The office of a private eye occupies a shelf in Maureen Heuchert’s living room.
It’s a small office, barely half the size of a shoe box. The pillow on the couch, the half-eaten takeout, and the house of cards on the desk suggest business is slow, perhaps due to the drinking problem implied by the open bottle of scotch. The office sits above the 1940s-era bar where the detective sometimes meets clients, complete with tiny dartboard and cigarette machine with period-appropriate labels.
It’s one of the dozens of little worlds Heuchert has made in her home. There’s the toy store, complete with tiny teddy bears, diminutive dolls, and pea-sized rubber duck. There’s the Edwardian living room, with its early 1900s governess and thumbnail-sized photo album with pictures of Heuchert’s family inside. And there’s the five-room dollhouse, which sports a dining room with turkey dinner and a Scrabble game on a bookshelf. Heuchert opens the Scrabble box to reveal that it comes complete with a rule book, pencils, and letter tiles sized for an ant.
Heuchert and her friend Joanne Root are miniaturists — hobbyists who delight in making big things small. The two St. Albert residents will be among the hundreds of people taking part in the Miniature Enthusiasts of Edmonton’s (MEE) annual show and sale taking place this Sunday in Edmonton.
Miniatures are a fun way to show off your creativity and relieve stress, Root said.
“When I get involved in miniatures, nothing else matters. It’s like I’m in my own little world.”
World gone small
This Sunday’s show gives MEE members a chance to show off their creations and talk shop, explained club member Tina MacDonald, who once competed on CBC’s Best in Miniature. Hundreds of guests typically show up to learn about the hobby.
Miniatures as a hobby involves making a small reproduction of a larger object, MacDonald said. While miniatures have been around for centuries (the Egyptians put them in tombs, for example), miniature-making as a hobby started back in the 1700s when rich women would show off their wealth by having artisans construct minuscule replicas of their homes. Narcissa Niblack Thorne popularized the modern miniature movement in the 1930s when she hired unemployed artists to craft about 50 itty-bitty rooms in various architectural styles. These “Thorne Rooms” established the 1:12 inch scale now used by miniaturists the world over.
Root said she was fascinated with small versions of big things as a child, and fell into miniatures as an adult when she saw an elaborate dollhouse owned by a friend. She has since crafted about 50 miniatures, some of which were on display at the St. Albert Public Library in early September.
Heuchert said she was hooked on minis after she saw a huge miniature mansion in New Orleans back in 1974. Impressed by the details in the home’s Civil War-era furniture, she bought her first dollhouse, and has since made about 75 miniatures.
Root said miniature-making has exploded in popularity in the Internet age, with many hobbyists now posting pictures of their creations online.
“If you see it in real life, you can get it in miniature nowadays,” she said.
Many people picked up miniatures while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Root and Heuchert said. The MEE gained about 50 members during the pandemic when it switched to Zoom meetings, and now includes members from across North America.
Shaping a world
Miniaturists typically craft to-scale replicas of real-life objects to arrange in dioramas, Root said. 1:12 is the most common scale, but some artists will go as small as 1:144.
Miniatures start with an idea. Sometimes you’ll just want to make something for a holiday such as Christmas, so you’ll dip into your stash of props and pick out all the Christmas stuff, MacDonald said. Other times, you’ll come across a specific prop and build a scene around it.
Heuchert said she decided to build her ultra-compact china shop (complete with shelves, LED lights and display cases) after she bought one too many china sets and had to do something with them, for example. McDonald once bought a very small telescope for the very big price of $120. Wanting a room to put it in, she decided the telescope belonged to a retired sea captain who went slightly mad after being hired to recover bodies from the Titanic.
“The whole room ended up being a themed room into the aftermath of the Titanic,” she said, complete with newspapers and a painting about the doomed ship.
While you can get many miniature props online, miniaturists often have to build their own. Heuchert has a bedroom set aside as a workshop for this purpose crammed full of more pliers, clamps, and crafting supplies than a Home Depot. There are cabinets stuffed with fabric samples, bulletin boards with little bins and hats tacked to them, and half-finished nurseries and bedrooms everywhere.
Root said toothpicks, tweezers, and X-Acto knives are the tools of the trade for miniaturists, as are glues, paints, and scissors.
“I have 36 pairs of scissors,” Heuchert noted, as well as various saws, brushes, and jigs.
MacDonald uses a laser cutter for intricate woodwork, and crafts quarter-inch-tall teacups with clay, dental tools, and a poker chip set upon a very small potter’s wheel. 3D printing has been a boon for miniaturists, she added, allowing for mass production of miniaturized items.
Miniaturists often have to get creative when crafting items. Pepper seeds can become potato chips, glue bottle caps can become glasses, and ping-pong balls (once halved and painted) can become lampshades. Root joked miniaturists can be seen as hoarders because of their habit of holding onto every bit of trash in case they can be used in a prop.
Miniatures typically involve many hours of work. Heuchert said she built her china shop in about three days, while other projects have taken her years. Root said she spent about 30 hour crafting a single tomato cage in one of her dioramas.
Miniatures can be a great way to learn skills and meet new friends, MacDonald said. They also give you a chance to craft your own worlds and unleash your inner interior designer at a fraction of what it would cost in real life (usually).
There’s also a fair bit of wish fulfilment, Root said.
“I’ll never be able to go on a cart like that,” she said, referring to a gift-laden red carriage pulled by a thimble-high white horse. “But I created it in miniature.”
And there’s the fun that comes with updating your miniatures, Root said. Maybe your dollhouse family decides to put up Halloween decorations, for example, or they get new furniture, and you have to move the old stuff outside and hold a 1:12th-scale yard sale.
“I think there’s always that kid in everybody that wants to play, and this is play.”
The MEE show and sale runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 17 at the Royal Hotel West Edmonton (10010-178 St. Edmonton). Tickets range from free to $6, depending on your age. Visit www.miniature-enthusiasts-of-edmonton.com for details.