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Build a Twig Stable for your Nativity.  It takes a certain amount of elbowgrease to make this craft look so natural, but the results are worth it. Click for bigger photo.
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Written by Howard Lamey and Paul Race for
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Note from Editor: Howard Lamey, in Jacksonville, Florida, has an artist's eye for proportion and charm. He also has the good taste to be one of my readers. I met Howard online when he told me he had used a stained glass pattern from our Free Graphics Resource Page pattern on a vintage-style cardboard church he had built. This is the church on which Howard used our stained glass pattern.  Click for bigger photo. Howard has retired from a full-time job in advertising that included designing window displays for a major retailer. Now he has turned those artistic talents to designing and building vintage-style cardboard buildings. (He takes commissions if you would like a glitterhouse version of your family home, by the way.)

For this project, a mutual friend asked Howard to design an organic-looking stable for her nativity figures. Soon after he completed it, Howard sent me the photographs and his notes, and I lost them until a few months ago. Sorry about that. The project is held together mostly by Elmer's glue, which takes a bit of time to dry between steps, so we recommend going from base to roof, to base to roof, so you can be doing something productive on one bit while the other bit is drying. - Paul

Build a Twig Stable for Your Nativity

This project was all about having a natural, organic-looking place to display a family's antique nativity figures. The base is covered with sawdust and other natural materials. The frame and fence are made from twigs. And the roof is cardboard covered with burlap and topped off with another sawdust mix.

All of those materials need to be glued together a few bits at a time, and the glue has to have time to dry in between, so this isn't a project you'll finish in one evening. But if you keep reading ahead, and going back and forth between the base and roof tasks, you'll still make good progress.

What You Will Need

For this project you'll need:

  • A drill with a variety of wood-friendly bits.

  • A sheet of corrugated cardboard for the roof. You will cover one side with burlap, so if one side is clear, that's fine. The roof size in our plans is 6"x15".

  • A piece of burlap that is about a 1 1/2" larger than the roof piece in both directions. (i.e. 7.5"x 16.5")

  • A collection of sticks and twigs:

    • Up to five 3/8" twigs with multiple tips to hold the roof up. The center post should be at least twice as long as the tallest figure you will be putting in the stable. The four corner posts should be at least 1.5x as long as the tallest figure. Obviously you're better off starting with something a little too long and cutting it to fit.

    • About 40" of straight 3/16-diameter twigs for the rafters.

    • About 60" of straight 1/4"-diameter twigs for the fence posts and roof "eave" bracing

    • About 60" of 3/16"-diameter twigs for the fence rails - these should be flexible.

  • Elmer's white Glue-All. A glue stick would also come in handy.

  • About a cup of sawdust mix for the base and roof. For the base, I may use any combination of straw, sawdust, sand, and birdcage gravel, depending on the final effect I want. On some projects like this, I've added crushed dry leaves. For the roof, I leave off the gravel, and maybe the sand.

  • Some means of spraying brown, dark green, light brown, and yellow. This could be paint cans, or a spray bottle you can use with acrylic paints.

  • Materials for the base (depending on your choice of construction, this could be corrugated cardboard and brown paper or a piece of 1/2" plywood. See below).

  • Beige or other earth-tone acrylic or flat latex paint to provide the "undercoat" of the base.

Printing the Plan

The actual size you make this will depend on the size of the largest figure you plan to use. On our example, our standing figures were about 6" high. But if your figures are 8" or 4" tall, you'll want to adjust things.

The first graphic is not to any kind of scale - it's just to show you how the whole thing will go together. For example, the overhead view of the base shows where you'll need to drill holes for the fence posts and building posts. For your convenience, we have made a pdf version that you can print. The result will be low resolution, but it will be easy to work with.

Study this one to make certain you can see where everything goes. When you compare it to the photographs, you'll see differences, but it will give you the basic idea.

Click on this image to see a larger version you can print.

The next graphic comes in two versions. One version shows measurements to use if your figures are 6" tall. If your figures are much taller or much shorter, use the other version. It has Xs where the measurements would go, so you can measure your figures and fill in the measurements you need to use.

Click on this image to see a larger version you can print. Click on this image to see a larger version you can print.

If you have trouble seeing or printing the plans, contact Paul and ask him for help - that's his department. :-)

Building the Base

The base is decorated before the posts are installed. It should be about 6"x12", or larger if you would like.

You may form the base either of two ways:

  • Corrugated Cardboard Method -You can make a base from layers of corrugated cardboard glued together in a sandwich. If you choose this method, you will then wrap and glue a strip of cereal-box cardboard all around it to camouflage the rough edges of the corrugated cardboard.

    When the base is built, you then cover it with brown paper just like you would wrap a gift, except that all surfaces of the paper cover must be glued down to the box. A glue stick works great for this.

    Note: For more information about building this kind of base, please see our Glitterhouse Bases article.

  • Plywood Method - For a more solid base, especially if you want to make the base much larger than the stable itself, you might consider using 1/2" plywood, cut either in a rectangle or in a freeform shape. You have several choices for finishing the edges:
    • Leave the edges of the plywood square (giving them a light sanding), or
    • Cut the edge on a bevel (maybe by tilting your jigsaw blade), or
    • Round the edges with a rasp or router

    Paint the with whatever paint you choose to represent "earth tones."

Then wait until the paint dries. Then set the base aside until it dries and start on the roof (below). By the time you are at the first "wait until the glue dries" stage in the roof construction, it will probably be time to knock of anyway. If you can keep going back and forth this way, you'll cut the actual calendar time for assembling this project in something like half.

When your base is completely dry, spread Elmer’s Glue-All over the top and sides of the base and sprinkle your sawdust mix over it. Press the mix into the glue a little and make sure there aren't any major "holes" in coverage.

When that dries, "Mist" the sawdust mix with brown, dark green, light brown, and yellow spray paint in a random pattern. (You can see how the variegated colors look on my base in the "finished" project photos further down.) The posts should not be attached to the base until the base is finished.

Installing the Posts and Fence Rails

My posts and rails were made from freshly cut pieces of ligustrum hedge. Other species of hedges or branches from small trees, such as willow, could be used. The pieces need to be flexible and not dried out since some bending and flexing will be needed to assemble stable.

  • The posts that support the roof should be made from twigs about 3/8-inch diameter which have multiple tips for extra roof support. The center post has 3 tips and corner posts have 2 tips. Leave an extra couple of inches on the tips for now.

  • The fence posts made from twigs approximately 1/4-inch diameter.

  • The fence rails will be made from twigs approximately 3/16-inch diameter. The drawing shows two rails but the finished stable has three rails per side and 3 on back.

The posts glued in place.  Click for bigger photo.After you've chosen the pieces to use for the posts, drill the holes in the sizes you need - obviously if you go with the cardboard base, you'll need a very light touch, and the holes won't have to be quite as big as the posts. If you're using plywood, of course, it will require a little more precision.

Use white glue on all joints and surfaces that contact, wipe off excess and let it dry between construction steps.

Note: - In the photo to the right, you can see that I didn't finish this base before installing the posts. Chalk that one up to "lessons learned" - it was tricky to get the base finished the way I wanted after the posts were installed.

The posts glued in place.  Click for bigger photo.Once the glue on the posts has thoroughly set (usually overnight), install the fence rail by weaving it around the posts - this is one reason your wood needs to be a little flexible.

Paul suggests that you could use grapevine for this, with the caveat that it will shift around as it dries for the first year or two.

Building the Roof

The roof is made from one layer of corrugated cardboard coved with burlap. After you've cut your piece out (6"x15" in this example), crease it where you want the peak of the roof to be, then wrap burlap around one side of it and glue it down. Bend the roof back into what you imagine the final position will be while the glue is still drying. You don't have to be perfect - you just don't want to wait until the thing dries out flat and then try to bend it into shape.

While the glue is drying, build a "test roof" from something easier to work with, say the cardboard from a cereal box. That way you can locate the holes and see where you will need, eventually, to nip off the tips of the posts.

When you feel like you have the location of the holes plotted out, and the glue on your burlap is dry, transfer the pattern of holes to your roof. Make certain things line up, then take the roof back off of the posts. Add six cross-members ("rafters") to the roof and glue them in place. Once again wait for the glue to dry, probably overnight.

We've put a couple steps into this photo, but I'm sure you can figure it out. Click for bigger photo.

This is the top of the stable roof after the steps above.  Click for a slightly larger photo.

Raising the Roof

Once the cross-members of the roof are firmly attached, reattach the roof and glue it in place. You may need to use clamps, rubber bands, or masking tape to keep everything where you want it to be while the glue is drying - you guessed it - probably overnight. I am usually working on several projects at a time, so I have something else to work on while the glue is drying on one project.

The lower 'beam' is added after the roof is assembled and in place. Click for a slightly larger photo.Once the glue is dry, nip the tips of the beams off about 1/4" above the roof so that they stick through slightly.

Add a 1/4-inch diameter twig trim that goes from corner post to corner post along the front and back just below roof line. You'll need to clamp the "beam" in place while it dries. This provides a tiny bit more stability to the roof shape, but mostly it provides a more finished look to the edge.

The finished stable.  Click for bigger photo.The finish on the roof is more sawdust mix. I might mix sawdust, straw, chopped leaves, and/or dried moss. It is not necessary to cover all of burlap roof.

If you click on the photo to the right, you'll be able to get a better look at the variegated coloring on the base.

If you want to add a little protection to the surface, you can spray the finished project with some flat acrylic spray. Use a few light coats rather than one or two heavy coats.. Don't use a satin or glossy spray, and don't saturate the finish, or you'll lose the "natural appearance" in one coat.

The finished stable with my friend's nativity figures. Click for bigger photo.In the photos with the figures, you've no doubt noticed that the kings are to tall to fit into the stable. That is because the stable was sized to fit the other pieces, which were from an earlier, smaller series (these are survivors from the mid-19th-century Woolworth's days when you would buy a figure or two a year, so there weren't exactly "sets" like there are today.) If we had made the stable to fit the kings, the holy family would have been "lost" in it. If you have a mismatched, but cherished set, you'll have to decide what your "comfort zone" is.


Our friend was quite happy with the finished project. And it feels sturdier than it looks, so we hope she'll be able to pass it along with the figures to the next generation.

Click for bigger picture.Commercial "Plug" - Now that I'm in "retirement," this hobby has become a sort of avocation for me. Several folks have commissioned me to build specific houses for them. I often provide an "artist's conception" such as the one at the right to make certain I understand what they want. Sometimes the "artist's conception" needs to be tempered by adjustments to make the house fit in better with the other houses it will be joining, as well as color and accessory changes. But it all starts, quite literally, at the drawing board.

Perhaps you had a pasteboard house collection when you were young and would like to have a replica made. Or you have an idea for something that's never been done. If you can find a photo or hash out a drawing or anything else to give me some idea of what you're looking for, that can be enough to get started.

If you'd like me to help you design and/or build a special vintage pasteboard house for you, or if you have any questions at all, please see my site, LittleGlitterHouses.com for more information.

Looking for Your Ideas, Projects, or Photos - Also, if you have similar project, ideas, or photos that you'd like to share with your fellow readers and hobbyists, we'd love to add them to our sites, and we'll be sure to give you full credit for your contribution.

For More Information:

  • For information about the history of nativities, and links to other helpful and charming sites, click here.

  • For information about Howard's other projects, including plans and instructions for many cardboard Christmas "putz" houses and accessories, click here.

  • For information about the history of cardboard Christmas "putz" houses, click here.

  • For a site dedicated to cardboard Christmas "putz" houses, including a discussion forum where collectors, designers, and restorers share tips, click here.

  • For a brief history of Christmas villages, which started with nativities, click here.

Several other crafts are listed on our Christmas Craft Resources page.

We have more patterns and craft suggestions in the works. So keep checking back. And contact us with any questions or suggestions you have in the meantime. Especially contact us if you have any craft ideas you'd like to share with our readers.

Paul and Shelia Race


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