WW1 miniature DIY project: trench art


In the first part of this WW1 miniatures series, learn about trench art and make your own miniature trench art vases for your dolls house or miniature scene!

What is trench art?

'Trench art' is a broad term loosely meaning any item made by soldiers, prisoners of war, or civilians where its manufacture is directly linked to armed conflict and wars. Trench art goes back to the Napoleonic Wars and continues to the present day. 

Evidence from WW1 shows that shell and bullet casings, usually brass, were a popular material that soldiers used to create trench art. These particular items can contain a lot of information, like the date of manufacture, the size of the bomb, and the country of origin or the military arrow sign in the case of British ammunition. Anything that a soldier might have had access to in the trenches could be used to create objects – carved wood, straw feathers, bones and coins. 

Typical items that have been found are:

  • Vases
  • Lighters
  • Ashtrays
  • Models of tanks and planes
  • Money box holders

...along with sweetheart tokens for the loved ones back home like brooches made from coins and hand carved boxes and ornaments from wood and bone. Examples of trench art can be seen in the image below...

Examples of trench art

Trench art falls into four main categories of manufacture:

Category one – items made by soldiers in the trenches during the war

  • This category also includes items made by wounded soldiers who would have been encouraged to engage in craftwork as part of their recuperation. Examples of this type of trench art consists of embroidery and simple woodwork.

Category two – trench art made by prisoners of war and internees   

  • Since the Napoleonic Wars, prisoners of war have made decorative objects from bone, straw, wood, etc., to sell in order to obtain money for food, clothes and a slight better stay at His Majesty's pleasure. During WW1 many German prisoners used their time to create beautiful little wooden carvings, which are highly prized by collectors today. 

 ​​​​​​Category three – civilian made items

  • Such items were mainly made by local people in and around the area of the battlefields. Typically, in France during WW1 millions of embroidered postcards were produced with regimental crests or patriotic flags and sold to soldiers to send home to sweethearts, mothers, wives and children. After the war was over, local people used the discarded debris around the towns and villages to make mementoes and souvenirs for pilgrims and tourists visiting the battlefields. 

Category four – commercially made items

  • After WW1 tonnes of surplus materials were sold by the government and converted into souvenirs of the conflict. Many boxes, bowls, match barrels, walking sticks, etc., were commercially made from the teak and oak of famous ships and then sold to the patriotic public. Shipbreaking also falls into this category. If a ship had taken part in a famous battle, then the items made from its wood or metal would be adorned with a plaque with the name of the ship and where it had fought. 

Love exploring history in miniature form? Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine is packed with projects to inspire from a wide range of eras – there's something for all tastes and interests! 


How to make a pair of miniature trench art vases

The metal tops of two makeup pencils, preferably in brass, are the perfect item to replicate the look of WW1 shell cases in miniature. Cheap makeup stalls, markets, £1 shops, or car boot sales are ideal places to find these metal tops. 

You will need

  • 2 metal make-up pencil lids (preferably gold coloured)
  • Hammer 
  • 2 round brass discs/ buttons/sequins 
  • 2 part-epoxy glue 
  • Pair of smooth nosed pliers 
  • Fine tipped marker pen 
  • PVA glue in a fine tip applicator bottle 
  • Toothpick 
  • Gold/ brass paint

Method

1. The main body of the vase is made from the pencil lid. It may be slightly domed on top and will need flattening to stand upright. if they fall over and don't stand upright, put the top onto a pencil and hammer lightly until the end is flattened and it can stand unaided. If they're already perfectly flat, then ignore this step.    

2. To create a base for the vase fix a circle to the base. This can be card, a sequin, or suitably sized metal discs. Glue a circle to each base with two-part epoxy glue and leave to set.  

3. With bottle-nosed pliers (smooth ones, not ribbed) gently bend out the top of each vase-like petals. Start with one side, and then repeat on the opposite. Then do two more crimps in between the first two, followed by four more between these four. You should be able to manage about eight around the top of each vase, which will create a crimped edge. 

4. Take a fine tipped marker pen and draw out the design on each shell case vase. A sinuous Art Nouveau floral design works well, or the name of a battle, e.g. Somme. Other ideas could be like these real ones below of an early plane or memorial cross. 

5. With your fine tip applicator bottle filled with PVA go over the design creating a raised pattern. This is rather like tube-lining, but with glue. Leave this to dry thoroughly until the glue has turned from white to clear. It can be neatened up a bit with a toothpick whilst the glue is still wet. It looks a bit blobby right now but will improve once dry, painted and given the finishing touches.

6. Once the glue is completely dry and hard, rub gold paint over the design with your finger so it adheres to the dry glue, this will emphasise the design.

The vases can be given a coat of matt acrylic varnish to protect this finish – this part is optional. Stand the trench art vases either side of the dolls house mantelpiece as a souvenir of the war. 

 

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Enjoyed making miniature trench art? Explore more of the WW1 series and learn how to make miniature gas masks or miniature poppies.

Need more inspiration - check out our WW1 Pinterest board.