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Bookshelf to Doll House

Or how I found a way to get our little Miss a doll house without spending a fortune!

If you want to see just the details of the project then please go ahead and scroll down until you start seeing the photos of the project. Even then you might need to skip a few paragraphs! There is also a list of materials right at the very end for easy reference.

The project itself is not my first, however it was the first one I made with the idea of eventually blogging it and, therefore, it received the honour of being the first long post. Hopefully there is enough to inspire some of you to do something similar just as I have been inspired by all you vastly more sophisticated and experienced bloggers sharing your craft projects during my endless trawling through the net for ideas.

The idea for the doll house came about while I was thinking of a present we could give for our daughter’s fourth birthday. Her older brother has an extensive collection of legos that he enjoys building and playing with and she was being slightly left out of the big picture as she wasn’t old enough to handle them without constantly breaking them. She is a lot better now that her birthday has rolled around (thank goodness as its a nightmare to try and find a single tiny piece that has rolled off somewhere into the black hole that’s under the cupboard!). Even so, she tends to follow her brother’s lead in any lego games and I wanted to find her something that she could feel was her “department.” It was only about two months before her birthday when her granny persuaded her to play “let’s put Bunny (her favourite toy) down for a nap” and “let’s play doctors with Bunny” and she really seemed to enjoy the concept - she was very particular as to the type of blanket and pillow Bunny required for his mid-afternoon repose and very insistent on telling everyone in the house to be quiet while Bunny was resting! And so the idea on the doll house slowly formed as a designated area where she could have her littlest toys going about their daily routines.

Then came the research. First I went for the easy option and checked out the Amazon options. Yes, they are all lovely and yes, its virtually impossible to choose one over the other, and then you see the latest Disney princess doll house and you start drooling…. then you see the prices, the fact that they are all made out of plastic, and the crafty side of the brain brings the whole shopping process to a screeching halt. As a family we are not particularly successful at keeping plastic out of the house - our biggest achievement are drinking filtered water as opposed to bottled and refusing bags in the shops (unless we don’t have any bin bags left!). However, when it comes to toys, the whole ecological concept usually goes straight down the drain. So, with that in mind, I thought I would try to make our little girl something a bit more solid and in sync with nature than the plastic ones.

That decision meant that the second job to do was a google search for ‘DIY doll house’ and literally scroll down through the hundreds of images that came up for as long as I had patience and until they started repeating themselves too many times. This is the point where I need to thank all the remarkably talented people out there who have taken the time to share their wonderful creations with the rest of us - most of the ideas were far beyond my DIY capabilities but they were delightful to see nonetheless! Having reached a point where scrolling any further would not have yielded any new information, I felt that the easiest way to achieve a finished project within the time frame would be to use (as many of you have done) a simple bookcase or set of shelves, decorate the ‘interior’ walls with wallpaper, and stick a roof on top. Can’t be that difficult, right?

Back to Amazon, but this time I was looking for a simple plywood bookshelf, ideally wide enough to be split down the middle and with at least two “rooms” on either side. I found something suitable - it was pink (a must, of course!) and had two rooms on one side and three on the other - perfect! I set it aside in the cart to buy closer to the big day so our girl wouldn’t get to see it too early on.

In the meantime, a lot of the details of how to make the wall look like interior walls, finding the doll’s house furniture and deciding on the type of decor were hammered out. In the end it was too much to decide between the classic dollhouse decor and a doll house where fairies might consider dwelling, so the final house ended up having both! Having managed to narrow it down that far, hours of choosing wallpaper online, and several trips to the DIY and 100yen stores later, I had a plan.

And then a miracle happened - some wonderful person in this huge tower block we live in decided that they no longer needed their old bookshelf and left it out in the rubbish! What could the chances be, right? Alright, so it was bit worse for wear with scratches and tape residue everywhere, but, given that I was intending to cover all the interior surfaces with wallpaper anyway, it didn’t put me off taking it in.

I was too excited to get started to take a picture of the bookshelf as I actually found it so this one already has some paint on it and the shelves have been cleaned up. Notice that I have staggered the shelves slightly (as much as possible given the pre-made holes) to give it a bit more of a rustic look.

After a good scrub and disinfecting it became clear that the exterior would need to be painted (the doll house was supposed to be pink rather than faded brown anyway) and the shelves would need to be covered or painted as they were too badly scratched. Fortunately the pink an purple paint jars I had bought when I was making the cardboard castle for the kids were still full, so they were put to use. The entire underside got painted as well to help prevent moulding (even though I couldn’t actually see any) as it had been in a rubbish dump area that gets hosed down regularly. The shelves found their match with some contact paper from the 100yen store.

In the end, picking it up from the rubbish saved us around 3500yen (about $30) that we would have spent on a similar bookshelf from Amazon. From a non-monetary point of view, there was extra work to clean it and paint it, but it didn’t need to be assembled and the overall quality of the ply wood was a lot better (read: heavier and more sturdy) than what it would have been had it been a new one. Oh, and the knowledge that you have taken something that somebody else no longer has a use for and given it a new life - priceless!! … Sorry, couldn’t resist that one!

Ahem....Moving on! Having painted the underside, the sides and any rough grain edges, the pink paint was swapped for some PVA glue that was knocking around the house and it was time for the wallpaper. Each room would have its’ own wallpaper design and all the rooms bar one was made from repeating pattern images found on the internet. The one room that was supposed to be the easy one and use some leftover pink contact paper was the one that heard the most colourful language as I struggled to get the sticky part where I wanted them, removing the back film bit by bit while rubbing down the contact paper and trying to fit it into the back corners only to find that it rips down the seam oh so easily when you run your finger down the corner to push it into place! …. argh!

The wallpaper for the rest of the rooms behaved much better with the PVA glue. It was a simple matter of layering the glue on the interior panels in a thin and even layer and then laying the printed wallpaper on top. Regular paper worked just fine but the PVA glue needed to be watered down to a less sticky consistency as it ended up being too thick to spread out (1:1 ratio ended up being too runny though, so for a tablespoon worth of glue just a few drops of water seemed to work well - just enough to loosen it consistency). A lesson learnt here: make sure there is an overlap between the pieces of paper for a more seamless look. - the first join I made showed the brown of the plywood beneath. I ended up working from left to right, so for each image I cut out, I would leave and extra strip of white along the right so that the next image could be glued over the white strip to blend with the right edge of the previous image.

Here is a pic of the wallpaper in progress that shows the white overlap that I ended up needing to create.

And here are all the rooms with their finished wallpaper. The right half of the house is the woodland fairy side, so the themes are very much woodland animals, plants, and flowers. The left side is supposed to be “classic” doll house style, but in the end it was the patterns that grabbed my fancy… and the frustrating contact paper pink ones too!

So that’s the easy bit done. And, incidentally, the only thing that needed to be bought up to this point was the contact paper for the shelves. They sell small rolls in the 100yen store and two of those was enough to cover all four shelves on top and on the front and sides, but not enough for the bottom - what would be the “ceiling’ for the room below. The paint, glue and paper as well as contact paper for other parts of the house were already available from other projects.

Now for the roof! Two MDF boards with the dimensions 910x300x4, 2 small L-brackets, a bunch of screws and an old plank of wood was enough to set up the basic framework. The MDF boards were too long to use as they were so I guesstimated that about 55cm long would probably be just about right for the slope of the roof. The remaining pieces were put to work as the middle partition between the top of the original bookshelf and what would now be the top of the house. The 36cm (=91cm-55cm) felt a bit too tall to work as the partition, so another 10cm got shaved off both leftover pieces and the two 26cm(-ish!) pieces were stuck together and attached with L-brackets to the top of the bookshelf. Now this was a massive conundrum to be solved - finding a screw thick enough to hold the MDF board to the L-bracket and short enough not to stick out of the other side is definitely a task for those with lots and lots of patience! Even with the two MDFs stuck together, this was tricky.

The old plank of wood got sliced up into right-angled triangles with a 30 degree incline which then were glued to the MDF partition (front and back of the house) to give the roof support and something to grab onto. The wood glue and tape team came to the rescue while I slunk off to make the roof look a bit more ….well… roofy.

The shingles look that so many have used in your projects was what I was aiming for so I was looking for very thin planks of wood that I could cut to pieces and layer on top. In the end I found something that was only 1mm thick and looked like a long flat wood shaving. They were very light weight - definitely a bonus - and thin enough to cut with scissors rather than breaking out the jigsaw. They didn’t have any finish so I used some left over brown paint to give a wood stain look - ended up needing to dilute the paint quite a bit to get the right look so some of them are rather darker than the others.

The pieces on the left have no finish, on the right - painted with undiluted paint, and in the middle - the final diluted paint wood finish look that I managed to get.

The problem with painting something so thin is that the pieces all promptly started to curl, much to my panic as I was two days away from our girl’s birthday at this point! So as soon as they were touch dry, they went under some cardboard and a variety of heavy objects to make sure they would straighten before the paint fully solidified and it worked like a charm, thank goodness!


With the shingles glued onto the roof pieces of MDF, the final test of patience approached. The aim was to drill and then screw through the roof slope MDF, through the support triangles, and into the vertical support MDF but not out the other side …..ahem. I will spare you the details of my fight with the roof, but a top tip is definitely get a friend to hold it steady, or hammer in thin nails along the bottom and in to the bookshelf top rather than the MDF. I felt at the end that trying to get the screws in was not really worth it for the weight of the roof that needed to be supported and on the second half of the roof I just glued it at the top, hammered some nails in the bottom and then hammered one nail into each of the support triangles. It worked like a charm and definitely was a lot less work and infinitely less frustration.

One side finished!

Last but not least, an empty chips can served as a wonderful chimney with a bit of help from a brink pattern printed off the internet. All that needed to be done was glue the pattern onto chip can, cut off the top (not the bottom!) of the can at an angle to fit the roof and glue it onto the roof. I very deliberately flipped the can upside down and left the metal bottom intact to prevent dust from gathering in the tube. One day I will get around to making a little nest to go on top to cover the metal, but for the moment our little girl isn’t tall enough to see that, so I’m off the hook! A bit of strategically placed preserved moss around the base of the chimney worked wonders to hide the join and some left over shingles got sliced up to cover up the support triangles.

And here it is - the finally finished house all ready for the birthday in the morning!

All in all, I spent around 2000yen (about $18) to make the actual house and most of that was due to the roof materials, especially the shingles as they cost around $1 each and I bought 12 slices (still have some left over though). So if you are arty and you don’t want the 3D look, you could try to paint the MDF to look like shingles instead.

The biggest expenditures ended up being the interior decor - all the items except the Sylvanian family (a relic from my own childhood!) and the fairy - cost a 100yen each, so that totted up to another 2500-ish yen.

List of materials used:

Bookshelf - 1

MDF boards - 2 (910x300x4mm - 910mm split into 550+260+100)

Wood slices - 12 (600x80x1mm - each slice cut in to 4 shingles of 150mm long)

Wood plank - suitable size to use for the support triangles (I had plank about 70mm wide and 15mm thick, made a zig-zag pattern to make 4 right-angle triangles with a 30 angle on one side)

L-brackets - 2 (to fix the MDF board partition to the top of the bookshelf)

Screws - for the L-brackets

Nails - to keep roof in place

Wood glue - copious amounts

PVA glue - for the wallpaper (watered down a bit to make it easier to spread)

Paint - of choice (I used pink and brown)

Contact paper - of choice (I needed to buy 2 small rolls and also used some left overs from other projects)

Printer and paper - to print the wallpaper designs

The tools used:


Handsaw (didn’t risk cutting the triangle with the jigsaw!)

Electric screwdriver/drill


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