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Building a Glitterhouse

Note from Editor: Howard Lamey, in Jacksonville, Florida, has retired from a full-time job in advertising that included designing window displays for a major retailer. Now he has turned those artistic talents to designing and building Click for bigger photo.vintage-style cardboard buildings for his family and friends. Howard is building his own site, but he has graciously agreed to share some of his craft knowledge with our readers.

Also, you should know that most collectors and builders of vintage pasteboard houses call them "putz" houses because they were often used in "putzes," the German-American term for Christmas villages of the 1930's-1950's. If most of this information is new to you, you can read up on these classic cardboard Christmas communities in the Big Indoor Trains "What is a Glitterhouse?" article. The house shown in the photo is a good starting product for learning to build "putz" houses.

What You Will Need

If you are going to build vintage-style cardboard houses, stop throwing away used, clean cardboard yesterday. Save cereal boxes, the backs of writing tablets, anything flat, firm and clean, that you can save. Please keep some corrogated cardboard on hand, too - it makes the best bases. In addition, for this project you'll need:

  • A sharp mat knife or Xacto knife (or both)
  • A stiff metal ruler
  • Elmer's white Glue-All. A glue stick would also come in handy.
  • Clear glitter. I use the “Sulyn” brand.
  • Several sheets of acid-free white bond paper
  • Flat white paint (flat latex interior wall paint is good) to prime the building (and give it the chalky feel of the original)
  • Acrylic paint in the colors you plan to use for the house.
  • Other accessories, such as bottle brush trees, that you plan to use to finish the house.

Note:: Our article on What You Need to Build Glitterhouses lists many other materials and tools that will help you work more quickly and effectively.

Printing the Plans

Double-click on this image to see a higher resolution pattern.Double-click on this image to see a higher resolution pattern.

Double-click on the plans above to see the large versions. You should be able to print the big version at the size you need either of the following ways.

  • If you have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer, click the following links to see the PDF versions:

    Select the print option, tell it to "auto rotate and center" or whatever else you need to make it go to Landscape mode. Don't select the "scale to page" or "shrink to fit" option. Print.

  • If you don't have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer or for some reason that doesn't work, open the big GIF versions by clicking on the reduced plans above. Choose the "file, page setup" from your browser. When the page setup menu comes up, select "landscape mode." If you CAN choose to NOT scale the picture, do so. This may mean that part of the page gets clipped on your printer, but the plans should print to the right size. If they don't you should be able to tweak the size either in the print program or in any graphic program you have on your printer.

If neither of those work, contact Paul and ask him for help - that's his department. :-)

Building the Base

The base is a rectangular "box" that is decorated before the house and trees are installed. For this project, it should be about 4 1/4" square, and about 1/2" high. Click for bigger photo.

Note: For this project, Howard cut the base and fence pieces out at the same time. The fence pieces are made from card stock such as posterboard or cereal box cardboard. If you wish, you may use different materials for the fence, including miniature wooden snow fence from the craft store or a rustic rail fence you make from twigs.

Cut And Glue The Base - Usually the best method is to make a base from layers of corrugated cardboard glued together in a sandwich. You then wrap and glue a strip of thin poster-board or cereal-box cardboard all around it to camouflage the rough edges of the corrugated cardboard.

Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.

Wrap the Base - When the base is built, you then cover it with white bond paper just like you would wrap a gift, except that all surfaces of the paper cover must be glued down to the box. A glue stick works great for this.

The finish coat of paper is glued down everywhere so it becomes a part of the surface and recreates the pasteboard finish of the original glitterhouses. Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo

Note: More details about building bases are provided in our article: Building Glitterhouse Bases

Attach the Fence - When the glue on the base has dried, glue the fence pieces to the base.

Prime the Base - When all the glue has dried, paint the base with the flat white paint. This provides an even finish that will hold the acrylic paint and glitter. If the fence is made of card stock, prime it, too.

Prepping the Structure Pieces

The house, roof, chimney, and chimney cap need to be cut from thicker cardboard, such as the cardboard from the back of a writing tablet.

Click for bigger photo

  1. Carefully transfer patterns of all pieces to the cardboard building stock. A .05 mm lead mechanical pencil and a “C-Through” brand ruler make this accurate and easy.

  2. Put new blades in the mat knife or X-acto knife (or both) that you will be using.

  3. Score the fold lines before you begin cutting out the parts (although you may do the roof later, if you wish, after you've checked the overhang). Use the metal ruler or other steel edge as a guide.

  4. Still using a steel-edged ruler as a guide, cut out the shapes. Watch your fingers.

  5. Double-check the roof size. The most important thing is that it has an overhang on all sides just like a real house. After you determine where the peak of the roof should be, score the crease.

  6. Cut the door and window frames from thinner stock, such as posterboard or cereal box cardboard.

Assembling and Painting the House

  1. Using Elmer's white Glue-All or a similar product, assemble the house, glue on the roof, chimney with chimney cap, trim details plus door and window frames. I would do this in steps so that you are not trying to hold, tape, or clamp a lot of small pieces at one time.

    Click for bigger photo.

    White glue works best if you apply a thin coat to each mating surface and wait a few moments for the glue to become tacky. Do not glue the house to the base until you have applied the glitter (below).

    Note: Sometimes I add a sub-base to the house. This could be in the form of 1/4"-inch square pieces of balsa wood or strips of corrugated cardboard glued around the inside bottom edge of the house wall where it meets the base. This gives you a larger gluing surface for mounting the house to the base.

    This sub-base made of corrugated cardboard provides a little more strength to the house and gives a better surface for gluing to the base.  Click for bigger photo.The house and base have now been primed with a flat interior wall paint that provides a consistent surface for the next coat.  Click for bigger photo.

  2. Prime the house, including trim, with flat white wall paint. Don’t skip this step; it gives you a uniform surface for painting.

  3. Paint the house in your choice of colors. I use acrylics from the Wal-Mart craft department. For anything that is painted gold, silver or bronze, I use “Testors” brand model paint.

    Note Howard's signature 'Dr. Seuss' color choices and white paint 'globs.'  Having exaggerated colors and patterns is important because the clear glitter actually tones things down a little.  Click for bigger photo.

  4. Paint the base and fence. A white base with random swirls and dabs of very light pastel blue and pink are a good choice. Paint the fence a color that ties in with the rest of the house but is dark enough to contrast with the base. I suggest you not use yellows, beiges or greens in the snow.

  5. Click for bigger photo.Add clear glitter to the house and the base. Brush on a thin, but even coat of undiluted white glue and sprinkle on the glitter. Don’t try to do the entire house or base at once. White glue starts to film-over and dry quickly so just do a wall or a section at a time. The glue dries clear so don’t judge the final look until the glue is dry.

  6. Glue the window covering material on the inside of the house. I use colored velum or colored “cellophane type” material. Red seems to be the traditional color but you can use any color you like.

  7. Glue the finished house to the finished base. Fill in any gaps between the house and the base with white glue and sprinkle on more glitter.

For this structure, Howard chose a bottle brush and a small Christmas tree ornament shaped like a snow man. Click for bigger photo.Adding Additional Scenery

Add yard accessories such as a small figurine and a bottle-brush tree.

I like to use miniature Christmas tree ornaments such as a Santa, deer and snowmen. You may even choose to make you own accessories.

[Editor's note: I have seen cheap party favors and cake decorations that were also suitable - it's okay if your accessories look a little "tacky." For trees, some folks cut apart a loofah sponge and dip it into deep blue-green paint, wring it out, and let it dry to simulate the lichen-like organic material used on some of the original houses. - Paul]

When everything is glued together and the glue has dried, touch up any place that the glitter hasn't covered evenly.

Conclusion

You can see that, when you get to the gluing, painting, and glittering stages, there's a lot of "hurry up and wait." That's one reason many people who build modern putz house recreations work on two or three houses at the same time - you can work on the second house while the glue is setting on the first one, and so on.

This photo shows color and fencing variations you can consider.  It also shows that I don't exactly build these one at a time. Click for bigger photo.

Click for bigger photo.Bonus: Church Conversion Plans

When you're done with your first house, and thinking about the next project, here's an idea. Many glitterhouse sets had seven houses (often identical except for colors and accessories) and a church. If you want your glitterhouse collection to represent that tradition, you can use the plans below in addition to the plans and directions above to convert your next putz house into a church.

Click to see the full-sized plan.

As always you have two options for downloading and printing the plan:

If you do build a church, you'll find a stained glass window pattern you can use on Paul Race's Free Large Scale Signs and Graphics web page.

Also, if you find yourself looking for the old-fashioned celophane with gold windowframes printed on it, you'll find many choices at Papa Ted's Reproduction Parts page.

The following photos show the steps in building a church the same basic way you build the little glitterhouse above. Note that in this version of the project, Howard changed the shape of the windows and added two, but the basic process is the same.

Cut and score the building pieces according to the directions above.Click for bigger photo.
Assemble the base and other sub-assemblies according to the directions above.Click for bigger photo.
Put the sub-assemblies together to check the fit. Once you are satisfied that they will look right together, prime the subassemblies with flat white paint, paint the subassemblies, glue the windows in place, and glue the subassemblies together.Click for bigger photo.
Finish with glitter and accessories according to the directions above. Once again you can see that Howard almost never makes one of these at a time. That way he can be working on one while the glue or paint is drying on another one.Click for bigger photo.

Commercial "Plug"

A Note from the Designer: Now that I'm in "retirement," this hobby has become a sort of avocation for me. Several folks have commissioned me to build specific houses for them. So if you'd like me to "bid" on a cardboard house for you, or if you have any questions at all, please visit our Orders page. - Howard

Also, if you have a similar project you'd like to share with your fellow readers and hobbyists, we'd love to add it to our site, and we'll be sure to give you full credit for your contribution.


Other Resources for Putz Houses and Related Information

  • Other Putz House Articles:
    • Building Glitterhouse Bases
    • What You Need to Build Glitterhouses
    • What is a Glitterhouse? - The BigIndoorTrains™ introduction to the hobbies of collecting and building glitterhouses.
    • Building the Little Charmer - A new glitterhouse project that is a step up from our beginning glitterhouse, includes free downloadable plans and instructions.
    • Welcome to Spook Hill™ - Howard has designed a whole, family-friendly, Halloween community built in the vintage "putz-house" style. Featured structures so far include:
      • Spook Hill™ #1 - Shakey Pane Manor - Here's a new Halloween-themed building project that based on forms typically used in some of the more elaborate cardboard Christmas houses that were made in Japan between 1920 and 1930. Includes free downloadable plans and instructions.
      • Spook Hill™ #2 - Spook Hill Station - Here's the first-ever Halloween-themed train station craft project. This is the second of our series of Spook Hill™ buildings, designed to look good with Halloween Trains of all kinds, and to get your community ready to receive guests by Halloween, includes free downloadable plans and instructions.

  • Other Putz House Resources:
    • LittleGlitterHouses.com - In case you aren't already on Howard's site, this will take you there. Putz house builder Howard Lamey now has his own site, begun in December, 2007. You can commission your own custom-built glitterhouse, or buy a precut kit and finish it yourself.
    • "Papa Ted's Place" Ted Althof's extensive resource about vintage pasteboard houses. Includes some history, many photos from other people's collections, and resources to help you build your own. The links below will take you right to the approprate page on "Papa" Ted's site. You'll find lots of other pages to look at while you're there, though.
      • Building from Scratch - "Papa" Ted Althof has collected tips and photos from other glitterhouse builders including Tom Hull and Ted Howard.
      • Repair and Restoration - "Papa" Ted Althof publishes Tom Hull's tips for restoring damaged antique glitterhouses.
      • Reproduction Parts - Ted offers authentic reproductions of just about every door and window that were used in glitterhouses over a 35-year period. These include celophane and paper "see-through" windows, as well as "stick-on" windows. If you don't know what sizes you need, you can order a template or sample pack. The page includes several photos showing how the replacement parts bring otherwise solid vintage glitterhouses "back to life."
      • Making "Flocked" Windows - Tom Hull's method for making "fuzzy" windowframes on celophane, with additional tips by author and glitterhouse collector Antoinette Stockenberg.
      • Repairing or Replacing Trees Tom's article about the "lufa" trees that were common on pre-war glitterhouses, and can be repaired or else replaced by new lufa carefully cut, soaked with dark green acrylic paint, and allowed to dry before gluing and applying white paint for "snow."

  • Other Articles that Discuss Putzes and Christmas Villages of the mid-20th Century:
    • About Nativities - Describes how German-American Nativity displays (the original "putzes") grew into communities and landscapes that included pastboard, glittered houses and even electric trains.
    • What Do Trains Have to Do With Christmas - Describes how electric trains contributed to the communities many families set up at Christmas, with some details about the elaborate "Christmas Gardens" of the Baltimore/DC area.
    • Author Antoinette Stockenberg's home page - includes photographs and comments on putz houses and life in general.

    To return to the "Howard's How-To" page, click here.

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Note: LittleGlitterHouses.com(tm) and Spook Hill(tm) are trademarks of Howard Lamey. Big Indoor Trains(tm), Big Train Store(tm), Family Garden Trains(tm), Big Christmas Trains(tm), Garden Train Store(tm), and Trains and Towns(tm) are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


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