I am almost done with Hannah’s dollhouse (really, this time).  The main roof needs to be shingled, and the stairs installed, but otherwise it is done.  Hopefully I’ll be finishing today.  Maybe not, the lights need to come down and the lawn needs to be fertilized and I wrote this post instead of getting started, but I think this post was kind of important.

My generation did not have much in the way of parental- or grandparental-created toys.  When I think back to the toys with which my friends and I played, a goodly number of them were assembled, certainly, but most of those were “snap these pieces of plastic together, stick on this sheet of decals, and put the batteries in it” and most of that work was done by us, not the adults.

Some people had furniture built by grandpa.  My brother and I had bunkbeds that were actually created by our grandfather for our uncles Tom and Pat, but in the previous generation Tom was the elder of the two so the bed with his name on it was designed to be the top bunk, so when we had the bunkbeds assembled I slept in Tom’s bed and Tom slept in Pat’s.  But I digress.

Nobody had grandma’s dollhouse.  Nobody had grandpa’s wagon.  Toys that had been built by great-grandparents for grandparents might be in an attic, but they were typically regarded as being too delicate to be handed over to children.  Toys that had been built by grandparents for parents were around, but most of them were up in attics as well, or they were at the very least verboten from child access without parental supervision.  Most of them probably had not survived being replaced by toys that were bought instead of built.

This has been kicking around in my head since I read J.L.’s piece on the front page.

It wasn’t my decision to buy this dollhouse kit.  I have to admit, from the time I unboxed it until about three weeks ago I’ve been more than a little grumpy about it.  The instructions aren’t clear about how much work is involved.  There’s a lot of sections where two sentences actually cover several days worth of sanding, trimming, shellacking, painting, re-trimming, re-painting, gluing, oh my goodness how can you possibly clamp this piece to that piece, assemble a giant scaffold so that you have something to clamp to, clean up spilled glue, repaint over glue… run to the hardware store to buy a bar clamp so that the next part won’t be so difficult… etc., etc., etc.

Not to mention that assembling this thing takes a ton of space, which is really the kicker.  The garage isn’t well-ordered yet, and moving from stage to stage has necessitated actually moving piles of stuff around.  At one point, I had about 100 square feet of surface covered with parts in varying states of preparedness, tools, paint, shellack, empty coffee cups (and beer mugs), and moving a bike in and out of the garage required six minutes of careful duck-walking around fragile bits.

(No, we’re not an episode of “Hoarders”, although it sounds a bit like that from the last paragraph.  We have a lot of stuff staged to go in a yard sale, we just haven’t had the time to get that on the calendar.)

Anyway, for someone who has a limited amount of spare time, even if I were fully invested in this thing from the get-go, it would have been a frustrating experience, is what I’m trying to say.  I can be a stupidly shortsighted sort of fella when it comes to my spare time.

So, of course, as I’ve gotten closer and closer to endgame, I’m able to focus a lot more on the payoff.  It’s going to last a long time.  Hannah’s getting this when she’s old enough to treat it properly, and it is the sort of object that I won’t mind wrapping carefully and storing in the garage when she goes off to college, and holding onto when she’s moving around apartments after college, and holding onto when she gets married, and holding onto through the first pregnancy, and holding onto through the second pregnancy, and waiting for there to be a space where it can sit and assume, once again, its proper role as an imagination sandbox for somebody new.

Maybe it won’t be Hannah’s daughter… maybe it’ll be Hannah’s son.  Maybe it won’t be Hannah’s child’s toy at all, maybe Hannah won’t have children.  Maybe she’ll have a touching internal conflict and give it to Jack’s daughter.  Or maybe it will pass outside our direct family and go to my sister’s son’s daughter.  Maybe something will happen to it and none of these things will come to pass.

It is, after all, just a thing.

But it’s a thing that I built.  It could wind up lasting longer than anything else I’ve done.  It might mean something more important to someone in some future generation than anything else I wind up doing with my life (let’s hope that if that’s the case, it’s because it’s realllllly important to someone, of course).

We should do this sort of thing more often, I’ve concluded.  Create things, build things for people.  Not little things, but big things that last.  Big things that take something out of you to make.  Less of the buying things and more of the investment of real time in creation, at a cost to us.  It means something.  I’m not sure what, but it’s something important.  Kitty was very wise to come up with this idea.  Have I mentioned lately that my wife is a lot more wise than I am?

I think I’m going to build Jack a desk.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. If you aren’t taking process pictures, please start. My sister-in-law offered to do something like this for Alice, but changes in their lifestyle made that time commitment impossible for her right now. Still, it put the idea in my head, and now you may’ve caused that seed to germinate. I would love to see pictures so I understand what you’re doing.

    I did get to play with toys constructed by my grandfather, Con. He liked making simple cars, trains, etc out of blocks of wood, as well as simple pieces of furniture (he once teamed up with his wife, Alice, to make an upholstered, rocking footrest to use with a rocking chair). I remember him building what he called “Uncle Con’s Cabin,” which was a log cabin playhouse in his backyard that became a play focus for the whole neighborhood for years.

    • Would that I had done this. I don’t know why I didn’t do it, except for the “grump” thing.

      If you decide to go the route of building a kit house, I can write a post about the drawbacks of the instructions. I can even take some shots of techniques I found useful.

      Right now, though, the only photo is “near done”.


    This is a great book that speaks tot he power of creation.

    I’m not particularly handy and don’t know that building will ever be a task for me, though I would certainly relish the opportunity to learn. But I do value creation and seek to offer such open-ended materials in my classroom. Our art area in particular is used as much for the creation of toys for play elsewhere as it is for the creation of visual art.

  3. I heard stories about the games my dad and his brothers played with the toys they had.

    A whole bunch of plastic cowboys and indians… but instead of making war, they set them up at one end of the hall and got a bunch of marbles and they assigned points to the various cowboys and indians based on size, stability, and so on. (There was one indian that was large enough that some of the small toys could be placed underneath… but if you hit the indian, he would topple forward, making the little toy impossible to get.)

    Of course, if you look at the toys themselves, they just look like a bunch of chewed plastic toys from the days when “MADE OF SPACE-AGE PLASTIC!” was featured prominently on the packaging.

  4. When our oldest son was 2 or 3, he became fascinated by a dollhouse in our public library. My dad build one for him shortly after that.

    With two boys, it’s shelf life was somewhat limited, but it is one of the few toys from that era we still have in the house.

  5. I have a serious yarn habit. I began knitting for physical therapy, I have fine motor problems in my hands due to neck injury. And I get the heebeejeebees from cheap acrylic yarns; I want the reall deal, merino wool, silk, alpaca. Very expensive stuff, in the quantities I use it. I also have a good bit of ADHD and really strong three-dimensional skills, so I mostly knit without the aid of other people’s written instruction.

    A while ago, I discovered that I could write my own knitting patterns and sell them, and at least make enough money to support my yarn habit.

    Now I’ve written a lot; with many hundreds of pieces of journalism published and many years of technical writing when I worked in IT.

    But writing instruction? It’s really hard. You have to figure out your assumptions about what the person using the instruction might or might not know. You have to find a way to pace the instruction — as you noticed, two lines that convey many days work seems somehow unsatisfactory. And then there’s the math; for people come in many shapes and sizes, so a knitting pattern has to convey a range to cover some of that variety.

    I’ve also got a kid who likes to build stuff but was a reluctant reader. So I’ve spent a good chunk of my life trying to comprehend the directions to kits. I’ve learned how to put the skin on a wing, how to install servos, how to manage screws drivers too small for my challenged fine motor skills in the goal of assembling a computer or radio kit. I even learned how to solder, RGB, and the intricacies of prepping a surface for spray paint.

    And more often then not (including knitting patterns,) what I’ve found is instruction that does not prepare you for the time involved, presumes skills we were lacking, and short-shifted the best ways to do things.

    So I commiserate with you. Yet the incredible joy of making something outweighs the frustrations. A completed thing, and the skills we garner along the way to completion? Pleasures beyond saying. We humans are makers, despite frequently being not so great at explaining “how to” to someone else.

    • But writing instruction? It’s really hard. You have to figure out your assumptions about what the person using the instruction might or might not know. You have to find a way to pace the instruction — as you noticed, two lines that convey many days work seems somehow unsatisfactory. And then there’s the math; for people come in many shapes and sizes, so a knitting pattern has to convey a range to cover some of that variety.

      Oh, do I ever know this. My second job out of college was providing technical support for a high school, along with pedagogical support and training for faculty. Right now, I have to write documentation for three classes of people: administrative end-users, undergraduates, and faculty/graduates. What works for one audience doesn’t work for another.

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