Building a Dollhouse- Cardboard and Foam Core Construction

There are many advantages to building a dollhouse from scratch as opposed to from a kit. It allows you to customize the design, and to execute a unique build that meets your creative vision. There are disadvantages too- without a kit guiding you, the onus of keeping things to scale and monitoring how much material you will need is on you as the designer. In this post I want to share some of what I have learned in my fifteen plus years of building dollhouses from scratch.

First, lets talk about materials. What material you choose is largely dependent on how you intend to finish the dollhouse. I always build my dollhouses then coat them in a layer of Papier-Mache. Papier-Mache is extremely durable and can last for centuries when sealed and cared for properly. Check out my post on Building a Dollhouse- Papier-Mache for more info on that process. If you do not intend to Papier-Mache your structure this will impact your build as you want to make sure you have a way to conceal things like where pieces are joined, or the edges of surfaces.

Cardboard is a fantastic and inexpensive way to start building dollhouses. Cardboard does come in many types which can pose unique challenges as well as perks. I prefer a sturdy, multi-layer corrugated cardboard (much like what is in appliance shipping boxes) as it is less likely to warp. You also will want to avoid any cardboard that has a waxy or shiny coating as this can cause headaches when attempting to get anything to adhere to the surfaces. There are also many interesting things made from cardboard that can be rescued from the recycling bin and incorporated into your project, for example cardboard tubes from wax paper or cling wrap, tubes from fax machines or receipt printers, and molded cardboard corners from shipping packaging. Large tubes for pouring concrete are an awesome way to build a tower but be prepared for hours of stripping off the outer and inner waxy coating.

Foam Core is a more expensive option for building dollhouses but is more reliable and uniform. It can be purchased in different thicknesses. Keep an eye out for the foam core that has the matte paper as this accepts glue and Papier-Mache the best. Also, as foam core is solid and not corrugated you don’t have to worry about the corrugated striping showing through in your build.

In any case, whether you use cardboard or Foam Core there are some additional items you will want to have on hand:

  • Brown craft paper (or paper bag material)
  • Scissors
  • Exacto Knife
  • Utility Knife
  • Glue (I prefer Tacky glue hands down)
  • Painters Tape
  • Wooden dowels of various sizes
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Ruler (I keep a clear ruler on hand as well)
  • Cutting mat
  • Sharp Pokey tool
  • Heavy books
  • Band-aids (safety first!)

When I build a dollhouse I sometimes start with a sketch, other times I build organically and let the materials on hand shape what I am building. This is especially true if I don’t have any large sheets of foam core and I am using scraps to try and create something. In either case, I try to stick to a semblance of 1/12 scale. As my houses are not modern in design, I tend to have larger doors and windows cut out to accommodate the wooden frames I inset later. Below are the measurements I to use which are taking some creative liberty:

  • Doorways-  6 ½ inches to 7 inches
  • Narrow Window Opening- 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall (placed 2 ½ inches above floor level)
  • Wide Window Opening- 2 ½ inches wide by 3 inches tall (placed 2 ½ inches above floor level)
  • Oversize Window Opening- 3 inches wide by four inches tall
  • Ceiling height- 8 inches to 9 inches high

I will dry fit all my pieces and hold in place with painters’ tape. Once content with the structure I glue the pieces together with tacky glue and place wooden pegs in any area that needs additional strength such as a where the second floor meets the side wall, or where the roof sits on a structure wall. To place a peg, I poke a hole into the location with a sharp tool. I then insert a glue covered wooden peg that has been given a sharpened point. While the structure is drying, I use the painters’ tape again. I then start to replace the painters’ tape with thin strips of brown craft paper that have their underside coated in tacky glue. I also cover any exposed edges with the brown craft paper. This step is very important as the edges of foam core will not stick to Papier-Mache, and the edges of corrugated cardboard will present weak points in the finished projects as it is not a solid surface. While everything is drying, I always stack heavy books inside the structure to keep the base as flat as possible. As glue dries, walls can pull in weird directions. Once everything is dry you are ready to move to the next step in your project.

Happy Building!


Small Dollhouse constructed from Foam Core, edged in brown craft paper. This piece is ready for Papier-Mache!
The back of the same dollhouse, showing the construction of a second floor.