Sunday, 1 January 2017

Borrowers room box

On the first day of 2017 I have started  a project that I have been planning for a while. I will use it for a workshop later this year.

The theme is Mary Norton's Borrowers, a children's book about miniature people who live under floorboards in a large Victorian house and "borrow" everything they need from big people upstairs.

In many ways, the challenge of this project is the opposite of my usual recycling strategy: finding everyday objects that I can turn into something miniature. This time I must shrink myself and see real objects from this perspective, deciding what might be useful to "borrow", including tools to make things.

There are pictures in my copy of the book that give a good idea of what the dwelling looks like and what some of the objects are. There is also a detailed description that goes:

"Homily was proud of her sitting room: the walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical stripes which ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls repeated in various colours, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl; these were postage stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp box in the morning room. There was a lacquer trinket box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle; and that useful stand-by - a chest of drawers made of match boxes. There was a round table with a red velvet cloth, which Pod had made from the wooden bottom of a pill box supported on the carved pedestal of a knight from the chess set..."

I'll stop here, but it goes on, and more details are revealed later.


So there are several interesting aspects to this project. It needs to be as close as possible to the descriptions and pictures. It must be period-correct: no plastic, nothing that a Victorian household wouldn't have (of course, I can paint plastic to look like brass or tin). It also has to be real objects or objects that the borrowers could make with the few tools they have, such as needles, safety pins, or a half of a pair of scissors they use to slice "borrowed" potato.

However, before I can think about the details, some basic decisions. Because this room box will eventually be on public display, I decided to use a proper wine box. (Has anyone noticed that it is increasingly difficult to get hold of wine boxes? All shopkeepers want them for window displays). The only one I had available was the one that once was a yarn shop, then an Alice in Wonderland box. I had already dismantled Alice, so the box was half empty, but it still had the many doors, a row of lamps, wallpaper and flooring. In these situations I usually ask myself: "Who is this idiot who glued wallpaper directly onto the walls..." So this was the starting point:


To begin with, the ceiling in the borrowers' dwelling would not be painted. If I had a new wine box I would just have left it unpainted, but unfortunately that wasn't an option. Instead I covered the ceiling with self-adhesive shelf lining, tested and discarded for flooring in my large dollhouse. But here it worked, because the pattern should be in 1:1 scale.


The box is obviously upside down, so this is the ceiling, which is the floorboards of the big house.

Next, as you can read in the description above, the walls are papered with old letters, and these I printed out from the internet - there are scores of images of nineteenth-century handwritten letters.


The text says "scraps", but I didn't go that far. I didn't print out stamps of Queen Victoria, because I try to print out as little as possible, recycling what I have instead, and I have been saving some standard stamps - this is an anachronism I will allow myself.

Once again, the borrowers live under floorboards and use water pipes for heat and water. You can see pipes in the picture. I had been thinking about these pipes for a while, and this morning I got an idea of making them from kitchen towel rolls, but when I tested they were far too large - they just dominated the whole scene, even though they would be right in scale. I then tried dowel, but you cannot bend dowel the way water pipes bend, so I had to fall back on the well-tested method of drinking straws. They are definitely wrong scale, but as it turned out, they worked well and created the right kind of effect. 

I have a large supply of drinking straws that I use for various purposes, so I painted them copper, but I happened to have one straw painted black, so I tried painting copper on top of black, with a much better result. It really looks realistic. See for yourself. I wanted to build a complicated system of pipes, as they would have in an old house, and it took some elaborate engineering.

I will not show the whole process, but these pictures explain the method. I used toothpicks and grill sticks to attach the pipes to walls and to connect them. Then I used silver duct tape to enforce the connections, precisely like real copper pipes are connected with lead. 

You can see they are pipes, but they do not dominate the scene. 

Then I tentatively put in some suitable objects I had found. 

On the floor, Homily has red blotting paper that Pod borrows from upstairs. I don't know whether you can get blotting paper anywhere today, but I will investigate. So far, I have used soft craft paper. Some objects match the description. Homily knits the family's clothes from silk thread. They use thread spools to sit on. When did you last see a genuine wooden spool? I had some very old ones on my supplies. The watch in mentioned later in the book: Pod borrowed it from upstairs. The egg coddler in not mentioned, but I thought it would be just something Homily would like to have and Pod would be able to carry (he borrows a full-size cup at one point). The bath tub, that you cannot see very well behind the table, is exactly what it is in the book: a tin from foie de gras. All utensils in the shelf are metal lids so they are period-correct (well, almost). The shelf is temporary; I will make something that Pod is likely to be able to make. Of course I know how to make a chest of drawers from match boxes, but where can I get match boxes?? Will ask friends. 

This is how far I got today. Very pleased and looking forward to thinking of more things to add. 

To be continued.


  1. Oh my, it looks like it's going to be wonderful! You've got me very curious.

    For thread spools, you might be able to prime and paint plastic spools to look like wood.

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