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by Wanna in El Paso

September 2010

IT HELPS TO HAVE A GRUNGE BOX OR CABINET. The items in mine are these:

1.  Washes - brown, black, grey, green and white; and mixtures of each, as in browny-black, greeny-brown, etc.

A wash is simply a few drops of color, either acrylic paints or inks, added to a goodly amount of water.

I also add water to a paint bottle when it's seemingly empty. Water from washing brushes is great for this purpose, too!

Tea or coffee dyeing works well with fabrics and some papers; teas give a pinkish look; coffee more brownish.

2. Eye shadows, all shades -

I use the leftover bits from my dressing table, along with new ones I find at dollar stores, etc.

I buy every color I can find;

.. .from pink and blue to mauves and grays, everything works at some point. Green mixed with blacks and grays is particularly good for mildew and mold.

3.  Artist's Chalks -

The set I have has lasted literally YEARS. I use a knife or razor blade to shave off a fine pile of chalk dust on a bit of paper, then brush it on my mini surface. Sometimes I get enough by just swiping a q-tip across the top of the chalk.

4. Colored pencils, water colors, felt markers
5. Shoe polish; liquid and wax
6. Stains and stain pens
7. Baby powder
8. Quilt batting, cotton balls, old raveled nylons
9.  Paint brushes, including sponge brushes
10. Craft knife, razor blades
11. Small wire brush
12. Old tooth brushes
13. Eye shadow applicators and makeup brushes
14. Q-tips
15. Emery boards and nail files
16. Sponges, both sea sponge and makeup sponges, cut in smaller pieces
17. Rags - I use a soft, old t-shirt, cut in smallish squares
18. Paper towels, cut in small squares


I am not absolutely sure where I learned about making things LOOK old and/or dirty. I just recall always noticing the difference between new and clean and new and dirty; old and clean and old and dirty. I spent the first six years of my life in Oklahoma in a rural area where many of the houses around me had aged from unfinished raw wood, or the paint on formerly white houses was greyed or peeling; fence posts sagged; old barns leaned precariously, their faded reds turned dark in streaks from exposure to rain and storms.

On the other hand, my grandmother used to say, "You can be poor, but you don't have to be dirty," and her house was scrubbed daily. (I just don't want her to be turning in her grave at any suggestion that her house was anything but spotless! lol)

And then I spent the rest of my childhood moving from one dusty, greasy oilfield town to another, where there were also dilapidated buildings. But in addition to the normal effects of weathering, there were overlays from the oil industry. Where I had seen rusting metal in Oklahoma, in the Oil Patch I saw not only rusting metal, but overlays of grease and oil. Where the unpaved roads in Oklahoma were powdery red dust when dry or glassy slick clay when wet, in the oil fields they were often coated with oil to keep the dust down.

When I was in elementary school, we made a cardboard castle in class and I remember being dissatisfied becauseif if it was really as old as it was in the story we had read, it looked way too clean to be real. I made my own tower when I got home and took it out in the back yard and rubbed greasy oil field dirt on it! lol

From the time I learned to call myself a miniaturist, I have learned particular techniques from many people, especially from Noel and Pat Thomas and Bill Lankford, an old model railroader. In fact, model railroaders can be a miniaturist's best friend - and vice versa, but they just don't know it. lol

So, for our purpose here ....

We need Layers ...

If you think about a typical attic (or junkyard or old store, etc.), everything in it is in layers.  Over time, it all accumulates overlays of dust.   New items are added; some things are removed; others are pushed aside; some are never disturbed.  New dust layers continue to fall.  So, the oldest items, those undisturbed, will have the most accumulations, and the latest items or those that have been disturbed will have the least amount; maybe no dust at all.  It all depends on the story we are telling in that place.

We need Focal Points ...

When we look into a real room, we don't see all the individual items at first. Everything generally blends together like a background, and our eye may be drawn to one or two pieces that "stand out." In our miniature settings these "stand out" items are usually special pieces that we want to emphasize in one way or another. Everything else could be considered just filler.

Here is my process for Grunging a Room, using an attic as an example.


1. I gather items, not only old and broken furniture and other objects, but also include items like these:

  • "filled up" things where I want certain contents to be seen - cardboard boxes with open flaps containing dishes, holiday decorations, old records; trunks; open drawers, etc.
  • "tied up" things; bundles of newspapers, books and magazines; old letters and business records. Sometimes old blankets, quilts and pillows are tied to keep them from unfolding or slipping down.
  • "rolled up" things like rugs and carpets, camping tents, beach umbrellas
  • sealed cartons and containers of all sorts, some labeled with their contents
  • cans, bottles, etc.

2. I trial fit everything I think I will use, deciding what will hang on the walls, perch on window sills, sit atop other pieces of furniture.

3. Then I use a dirty water wash and/or a coating of chalks on EVERY item, either brown or black-toned, depending on the effect I want to create.  If I just want to show ordinary items, I usually use a brownish grey. If you want to suggest a setting located in your area, think about the shade of the dirt; where I live, there is a reddish tinge to the dust. For a spooky or really abandoned look, I use black or grey.  This first wash unifies everything, providing the general background, or "filler."

NOTE: You can see this principle put into practice in an outdoor setting, Bea's JunkYard, where everything had a wash, then individual items were further grunged. You can also see the process at Uncle Buster's, where both interior and exterior are grunged.


1. INTERIOR WALLS AND FLOORS - After our thin unifying wash on the entire interior walls and floors, we need to be sure corners of floors and walls are darker; also, areas around doors and windows, doorknobs and latches, light switches, etc. Ceilings should be lighter in center, darker toward walls. Use a dirty water wash, antiquing stain and/or artists’ chalks (or if you are good at it, water colors).

While interior surfaces are drying, I grunge each individual item to show the effects of use and time; for example, rust, grease, grime, mildew and mold, fading, etc. I notice how the colors for each of these effects vary. Some items are really old when they are stashed, so they need more grunging. 

2. GLASS ITEMS - I use a wash or chalks on windows, mirrors and glass items to dull them. Sometimes a light smear of glue works well for this. For windows, paint on a thin coat of glue, leaving excess in corners; rub some away in center. After window glue has dried, use a wash or antiquing stain to grunge frame and sill corners where grime would collect.

3. METALS - Metals rust, tarnish, blacken, dent, lose their luster. Sharp edges get dull; smooth edges get jagged; rounded areas smooth out; smooth areas get rounded.

You can buy products especially for use on metals and there are many treatments available, especially on model railroading sites, so I won't go into them in detail here. I just use washes, chalks and stains for the changes, and bend, press, dot and poke with various tools for the wear and tear.

I learned from my life experience and model railroaders to think of the progression of things - rust comes from beneath the paint, then the paint flakes off, then dirt settles in, etc.

3. PAPER ITEMS - Cardboard gets crushed and dented; papers are wrinkled and discolored; book pages are dog eared. They sometimes get water marks, spots, mildew, mold; always dust!

4. WOOD FURNITURE AND SURFACES - There are many techniques for aging wood, including crackle finishes, which I won’t go into now, but here are a few general observations:

a. With sun exposure items are often whiter, greyer, washed out. Old sun-bleached wood often reminds me of bones.

b. We don't always think before we act: think about the rings or water marks left when something too hot or wet is set down on a varnished surface.

I accidentally discovered a way to make a water mark after using a small bottle of craft paint that had been on a piece of waxed paper that had paint smears on it. When I picked up the bottle again, it had left a round whitish mark that looked just like a spot left by a leaking flower pot on our old family cedar chest (boy, have I felt bad about doing THAT).

c. Think about where fingers go when a drawer is opened, a door is closed, a window is raised; these areas may have paint worn away and/or be darker from grease or dirt. Use chalk, a dirty water wash or antiquing stain, depending.

d. When we brush against objects and when we sit upon them we cause changes, removing paint and shiny finishes over time, rounding corners and the edges of seats or chair arms, etc. Sand off paint in areas that would get much use; also sand off too sharp corners and edges.

e. Things get broken; knobs get lost, drawers sag, surfaces splinter or warp. A layer of painted or stained lightweight paper or cardboard glued on the surface of a table or chest, for example, can be given jagged cuts or dampened with water to suggest warping or splintering.


Old linens and quilts are often faded; old clothing is faded or greyed from many washings. Fabric items get snagged, pulled, unraveled and holey, too. Here are some things I have tried, not necessarily original with me and not necessarily in this order.

a. If fabric is too bright, sometimes all you have to do is use the wrong side of the material. Or, you can dye it with strong tea or coffee (tea is more pinkish; coffee more sepia), or paint it over with a very light coat of white. Use a bleach pen to lighten areas where sun would have faded; use chalks to suggest dirt and dust. Remember that the inner, shadowed part of a pleat or gather or fold will be darker than the outer. Use a Q-tip to apply chalks for darkening. Use Pounce Bags to apply light chalks on surfaces to suggest fading or dirt (see below).

b. Spatter some dirty water for stains or use a Q-tip to dot a watery splotch.

c. Occasionally I have just held fabric against a straight edge and torn, rather than cut; the more uneven your tear, the better.  If it's still too straight, pick at some of the threads with a pin, cut upward jaggedly into threads. I also have a small wire brush that works to fringe edges. Go easy; practice on scrap fabric before you work on a garment that is already made.

d. Sand areas to thin the fabric; put something hard underneath, then sand.

e. Poke a hole with scissors or a sharp pick, then pull out threads around it; trim as necessary.


a. Rub a tiny bit of white paint with your finger into arms, seats and chair backs; it doesn't show white, just grubby.

b. Dry brush very lightly with black, brown or gray paint to show general dirtiness.

c. Remove some stuffing to flatten seat and arm areas, if possible; or dampen area with glue and press down tightly with your finger or weight with an appropriate “human bottom” object.

d. Poke a hole and with a toothpick or dental pick tuck in tiny wisps of cotton to suggest torn stuffing (see The Attic Victorian in Reworking Inexpensive Furniture).

e. If sofa or chair has a skirt, pull a bit of it loose so that it hangs awkwardly.

f. Add a scruffy grunged pillow, with a spot where someone's greasy head has been.

g. Show an object peeking from between cushions and chair back or arms.

h. Break off a leg and prop it with old books or bricks or whatever, depending on your environment.

What makes CURTAINS look old?

Fading, tears and stains, ragged edges, gaps in pleating, uneven folds, loose hems, sagging rods, dust and dirt accumulating in folds, trailing areas or curtains not quite meeting in the center as a result of missing hooks ...

I remember seeing curtains that were bulging out an open window like a pot belly, or dangling limply down the outside wall if there was no breeze; in old apartments I have noticed curtains that were tied in a knot instead of being pulled back; I have observed curtains hung on sagging pieces of wire or string in the center of screen doors for privacy....

Here are some ideas that I have tried over the years for making curtains look old (not necessarily all original with me, either):

a. After preparing the fabric for your curtains, use a wax paper covered ceiling tile or old macrame board, etc., to drape and pin over your window shape in the haphazard way you want and spray with a fixative;

b. Curtains already done with a pleater can be sprayed with water or a fixative and manipulated by pinning;  

c. Once the curtains are on the wall, if they still look too tidy, spray lightly so that you can arrange them more to your satisfaction and spray again, pinning to dry if need be.


You can saturate your fabric with a glue and water mixture and pin it anyway you want, as well.

When I've gotten all the glue out of a bottle that I can, I add some water to it, and keep it for this purpose.


1. I first add items that hang on the walls and from the beams and sit in the window sills, like broken chairs, tools, odd picture frames and other things that can be suspended for best effect.

2. I trial fit once again, specifically locating the “draw the eye” or Focal Point items I want to emphasize.

3. I remove everything, placing items to one side, in order, front to back; and then start gluing the larger pieces in my room, from back to front. Usually the tallest items go furthest back, although it makes an interesting contrast to have a taller item or two toward the front as well, simply because attics fill up this way. DO NOT ADD SMALLER ITEMS YET.


NOTE: This process can be greatly aided by taking pictures as you go so that you can check your arrangement and see if you are getting the effect you want. The camera will often show us what our eye overlooks.


1. This is a good time to add tiny wisps of quilt batting or whatever you use for cowebs in the window and perhaps from a beam; I pull until it almost disappears. And by the way, who hasn’t seen their nylon stockings snag and pull into ladders? Well, try unraveling and pulling old knee highs. You will be amazed what interesting effects you can get, especially with grey and black shades. Do this sparingly and where they would logically be, not over entire room (UNLESS YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT OLD OLD). Hot glue strings make great cobwebs, too, (practice controlling these) as do old-fashioned very thin hair nets cut in pieces;

2. When I get the first layer glued in place, including on window sills, walls and floor, I put a tiny bit of baby powder in my palm, hold it in front of my face and blow it into the box. This is the first layer of dust. (I would suggest experimenting with this technique on some odds and ends BEFORE you use it in your finished scene. In quarter scale, only one final dusting may be needed, maybe none at all.)


NOTE: Here's where we might think also about using a "Pounce Bag." Used by artists, it's a few cotton balls placed in a square of loosely woven fabric, then sprinkled with charcoal powder and tied up. Costumers use pounce bags - filled with various talcs - to make clothes look soiled. You just smack these bags against whatever you want to dirty up.

I make and use pounce bags with cotton balls, baby powder and various chalks, depending on what I am working on. For some I use cheese cloth, if I really want lots of powder; for others I use loosely woven old fabric scraps. Just cut a square, sprinkle on some powder or scraped chalks, tuck in a cotton ball or two, sprinkle more powder or scraped chalks, tie tightly with thread or ribbon if you want to be fancy. Keep a fairly longish "tail" to hold onto, and pounce away. Experiment first on various pieces of fabric or other items to see what looks you get.

3. I add the next layer, placing smaller items atop other items, draping fabric pieces here and there (clothing, rugs, quilts, etc.); stacking objects and cartons; leaning items against or laying them across. This is a good time to add things like rolled carpets, dead plants, overturned cartons spilling their contents, etc.


1. Unless the person who owns my attic is a clean freak, more cobwebs may be added, if I choose, then the next blowing of dust. (Remember that less is more and we must please ourselves.) If I want to show that something has been moved, I may push it a bit so that a cleaner spot shows underneath.

2. Lastly, I add whatever special "draw the eye" items I want in front.

3. And, if necessary, I blow another bit of baby powder dust. If no one ever comes in here, I leave it. To show an occasional visitor, I make footprints through the accumulated dust using a doll's foot or shoe or boot to make footprints. Doesn't have to be a person - sometimes raccoons, mice and rats visit attics! Here I do what we did when we were kids - make a stamp by relief-cutting balsa, even a potato. Sometimes all it takes is the tip of a paintbrush and a toothpick to make a critter's trail.

4. When I am satisfied, I give a fine spritz of matte spray to hold it all in place.

NOTE: Once again, experiment before you do this with the baby powder and the spray, just to be on the safe side.


The simplest rule of thumb:


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