First Woodworking Project: A Doll Bed

Finished doll bed

I started watching The New Yankee Workshop with the incomparable Norm Abram in the early 2000s. It was the single biggest inspiration for me getting into woodworking as he made it seem like anybody could do it. I was hooked, but didn’t really do anything about it until early 2006.

My first steps into creating a workshop was to get a used Craftsman contractor-style table saw and a 3-1/2 HP Hitachi router. I commandeered as much of the third stall of our garage as I could.

First Workshop

I practiced making mortise and tenon joints using my router and then ripped various boards using my table saw, but I quickly saw that I’d need a first real project to get any true experience.

Too Expensive

It just so happens that we had given our daughter an American Girl doll for Christmas a few months earlier. American Girl dolls are stupidly expensive, but she wanted one more than anything at the time, and so we gave in and got her one. Uh.. Dad, you know that a doll needs a bed, right?

No way we’re going to spend the $100+ on a bed for a doll… but it occurred to me that that might be a good first project.

A Simple Doll Bed

I don’t have very many pictures since this was awhile ago and I was stingy with photos back then. I started by measuring the doll and sketched out a bed that would be proportionate to the doll. I then ordered a few board feet of oak and poplar from the Woodworkers Source to be delivered… even though the store was just a few miles down the road. I didn’t have a truck and didn’t yet know that I could haul quite a bit of lumber in the passthrough of my car, so for awhile, all of my lumber was mailed to me.

I didn’t have a planer yet so all of the lumber needed to be S4S and whatever thickness is arrived was the thickness it was going to be in the project.

Here is the first dry-fit of the bed:

Bare Doll Bed

The four posts are 3/4″ thick poplar that I ripped square on the table saw. The rest is 1/2″ thick oak. I don’t completely remember what the bottom of the bed was. I think it was strips of the oak, but am not sure.

I was inspired by TNYW so I didn’t use any mechanical fasteners (I didn’t even “secure it with a few brads”). I routed mortises into the four posts and then routed out tenons in all four sides. I then cut a groove near the bottom of the front and back and inserted the bottom into that (whatever the bottom was).

As one might expect for a first project, it was not without its mistakes. I made two big ones by this point in the project. The first is shown here:

Mistake in Doll Bed

Yep, I got the sides of my columns confused and ended up routing a mortise into the wrong size. I eventually just filled that in with wood putty and sanded it flush. It was obvious if you looked at it, but if anybody saw it, they didn’t say anything.

The other mistake was in the headboard. In the dry-fit photo, the headboard is actually the smaller side with the flat top. The problem here was that I cut the piece using the wrong dimension and it ended up being too small. I didn’t have any oak pieces left that were big enough and didn’t want to buy new lumber for it, so I found a scrap piece of oak and cut out the curve on it. I made no attempt to grain match or anything so it was quite obvious after it was stained:

Stained Doll Bed

I don’t remember if I made tenons for that top part or if I just friction fitted it and glued it in.

The other notable step that I did before staining it was round over part of the columns. I didn’t want to use dowels since they would be round the entire length and so I just ran the router on all four sides over a length of the piece. I used a stop block on both sides to guarantee that all four were the exact same size.

The bed curtain rails were just some tiny dowels I got from HD and they were secured with staples. I agonized over how to make those rails for quite some time before finally just punting and using what I considered to be a “construction not woodworking” solution. It worked fine.

Our daughter then picked out the fabric for the bed curtains and sheet set and April sewed it all up. The mattress was a piece of foam covered with the fabric and the pillow was stuffed with cotton or something similar.

The final look:

Finished Doll Bed

Lessons Learned

I suppose all that mattered in the end was if my daughter liked it and she absolutely loved it! There were a few times in the years that followed that I suggested making a fancier version of the bed (using new skills I had learned) but she was adamant that she loved it the way it was and didn’t want any changes.

This project convinced me early that I needed a thickness planer since I didn’t want to be at the mercy of whatever thickness lumber I could buy. Years later I found a local source for rough lumber, but even before that, I just bought oak and poplar in 3/4″ thicknesses and planed it down from there.

Making mortise and tenon joints using a router was pretty straightforward and I’ve used that technique many times since. I’m a lot more careful about placement, though. Oh, and that mistake with the headboard really drove in the “measure twice; cut once” mantra.

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