Rebodying, arm-swapping, boil perms, boil-straightening, haircuts, dye-jobs, rerooting, enhanced facial screening, partial repaints, and complete face-ups—I admit, I’ve done it all.
I’m confident about some of these (I can’t remember the last time I snapped a neck bolt), have a steep learning curve with others (my first Hasbro Jem face-up was laughably terrible) and scared silly about others (reason #1 why I sent my Empress Josephine head out to my dolly friend Sal to partially reroot: fear). As a customiser, I look at most produced dolls and action figures as blank slates. It’s very rare for me not to rebody, redress, and restyle a doll. It’s part of putting my own stamp on her—whether she was mass produced playline, or a limited edition collector item. As a result, 99% of my fashion dolls are Frankendollies. Parts, as they say, is parts.
But even if I plan on displaying them in their packaged fashion, on the body they originally came with, very little stops me from washing and restyling hair. Yet lot of my dear dolly friends are hesitant to do even that much, so I thought I’d share some simple tips on getting the most out of your dolls, if you’re willing to lose the fear of “ruining” a doll.
First off, no matter how limited the edition, no matter how rare the doll, no matter how carefully she was packaged and stored, the fact remains that some sprucing will need to be done prior to displaying a doll. And most sprucing will not “ruin” a doll. Sometimes all this means is combing hair and using a light spray of water to tame fly-aways. Other times, it might mean snipping a loose thread here or there with embroidery scissors, and perhaps tightening up a loose knee joint with a dot of superglue.
You can do this. It is not magic! Just learning a few tips and tricks, and gaining confidence through practice. I have faith in you! These plastic people are, after all, made of plastic. Vinyl dolls do not mind if a straight pin is poked through their head, to secure a wig or a hat. Just don’t poke the end of the pin through their faces—though even that is not a complete disaster, as vinyl will close right back up again with a nice soak in an egg cup full of hot water. Remember: Dolls feel no pain! They barely notice if you use a spooly brush to style their applied lashes, or even use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove a stain.
The truth is, most vinyl fashion dolls are studier than you think. That’s not to say treat a collector doll the way your 3 year old granddaughter treats her playline Barbies, and drag them along through the world by their hair. Buuuuuut, if you open up a box and wail because the back of the doll’s hair is squashed flat and frizzy, or there’s a stain on her wrist from a bracelet… all is not lost!
For simple fixes, I suggest practising on an inexpensive Playline doll first, until you’re comfortable enough to try it with one of your darlings! Practice, practice, practice!
Washing fashion doll hair
Fashion doll hair is plastic. It does not need 99% of what human hair does. Most collector dolls are rooted with Saran hair, which is shiny and heavy and takes curl very well, and will not frizz under extreme heat. It can be washed with mild dish liquid or hand soap, in cool or even warm water, without losing its style. For curly girls, I recommend cheap Suave conditioner, because it has lots of “slip” and you can easily detangle curls with the prongs of a metal fork without the curls frizzing.
(I know what you’re thinking. Tara, this is madness. But take it from someone who has detangled a dozen or so super-frizzy Hasbro Stormer dolls from the 1980s whose hair had actually frizzed into dry locs: it works. It is not magic, but it is very very like magic. The curls stay factory-fresh, and even when the hair is dry, can be fluffed with the metal fork for volume without frizzing.)
Rinse thoroughly, and allow to air dry. For curly girls, drying inside a hairnet (which many dolls come packaged with) will help the curls retain their shape.
Doll hair can be styled while damp, or you can wait til it’s air-dried. Do not dry with a hair dryer unless you’re really really good at it, because even Saran hair will frizz under high heat from a hair dryer. If you need a little extra hold, I recommend an alcohol-free styling gel, such as Garnier Fructis. Also, I’ve found that by rinsing cheap Suave conditioner very nearly out, but not entirely out, the conditioner acts like a styling product once dried. Likewise, you can fill a spray bottle with a water down solution of gel and filtered water, and use that like hair-spray.
Washing vinyl doll bodies
I’ve had the best results with Target brand cleaning wipes on both hard plastic, and porous vinyl bodies. Whenever I get a used doll, I always give her a good scrub first with generic Clorox wipes. For the facial screening, you can use hand soap and a soft toothbrush, without damaging the facial screening. Rubbing alcohol also removes most surface stains that have not soaked into the porous vinyl! Just keep it away from applied lashes, as it will dissolve the adhesive. This is actually useful, if you want to dissolve adhesive, mind you. But if you don’t, just make sure you’re careful with your cleaning. I also will use a water and bleach solution if necessary, to de-mould a new-to-me head, when I’m restoring a vinyl doll.
Stains on the body
Undress the doll, and use a cotton swab to apply a thick layer of cheap benzoyl peroxide blemish crème on the affected area. Do not apply over facial screening, as it will damage it. Leave the doll under a bright light or in a sunny spot near a window for a week or fortnight. Wash off the dried crème, check the area, re-apply as needed. The crème will draw out stains from the porous vinyl, without significantly lightening the vinyl. This is particularly useful for the soft vinyl heads. I use it, for example, to remove traces of red “lipstick” when I am repainting a doll’s mouth, as red can easily stain the vinyl no matter how careful you are.
When red or black dyes from clothing transfer to clothes, one fix is to line the inside of a glove, sleeve, or waistband with clear sellotape. That way, you can keep the doll on display without fear of further staining.
Customiser’s Warning: Magic Eraser is not actually magic
Magic Easer (i.e. Melamine foam) works like super-fine sandpaper: the abrasive takes off the very top layer of a surface, similar to Brasso (which is used by LEGO minifig customisers to remove decals). So this is not particularly useful for collector dolls, but it does aid customisers in that you can use it to sand away tattoos on hard plastic bodies, smooth away scratches and rough patches, and sand down seams on the legs and arms. Conversely, if you use pure acetone to remove a tattoo, the Magic Erasure can be used afterword to buff the area, to get rid of the wipe marks.
Advanced Tip – Rebodying
When a body just cannot be salvaged, it’s time to rebody on either an identical body from the same doll, or a upgrade to a new body with a matching skintone. Removing the head is fairly easy. Just warm the head (to spare applied eyelashes or hair the heat, use a hair dryer on low pointed directly at the neck joint and rotate it from side to side. Steam or hot water works as well, but don’t use on flocked dolls, and be aware boiling water or steam can damage hair fibres.) until the vinyl softens enough that you can slowly pull the head straight off the neck knob, while firmly grasping the neck in the other hand to prevent losing the knob inside the head, or cracking the neck. Barbie Collector vinyl dolls have tines to hold the head in place. These can be snipped off, to make putting a head on a new body easy. Integrity bodies don’t have tines, just the knob. If the neck knob is wiggly, wrap clear rubber bands around it to give it a little more support. As for colour-matching, if you do not know the name of the original doll’s body, ask around first.
For example, I rebody all my Mattel Twilight Victoria dolls onto Integrity Toys Eternal Love Bride of Dracula bodies, because the “Peace” Mattel skintone matches the “Porcelain” BoD bodies from IT. When I learned this, I told, well, everyone I’d ever met on Flickr. Because I’m not the only mad doctor out there, putting old heads on new bodies, and the like. Some doll groups on Flickr will have a colour-matching chart in discussions. Because Barbie Collector and Integrity Toys dolls have similar neck joints, this can work! But you have a lot of body options out there beyond Barbie and Integrity, if you’re looking for a drastic change. LIV and Obitsu bodies are also easy to come by, both on Amazon.com and Evilbay!
Advanced Tip – Touching up facial screening
First of all, you’ll need these cosmetic applicators. Forget trying to use standard Q-tip cotton swabs; they aren’t firm or small enough for precision work. These are what you need. The pointy end is very firm, and you only need to dip the very tip in pure acetone, and then “lift” stray paint at lip-lines, remove bottom lashes, even fix dots of stray paint! Do not use the same swab for the entire job, as you might end up spreading paint around, and needing to clean it up with zit crème. I use a fresh swab for each gentle swipe. This is not for the beginner, but sometimes just cleaning up a ragged lip decal can make a huge difference, and save a trip to Patient Care for most dolls.
These applicators are also great for other jobs, too! I use them to apply Colorbox Liquid Chalks for blush, eye shadow, even to mute light eye screening (it doesn’t work so great on dark), and then blend the chalks with a make-up sponge to build up layers of colour. It’s a trick I learnt from reading BJD face-up tutorials, and I admit, I prefer it to trying to use chalk pastels. I’ve used this trick on two of my favourite Victorias, to tint her angry evil vampire-red eyes to a nice friendly hazel, without repainting the entire iris! The precision tip is great for this kind of work, and with practice, and a steady hand, it makes quick touch-ups a cinch! I use the blunt end for blush, and the pointy end for eyes. They’re also great for cleaning ears and noses—just dip the pointy end in rubbing alcohol, and switch out applicators until you get all the skin oils and dirt out of the tiny crevices.
A 1/2 water 1/2 white distilled vinegar bath will wash most doll clothing. The vinegar smell disappears once the clothing has dried, and will help dyes remain colourfast. Also, vinegar will kill mould and mildew! If there is yellowing or stubborn staining, I will also use a drop of All free (no dyes or perfumes), and use a jar with a tightly fitting lid as a mini-washing machine. Shake, shake, shake for 15 minutes, then rinse with cold water, and lie flat and blot with a clean white towel, before hanging up to dry. However, not all fabrics are colour-fast, so you want to test this method first on a bit of cloth hidden from sight, such as the underside of a seam.
I suck at dusting. No, really. Nothing like looking up at a shelf and noticing cobwebs starting to form between the doll and a wall to remind me that dusting is a weekly–not monthly–chore. However, I have been known to use my hairdryer on high, with the “cool” button down, to blow dust off my girls when they have been displayed on my shelves for long enough that they get noticeably dusty. Cans of compressed air (the kind you’d use on a computer keyboard) also work!
The first thing I do when I get a doll is undress her, and store her factory-made fashion in a Ziploc baggie. This is because I am a crazy person. I have an entire storage shoebox full of Color Infusion/Jem sized shoes, organised by style, each in their own tiny clear plastic box. Mostly, it’s to keep fashions organised—even if I never plan on reselling the loose fashion. I have fabric bins with clothes organised by body type as well as manufacturer. That is how I roll. So when I get a new doll, one of the first things I do is pull out the bins of clothes that I know will fit that body, and play!
(That’s right, I play Barbies when I get home from work. It soothes me. If you knew what my day job was like, believe me, you’d prescribe an hour or two of combing dolly hair and fussing with dolly shoes, too.)
Now then… when I store a fashion, I always make sure that the hooks and eyes are together, the snaps snapped, and the like. This helps keep all the individual bits of a fashion from sticking to or snagging on the other parts. If the fashion has Velcro closures, press them together prior to storing, so nothing snags on the Velcro. A lot of the custom clothing I order from Etsy and Clear Lan has Velcro. Even high-end collector fashions have Velcro now and then, to preserve the silhouette of a fashion, and avoid bulky snap or hook and eye closures. Velcro is not a dirty word! Sometimes it’s the best closure for a particular design, and I actually prefer it for some doll fashions, for a nice close fit.
If clothes are wrinkled, I will sometimes press them very carefully by laying the fashion flat between the folds of a white cotton pillow slip, and ironing on the lowest setting. But test this method first on a fashion made from the same/similar material! So far, I’ve only done this on some high-end Barbie Collector fashions, and do not collect Silkstones, so I cannot guarantee it for those fashions. Use your best judgement. If the dress is one you’d send out to be dry-cleaned if it were 1:1 scale, then treat it with the same care you would your own clothes.
If you are putting on fishnet stockings, I find that toes on some dolls like Jem/CI and Monster High get “stuck” in the fishnets. So what I do is pull from the back, where the back seam is, rather than the front, and carefully allow give around the toes of the stockings right up until the waistband is at the waist. Also, when putting on shoes, I always angle the toes toward the top inner corner of the shoe. Big toe toward the opposite foot. Does that make sense? Gosh I hope so. Doing a YouTube video about how to put on shoes would make me feel, well… awfully silly. But I’ve found this method really does work, even works with plastic shoes! And you’re less likely to have issues putting shoes on/taking shoes off. Also, if the shoes are plastic, warming them up with either a hair dryer, heating pad, or in boiling water first will make putting them on/taking them off easy-peasy, and in some cases, will actually help the shoe more closely conform to the doll’s foot.
For fitting non-removable hands through sleeves, I will often grab a plastic sandwich bag and snip the corners off, to create little plastic “gloves” to cover the fingers. Saran wrap works too! This is incredibly helpful when it comes to the first generation of Pivotal Barbie bodies, such as Jazz Diva, Pop Life, etc. Barbie socks or gloves work too, but sometimes the pesky thumbs will poke through the fabric and still catch on jacket linings.
I will also use long tweezers to carefully pull sleeves down inside jackets, to keep them from bunching up around the elbow, and to show just the right amount of cuff.
I usually work from the skin out. So, tights or leggings first, then tops, then skirt/trousers, then jackets and coats, and shoes and jewellery last. If you’re layering, remember that doll clothes aren’t the same weight as human clothes, and the thinner the better, for layers closest to the skin. Clear Lan has fantastic tops that are feather-light and great for creating layered looks. So do some Playline Barbies. You’d be amazed what you can find in Playline options, especially when it comes to hard-to-find colours like white, black, and red. LIV clothes are amazing, when compared to Barbie, and can still be found reasonably cheap on the secondary market.
You will bend earring posts. This is a normal part of life. Do not despair! We all do it. And once the earring is in the doll’s ear, no-one but you will ever know the post has become a corkscrew.
But the easiest way to insert earrings is to use a large quilting needle to widen the teeny tiny earring hole, before inserting the post. Modern fashion dolls such as Integrity Toys and Barbie Collector do not have the same issues with Green Ear that vintage vinyl dolls sometimes have, so long as the posts are nickel-free, you’re good. However, if you’re still worried, you can wrap a bit of sellotape around the post, paint it with clear sealant, or just only use gold- or sterling silver-plated eyepins and headpins for earring posts!
Collector dolls can even wear thicker playline earrings! To tighten up the holes again after removing the plastic earrings, fill an egg cup with hot water, and let the head sit in the cup, for the vinyl to reheat and shrink back to normal size. If you’re worried about the hair, you can wrap the head in plastic wrap first.
Necklaces will always tangle around hair. It will always be a problem. No-one has ever found a way to keep that from happening, so far as I know. But you can dampen down hair with a quick mist of water (or just smooth it down with a damp hand) before putting on jewellery, and that will help make your life 300x easier, before trying to work teeny tiny necklace clasps. Also, there is no law that says you can’t twist the head around like the girl from The Exorcist first, to clasp a clasp. Also, I’m a fan of using a clear rubber band harvested from deboxing Playline dolls (or just from the your local drug store, which will sell hundreds of the little clear rubber bands for less than $5) to hold a necklace in place and keep it from constantly turning around so the clasp is at the front and the pendant is at the back. Another trick is to tape the clasp to the back of the neck with a tiny strip of sellotape. The adhesive will wash off easily afterwords, and if not, try a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol to remove any lingering traces of adhesive!
There is a lot you can do with very little actual risk to the doll, to get the most out of your vinyl fashion dolls! it just takes practice, patience, and faith in your own abilities. No-one expects you to leap completely out of your comfort zone right away. But you can do little things like washing hair, or redressing, to work your way up to changing a doll’s look from top to bottom! And yes, there will be mishaps. But the best way to get over the sheer terror of “destroying” a doll is to realise that short of setting a doll on fire, nearly anything can, in fact, be fixed. If not by you personally, then by another member of the doll collecting and customising community! So debox and display with confidence!