One of the most common problems with modern dolls is the tendency for the moving "sleep eyes" to break. Modern dolls (by which I mean dolls from the mid-1950s onward) have plastic sleep eyes set in a metal frame which are basically pasted inside the doll's head with a thin sheet of vinyl. The old glass eyes were wired together on a metal frame and weighted with a lead or cast metal weight and it seems like they were somewhat sturdier. They are also repairable if one or both eyes break. The new eyes just have to be replaced most times.
Besides the movement getting stuck, the modern eyes can get cloudy or filmy and no amount of the recommended home remedies, like dropping mineral oil into them or drying them with a hair dryer, is really very effective. You can see examples of common problems in the images above. The first doll was originally a Scarlett O'Hara Portrait doll (Jacqueline face) by Madame Alexander. She had the misfortune to be involved in Super Storm Sandy, at which time her eyes got wet and filmy. I tried drying them, oiling them, painting them, all to no avail. I believe mold is actually growing inside the eye where I can't reach it. My daughter was not bothered by Scarlett's blindness and took her as a play doll, but I decided recently to restore her sight. The other doll is Twinkie by Effanbee, made from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. That doll was played nearly to death. Her eyes were pushed into her head, probably a repair attempt because they were stuck, and her body was all moldy inside from her having been "fed" with her bottle. As you will see, both dolls are now repaired and the Twinkie doll is for sale in my Etsy shop.
Now that I've mastered the skill of replacing eyes I thought I'd share the love by making eye replacement kits and writing a tutorial. You can purchase kits from my Atelier Mandaline shops on Etsy, eBay, and Facebook or just by contacting me through this blog or firstname.lastname@example.org. This has been a difficult technique for me to master and it involved a lot of trial and error and wasted money, so I felt kits might save others from that pain. I also sell pairs of eyes with a link to this tutorial for those who don't need a whole kit.
|First measure the eye.|
Whether or not you buy my kit you will need new eyes in the proper size for your doll, and for that you will need to measure. Eye sizes are listed in millimeters, so you will need either a metric ruler or a set of eye sizing tools. The eye sizing tools are round balls with the eye size marked on them. You stick them inside the head to make sure they fit. I find it cheapest just to use a ruler. So, measure your doll's eye horizontally from corner to corner. I cannot stress this enough: if you get an odd measurement, like 14.5, or the eye size you need isn't available, go DOWN in size. Beware of almond-shaped eyes. Don't go with the sculpting on the outside of the face; go with the interior measurement of the eye socket. The Jackie doll above measures 14 mm but if you look closely you will see she has eye corners sculpted a little longer than the inside edge of her eye, so she can use a 13 mm eye as well if the 14mm are out of stock. I do have eyes in 14 mm and I get size 13 for Revlon (and her grocery store clones), Madame Alexander Kelly, Twinkie, Dollikin 2S, etc. The Dollikin is particularly deceptive. She really looks like she needs 15 mm eyes, but they don't fit. The inside of her head only takes 13 mm-14 mm, at least as far as I can tell. Once you have your new eyes you are ready to start.
Please note, I use a different method than that traditionally taught. I am primarily self-taught, so I developed my method before I ever heard of the heat method or boil method. The traditional heat method is that you heat the doll's head, either by boiling it or heating it with a hairdryer and when it is hot you reach inside the head and push the eyes out the front of the eye socket. To replace the eyes you heat the head and pop new eyes into the front. I prefer to insert the eyes from the inside as I show in this post. Some dolls, like American Girl, have a neck opening too small for you to reach in the head, so the heat method must be used on them. The boil method for the American Girl is shown here. As with any repair advice on this blog, proceed carefully and at your own risk; I am not responsible for mistakes made in following tutorials. Your doll is already broken anyway, right? Or you wouldn't be reading this!
|Cut the band on a strung doll.|
|Pull off the head.|
|You might have to slide the washer out of the way.|
|The eye pockets|
|Cut the eye pockets open.|
You will need a long, thin, sharp knife to cut the eye pocket. I prefer to use an X-acto knife. You can try to just cut a slit from side to side or cut an X in the back of the eye pocket and reuse the vinyl eye pocket later. If the vinyl gets in the way when you try to insert the new eyes just go ahead and cut a circle around the eye and remove both the eye and some of the old vinyl. The old vinyl can be tricky to get out so I use a variety of pliers and tweezers to pull it out after I cut it. Try not to remove too much of the original vinyl pocket; then you will not have anything to hold the eyes in! Try reaching in the head BEFORE you cut the vinyl to make sure your fingers aren't too large and you think you can get the eyes in and out. If not proceed with the boil method shown in the American Girl link above instead.
|Remove some of the old vinyl.|
|Push the eyes into the head.|
When you've cut the old vinyl pocket open you just push the eyes into the head and them drop them out through the neck hole. Sometimes they get stuck in the head and you have to fish them out with a long tool like a drawstring puller or tweezers. If you have kids with small fingers they can be quite helpful with the task! At any rate, eye replacement is just rather difficult and fiddly and tedious and takes a lot of patience, so don't attempt it when you're in a hurry.
|The eyes have been removed.|
|Position the eyes.|
When you have both eyes in place you will need to glue them. Basically you are replacing the original vinyl eye pocket that was there. You can use either thick white glue or you can use acrylic modeling paste for this. Regular thin white glue is too thin and won't work. You can either leave a bottle of Elmer's or similar glue open for a while to let it evaporate and thicken up or use Aleene's Tacky Glue. If you decide on modeling paste (it's the most similar to the original but also the most expensive) you can find that in the acrylic artists' paints at art supply stores. I usually just use the Aleene's Tacky Glue. Whichever you use, you will need to cover the backs of the eyes with a thick layer. Use a Popsicle stick or something like that to spread the glue.
|The eyes are glued in.|
|Set the head upright as the glue dries.|
Jacqueline and some other dolls have painted eyeshadow eyes. You can try painting the eyes before you insert them but the paint often gets dinged up, so I just paint them with a tiny brush after I replace them and they dry. I use water-soluble oil paint mixed with acrylic to paint the new eyes. I sell pre-painted eyeshadow eyes in my eBay and Etsy shops. Link to those from ateliermandaline.com.
|Painting the eyeshadow|
When the new eyes are in place and dry then you can pop the head back on or re-string your doll, depending on the method required. As you can see, both dolls turned out beautifully. Scarlett ended up with blue eyes rather than green because green are on backorder. I asked my daughter if I should use blue or just wait for green and she wanted to go ahead with the blue eyes. She's still very lovely! Twinkie is cute as a button! Check out my shops from ateliermandaline.com for all kinds of lovely dolls such as these.