How to make apple head dolls – An early American craft with folk art roots (1976)
Perhaps you’ve seen the dolls that look so amazingly human. Their little faces seemingly are etched and wrinkled with the fine and character-drawn lines of time. In this Bicentennial year, one of the more charming Early American crafts is making apple head dolls.
“It’s all done in only a few days, though,” says Bernadette Ranney, who makes them. “It costs about $5 for the materials; and whatever you spend for the apples is little, compared to the $20 or so you’d spend for a doll in a store. It’s fascinating to create your own.
“And best of all — you can eat the leftovers!”
Ranney learned the craft a few years ago after watching a dollmaker in an Oahu hobby shop. “It wasn’t long before I had made a whole family of apple-head dolls,” Ranney says.
Her father, Don Ranney, who used to design theatrical sets, built a dollhouse for her creations. The house even has a tiny gecko on one wall.
You can try at your hand at making them following these simple steps.
Materials needed to make apple head dolls
Large crisp apples
Lemon concentrate (reconstituted lemon juice)
3 crustless pieces of bread for each doll head
Chopstick for each doll
Neutral-colored cotton sheeting for body
Cotton balls for stuffing
Scrap material for clothes
Small beads (black, brown, blue or green)
Accessories, limited only by your imagination (the thin wire from a bread wrapper, twisted a couple times around a pencil, for instance, will make fine eyeglasses).
For shrunken apple head dolls, get these materials from an art supply store:
An artist’s brush
Clear plastic spray
“Crepe” (theatrical hair)
Red acrylic paint
How to make apple head dolls: Step-by-step instructions
Pare the apple, brushing it frequently with reconstituted lemon juice.
Decide what surface of the apple looks best for the face, then cut a ridge for the profile. On the second cut, leave a knob for the nose. Shape fat little cheeks and the chin. Round off all the edges.
Make exceedingly fine “wrinkles,” “crow’s feet,” “laugh” or “frown” lines with the tip of the knife and don’t over-carve.
To carve an ear for a male doll, make a “C” cut on either side of the head, putting a little question mark inside the “C.” Don’t bother if the doll is to be dressed like a woman, because you’ll cover it with “hair” later.
Give the apple another ample brushing with lemon juice, then “pickle” it by sprinkling salt liberally all over. Your apple will look like it’s perspiring at this point.
Now you’re at a critical step. The core and seeds have to come out, or you may end up with applesauce and an unusable doll head. Use the paring knife carefully so you don’t tear through the fruit. Brush the inside of the apple with lemon concentrate and salt.
Preheat your oven at its lowest temperature setting. Place the apple heads on an oven-safe plate, put it in the oven and leave the doll heads for three to four days, then remove from the oven. The heads will be shrunken. The faces, however, still will have elasticity. You can help the little smiles up or the frowns down, twist the noses, experiment.
After the faces are in shapes that please you, bury the little heads completely in a bowl of silica gel (the powder used to dry flowers in) for 24 hours. This further closes up the pores and keeps moisture out.
Directions for finishing your DIY apple head dolls
After 24 hours, remove the heads from the gel and flick off the powder with an artist’s brush. Paint the cheeks and mouth with red acrylic paint, diluted if you wish.
Preheat your oven again at its lowest temperature setting.
Stuff each apple center with the following mixture:
3 slices of uncrusted bread
1 teaspoon white glue
1 teaspoon lemon concentrate
Insert the chopstick in the bread dough mixture, put into the oven for 3 minutes only (so you don’t get crispy critters).
Let the heads cool, then spray each with clear plastic spray to give “life” to the skin and seal out more moisture.
Fix the little beads into the eye sockets with dabs of white glue or spirit gum.
Unbraid the theatrical crepe and style a hairdo, fastening it onto the heads with spirit gum and straight pins.
From the sheeting material, cut out the arms. torsos and legs in proportion to the body. You can be as exact or as casual about the actual forming, as they will be covered with attire.
Cut the chopstick to the desired length, depending on whether you are going to seat your doll on a chair. a rock or the step of a dollhouse. or whether you are going to have it stand. (A standing doll will need to be braced with clothes-hanger wire or you can embed it in florist’s clay.)
Stuff the body and limbs of the doll with cotton balls, then affix it to the head with blue.
Dress the doll with scraps of materials and lace.
Maker of apple head dolls: “Head shrinker” preserves art
Her son calls her “the head shrinker,” but anyone who has seen Mia Waechter’s “Wee Folks of the Island” knows she is preserving one of America’s pioneer folk arts, apple dolls.
“Heads” in various shrinking stages can be found at different times hanging on cupboard doors all over the kitchen. And Mrs. Waechter admits she feels “a little like a cannibal” when she eats an apple now.
Mrs Waechter accidentally began making apple dolls nearly ten years ago. She had been looking for a new hobby when she decided to take a correspondence course in doll repairing.
In the fourth lesson, there were sketchy instructions for making apple dolls, and she became fascinated with them. After countless experiments, she improved on the method and now is considered a master craftsman by doll authorities.
How she makes her apple head dolls
She has shared her process many times over the past six years in lectures and displays. However, few people would take the painstaking care that is necessary for finishing the dolls and their clothes.
She estimated it takes her 44 to 65 hours to make one doll, complete to the last detail.
Ingenuity and imagination are evident in the scaled-to-size props used to complete the authentic doll costumes, all of which Mrs. Watchter designs and sews. Many of the clothes are removable.
“Dolls must tell a story,” she emphasized. From her lecture table, she pointed out the flower lady. “Mama Sadie, who has a sweet, gentle look like my 88-year-old mother-in-law. “Sadie” won first prize at the Erie County Fair some years ago.
“The Colonel” holds a tiny bouquet behind his back and has a seashell watch fob dangling from his vest.
“The Charlady” was inspired by Carol Burnett and is decked out in pearl earrings, “a Christmas present from her boss,” and carries a small scrub bucket (a bottle top) and mop (towel and string). “I. Ben Hoeing” carries a sack of potatoes and a hoe and there is a doctor with a miniature stethoscope (fish tank tubing).
Asked how long an apple would last, Mrs. Waechter commented, “A hundred years or more, if mice do not get to them.” The dolls retain a pungent smell, like dried apples.
Mrs. Waechter cannot pin down where this folk art originated. “It could have been from the early Americans, or Indians or mountain people.” She suggested that an apple lying on the ground had dried and become wizened, giving someone an idea for a doll.
“It is a part of our American heritage,” she explained. She uses Rome, Cortland, and Delicious apples for the dolls.
“Twenty-ounce apples make the nicest ones,”‘she said. After peeling, she starts carving and scraping to form the nose, makes a semicircle for the mouth and slits for the eyes, inserting seeds, beads or eye- shaped shells there.
Then she inserts baling wire through the core to hang the apple for drying.
“Keep in mind the apple will shrink one-half and sometimes more,” she cautioned. “In four or five days it feels leathery. From then on, you can form ears and poke around a little, but Mother Nature takes over and becomes the final sculptor.”
Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture Kit by Milton Bradley, featuring Vincent Price (1975)
Want to make apple head dolls? Here’s a toy-like kit that used to be available!