First off, why is scale important? Why can’t we just use whatever tiny stuff we think is cute? Well, you can because it’s your house, but if you want a realistic miniature scene, you’ll need to pay attention to scale.
The human eye and brain is fantastic at recognizing when something is off, especially scale. This is because we are used to seeing everyday household objects in relation to one another and also to ourselves and other people.
In the example image above, you see a small person standing next to a large set of folding chairs. What is true? Is the person tiny, or is the furniture super large? Let’s assume there isn’t any funny photoshop image trickery going on. Your brain tells you these chairs are HUGE! (and you are right.)
Next we see a big man sitting in a small chair. If you happen to know this HGTV actor, or notice his giant clown shoes, you will know this man is, in fact, quite tall, but is he so tall that the chair would be normal sized to the rest of us? Again, your brain fills in the correct answer with no, the chair is still smaller than it should be. It is likely a child’s arm chair.
Now that we know why scale is important, you’ll need to know what the standard dollhouse scales are and what they mean.
You might see something described as ‘1:12’ or perhaps ‘quarter scale’. If you are new to the dollhouse world, don’t worry if you don’t understand these terms immediately, they are simply referring to how small something has been shrunk. The typical standard dollhouse size is one-twelfth scale. This means that everything has been shrunk down by a factor of 12. Put more simply, one foot becomes one inch. That’s another way it might be described, as a 1″ scale. It can be written as 1:12, 1/12, or 1 inch. A male doll for this scale would be at most 6ish inches tall, or 6 feet in real size.
The next smallest common dollhouse scale is 1:24. It is twice as small as the standard 1:12 size. Because it is half the size, it is commonly also referred to as ‘half scale’ or ‘half inch’. Here, 1 foot equals half an inch. This is a fairly popular scale in Europe and here in the States. Model railroaders use a term called G scale which is technically 1:22.5 or a little larger than our half inch dollhouse scale, but for many, it is close enough to use things made in G scale in their half scale dollhouse. A popular children’s toy that uses this scale is Playmobile.
Quarter scale is another half smaller, or 1:48. This scale is means that anything that would be 1 foot is now 1/4″. This scale is known in the modeling world as O scale. Historically, O scale has fluctuated a little between 1:43 and 1:48, but current manufactures use 1:48. The widely recognized toy of this scale is LEGO.
The smallest common size is 1:144, also called micro or micro mini. It is also called doll’s dollhouse scale, because a 1:144 dollhouse would scale perfectly inside a standard 1:12 dollhouse and be a 1:12 dollhouse. It’s a bit confusing, but the math might help. 1 / 12 / 12 = 1:144. The closest model railroading scale is the British N scale, at 1:148, and only slightly off from the American N scale, 1:160. This scale is too small for children’s toys, but not for adult hobbyists who are still young at heart. This image is an N scale (1:160) miniature replica of the house in Pixar’s UP.
In the other direction, 1:6 is the scale used for fashion dolls such as Barbie and Blythe. This scale is twice as large as the standard dollhouse scale. It is often called Playscale or Fashion scale. Barbie herself is a bit tall for her scale, but most Amazonian women are a bit tall. This is also the same scale for the 12″ GI Joes. Do NOT let that confuse you, Barbie is a 12″ doll, which DOES NOT WORK with 1:12 furniture. While some people (my parents) purchase 1:12 miniatures at flea markets for their kid’s Barbie houses these pieces are not the right scale. I was given a side table and a dresser, and they could only be used a small accent table and a nursery organizer in my Barbie house.
American Girl dolls present a bit of a problem with scale. They are modeled to represent a young girl, around age 9. Using age and height charts, 1:2 scale makes them a kindergartner, and 1:3 scale makes them a chubby fifth grader. Both scales are commonly used with these dolls. A closer scale match might be 1:2.5, but I’ve never heard of that being a scale used by anyone. Because of their size, 1:4 scale is often used for their furniture and houses, giving the dolls the height of a teenager or adult, without the body or face to match. Oftentimes, these larger scales are all lumped together in the same category as ‘playscale’, which mostly just means a scale that is more suited to playing with rather than accurate modeling. I tried to find an image of an American Girl dollhouse that was actually properly scaled, but I came up empty. The dolls are just so big, it’s a waste to model a six foot ceiling when all of the inhabitants aren’t even 4 foot.
Other scales are more common in Europe. 1:18 is a scale used by Lundby, a dollhouse company in Sweden. The image below is a Lundby dollhouse. It’s a little smaller than standard, but not as small as half scale.
Another common European size is 1:16 is also called 3/4 scale. It is used by various companies such as Brinca Dada, Tri-ang, Marx (Little Hostess, Amanda Ann) and Petite Princess. A little larger than standard is 1:10 (a simple metric conversion), and is made in Germany and the surrounding region.
Now that you know about the various scales, you’ll know if the furniture you find is the correct size for your dollhouse.
Even if a piece of furniture says it’s in the proper scale, it is always best to check.
I purchased these black and metal diner chairs and honestly, they look a bit big to me. My dolls look a little silly and small sitting in these chairs. Sort of like a little kid sitting at the grownups table. It’s still really close to the proper scale, so I could use them, but they look big to me, so it’s bugging me and I won’t use them as they are.
The first thing to do is to measure the chair. They are 1 3/5″ from the floor to the seat. Multiply that by twelve and we see that if it were a real chair it would be over 19 inches.
Now, how do we know if 19″ is too tall? As part of my Industrial Design course work, I had a few chair design studios, and I keep finding myself referring back to the measurements provided with the ergonomic studies.
As the chart shows, standard chairs typically measure between 16 and 17 inches for that measurement, which would be 1 and 3/8s inches in our 1:12 scale.
As predicted, this chair is too tall. Also, the back is quite high. Backrests typically extend 17-24 inches above the chair seat, and ours reaches up a bit past 2″ which would be 2 ft. This is at the high end of the acceptable range, but that number is meant more for high backed executive office chairs, not this type of simple dining chair. I’d say this chair is actually in 1:10 scale, rather than 1:12. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s enough to be noticed.
I’m a pretty big fan of kit bashing or hacking, and I’ve found many miniaturists are as well. My only fun option is to tweak these chairs! Let’s jump right in! (Seriously, I didn’t even really have a plan, I just went with it and took pictures along the way. All IN!)
I discovered that the chair backs are held on simply by two screws and they come off very easily. When I was holding the backs loose, I slide them down a bit, exposing the curved top of the chair, and suddenly the chair already looks smaller! I love the curved top they now have, they remind me of a set of kitchen chairs we had a home when I was growing up.
The backrest is much too large at this point and it needs to have a space between the back rest and the seat, so I have to cut it down. As I discovered, these black parts are made of acrylic. I had them on my belt sander. DON’T breathe the cancer dust.
The legs still present a bit of a problem. They jut out way too much to appear correct at our scale, but with a bit of patience, and a pair of pliers, I bent the legs down so they don’t stick out nearly as far. The pliers scuffed up the metal paint job pretty badly, but I didn’t like that finish anyways.
The legs are still too tall for our measurements, and I’ll probably go back later with a hack saw or pair of bolt cutters to snip a quarter inch off the bottom of these legs.
I did a quick and dirty (and terrible) job recovering the seat cushion and seat back just so I could put the chair back together and show you it’s progress.
You can see how with the lowered back support the chair is starting to fit into our scale better. The wooden chair next to these is my own dining chair design based on the measurements from the ergonomic studies and actual full sized dining chairs. It looks small next to these two, but it actually is the proper scale, 1:12 . It just shows you how out of scale these black chairs actually are!