Behind the Scenes
An interview with Carol Rice
Carol Rice sits contemplatively, surveying the landscape of the tiny Victorian town and reflected on the growth of her “Dickens Christmas Village”. In a hamlet where miniature Scrooges and Marleys are almost as abundant as the horse-drawn sleighs, this village comes to life once a year. Its housing stock consists of porcelain buildings and figures by Department 56, which pay homage to characters and places inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens.
Hub Hobby: How did the Village start?
Carol: My husband, Richard, unpacked his childhood trains and his Plasticville buildings from the 50s back in 1998. We had them under the tree in the family room the first year. I mentioned to his sister, Jean, that Plasticville wouldn’t go too well with my elegant glass and lace ornaments on the living room tree. The following Christmas, she gave us our first Department 56 porcelain building – for the living room. Plasticville had taken up too much space in the family room, so we had moved it to the living room. That first porcelain building looked terribly out of place in the middle of that modern, clunky, toy town. Poor Plasticville was relegated to the layout upstairs after that.
Hub Hobby: It certainly has grown a lot since that first building. What’s the size of it now?
Carol: Richard built 11 platforms (½” plywood on 2″ x 2″ frames) that cover an area 4′ by 22′, plus one trapezoidal piece that fits in the bay window. All the platforms are approximately 2′ x 4′. Initially we connected them with pegs, but found that there was no need. Because they sit on carpet, they do not move at all.
There are ten village bases that sit on top of the platforms. They are made from Masonite and sheets of pink foam insulation – and lots of glue! There are several pieces that augment the contours of the village. The mountain at one end of the layout is constructed of pink stuff in three separate components. The joints are covered with snow fields made from Woodland Scenics plaster cloth.
The mountain covering the tree box is made of three components. One covers the tree stand. The other two hold the tunnel entrances, which were made from Woodland Scenics tunnel portals. They were too narrow for the On3 gauge trains and had to be widened. This all needs more work. There are two long narrow pieces that cover the wiring behind the platforms. These are prototypes. They will be much more complex as time goes on. One will have a waterfall that leads to the riverbed.
Hub Hobby: I noticed a lot of water features.
Carol: Those required patience to create! I used Woodland Scenics Realistic Water. The cavity has to be waterproof – really. I created the river bed and cliffs using plaster cloth and plaster rocks made with Woodland Scenics molds. I tried to create the illusion of depth when I painted the river bottom. Then, I poured in Realistic Water, straight out of the bottle. It cannot be any deeper than 1/ 8 th to ¼ inch deep. It took several layers to build up the depth that I wanted. I had a small leak on the first layer. When we took the village down after Christmas, there was a hard spot in the carpet! The small skating ponds went much faster. I tinted the Realistic Water with a tiny bit of white and Payne’s gray acrylic paint to create the look of ice.
Hub Hobby: There’s a cobblestone street running throughout the village. How was that made?
Carol: Whoever said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” was wrong. Before currency, it was laziness. After currency, it is laziness and economy. When I found the cobblestone plastic roadway pieces made by Plastruct (6″ x 9″), I was really put off by the price. At that point in the layout, we had two dozen buildings. I would have needed at least 30 pieces, at $4 or $5 each! But I wanted that look. I noticed that the thin plastic had been debossed to achieve the cobblestone pattern. The pattern was in reverse on the underside. I bought one package, and used the underside of the pieces as molds for plaster cloth. I filled in thin spots with Hydrocal.
I used tissue paper to make patterns for each piece of roadway, and transferred the shapes to the plaster cloth. I cut the cloth when it was slightly damp to avoid the edges cracking and breaking. Then I glued them onto the layout. I painted it all at once so the dappling would be the same throughout.
Hub Hobby: You’ve also got some animation in the Village.
Carol: There are three animated lighted buildings from Department 56:
- Fezziwig’s Ballroom – that represents the scene in the story where Scrooge as a young man in love dances with Belle. Unfortunately, I shorted this one out. It will be dark until I can find another cord.
- Scrooges Apartment – that shows the three ghosts dancing around Scrooge.
- The Saddlery – This has a student rider going around and around.
Hub Hobby: And all the buildings seem to be lighted – plus there are the street lights. That’s a lot of wire.
Carol: There are 63 buildings and 26 streetlight sets. Most all of them were Christmas, anniversary, and birthday presents from Richard. We received a few more from his sister, too. They would require 89 places to plug in on extension cords and a vast number of outlets. Fortunately, Department 56 makes a lighting system that will accommodate 9 buildings using 3 watt bulbs and 3 low wattage accessories like the streetlights.
The animated buildings and buildings with tiny lights on them have adaptors that must be plugged into regular cords or strips. We have seven lighting systems hidden behind or under the layout. There are also four power strips. It all looks like a briar patch. Cords and three watt bulbs come with the systems.
I wanted to be able to replace the inevitable bad cord, so I needed to be able to remove the cords without damaging the layout base. To get the cords to each system hub, I cut channels in the first layer pink foam from each building to the back of the base. Then, I cut corresponding lengths of vinyl tubing for each building. Now comes the fun part. I tied each plug to a bodkin and threaded it through the tubing. Then the tubing was taped down into the channels.
If I have to replace a cord, I tie a long ribbon to the plug before I pull the cord out. I tie the new cord with the ribbon and pull it back through. When cords with adaptors have to be replaced, the cord must be spliced. There is no tubing for these, just a channel in the foam.
Hub Hobby: How long does it take to set the Village up?
Carol: I start setting it up right after Halloween. The Christmas tree must be decorated before the final installation of the Village. Sooo, all the platforms are put in place to insure that the tree box will be located properly. It is acceptable to walk on the platforms, so they stay during the tree decoration
Once the alignment is finished, I hang sheets over the windows then set up the tree. Decorating it takes two or three days. We have an artificial tree and use no tinsel. I use snowflakes instead, approximately 400 of them. Pine needles and tinsel on the train track would be disastrous.
The village bases are put in place and the 85 feet of train track is assembled and checked. This is Richard’s job. He is the engineer and is very particular about this phase. He wants the trains to run without incident. They are not really toys. They are models and very delicate. Crashes and derailments must be avoided. It is much easier for him to make adjustments and repairs before the buildings, landscaping and characters are put in place. When he is satisfied that everything is okay, all building lights are plugged into lighting systems and bulbs are checked. Next the streetlights are put in place and checked, followed by the buildings, landscaping and characters. The whole set-up is ready to light Thanksgiving night.
Hub Hobby: What kind of response does the Village get?
Carol: That depends a lot on age and gender. Eight to nine year old girls have the most animated responses. I ask all the kids to find all the Scrooges they can (seven in all). That makes them take in the details, and gets the boys more involved. The little ones that are told they can’t touch anything are disappointed. They just want to play. Adults give the de rigeur “ooohs” and “aaahs”. We would be so disappointed if they didn’t! Of course, they think we are crazy…
Hub Hobby: What does the future hold for Dickens Christmas Village?
Carol: I plan to make a waterfall behind the riverbed on the long piece that covers up the wires. Both sides of the wire covers still need work. There are more details like walkways and stairs that need to be done. And, I want to put snow and slush effects along the road edges. When we are no longer able to set it up and take it back down again, Richard’s son wants to move it all to his home. That thought makes us smile.
Photos by Jeff Junker