Preparing for the overhaul...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dremeling for Fun and Leisure: A Tutorial

I love my Dremel, and since I've gotten so many really nice (and undeserved!) comments on my recent efforts I thought I'd share a few of my techniques.  Most of what I've learned--in real life as well as in mini life--has been through trial and error.  A lot of horribly deformed lumps paved the way for anything remotely resembling an actual geometric shape.  Hopefully hearing about my mistakes can save you some trouble!

The first and really most important issue, I think, is which Dremel to use.  I mentioned before, I have the 4000.  It's a little extra, but comes with some very important features that cheaper Dremels don't have.  In particular:
  1. a variable speed motor, and
  2.  a really hardcore little motor.
I find the variable speed to be indispensable.  Just like with a table saw, different applications (and types of materials) require different speeds.  I've been making the embellishments on the Haunted Beacon Hill out of basswood, because it's lightweight and easy to work with.  I also find that it's very easy to dremel on.  The temptation is to set the motor on its lowest speed and go really slowly, so you don't mess anything up.  But don't!  I've found that too-slow dremeling makes for uneven, pitted lines.  It takes a little practice, but I personally find that I get cleaner, more elegant results when I set my motor somewhere between 15 and 25.

As for materials, don't use balsa.  It's so appealingly soft, this seems like a great time-saver.  But since it is so soft, it doesn't hold its shape at all.  Which, particularly when you're trying to create 16 (or more) identical pieces is a real drag.  I've used hardwoods, too--mainly walnut--but it depends on your final goal.  There's no sense in using really nice (expensive) wood if you're just going to glue bricks down on top of it.

I've actually had Dremels burn out on me.  When I first started making miniatures, my ambitions were, in some cases, ah, bigger than my abilities--or tools.  A not-so-great motor is fine for light work, but if you're planning on spending the afternoon working with a tool, keep in mind that it--that any tool--can and will overheat.  The only question is how long of a grace period you'll get.  The better the motor, the longer you can go--and the quicker its recovery time.

So, having said all this, the real key to successful results is--I think--the design of the piece itself.  Don't create unnecessary work--and misery--for yourself!  It's like with anything else: just because the final project looks like a single piece of wood, doesn't mean it is.  Use the same principles of addition, subtraction and compounding you'd use in, say, designing a piece of wainscoting.  It's really pretty amazing, what a bunch of different little sticks can turn into.

I always start with a (usually life sized) scaled design so I know what I'm actually trying to make.  A few millimeters here or there can make a big difference!  Having a design is also really convenient, because you can turn it into a pattern.  Here, I've cut out sections of my latest window design to use as a pattern, not just for getting the angles right but for placing them on the wood itself. 

What will hopefully become the dormer windows on the Haunted Beacon Hill.
Instead of suffering along, trying to cut compound angles, I create a lot of different, separate pieces and glue them together.  An aside: use Quick Grip, or some other non-water based glue, as it won't warp your wood.  So, for example, if I want the eventual width of my arch to be 3", I'll cut two 1 1/2" strips and use them to make two mirrored pieces.  Which, well, this can get confusing so yet another reason to have a pattern.

I periodically check my pieces against the pattern and against each other.  Usually, after I create the first piece--i.e. the first concave arch half--I use that piece, itself, as a pattern, tracing its shape onto my other pieces of wood.  Then, moving forward, I always check my work against that original piece.  Otherwise, I've found, mistakes can multiply.  A millimeter here or there, over the course of, say, 16 arches, can mushroom into pieces that, by the end, look nothing alike.

I always number my pieces, so I know what's supposed to go with what.
I usually do a rough cut to remove as much bulk as I can from the angle, then finish it off with my Dremel.  I probably end up removing about 1/4" (sometimes slightly more) with my Dremel.  Particularly with some shapes, it's hard to get in close enough to the line without sawing up your piece.

Then, once I'm satisfied with the shape--and uniformity--of all my pieces, I start gluing everything together.  Carefully.  I usually keep checking my work against a ruler, to make sure the shape I want is what's actually taking form.

Sometimes, mid-project, I make a change.  That's what happened here.  Preliminaries are good, but nothing beats seeing your work in the actual flesh.  I realized, when I was looking at the window, that I wasn't happy with the height of the dormer or the allowance I'd made for trim.  The trim I'd planned on using looked great on paper but really dinky in real life.

Realizing something isn't quite right...
So what I did was--and this is another great benefit of making everything piecemeal--insert a larger cornice.  I used 1/4" cove molding on a base of 1/4" x 3/8" balsa.  The reason I used balsa is, this all is going to be covered with stone powder (specifically Richard Stacey modeling dust) later on.  When I can use lighter, cheaper materials I do.

The new, improved window.
This window is going to have two embellishments: columns, and a carving.  That's what the larger head is for--to support the carving.  But that's a ways away (the materials I need to create it haven't arrived in the mail yet and besides, I do work...sort of).  For the columns, I'm echoing the same pattern I used on the central stained glass window.  The capital and plinth are reclaimed parts from veranda posts, and the column (which is actually a pilaster, I suppose) is 1/4" half round molding.  

First, I cut the actual capitals.  Then, I figured out how long I needed the plinth to be, and where on the window it was going to attach.  Then, I cut a test piece of 1/4" half round molding to fit--and once I knew I had the right fit, I cut seven more.  I then assembled each window from the top down, attaching capital, column body, and plinth.  That way, I could be (more or less) assured of their uniformity.

Photo courtesy of Manchester Woodworks.
This isn't the greatest picture ever, but if you examine the top of the veranda post, you can see the little urn-like shape.  If you flip your computer upside down, you'll see the pilaster, too--it's the bit above the little urn-like shape.  It's just upside down right now, so it's hard to tell.  When I cut the columns in half, I only cut about halfway down (I might want the bottoms for something else, who knows, plus it's a real drag to risk your fingers like that).  This is exactly the kind of thing I love my small table saw (the MicroLux) for.

I like to think it doesn't look like a middle American porch anymore!
 The plinth extends past the foot of the window, allowing for the slope of the roof.  I tested the pieces against the roof before cutting anything.  Also, too, it's worth mentioning that I dry-fitted the sill and walls at the same time to make sure that everything was squaring off.  It's such a sinking feeling, when you realize that you've cut everything to tolerate an off angle and, as a result...nothing fits.

Finally, this is the window, in place and waiting for its carving.  So far, the house doesn't look particularly scary; I'm relying on my as yet unrealized carvings to give it the proper sense of atmosphere.  I'm excited!

Any thoughts?


Giac said...

Hello C.J.
Thank you for the great tips. It is very helpful.
I only disagree with one thing, the really nice comment you receive are totally deserved!
Big hug,

Bell and Crow Miniatures said...

I just love where you are taking this kit. Just absolutely fabulous. The Gothic touches are simply perfection!

Michelle said...

This is simply superb work. I love the coving you've used for the pediment etc. Perfect mitre cuts!

Truly great and beautiful design and oh so perfectly executed too!

I dry build pieces too, you can never be too sure that all things square up. I've had to make allowances in the past and it's not easy. :o(

Michelle :o))

Janice said...

Thank you for sharing. One day i will be brave and try and use my dremmel for something other than drilling holes!

C.J. said...

I'm actually terrible at drilling holes!

Mini Southern Millworks said...

wow!!!!! thank you for the tips.

Irene said...

Thank you for taking the time to do this - I'm definitely going to have another serious look at my Dremel (and the book that comes with it!)

Daydreamer said...

Your work is Awesome! Maybe someday I will get all the tools and learn how to use them!! Your house is going to be Fantastic!!!