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How to: Make a DIY Modern and Minimalist Nativity Set

by on Dec 16, 2020

I have lots of great holiday memories from when I was a kid: listening to the Merry Christmas from Sesame Street cassette while driving downtown to pick up the ham with my dad, waking my parents up with my sister after totally having scoped the presents, and warming the handheld candles to make funny shapes with my cousins and uncle during Christmas Eve service. But nothing stands out more than this silly little wooden nativity set I set up on our side table every year.

It wasn’t much – it was storable in a 5×5″ box, contained very rough and basic human figures with bold pink circles on their cheeks a la the puppets from Mr. Rogers, and a donkey with this little red string for reins that stood next to some unnameable white animal with these horn/ear things I never figured out. My mom says she bought it in some old-timey store in a nearby small town, and it cost $5-6.

But, that thing was Christmas to me, and I’ll never, ever forget it.

So, this year, I wanted to make a nativity set for my four-year-old nephew that he can call his own. He’s a right brained kid in a house full of math nerds, so I decided to make something with lots of color that was a bit abstract, with a little tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. 

So, I whipped this up for him using easy-to-find supplies from the craft store for under $10.00 in materials. 

created at: 12/18/2012

1. The basic shapes are “round wooden ball knobs” that you can find in the unfinished wood section of the craft store. These are basic balls with one side sliced off that allows them to sit flat on a surface. I snagged them when everything in the section was 50% off, making this a super affordable project. For my set I chose:

  • 4x 2″ knobs – for the for adult men (Joseph + three magi)
  • 1x 1 1/2″ knob – for Mary
  • 2x 1 1/4″ knobs – for animals
  • 1x 1″ knob – for Jesus
created at: 12/18/2012

2. I wanted each figure to have a solid coat of color, so I sanded away any imperfections using 220-grit sandpaper.

created at: 12/18/2012

3. Next, I used acrylics to paint each shape with a representative color. I made the three kings nice and bold, since they’re all exotic and star-watching and magician-y.  Joseph  is a basic brown and Mary, well, Mary-blue. Baby Jesus is an off-white, and the animals gray and brown. I think of them as an ox and donkey, but in the spirit of my old, crazy nativity animals, I didn’t think too hard about it.

The knobs conveniently come with a hole in the bottom, so it’s easy to insert a bamboo skewer to get paint all over the shape and keep your hands clean. I used a soft brush to avoid brush strokes, and two coats of basic acrylic craft paint, about ten minutes apart.

created at: 12/18/2012

4. For the barn/manger/creche, I used a basic wooden box from the craft store. These things aren’t super high quality, and are made from crummy soft wood, but they have cool finger-joints and, if you remove the hardware, sand and apply a finish, they work well enough. Certainly better than the time and expense it would take to build one from scratch. Plus, it serves as a built-in storage solution to keep everything secure January – October. 

created at: 12/18/2012

5. Since I hope the scene will be interacted with, I applied a matte acrylic clear coat to each figure, to stand up to banging, grimy hands, and other wear and tear.

created at: 12/18/2012

And that’s it. I may make a little card indicating which color belongs to which character name, but I might just leave them up to his imagination.

Merry Christmas, Isaac. I think you’re super great.

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  1. Found this last year, saved for this year – looking forward to making these. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Took me two years to get around to it, but I made one set and am working on another.  Perfect.

  3. Thanks for inspiration. We did this year similar set but from polymer clay. Maybe they are not so perfect and round but our star over the crib is fluorescet 😉