Forgotten Dolls

the hobby of doll collecting

Customize your dolls -- tips, tricks, and how-tos

Customize your dolls

If you have a doll such as a modern ball-jointed doll, you may opt to customise the doll to your liking. Before beginning the customization process, take as time as necessary to visualize how your doll should look: what colours and styles for eyes, wig, and body do you envision? Make a few sketches to aid in the creative process.

Body colours -- airbrush your doll

Altering the body colour of your doll can include anything from face paint to adding some blushing to the joints to a custom full-body repaint. This is entirely done with an airbrush rather than pastels or normal paint. I find that ground pastels leave a grainy texture to the body colouring, and simply painting the colours on with a brush will of course leave streaks and visible brush strokes.

However, these common problems can be avoiding through the use of an airbrush when painting your doll. A steady hand while airbrushing ensures a clean smooth paint job on your doll -- brush stroke free!

Basic airbrush supplies

  • An airbrush and hose. I recommend buying the best airbrush you can afford. If you buy the cheap one, it will break easily, and you won’t get much painting done if it is always away for repairs.

    Iwata has standard-size parts that are easily to replace. Badger, Paasche, and Testor’s do not. Should something break, it may prove difficult to replace with the standard parts used by another company.

    Accordingly, I highly recommend an Iwata airbrush. I have a dual-action Iwata with a gravity-feed cup. For me this is preferable to both a single-action airbrush and the siphon-feed variety as it gives me greater control while painting.


Blick's normally has these supplies in stock. I buy my airbrush supplies from them including safety gear, and I highly recommend them.

Once you have your supplies, it is simply a matter of practice, practice, practice in using your new airbrush.

How to use an airbrush

Warning: Don your safety equipment before doing any work.

Airbrush your dolls Begin by dissembling the doll as much as possible (unstring a ball jointed doll, for example). Use a solvent to remove any old paint and sealant. 91% rubbing alcohol with work for this purpose and can be applied with a cotton swab.

Once that is done, use hot water and a strong liquid dish soap such as DAWN to wash all the parts. This removes all mold release agents from the doll's body if this is a new doll, and it will wash off any solvent for a doll that required cleaning. Leave all the parts to dry for at least an hour. If you see any white streaks, use more solvent to clean those parts again, then re-wash. When your doll is dry, you can begin the painting process.

Begin by applying at least two coats of sealant to all parts that will be painted. Depending on the type of doll, this can be a water-based sealant or a spray-on resin sealant. Allow time for each coat of sealant to dry completely.

While you are waiting for things to dry, set up your equipment and do a test spray onto some scrap paper. If you need to adjust the spray or the colour mixture, do so now.

When the doll parts are ready, work on one part at a time, spraying lightly and carefully to ensure an even coat of paint. Let each coat dry before spraying the next coat. When you are done with one part, work on the next part until all the painting is done. If possible, let everything dry overnight before reassembling your doll.

Tip: It's easier to do several light coats of paint than one heavy coat. This also makes for easy colour gradients.

Selecting doll eyes and wigs

For certain types of dolls such as modern ball jointed dolls, the eyes and wig of the doll can be removed and changed.

Most new dolls of this type come with a default wig and pair of eyes, but the doll's owner is free to change both to something which best suits the character for that doll.

Both wigs and eyes are available in a variety of sizes, colours, and materials to suit every price point.

Doll eye materials

Selecting doll eyes

Doll eye shapes

doll eyes shapes Doll eyes are shaped to fit the doll's eye sockets. Some shapes will work better for one doll than another.

The two basic shapes are either round eyes with a stem or eyes with flat backs. Antique eyes (typically from a German glassblower) are hollow round handblown glass.

Over the iris is a domed area which adds depth to the eye appearance. This dome is available as what is termed "paperweight", which means an elevated "extra" lens over the iris, or as a "low lens" eye which does not have this elevated area. Low lens eye domes will not have as much depth in appearance.

Tip: Eye bevellers are available if you have a resin doll whose eye sockets require reshaping.

Doll eye sizes

doll eyes sizes For those who wish to change their doll’s eyes from the default for a different look, one thing to consider is the size of the eyes. Would your doll look better with larger eyes? Smaller eyes? How do you determine what size eyes to use for your particular doll?

The company may recommend one particular size eyes for a particular model, but many dolls can wear a variety of eye sizes.

Doll eyes are available in a variety of sizes from 4mm up to 22mm and larger. 4mm are rarely used for all but the smallest of dolls, but tiny dolls such as a Pukipuki will take 6mm or 8mm eyes. 12mm is typically used for a Unoa or similar slim mini. Most 60+cm dolls will take 14mm to 18mm eyes, and certain older ball jointed dolls are specifically sized to use 20mm eyes or larger.

Tip #1: If you aren’t sure what size eyes your doll needs, start with the smallest size and work your way up. Generally, a smaller iris creates a more mature look, while a larger iris will make your doll look younger. Some large eyes may not fit into your doll’s head at all, however. Likewise, too-small eyes will leave gaps in the eye socket.

Tip #2: If your doll's eyes are half-closed, go down one size from the default.

How to change doll eyes

Proper eye setting in a doll can make all the difference in photos, yet often the stock placement is slapdash and simply doesn’t look right. If your doll’s eyes seem out of alignment, you will need to open your doll’s head to reset the eyes in a more appropriate position.

For a new hobbyist, it may seem daunting to change the eyes on your doll, but it’s really not that difficult. All you need is your doll, a pair of eyes of your choice, and some eye putty.

Tip: I use the Scotch brand mounting putty because it doesn’t stain, but I believe 3M and similar companies will have a product that will work for you if you can’t find the Scotch brand one. It’s about $3 a packet.

A single packet is enough for the eyes of several dolls such as a ball jointed doll. This putty is reusable when removed from a doll.

The first order of business is to open the head. Remove the doll’s wig, and you should see a seam line around the head. Pop that open. Most newer ball jointed dolls have a magnet system keeping the head closed, so give a tug to the removable part (either a headcap or face-plate).

If your doll still has their default eyes installed, the eyes will need to be removed. The eyes on a factory-standard doll are usually held in with hard putty or hot glue. Putty needs to be chiseled out (tedious!). Hot glue can be pried out with a blunt knife.

Tip: Applying either low heat or cold can sometimes help with the glue removal. If you’re lucky, they will be held in with mounting putty, which can be easily removed with the eyes.

Once they’re out, switch in the new eyes. The important thing to keep in mind when setting eyes to go slow and ensure the eyes are set properly.

Contrary to new collector belief, you really shouldn’t just chuck the eyes into the head and hope for the best. The eyes are the very first thing that will be noticed about your doll, so position them properly.

Changing doll eyes
You don’t want your doll to have eyes looking off in different directions.
  Changing doll eyes
Or worse, to have the dreaded forward blank stare. This is common for factory default dolls.
  Changing doll eyes
There is also the ever-popular look of “eyes rolled back into the head”. Unless your doll is dead or insane, please don’t do this.
  Changing doll eyes
Then there are those collectors who manage to have their doll’s eyes positioned too far down. This likewise looks bad.

If your doll’s eyes look like any of these common errors, take the time to correct it.

Changing doll eyes The goal of proper eye positioning is both to have an expression in keeping with the personality of your doll and to have both eyes track properly. Choose an position that suits your doll’s character.

Don’t be afraid to try out different positions -- looking to one side or the other, perhaps.

Tip: If you can’t find a position you like, a slightly cross-eyed and upward-tilted position is cute and endearing for most dolls. This works best if the upper edge of the pupil is just touching the upper eyelid.

Position the eyes, one at a time, to your liking. Ensure that the pupils line up and there is an equal amount of white space around both irises. Squish the putty into place so it holds. Close up the head and put the wig back on.

Doll wig materials

Selecting doll wigs

Note: If the material is a natural fiber, it can be dyed any colour you like to suit your doll's character. You do not have that option with synthetic fibers.

Doll wig styles

When selecting a wig for your doll, first and foremost consider what colour and style would be best for your doll’s character. Do they wear ringlet curls? Pigtails? A short boy cut? Perhaps a fantasy colour would be best?

You should also consider the maintenance factor. I recommend avoiding curly or otherwise overly-fussy fibre wigs unless you are very careful with your dolls. If you like curly styles, buy a curly-type mohair or Tibetan lambskin wig; they are easier to maintain with a simple fluff and go.

The main thing about wig styling is to take your time, work on a small section at a time, and put the unstyled section into clips to keep it out of the way. Get one small section back into its original style before moving to the next small section. If your doll's wig is secondhand, keep in mind that it usually takes two to three hours to fix a badly mangled wig.

Tip: No wig ever looks good fresh from the package. Take a little time to style every wig when you put it on your doll so they look nice.

Synthetic wigs can be styled with any product intended for synthetic human-size wigs. Try your local beauty supply shop to ask them what they have for synthetic hair. I would recommend avoiding spray-on products due to the scale of many dolls, but any type of synthetic-hair gel or mousse would probably work. They will also have a shampoo suitable for synthetic wigs if you need it.

For wigs made of natural fibers such as mohair, use any product which can be used on human hair. Again, try to avoid spray products.

Doll wig sizes

Doll wigs are sized to fit particular head sizes. Most companies have a recommended size listed for particular dolls. This will almost always be an appropriate size for that particular doll.

To size your doll's head, use a tape measure around the edge of the headcap (if they have a head cap), or the circumference of the head from forehead around the back of the head. A tiny doll might need a 3/4 inch wig, while a large doll might need a 8/9 inch wig or larger.

Tip: If you can find one, a silicone wig cap can be used under a wig to protect the head from staining. This can also "tighten up" a wig which is slightly too large.

Where to buy doll wigs and eyes

Once you have determined a "look" for your doll, it's time for shop for doll wigs and eyes. If you are not using the doll's defaults, you will have to check the secondary market (typically a forum centered on this type of doll), and wait until you find the parts that you are looking for. If you don't find the parts within a reasonable time, you can post a "WTB" (Want To Buy) with the model, condition, and the price you can pay.

Tip: Once you begin shopping for a wig, buy the best wig you can afford. A cheap, poorly-made wig will frizz and/or fall apart very quickly, and will frankly look like a cheap, poorly-made wig. Avoid the no-name brands that are often sold on some sites. They never hold up well. It’s better to spend your money on something that will wear well without shedding everywhere.

Tealmermaid's Treasure Grotto