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Make a Working Fountain
These instructions explain the technique for making simple flowing water features in small spaces, including fairy garden planters, dollhouses, and model scenes. As long as a reservoir can be placed within the 'head' or pumping distance for a miniature fountain and a simple water return can recycle the water back to the pump, you can set water features in any small garden or model. Just make sure that where the water ends up won't damage the miniatures.
This is the basic method of putting flowing water into kitchen taps in dollhouse scenes, as well as items like overflowing beer kegs in a model railroad setting. In these instructions, we've shown the simplest water feature, a 'bubble' fountain, but the same technique works to build miniature waterfalls or decorative fountains.
Where to Find a Miniature Pump To make simple water features, you will need a working miniature pump. Suitable pumps can be found in tabletop fountains, dog and cat water fountains, and occasionally in aquarium shops or florists. Check second-hand stores or dollar stores, and are often found online sold as miniature pumps or micropumps for tabletop fountains. They cost $10 or less from most suppliers and are available in battery or plug-in versions. Plugin versions are best for applications where there may be moisture (miniature gardens). Most of the miniature pumps accept a 1/4 inch (6mm) hose to extend the distance from the pump to the point you want the water to flow.Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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How high can your miniature pump lift water?
All pumps are rated by 'static head' or 'head', which is a measure of how high the pump can push water. This is partially determined by the size of the tube it must push the water through, but pumps have a limited distance up to which they can push water. When looking at a miniature pump, you should be able to see a rating in meters or feet for the 'head' (sometimes listed just as H) of the pump. If you know you want to make a fountain shoot two feet high, or move water continuously over a 1-foot waterfall, you will need to have a 'head' rating that allows the water to be moved this distance or greater. You measure the 'head' between the top level of the water supply to the highest point where the water begins to return.
On the miniature pump, we are using the label lists the current requirements and wattage, then the maximum head rating of .5 meter (only if the tube was very very tiny) and the flow rate per hour. The flow rate per hour tells me how much water can be moved over a given time period, which indicates how much total water could be moved, or how thin the amount of moving water will have to be to move steadily. If you have large water features, say a wide waterfall, you will need large flow rates.
Another thing to consider is how large the pump and reservoir will need to be, as this will determine how easy it is to hide your water system.
If Your Pump Has No Label - you can work out if the flow from a miniature pump is suitable for your plans by setting the pump in a reservoir and attaching a straw or small flexible hose (piping) to the pump outlet. If necessary, use a plastic drinking straw set to the height you want your water to rise and hold it to the pipe outlet with plumber's putty or plumbers tape. If you use a flexible piece of hose (RC fuel line or something similar), you can raise it up and measure the point where the water won't go any higher in the tube. If the pump won't pump the water through the straw, it doesn't have enough 'head' to run your water feature.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Water Flow Controls on a Miniature Pump
Many miniature pumps have a flow control switch on the front of the pump. When the switch is set to one side, it obstructs the water intake and reduces the flow, and when it is set to the other side, the flow is at maximum. Experiment with your pump (and any hoses) to see how much water pressure your pump will create. Use a thinner hose and maximum flow if you want the water to shoot out of the end of the pipe or water feature, rather than trickle out.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Adjusting the Water Supply On a Miniature Pump
Most miniature pumps either come with a fixed length attachment for the waterline or have a line attachment point, but no water output line. The outflow on the pump is usually detachable and pulls gently out of the pump. The outflow attachment point is shown in the photo on this page to the right of the pump. You can slip a flexible hose or straw over this outflow, then attach it back to your pump. If you can't find a piece of flexible tubing to fit your pump (usually mini pumps take 1/4 inch (6mm) line), you can use a slightly smaller line fitted inside the outflow using plumbers putty or tape around the hose or straw.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Pumping Water Through Decorative Rocks or Scale Fountains
If you want to pump water through a decorative rock or miniature scale fountain, you will need to fit the object with a pipe for water. In the photo on this page, a decorative aquarium rock has been fitted with a straw which will act as the hosepipe to supply water for a simple waterfall. When the pump is attached to the hose, and the rock is set over the water reservoir and pump, the water will emerge from the opening on the rock and run back down into the reservoir to be pumped up again.
You should be able to just see the straw set into the rock on the right just above the midway point. If you want to use a tiny resin fountain or figure for a fountain, you will need to drill a hole through the object, fit a water pipe or set a connector into the base of the hole you drilled so you can fit a hose, and run the water up through your object.
If you need smaller tubing to run your water to the end of a miniature faucet for a dollhouse or some other such water feature, try garden supply houses for drip irrigation hose, or model shops for a fine gas line or fuel hose for RC planes or cars.
If you need a figure for a fountain, try making one from polymer clay or epoxy putty by forming it over a piece of metal tubing for the water line. Be sure to research how to sculpt miniature figures to get a better idea of how to shape the figures.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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Fitting a Suitable Water Reservoir For a Miniature Water Feature
A recycling or recirculating water feature will only work if there is a constant water supply available to the pump. As pumps can vibrate, choose a water container for your fountain or water feature which will weigh enough to offset the pump vibration and keep the water secure.
Another important measurement is that the container is deep enough to cover the water intake on the pump with a bit extra. Will your reservoir contain enough water for your pump? You'll have to test it to find out.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Test a Water Reservoir for a Miniature Water Feature
Before you start setting up your miniature water feature, test the pump in your chosen reservoir container to see how your pump works. For this test, you don't need to have the full length of hose attached, although it can help. You want to check that, with the pump turned on, you have enough water in the reservoir to keep the pump working, assuming the water returns to the reservoir.
As the pump sends out water, make sure there is enough water remaining in the system to completely cover the pump intake. Have your test set up in an area where you can wipe up any spills. This test is important for miniature water features, as, in many cases, the space for your reservoir will be restricted and you will want to use as small a reservoir as possible. If space isn't an issue, use the largest reservoir you can with as much depth as possible over the pump intake.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Set Up a Water Return for a Miniature Water Feature
To keep your miniature water feature running, the water you pump up through your waterfall or fountain will need to return back into the reservoir. The easiest way to make sure this happens is to set your water feature above the pump and reservoir and fit the reservoir with a water return cap. To make one, you can use the lid from a plastic cup, or any small lid which will fit over your water reservoir, which can be cut with a craft knife to make holes for the water to enter back into the reservoir.
Check that the cap you use will fit over your reservoir and pump. Cut a hole through the cap to fit your water outlet attachment or hose, helping to hold it securely in place. Cut several holes through the lowest part of the cap so the water coming down from your waterfall or fountain will flow back through the cap into the reservoir tank or container. Try to keep the cap as strong as possible (cut as few holes as possible) so it will hold the water feature or rocks above the water reservoir and pump. If you can't find a suitable cap to fit over your water reservoir, you can use plastic mesh or a sheet of strong plastic you can set into or over the reservoir and cut holes through.
Note: Keep in mind how the water will run out of your water feature and back into the reservoir. If it is running down a waterfall, the waterfall will need to end above the reservoir where the water can be collected through the water return.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Check the Fit of the Water Return Cap Over the Water Reservoir
Once you have the holes cut in your water return cap, test fit it over your reservoir to make sure it doesn't interfere with your pump, and that it will hold securely in place against the reservoir once water begins to flow. Test the pump in the reservoir and make sure the cap will catch the water and allow it through fast enough to keep the pump flowing. Make a few more holes for the water if necessary.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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Fill the Water Return Cap and Test the Water Flow
The water return cap should keep foreign materials away from your miniature pump and water reservoir. The best materials for this are rounded pebbles large enough to cover rather than fall through the holes, or bits of sea glass or other inert materials that won't fall back into the reservoir. These can be set below the base of a miniature waterfall or fountain to allow the water to pass through into the reservoir. Test the material you choose to make sure it allows free flow of water back into your system.
If you need a more direct water return, you may have to collect water in a miniature sink or trough with a tube on the base that leads back to the water reservoir. Make sure the collection tube is a larger diameter than the outflow tube from your water pump, you want to make sure the returning water comes in as quickly as possible.Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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Fit a Water Reservoir Into a Miniature Garden
With all the parts of your miniature recirculating water feature tested, it is time to assemble it in the final setting. Begin by setting the water reservoir so the lip is just below or nearly flush with the finished surface of your model or miniature garden. If you want to make sure the soil doesn't flow in where it can clog the pump, set it slightly above the soil and plan on covering it with a thicker layer of pebbles. Make sure the reservoir is level on the site, or it may leak.
Fit the pump, the water return cap and outflow and any decorative rock or fountain above the reservoir. Try to snake the cord for the pump through a section of the scene where it can be hidden from view.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Simple Water Bubble Fountain in a Miniature Garden Scene
This simple water bubble fountain is just a basic pump with no fountain figure or waterfall attached above the reservoir. The outlet pipe is placed level with the top of the water return cap, which is filled with pebbles. When the cap is covered, a small jet of water appears to bubble from the rocks. When the fountain is turned off, the pump and hose are hidden by pebbles.
Even a simple recycling feature like this can be a fun addition to a miniature garden. The reservoir can easily be lifted to be emptied or cleaned. To fill the reservoir, water can be poured in over the gravel in the water return cap.
Experiment with a variety of water features until you feel comfortable building and installing them in model gardens and miniatures. You can build 'working' showers and running taps in scenes if you pay attention to the size of the stream of water which flows rather than drips. You can color the water (for a constantly flowing teapot, coffee pot, or beer tap) if you wish.