3-ring binder. Living with six people in a very compact mid-20th century cottage (under 800 square feet, seriously), my little girls need their playthings to be pretty compact, too. Playscapes that store as compactly as a binder on a shelf make a lot of sense. We binderized our DVDs and music CDs years ago, and the space savings is tremendous. Why shouldn’t doll play be similarly compact?
(You can tell that this is my project rather than the Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow’s project, because when he starts crafting, this sort of thing happens. It is not compact. Ever.)
Back in 2003-2004, every available married sister and sister-in-law provided my mother with a grandchild, all in one nine-month time stretch. My Spicy child has a the Boy cousin (early summer), Curly-girl cousin (early fall), her own Spicy self (just a bit ago), a Cousin Mini-girl two weeks later, and another Cousin Sweetie-girl two weeks after that.
In the little cluster of girlies-all-together, I found inspiration to make up one of the playsets for Cousin Mini, who holds deep adoration for a particular style of fashion doll and all things creepy-cute. (Around our cottage, we really like Ruby Gloom, so similar styles could work for our little girlies, too.) This is the result:
The idea isn’t original to me, but we did do a few fun alterations that you might find useful should you wish to undertake a similar project. The sky really is the limit with this stuff. (And to my darling Auntie who suggested I market these: nope. The project ran about $12 for materials, but the 6-7 hours of creation time is a price-point killer. This is a labor of love, pure and simple.)
I picked a standard 1.5″ wide binder with a paper-over-chipboard cover, not plastic. The interior details are decoupaged onto the binder, and for that, a paper base is imperative. We happened to find one that had colors and a design that worked with our theme. I was prepared to cover the entire binder with theme-coordinated scrapbooking papers as an alternative.
Most office-supply places will sell kraft-paper or plain chipboard 3-ring binders. You could choose a wider spine if you like, but it’s not necessary for stability, and the 1.5″ size looks compact on a bookshelf, too.
If you’re doing a playscape for mini-dolls, ponies, action figures, or other smallish toys, consider using a half-size binder (5.5″ x 8.5″), or even a mini-binder (4.25″ x 5.5″) for truly mini figures, like Polly Pocket dolls; the small and mini sizes would also make really cool travel toys!
Removing the Hardware
The tutorial I found on-line used a little fabric “curtain” secured on the top and bottom ring of the binder hardware to hide the hardware itself. That was the one thing I didn’t adore, and I asked my Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow if he could think of an alternative. Being proficient with power tools, he obliged. Hoorah for the Dremel tool!
He used a Dremel cut-off wheel (the better-quality, grey-granite color ones that are a bit more expensive, but handle actual work really well and last longer) perpendicular to the crimped-over rivet head on interior binder hardware, and bit/cut/ground into the crimped rivet head until it was essentially gone, repeated with the second rivet, and the 3-ring assembly popped right off. Then, he wiggled the remains of the rivet bodies back through the binder spine, leaving two neat holes and an extra 1.5″ of wall space on the inside of the playscape.
If you lack a Dremel tool, he posits that a burring bit attachment for a power drill could be used to grind off the crimped rivet head on the inside of the binder. Either way, work on the binder assembly itself, not the finished rivet head on the outside of the binder, or you risk ruining your binder face!
Two small holes through the binder spine weren’t a big deal to me (or to Cousin Mini), but for stability in a completely recovered binder, you could use a bit of wood putty to fill the holes, let it dry (give it 48 hours), and gently sand smooth before covering the binder.
We knew we wanted a creepy-cute, cheerfully Gothic feel to the set, so using bright pink (and other brights in the “wallpaper”), deep purples, and black gave a high-contrast color scheme that suited us just fine. The fashion dolls Cousin Mini loves have brand-name playsets with windows that feature spiderweb-styled muntins, and we knew we wanted to bring in that detail. Our favorite creepy-cute, cheerfully Gothic show (Ruby Gloom, from above) uses a lot of silhouettes. That suggested-reality style made a great option for our homemade playset.
Do take the time to plan your layout. I used plain paper to draw templates for the shapes before tracing and cutting them in cardstock. You can make cool free-hand templates perfectly symmetrical by folding your plain paper in half and cutting the funky shape, then opening it out to trace onto a flat sheet of your project paper. In future sets, I plan to do that to make ornate silhouette picture frames and window details.
Always take the time to do a dry fit of all your elements before breaking out the Mod Podge.
Images (clock faces, dance posters, jar and pot labels are courtesy of The Graphics Fairy, long may she design funky pixels) I pulled into a word-processing program and scaled down to suit my project, then I printed and trimmed them from plain white paper. You could get an aged look or other effects by printing on colored paper.
Working With Mod Podge
Yes, it really is Mod (as in modern) Podge (possibly cadged from the word decoupage, which everyone in the US tends to pronounce deck-oh-podge.) It’s fabulous stuff. I chose a matte finish, as I find it gives a nice light sheen but is still highly forgiving of mistakes.
It can be fiddly to work with, but I made life a lot easier for myself with a 2″ foam brush (cheapo disposable) to smooth a swath of Podge on the binder, then position my paper details, using my fingertips and a little plastic peg thing that I found in the silverware drawer to massage from the center to the edges. This helps avoid ripples and bubbles.
Don’t freak out if you get a little wobble anyhow. You can use a straight pin to prick the center of a bubble and then massage it flatter, or go ahead and strip off the detail and start fresh with a new one.
Be sure to let the images and elements dry completely before adding a topcoat (or three) of Mod Podge to seal them. If you do it too soon, the underlayers do bubble up, and you’ll be Highly Annoyed.
To prevent premature Podging, I highly recommend:
Particularly those that require some drying time themselves, because you can alternate between the playscape and the accessories, and work pretty efficiently.
We hit the Wooden Doodads aisle at our local independent craft store, and found all sorts of small turned spools, nobbins, pots, jars, candlesticks, and other goodies.
The we hit the floral department and found some funky floral picks that we broke down into component parts to be transformed into Magical and Mysterious Plants (glitter-dust eucalyptus became a Moon Dust plant, for instance. And I have no idea what the painted purple and pink foam globules are, but I’m sure they’re meant for some sort of secret potion.)
I used a nice plummy purple craft paint, and black; mixed together, I created various deeper purples for the trunk, table, and bed. While it can be tempting to use loads of different colors and elements, a little bit goes a long way. Working with a limited palette keeps the whole project very visually cohesive.
To get flat labels to adhere neatly to curvy surfaces (such as on the curvy little purple pots), first mold the label with your fingers. Then smooth on some Podge and massage the label to conform with the curves. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds for the Podge to get a good grip, and then you can set it aside to dry. I do recommend giving all painted accessory items a nice finish coat of matte Podge, as it gives a very finished look and a bit of protection against the play of Small Beings. They tend to be a bit… damp… much of the time, don’t you think?
How We Did The Big Window
It’s kind of cool.
I used the Elementary School Valentine Method to get the shapes (fold a rectangle in half, cut out half of what you want, open up, and trace onto the project paper) to make the big section, and one sidelight. When I traced for the overall shape, I butted sidelights to the main section, and that’s how I got the overall outline.
For the exterior view, my Eldest Minion worked on a large square of purple, then cut and glued down the rolling hills and creepy dead tree. We could have also added a moon, flying bats, or other details. It’s essential that the layers be dry before gluing on top of them. Topping the exterior-in-progress with a bit of plastic cling wrap and a heavy book kept everything from warping as it dried.
If you don’t happen to be up for Midnight Layering (Eldest Minion spent her earlier evening helping a friend swap living quarters, so this was a late-night project all around), you could create neat exterior views by printing off neat scenes found on-line, or even cutting views from magazines. If you’re using magazine paper, mount it on plain paper first, as it tends to be thin and lets the background papers shadow through.
I sketched my muntins with pencil on the reverse of the black cardstock, then used a razor blade (well, Eldest Minion’s X-acto knife) to cut away everything that wasn’t muntin. I wasn’t too worried about absolute perfection; some of the “rectangle” panes have a bit of an arc to them, and I find it charming.
Be sure to get your cuts all the way to corners, or the waste sections won’t pop out cleanly.
When the background was fully dry, I laid the black window on top, and traced the outline, then trimmed the “view” to fit. Next, a coat of Podge on the binder, then smoothing on the “view” and drying-under-plastic-wrap-and-a-book. Then I repeated the whole process with the black muntin assembly, and finally gave that whole side of the binder a final finish coat of Mod Podge, being careful to seal the edges of the window down very well. I find that a bit of plastic wrap lets me massage the elements well, without getting my fingers goopy or spoiling the colors in the elements with too much handling.
Other Fun Bits
So, that’s the playset.
I love it tremendously when a crafting plan comes together. I’m looking forward to doing different sets for Spicy and Lefty. Spicy has requested “A rather realistic sweet cottage, please, Mother,” (which means we’ll do wainscotting, and floral wallpaper, and Podged-on bookcases, and accessory teapots and plates and books and rugs and potted ferns, in whites and blues mostly) and Lefty wants “Creepy-Cutie with that pink, but also with orange, because I really love orange, Mama. So, orange, okay?”
This first playset took about 1/4 of a small bottle of Mod Podge, and I have a fairly impressive stash of scrapbook papers. We’re set.