Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Billy House Christmas

At the beginning of March, the Kinokuniya bookstore had set up a display of miniature doll house and ornament kits from a company called Japan Dollhouse Club Billy Company.  The majority of the building kits were for what they called the "Showa line" (the Showa era was named after the Showa Emperor, from 1925-1989).  The buildings look like they date from the 40's or 50's. The ornaments range from cute animals playing, to western-style holiday displays, like the one for Halloween.  Prices for the building kits are 4000 to 6000 yen ($48 to $70 USD), and the ornaments are 1800 yen. Given the lack of Christmas displays in my apartment last winter, I decided to get the Christmas ornament kit, just to try it out, since the kits were only available at the bookstore until March 14.

The first step was to translate the 12" by 18" sheet of instructions.  Some of the kanji characters were nonstandard-looking, leading my Japanese expert to think that Billy is either a Korean company (they're based in Osaka), or at least is using a Korean character set.  Once I got that out of the way, the rest was just a simple matter of following the instructions...

(Status of the kit by night 2.)

All you get are the raw materials - a plain block of wood, some paper, a couple packets of different kinds of resins, a small bottle of stain, 5 holly leaves, some beads and wire, and the finished gingerbread man. I started out right away on the stuff that didn't need the resins and stain - the base (putting the fancy red paper on the wood block), the tree (chopping up the stiffener cardboard that comes with the kit to make a cone, then gluing a length of artificial tree branching around it, plus the larger beads and white wire (painted with a red permanent marker, cut and twisted to make the candy canes)), the Christmas card (xerox paper glued over cardboard), and the cake tray (foam board cut and covered with silver paper plus the gold lace around the edge).  That took a couple of hours.

The next night, the house: This started out as more of the stiffener cardboard, with the main body getting stained, and 4 shorter twisted pieces of wire to make the icing at the edges of the house. One of the resins is actually a kind of molding clay that Billy's calls "whip".  This stuff has a short shelf-life, and every package is dated with a "use-by" date.  It squeezes out of the package like dried toothpaste and doesn't stick to anything.  I had to dip a toothpick in water and moisten the whip in order to make it "paintable".  Then added the smaller beads for the decorations on top.  While I had the stuff out, I diluted the stain in water and painted part of a sponge strip on one side, and put down whip on the other side, then rolled it up to make the beginning of the cake.  The instructions said to wait until it dried, so that's what I did.  This step took another 1-2 hours.

(Resins for the bowler hat and plate on the left; the snowman, cup, heart and diamond for the house on the right.  The two pieces of wire at the bottom are the handles for the snowman and cup.)

Night three: The idea is to dilute the stain with water, but there's nothing saying by how much.  Then adding the whip to make the chocolate frosting for the top of the cake.  But, the sponge is just too porous, and the mixture never really stopped soaking into the thing.  Eventually, I had to call it quits, and just sprinkled some baby powder on top to look like powdered sugar.  As that was drying, I tried tackling the cup.  This calls for the second resin, which starts out looking like a white rubber eraser.  You chop up the eraser for each thing you're going to make (the cup, the snowman teapot body, head and spout, and the heart and diamond for the house). By dropping it in near-boiling water, you soften it up so it becomes malleable.  It hardens pretty quickly, so it needs to go back into the water a lot.  Naturally, during this the water is cooling down so the resin doesn't soften as much each time.  It doesn't really want to lose it's original shape, so the head of the snowman was still a bit blocky when I got done, which worked out ok when it came time for putting on the hat.  The handles are two stiff pieces of black-insulated wire.  The noses are the ends of toothpicks painted with the red marker, and the eyes and mouths are black marker.  This was followed by the third resin - little black plastic beads.  This stuff also goes into hot water to soften, but it's a lot more malleable.  Eventually, too, it starts sticking to everything, and it holds fingerprints really well.  This went to making the bowler hat and rim, the saucer for the cup, and the two buttons for the snowman.  Enough for this night - time: 3 hours.

Fourth night:  Assembling the cup and pot.  After 24 hours, the resins had set up nice and hard, so I glued on the hat, nose and handle for the snowman; and the plate, nose and handle for the cup. Somehow, I managed to lose the buttons, so I had to use the marker again for that.  The cake had hardened as well, so I glued on the holly leaves and red beads for the berries, the small card (part of the instructions cut out and glued to the cardboard) and the candle (another toothpick tip).  Looking at the cake, I noticed that it didn't look like the photo.  This is when I realized that the instructions were wrong (or at least, misleading).  Along with the stain on one side of the sponge, I was supposed to have put down a thick layer of whip on top of the dried stain to make white frosting filling.  Of course, at this point it was too late to unwrap the thing, so I just painted diluted whip over the yellow parts of the sponge and hoped for the best. About 2 hours for these steps.

Day 5: Time to put it all together.  Glued the big card and tree to the block, followed by the cup.  Glued the cake to the tray, and the tray to the block. Added three more holly leaves plus the remaining small beads.  Then the house and lastly the snowman.  This was maybe another hour. Despite the difficulties, the final product looks pretty good.  I don't know if I ever want to do something like this again, but it definitely was a learning experience for the process of making these kinds of kits.  Definitely lots of playtime for the money, and now I have all of the holiday cheer I can stand for next December.

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