Building a Dollhouse for the First Time

Yesterday, I talked with a first-time dollhouse builder who was pre-reading the instructions (super!) and asking about the details.  I am always touched by the excitement of the first-time builder.  It’s filled with the dream of the finished dollhouse and, sometimes, it’s also a dream of the process; the hands-on delight of doing something together with a child or grandchild.  There’s often a story of a doll house “when I was young”… It’s really dazzling!  I usually get involved when they see all the pieces and wonder where to start.  Here’s my 5-step plan for making dollhouse-building easy for the first-time builder:

Prepare your workspace

  • Worksurface: the table must be flat and safe from paint, glue, and banging.  Keep waxed paper around for painting and gluing protection.
  • Sorting: space to lay out the parts for identification and boxes to keep the sorted parts organized will keep things from disappearing under the sofa.  I sort things into assembly-order so nothing gets lost and I don’t have too much in my way at any moment.  I also want some box-lids with waxed paper in them to hold things I have painted while they dry.
  • Tools: I keep tools and supplies in a snap-lid bin so I know where things are between building sessions. 

Identify the parts

  • Look at the parts list for a description of the dollhouse pieces.  Pick up the parts and measure identify the partsthem for identification.  Some kit’s parts lists are organized by the order of packing – parts in those kits should be identified as they are being taken out of the box so you’re only looking at a few parts at a time.  Other kit’s partslists have the parts in order by what they look like so you can sort the parts easily and then identify them.
  • Label the parts so you only have to identify them once.  I use sitcky-notes so I don’t have pencil marks to erase later

Read the instructions

  • Now you know what the parts are called and what they look like so the instructions make sense.  As you read the instructions, hold the parts in your hands.  It makes a huge difference in how things come together if you’re touching and testing while you’re reading. 
  • Plan the painting order: Some things will be painted before assembly and some things are painted after assembly.  Look for tips in the instructions and read “Dancing with Paint”  in the Techniques section for help planning for painting
  • Sort the rest of the parts in assembly order and keep them grouped in boxes so they don’t get lost

Take it one step at a time

  • Do the assembly in order once the planning is done   The order that’s in the instructions is sometimes important so things come out square and lined up, and leaving out a step is never a good thing! 
  • Taped-assembly: If you get confused or if you want to do things a little differently, do a test assembly with tape-only.  I have assembled entire houses to test the parts using only tape.  You can go as far ahead as you want by taping the parts to see how they work, then start again when you see exactly what is in store.

Use your resources

  • Construction Techniques: There is a lot of dollhouse building information in the Techniques section of this website.  Look it over for information about planning your paint scheme or dying your shingles – even on how to take things apart when something didn’t go as planned.  More info is being add all the time, so come back and see what’s new (and comment on what you are doing… the comments add support from the whole community of dollhouse builders)
  •  has support for many Real Good Toys houses as well as information on tools and supplies.  This is an amature website by dollhouse builders for dollhouse builders.
  • [email protected] is always there to make your dollhouse building process a joy. Most technical questions are answered the same day or first thing the next morning, Monday thru Thursday.

Most importantly, take your time and have fun. 


21 Responses to “Building a Dollhouse for the First Time”

  1. Dena Francia Says:

    I have the circular stairs, I want to stain them, any suggestions. Thanks, Dena

  2. gary_r Says:

    Hi Dena
    Any time something is glued together before staining you have to suspect that excess glue has sealed the surface of the wood in some places, and not in others. Anywhere the glue touched the wood’s surface, penetrating stain won’t penetrate, and the result will be irregular. To overcome that, I use a sealer to prepare the whole surface so stain won’t penetrate anywhere, then (after sanding) I use a surface stain like “Gel” stain or “oneCoat” stain plus urethane mixed together. Surface stains depend on your use of the brush for the grain-look and have to be put on thin or any wood look will disappear.

  3. michael chow Says:

    Dollhouse kit # MM-FO303 revised 5/04 I am having problems on page8 …. I have glued down the perimeter to the foundation where do I measure

    9 7/8 on top where the attic walls are placed
    ( 9 & 10 ) …. # 11 when adding on the attic
    walls which divider do I use all the dividers
    block the stairs entry ….. Your speedy response is appreciated…. this is the first doll house I have tried to build having fun ….Do you know of
    any person that can assit you in building a doll
    house in South Florida…? Lastly where do I buy
    the dye for the shingles and wall paper?

  4. chris_abrams Says:

    Hi, I can’t answer via the blog but if you copy this and email your question to info I’m sure you will get a quick reply. – Chris

  5. Lynne Ruback Says:

    I am just beginning, have all my parts labeled but afraid to go any farther… guess I’ll start to paint….
    Can the house be painted after it is put together? or is this to difficult to do?

  6. gary_r Says:

    Hi Lynne
    Depending on the dollhouse (see “Dancing with Paint“)I prefer to paint at least one coat before assembly. The big reason is that it makes sanding much much easier – and a good sanding job is the foundation of an heirloom quality paint job. After the housebody is assembled, I do the second coat before any of the outside details (windows, shutters, trim, gingerbread, porch rails, even the roof) are attached. Do not expect to separate colors with masking for a high-quality paint job!

  7. driscollcarole Says:

    hi I need to know if you have a catalogue, showing minature furniture for the adarondic dollhouse I purchased. Carol & John Driscoll

  8. Pam Says:

    I am so grateful for this blog! I just got the Farmhouse Jr. yesterday and it’s so nice to know there is more information and help if needed. Thank you so much!!


  9. gary_r Says:

    Hi Carol and John
    Real Good Toys’ website shows the log furniture that fits the J-550:

  10. Jim B Says:

    I just can’t see how one can get a strong enough joint using tape to clamp some of the assemblies together, like big sidwalls when installing the floors. I would highly recommend a set of quick-clamp bar clamps. A 12″ and 24″ set would be a huge advantage. Also, a set of 1/2″ pipe clamps with a 36″ pipe section for each clamp for gluing those walls and floors. They’re pretty cheap if you go to Big Lots or Harbor Freight. Just be sure to use rubber clamping pads and not too much pressure to keep from marring the clapboards. Foam rubber attached with hot glue to the clamp surfaces works great.

  11. gary_r Says:

    I use tape for almost all clamping on a dollhouse. If I need more pull, I use two pieces, one on top of another. Lots of times I stretch tape all the way around a house so I don’t have to worry about rubbing it down for good adhesion. Tape has a huge advantage over any kind of clamp in that you don’t have to be as worried about diagonal force pulling the parts sideways and making the assembly crooked. I build every house we make with tape only the first time it is made… no glue, no nails, no clamps. I have one on my desk right now and I can pick it up, turn it over, try different orders of assembly. It is stiff and strong.
    Builders are a creative group by their nature, and I get lots of photos of “the way I did it” from them showing different ways of doing parts of the assembly process. There are plenty of good ways to do the job! I use clamps too, and my favorite is the new series of Irvin squeeze clamps with big cushy pads on the ends, but they are expensive and, for lots of builders, too much of a cost and space investment for most dollhouse tasks. And I use masking tape 1000 times for every one time I use that clamp. Masking tape is my “go to” first choice every time.

  12. Kevin K Says:

    Gary: A few years ago, I came across a series of installation tips you had compiled for the 1000 series shell, that included photos of each step in the process. Is my memory correct? If so, can you steer me back toward that posting? I can’t find it anymore … Many thanks!

  13. donnie Says:

    can i paint the interior of the doll house first and the ceiling ?

  14. donnie Says:

    can i lay my hardwood flooring down on the main floor and build from there ?

  15. Valerie Says:

    I have the beachside bungalow, was wondering where do I put the kitchen? The front door leads to a parlor room and the kitchen has the double window. Will it look weird having the kitchen with the double window and stairs?

  16. Valerie Says:

    Does anyone have a finished beachside bungalow with all the interior and furnishings for me to see? I would like to get an idea of how to place my furnishings? Thanks! Valerie

  17. Sandy Says:

    I’m building the Special Edition Alison, Jr. On page 8 line 18 of the instructions, it says “Glue, tape, and weight the housebody to the foundation.” What does “weight” mean? How do I “weight the housebody to the foundation?

  18. gary_r Says:

    Set the house on the foundation and stabilize it with tape so it will stay lined up in back and centered side-to-side, then put weights on the floor to hold it flat on the foundation. Smooth rocks (like a polished geode), antique flatirons, all the cans in the cupboard, bottles filled with sand, anything heavy.

  19. Lynn Beller Says:

    When painting initially, how do you know which is the outside wall and which is the inside wall of the parts before assembly?

  20. peggy Says:

    I received the beachside bungalow for a gift. Im just now reading and buying. I will have alot of questions and i would also like to see a completed interior for ideas later. very exciting for the next year im sure.

  21. Cookie Says:

    First time trying to get started on JM907. Can I use the acrylic urethane paint for the floors on the walls too??