As Susan Karatjas’ skill for creating dollhouse miniatures grew over the years, so did her Internet business.
But the opposite is true of the pieces she creates.
The first miniatures she created in the early 1980s were for her daughter’s dollhouse, created in 1/12-inch scale. Then she built a smaller house for herself more than a decade later in 1/24-inch scale. Now Susan creates her pieces — including plants, furniture and even whole rooms and buildings — in scales as small as 1/120 and 1/144 inches. Picture a fully-detailed plant or chair small enough to fit on the edge of your pinky.
Her Internet business, SDK Miniatures LLC, based in her Indiana home, grew to the point where she was able to leave her full-time job in 2006 after 26 years and earn money selling miniatures through her website, eBay and Etsy, a website for crafts and homemade items.
“Most people sell 1-inch scale and won’t go smaller,” she said.
Karatjas has able to go much smaller, thanks to years of practice and the right equipment. She learned how to make miniatures mostly through trial and error but also took some classes and got involved with the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts.
Ideas for objects come from her own imagination or customer requests. She finds a photo on the Internet or, in some cases, the object itself, and draws the item with software that color-codes the lines to tell her laser saw how to cut or etch the item. Then the laser cuts the pieces and Karatjas puts them together to make the three-dimensional finished product.
She also sells kits that contain all the pieces of a miniature, allowing enthusiasts to assemble an item themselves.
Before she bought the laser saw in 2005, Karatjas had to use punches or cut things by hand. Now she uses the laser for everything, for objects as large as 1-inch scale and as small as 1/144-inch.
Her popular items include potted plants and Gothic furniture, a popular line of items for enthusiasts creating medieval-style buildings such as castles or the Hogwarts school from the “Harry Potter” series.
“My husband thought it was the ugliest thing,” she said of a Gothic-style chair. “But it’s popular.”
One of the most difficult pieces she’s ever been asked to create was an artist’s studio in 1/144-inch scale. The miniature room contains detailed objects such as paintings, bookshelves, a desk and an easel, and the entire room easily fits into the palm of your hand.
“I don’t think I’ve agonized over anything as much as this,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for months.”
Karatjas is in the middle of the busiest time of the year, which comes right on the heels of the slowest period.
“January is the busiest month, always has been. December is the slowest. But it’s fairly even over the year,” she said.
Karatjas originally started selling items through Internet groups and craft shows. Now she can take orders and payment through the website her husband, Nick, built for her (www.sdkminiatures.com) or the Etsy store run by her daughter, Pamela Ridgley (etsy.com/shop/sdkminiatures).
Nick Karatjas chairs Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Economics and uses his wife’s business in microeconomics classes to discuss small business development with students.
“Students ask, ‘Who would pay for that?’” he said. These classroom discussions give him the chance to explain finding the right market for a product.
The market for miniatures has shifted in recent years, he said, because of the growth of Internet sales. Now that enthusiasts can find and purchase whatever they want online, craft shows and physical stores have dwindled.
“By no means is the hobby dying,” he said. “I think the hobby is still robust, but the market’s changed.”
It’s also not a cheap hobby, nor is it just for children’s dollhouses. Depending on the size and type of item, miniatures can cost anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred for complete rooms and buildings. But enthusiasts are eager to continue building their collections by purchasing things online.
Internet sales have “hurt the shows,” decreasing the popularity and frequency of national miniatures shows. The Karatjas now attend three to five shows a year, though Susan is active at the national level of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts. She was even commissioned to create 500 miniature houses based on NAME’s logo for the 40th anniversary of the organization, a venture that took more than a year to finish.
For Nick, the “biggest blessing” has been seeing daughter Pamela become involved in the business. She had little interest in miniatures until a few years ago, when she began assembling them and selling them through Etsy. It’s the perfect job for Pamela, who has a young son at home and is expecting another child.
“It has become a family affair, and that’s neat,” Nick said.