Doll makers cast personalities // Porcelain hobbyists shape a business

Published April 22, 1990|Updated July 6, 2006

First, Mary Johnson oiled the leg. She dabbed paint on the thigh, the shin and the top of the foot and smeared it like rouge. She set the leg down to dry, then picked up a head. Using a toothpick, she meticulously removed a wad of wax from the corner of a sparkling green eye. Don't be revolted.

Mary Johnson isn't engaging in some macabre ceremony.

She's making a porcelain doll, with a translucent complexion, soft red hair, a fringe of eyelashes and delicately colored, glossy lips.

Mrs. Johnson is one of nearly 30 hobbyists who will spend about $100 and hundreds of hours to make classic porcelain dolls for their children, their grandchildren and themselves. In the process, these hobbyists provide the bread and butter for a growing doll-making company in the Sunshine Grove Commerce Center.

The hobbyists gather almost daily at Barbara's Doll Shoppe, where they sand, buff and paint the porcelain pieces they will assemble into dolls. Giving them step-by-step instructions are Barbara Cagle, founder of the business, and her partner, Rosann Ruck.

Mrs. Johnson works on her projects at the shop as often as three times a week. Most days, she's joined by her neighbor and friend, Salone Bowen. "That's all we do, spend time here," Mrs. Johnson said. "Sometimes we have to get up in the middle of the night to do the ironing.

"But, (doll making) is the most pleasant thing. You sure forget your problems when you sit here and work on dolls."

The hobbyists will not get any argument from Mrs. Cagle and Mrs. Ruck.

The two women, who conduct the doll-making classes, also sell porcelain dolls they have made, serve as doll-part suppliers, repair broken dolls, sew doll clothing and exhibit dolls in state doll shows.

They say they always work six days a week, sometimes seven.

"I can see myself doing this forever," Mrs. Ruck says. "I can't see myself not doing it.

"I worked in offices, in a bank _ mostly secretarial work. I have spent all my life saying, "I wish I could make a living at something I like to do.' Then I took my first class from Barbara (Cagle), and from the first lesson I was totally addicted.

"This isn't even like a real job to me. I'm doing what I love to do."

Mrs. Cagle says she has made ceramic items for years. She owned a ceramic shop in Georgia. "That sort of led to dolls. I made my first doll in 1978."

About 15 months ago, she opened Barbara's Doll Shoppe in Brooksville. More recently, she and Mrs. Ruck moved the shop and workroom to a complex near Sunshine Grove Road.

There, they keep several hundred reproduction molds, used to cast doll heads, hands, arms, legs and trunks that are authorized copies of specially designed dolls. They "soft-fire" the pieces in a kiln for about six hours, clean them, then "porcelain-fire" them for 12 to 15 hours in the kiln set at about 2,300 degrees. Following that, the pieces are sanded, painted and "soft-fired" again. Finally, the parts are assembled, the eyes glued in, the lashes pasted on, the wigs affixed and the completed dolls dressed.

Some are reproductions of antique dolls, with fragile, jointed bodies and elegant lace and velvet dresses. Some are reproductions of best-selling designer dolls with sleep-scrunched faces, the pursed lips of a spoiled child or the graceful fingers of a pianist. The completed dolls, depending on the size, sell for up to several hundred dollars.

The cost is based on the value of the design, the time-consuming work, the quality of the parts and the attention to detail.

Porcelain is a challenging medium to work with, Mrs. Cagle says. "Porcelain has a memory," Mrs. Cagle says. "When you work with it (in its initial stages before it has been hard-fired), if you squeeze it, you sometimes find that when it's in the kiln, it may be back to (the shape) where you squished it.

"And, working with porcelain, I've learned patience. You cannot rush porcelain."

The two women organize their doll-making jobs like an assembly line. They sand and clean the pieces at one point, sew clothes at another, then paint faces and bodies.

"I love to have the dolls lined up, one right after another, and then paint a whole row of faces," Mrs. Cagle says.

"The dolls have no personality to me until you put the face on and the wig. Then I find myself holding the doll up and talking to it. "Aren't you just the cutest thing!' "

Classes are offered at the shop on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, and on Tuesday afternoons.