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Chapter 3


To Wire Or Not To Wire

Table of Contents

*   Why wire?

*   The guiding light

*   Electrical components

*   Copper tape wire

*   Round wire

*   Light fixtures and lamps

*   Warning!

*   Light Bulbs

*   Transformers

*   Battery packs


Why Wire?

One of the things that need to be decided early on in the construction process is whether or not to electrify our house. Lighting can bring a feeling of realism and warmth to your mini creation. It can mean the difference between a so-so project and a work of art.

One of the beginners first thoughts may be "no way man, I'm having nothing to do with electricity. That stuff can zap ya big time." Fear not!  Lighting can be safely added to your project, and you can do it yourself. That's right, you can do it!

Probably the biggest problem you will encounter is the expense required to light a dollhouse. The cost of lighting fixtures can add up very quickly. The wiring itself, however, is not that expensive. Before ruling out lighting because of the expense, consider that ... you can always add the fixtures as money allows. However, it will be much more difficult to add the wiring later.

Oh good you're still reading!  So, you must have decided that wiring is the way to go. You'll be happy you did.  Of that we are sure.  The rest of this discussion will help get you off to a good start. It will help you to plan for and understand some of the components that will be required to electrify your new home.

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The Guiding Light

Planning is an important first step in the process of wiring. The answer to the next few questions will go a long way in helping to put together a wiring scheme that will help bring your ideas to life:

*   Would you like all the lights to go on at the same time or do you want to be able to control different floors or even rooms?

*   Would you like to have ceiling fixtures and, if so, in what rooms?

*   Would you like to add wall receptacles for lamps?

*   How about wall mounted fixtures?

*   Maybe a porch light or two?

*   Possibly a flickering fireplace unit or a lighted Christmas tree?

Before the wiring scheme is laid out there needs to be answers to all of these questions. These answers will be the "guiding light" when the actual wiring is started. The clearer the plan is now, the easier it will be to carry out later.

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The Electrical Components

Let's get started with an introduction to some of the electrical components that will be incorporated into your new house.

Basically every house will contain the following:

*   A transformer that is either fuse or circuit breaker protected.

*   A method of attaching the transformer to the house. Wiring that will take the electricity from the transformer to the lighting fixtures.

*   And last but not least the light bulbs or lighting fixtures that we intend to light.

Types Of Wiring

Let's take a look at each of these components individually starting with the wiring itself.

Basically, there are two methods available to wire your house.

*   Round wire 

*   Tape wire.

To say which method is best is largely a matter of personal preference and there are as many opinions on the subject as there are miniaturists. Let's have a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of each type and let you make the decision that will work better for your application.

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Copper Tape Wire

The second wiring method is the tape wire system. This consists of two strips of self-adhesive copper foil laid side by side. The copper tape can be purchased as individual strips or pre assembled with a covering of mylar tape. The mylar serves to hold the strips together at an even spacing. It also helps to insulate the copper strips.

There are three basic methods for joining the "wires" in this system together.   They are all widely used.

*   Small brass nails,

*   Grommets

*   Solder

Advantages of tape wire:

The tape wire system is a bit more costly but some of the extra cost can be justified by the ease with which new fixtures and outlets can be added or moved. This is especially true if the wallpaper is applied directly to the wall rather than to illustration board.

The most ideal application for tape wire is on the 3/8" plywood houses and roomboxes. The brads and/or grommets have less chance of working loose in this material. Other materials can be used, but precautions must be taken to avoid this problem.

Disadvantages of tape wire:

*   Tape wire does have a limit as to how far it can be stretched without breaking and it is much more difficult to build in slack for movement caused by humidity or other special circumstances where movement is desirable or unavoidable.

*   One other possible problem when using the bare copper foil is the possibility of corrosion due to exposure to salt air or certain types of materials found in wallpaper and wallpaper paste. When using the bare copper foil, seal it with a coat of primer before you paper or paint just as an added precaution.

Tape wiring can be found at most miniature shops and through on line miniature sources.

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Round Wire

Round wire is just that round wire. The kind that is used for hooking up the battery to your transistor radio. The wire comes in different gauges or diameters.

*   The smaller the gauge the larger the wires diameter. Generally, when we talk about dollhouse wiring we are looking to use about a 32 gauge wire. It is available at many miniature shops and at electronic supply stores.

*   The wire can be a single round wire or it can be two wires that are molded side by side making it look more rectangular than round. Wires can also be purchased in different colors if that is to your liking.

*   Most, if not all, of the lighting fixtures you buy will come with round wire hook-up leads. If you choose to use tape wire as the base wire you will still encounter some round wire in the wiring process.

Advantages of round wire:

There are several situations where round wire is especially desirable.

*   One is when electrifying a mini home that is already painted and papered. Round wire can be concealed in corners, behind trim boards, and under carpets.

*   Another area would be in places of high humidity where your house may expand and contract. It is fairly easy to build in a little slack with round wire.

Sometimes the materials that are used to construct houses or roomboxes will make round wire the more desirable choice.

*   Foamboard and illustration board structures are often not able to hold the brads and grommets that are used for the tape wire.

*   Hardboard or masonite is another material that is used in the construction of mini houses. Due to the hardness of this material round wire is often the preferred choice. Nails and grommets used with tape wire are difficult to install in such hard material.

Disadvantages of round wire:

One thing to keep in mind when choosing to use round wire is the careful planning of the location of the wall and ceiling fixtures.

*   It is more difficult with the round wire system to change locations of fixtures or add fixtures.

*   This drawback can be easily overcome by careful planning and adding several wall outlets to each room during the initial wiring stage. This will give much more flexibility when changing rooms around and adding lamps etc.

Should the tape wire system be chosen you will, undoubtedly, encounter fixtures that are wired with round wire.

The round wire can be attached to the tape using…

*   Brass brads

*   Grommets

*   Soldering

*   Or a combination of soldering and grommets or brads.

It may even be found that in some applications both the tape and round wire systems will need to be used to accomplish the desired result.

Whether you choose the round wire system or copper tape…

*   a small soldering iron

*   some rosin core solder

*   some heat shrink tubing

*   and a tube of silicone

…will be very valuable additions to the basic tool kit.

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Light Fixtures And Lamps

Another part of the planning process will be to determine the number of lights and fixtures that are going to be used. This is important not only in deciding how the wiring should be run, but also in sizing the transformer or battery pack that will be required.

It also needs to be decided whether any other type of lighting will be required. This may consist of real life nightlights, Christmas lights, or other types of lighting that plug directly into the wall (your real size house wall).

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A word of caution is in order here. Although most of this discussion will be centered around the use of 12volt lamps, there are cases in which the choice is made to use regular AC (plug in the wall) type of lighting.

*   Always remember that lights cause heat.

*   The smaller lights generate much less heat than the big lights do. Consider how you are going to deal with the heat generated from these bulbs. Our little houses are not only constructed from combustibles but many of our prized mini possessions are made from combustibles.

*   If the choice is made to use lighting other than that made specifically for dollhouses please be careful that you make provisions to deal with the excess heat in order to keep your dollhouse, yourself, and your family safe.

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Light Bulbs

Bulbs made for dollhouses are primarily of the 12Volt variety. There are several different basic types. Each one of the different types requires a certain amount of electricity to light it. The bulbs are rated in milliamperes (milliamps). Hold on now, I know what your thinking. "Yikes, enough of this." But wait. Hold on just a little bit longer and it will all make sense.

The first step is to count each bulb in the layout that is going to be used. Remember, each bulb (not fixture, but bulb) to figure the total number of milliamps that will be needed to light our little lovely. This is going to help in selecting a transformer that will be suitable for our needs.

In this discussion we are looking at 12Volt bulbs that are used in the fixtures that are made for dollhouses. (You can get just the bulbs too and make your own fixtures but that's a different story).

Here is a list to give some idea of what the milliamp ratings are for some of the popular style bulbs:

GOR (Grain of Rice bulbs are one of the smallest style bulbs) 60 - 70ma.
GOW (Grain of Wheat) 60ma.
Candle Flame screw base 60ma.
Fluorette 70 - 80ma.
Pea Bulb 50 - 60ma.
Flicker Light screw base 150ma.
Spot light 180ma.







There are many other styles of bulbs available and usually the vendor will be able to tell you what the milliamp rating is for the style of bulbs selected.

Before leaving light bulbs and fixtures one thing should be pointed out.

*   When going to purchase lighting fixtures note that some have replaceable bulbs and some do not.

*   Be aware that if you use a non-replaceable bulb type fixture in a hard to get at location you will not be a happy camper if it should burn out. I know. I know. The non-replaceable fixtures are cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper but what value do you place on your sanity? Being able to unscrew the burned out bulb and screw in a new one is so much easier than having to change the whole fixture.

On to transformers.

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A transformer is a device that converts (steps down) the voltage that is delivered to the wall socket in your house to that needed to power your dollhouse lighting, normally 12 volts. One of the considerations when choosing a transformer for your house is the number of amperes or milliamperes it is rated for.

To determine the size of transformer in milliamperes that you need all that needs to be done is to

1.      Total up the number of bulbs (remember the number of bulbs not fixtures) and

2.      Multiply that number by the number of milliamps (one thousandth of one ampere) that each light is rated for.

So if we have 10 lamps rated at 60 milliamps we have 10 x60 or .600 milliamps. Simple right? Of course it is wiring is easy remember. What is needed then is a transformer rated at least 600 milliamps or .6 of an ampere.  But you say "I can't find a transformer rated at 600 milliamps." Fear not. Remember, at least that big. We can go bigger and if we have any thoughts that we might add a few lights down the road this would be the wise thing to do.

*   What should be kept in mind when sizing a transformer is you can go up in size to the point where you will always have at least half of the number of bulbs lit that the transformer is rated for.

So for the example we found we needed at least a .6 ampere transformer. We could easily go to a 1 ampere (1000 milliamp) transformer with our 10 bulbs and be well within the limit with some room to grow.

Circuit Breaker

Another feature that we want to look for when purchasing a transformer is does it have built in circuit breaker.

The purpose of the circuit breaker is to shut off power coming from the transformer to our dollhouse in case of an electrical malfunction or short circuit. This will protect not only the transformer from overload but also the components in your dollhouse.

*   If you should find that your transformer does not have a built in circuit breaker all is not lost. A cord (lead in wire) that runs between the transformer and your dollhouse can be purchased with a fuse holder installed.

*   When you buy the transformer ask what size fuse you should use for the transformer you are purchasing. It will usually be equal to or slightly less than what the transformer is rated.

One more note before leaving the wonderful world of transformers.

*   Different countries use different voltage and current standards. If you are going to travel with your dollhouse, or buy your transformer in another country, be sure to ask if the transformer you have or are considering purchasing is rated for the power supplied at your destination.  This is very important for the life and well being of your newly purchased or old traveling companion transformer.

Now get those tray tables and seat backs in the full upright position and on we go.

There is a simpler solution to this whole transformer selection dilemma.

*   When you go to the mini shop take a look at the transformers they have for sale. They will all tell you how many bulbs they are rated for. Don't exceed this number and you should be just fine. Problem solved. Wasn't that simple?

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Battery Packs

One other way to light your dollhouse is with a battery pack. This is generally not the preferred method, as batteries just don't have the life span to run a fully lit house for any length of time.

There are special cases where that is the only way it can be done.

*   When it is not possible to tie into a wall outlet or when the project is mobile like a roombag.

*   Be prepared to change out the batteries on a regular basis if you have more than a couple of lights.

*   You will also need to figure out where the battery box will be placed and how many batteries you will need to supply the voltage and current needed to light the lights.

*   If only one or two lights are needed think about flashlight bulbs rather than the 12Volt dollhouse lights. They will give more light with less battery drain.

*   Strings of battery powered lights and LEDs (light emitting Diodes) can often be found at mini shops and craft stores already assembled. This can be a very satisfactory solution and all the figuring is done for you.

There, we made it!  That covers the major components of the mini house wiring system.

You will also need a means to connect the lead-in wire to the type of wiring system being used in your dream house. Several methods to accomplish this will be pursued during the construction phase.

Sit back and rest for a while. You deserve it. Oh, and while you're resting read over your house construction directions one more time.  We're getting closer.


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Last revised: April 2001