Make your own Créche
Dear Friends of the Creche, liebe Krippenfreunde,
during our time in the United States we were great fans of the Christmas Putz in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania http://www.victoriana.com/christmas/putz.htm. Living now with my family in South-Western Germany I had the great opportunity to learn about the making of a creche from some of the best creche makers (or would you say crib makers?) in Germany.
While we lived in Delaware, we were already collecting creches and had started on building our first one. Unfortunately there was no good reading material available on making your own creche. Quite in contrast to the vast variety of books on wood carving to be found. This seems to be still the case when you look through the offerings at amazon.com or the resources page of the „Friends of the Creche“ – Homepage http://www.friendsofthecreche.org/englishus-2013/. So …. seeing this new forum, I though about generating a small set of step by step instructions to building a creche.
Dear Friends of the Creche, liebe Krippenfreunde,
as an illustration let me start with a small stable creche I found in the well known book of Jakob Gerner and Hans-Günter Röhrig “Krippen selber bauen” (Build your own Creche) http://www.amazon.de/Krippen-schlichten-romantischen-Techniken-Beispiele/dp/B003K1G0AA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395863458&sr=8–1&keywords=gerner+r%C3%B6hrig which is unfortunately available in German only. The original creche called for large figures of 18 cm (6 to 7 inches). For the creche shown in the photo I used 4cm (1 9/16 inches) resin figures and scaled down the stable accordingly.
I have plans available for the scaled down creche, which I can share. If you are interested, please send me a PN (private note) through this forum.
The base of the Creche is 8mm (5/16 inches) plywood. The walls are made from “styrofoam” (XPS), the timbers are small 6x6mm (3/16 inches) wood sticks. The roof is made from corrugated paper. All is painted with water-based emulsion paint (wall paint). But we will get to details later.
Gloria et Pax
Every generation of creche makers has its own favorite techniques and preferred materials. A hundred years ago people used bone glue and chalk and cloth. Later they changed to soft fiber board. The last five years have seen the advent and rise of extruded polystrene (XPS), commonly used for home insulation purposes and known by its brand name as e.g. sytyrofoam © or Styrodur ©. Extruded polystyrene is available in any large hardware store. Scrap pieces which can be found on many construction sites will do for small creches like this one, as well.
Figure two shows a number of XPS samples, which I cut for a small study on the benefits of various types of XPS http://www.krippenverein.de/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=336&hilit=XPS. All types are suitable for what we want to do here, but I would recommend one of standard hardness and with fine pores. I also suggest to use board of some 6cm (2 to 3 inches) thickness, since the pore structure changes with the thickness of the extruded slab.
XPS board can best be cut with a hot wire foam cutter. I use a PROXXON ThermoCut http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=thermocut&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Athermocut (see Figure 3) but other types (e.g. StyroCut 3D http://www.thecooltool.com/produktgruppe.php?language=e&pg_id=3) will do just as well.
XPS board can also be cut with a saw. I used a band saw to cut the samples in Figure 2. You will notice the tooth marks on the sides. Thin XPS slabs are best cut with a knife. Both saw and knife have to be very sharp, otherwise you will end up with ugly rips along the cut. Unfortunately XPS dulls a knife quickly. So one either has to sharpen often or use a snap off utility knife and change blades frequently.
Once we have secured some styrofoam we start with the walls of the stable and the barn. I used 6cm Styrodur C© (2 3/8 inches tick) for this. I start with cutting 5mm (1/4”) slices off the slab using the Thermocut, see Figure 4. Those slices will become the walls of the stable and the side walls of the barn.
To cut the big back wall of the barn where the Holy Family will stand in front of, I need to generate a bigger square. To avoid tilting it when shaving off the thin 5mm slice, I support it with a bigger rectangular piece from behind, see Figure 5.
For thin pieces like the walls in this creche, only parallel cuts are made with the Thermocut. All other cuts are better made using a sharp knife. To ensure that cuts are rectangular I use a mitre square as in Figure 6. Always make sure you softly pull the knife and do not force it through the material as it will give ugly tears, otherwise.
In the front of the stable are a door for the sheep – or other livestock – and the upper hatch for the feed store. After marking the center of the front, the outline of door and hatch with a sharp pencil. It is then also cut with a knife.
The door is 4cm high and 1.6cm wide. The hatch is 1.3cmx1.3cm. The size of the door corresponds to the size of the standing figure – usually Saint Joseph, who in this case is 4cm as well. In real life doors should be a little bigger than people. But in my creches I like to make them a little tight. This serves several purposes. First, you can shrink the building a little. There is never enough space on a creche to build a stately house or barn. Second, the Holy Child was born in strained circumstances. Houses of poor people had small doors and you had to stoop down to enter. Third, you always want to emphasize the figures in a creche and tone down the buildings. Creches are not to scale! So the figures should be slightly too big. Just make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. If Saint Joseph can drink out of the rain gutter, the house is too small .
Gloria et Pax
XPS cannot be glued with many of the typical household glues. The organic solvent in the glue would dissolve the polystyrene.
However, simple wood glue will do the trick really nicely. It dries more slowly when used with XPS as compared with wood, since the water cannot escape in to the polymer as it can into the vessels of the wood. Therefore it is essential to position the pieces securely. For larger pieces I use thin nails. The nails are driven into the XPS until they vanish beneath the surface. For small pieces simple fixing pins work well, see Figure 8.
Wipe off all the glue which has been squeezed out. The glue will otherwise become a problem when we try to do the bricks at the places where the plaster has fallen off, see Figure 1.
The pins need to be removed, once the glue has set. When you do that, make sure you twist the fixing pin, before you pull. The wood glue has typically glued to the pin as well. When you turn the pin, you will break the bond and can then retract the pin smoothly. If you miss breaking the bond, the glue stuck to the pin will rip through the XPS and can massively damage the fragile piece.
Gloria et Pax
No matter how well you placed the walls and how careful you are, during curing the wall will move. The wool glue generates tremendous force, when it dries and can warp pieces easily. Therefore you will always need to trim the excess material off to make smooth walls etc.
The way we made the stable, the front and back face are made up of the small sides of the side walls and the actual front or back piece. To generate a smooth front I sand it on a sanding board. When sanding XPS one has to remember that the material is an insulation polymer: it will melt easily and does not transport heat well. Therefore you have to sand gently by hand. Any machine would generate far too much heat. Also, I recommend to avoid back–and–forward strokes. Simply pull the piece towards you across the sandpaper, lift off and go back to the start position.
To get flat surfaces when sanding I use a home made sanding board. One simply takes some good emery paper cuts or rips off a suitable piece and carefully glues it to a straight piece of wood. I learned this trick form E. Ellenwood’s book on carving (http://www.amazon.de/Complete-Book-Woodcarving-Everything-Master/dp/1565232925/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396901661&sr=8–1&keywords=ellenwood+carving), a good source of information for many subjects in Creche Making.
The side walls are angled to give a tilted roof. Consequently the back and front wall will protrude a little bit, as they are cut rectangularly. To correct this I place a knife flat on the side wall and cut carefully with a long stroke cut through the protruding material. Always remember to run a sliding cut when cutting XPS, never push square into the material!
Gloria et Pax
Nothing could be further removed from our idea of a creche than a new and flawless building. We learn from Luke, Chapter 2, that Jesus was born in poverty. The stable should, therefore, be reflecting that. Our building will later have a nice plaster of the walls. So a typical sign of poverty and bad repair would be bricks visible in places where the plaster has fallen off. Such places are usually in corners or under damaged parts of the roof, where the plaster will get wet a lot.
To make the bricks we need no more than a sharp pencil. First one draws a rugged line to show the edge of the damaged zone. Then one draws the horizontal groove where the grout would be visible, then the vertical ones. Just remember that bricks are never on top of each other but always such that one covers the joint of the two below it. You want to mark a distinctive line on the XPS. Paint and plaster will partially fill it later on and make the groove less visible. Also remember to pull the pencil, otherwise you will damage the piece, see Figure 11.
Finally we paint these parts with dark (I use black, here) wall paint. I use a stiff brush and really brush it into the grooves until no XPS remains visible.
Gloria et Pax
Above the brick wall our barn and stable shall have a rough plaster (called “Rauputz” in German), which is is typical for farm houses in central and southern Germany. Mediterranean houses always have a smooth rendering coat, however. For the very small scale we have in this Creche, applying an actual plaster is not an option. Instead I am using a technique I found in a book from Herbert Demharter http://www.amazon.de/Kunstvolle-Minikrippen-Detaillierte-Anleitungen-Wort/dp/3426647400/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397678750&sr=8–1&keywords=minikrippen.
Here we use a white external wall coat and mix it with very fine saw dust as it will be produced during sanding. For this purpose I always collect what is in the dust bag of my small belt sander. Alternatively, You can use regular saw dust and sieve out the fine fraction. I mix about one to two spoons of white dispersion paint with fine saw dust. Start with one spoon of sawdust and gradually add more while mixing until you get a pasty like substance.
To get a rough coat I finally add a small quantity of really large saw dust chips, see Figure 12. With this mixture I now paint all parts of the walls which shall carry plaster, see Figure 13. The inside of the stable is coated with white paint as well, to avoid visible XPS – just in case.
Gloria et Pax
Before we start building the timber frame, we want to colorize the bricks. One could also do this once all pieces have been assembled, but it is somewhat easier to reach the various parts now compared to the fully mounted barn.
For the bricks we use the “light on dark” technique. This works very well with dispersion paint, which one uses for walls. As a palette I use a small white ceramic disk., see Figure 14. Wall paint does not attach well to the ceramic and can be removed simply by immersing the dish in water for a quarter of an hour and then brushing the remaining paint off.
Bricks in Germany and Tyrolia are generally burned to a brick-red color. So I apply first a red intermediate coat. For this I take very little paint on the brush and dry it off on a piece of newspaper. With this almost dry brush I now apply red pint to almost all high parts of the bricks. One the left of Figure 14 one can nicely see that the mortar joints remain dark and also some of the cracks. This will give the bricks visible 3D-apperance.
Next – with the same dry-brush-technique I add other typical brick colors like orange, ocher or light oxide brown, if needed also some more red. The middle piece in Figure 14 shows the final result.
A frame of timber post and beams supports the barn roof of our Crèche. Old timber in a open barn has been exposed to the elements and will show signs of wear, typically cracks and grooves as well a dull colors. So we need to includes such defects in the design of our Crèche.
With 4cm figures (1 1/2”) the beams should be around 8mm (1/4”) square. I use wood sticks which we gathered from the debris of the New Year’s fireworks typical for Germany. You can also cut them from a slab of wood with a table saw – just be careful with your fingers. The first step is then to brush the wood with a wire brush. I use a wire brush wheel and a drill press, see figure 1, but hand brushing will do just as fine. With the wire brush we remove some of the softer summer growth from the wood. The harder winter growth will remain intact and this way we get the grooved wood face typical for worn timber.
The next step is to stain the brushed wood. For a typical German house and barn one yould use either walnut of medium oak stains.
I like to use water based stain, which you can buy either as a powder or ready made. The powder stain comes in small envelopes of 25 grams. The power is dissolved in boiling water. After it has cooled down you can apply it like any paint. Stain has very finde pigments and therefore generates a semi-transparent coat, which retains the wood appearance of the piece.
Stain penetrates into the wood instead of forming a film on the surface. You can adjust the appearance of the material by painting various stains on top of each other. However the first one will usually dominate. Also, if you want to make only a very light color, try applying clean water first and then put the stain on.
The little barn on the left hand side of our Creche will house the Holy Family. Its main support are two wooden posts and a crossbeam which form the entrance. On the left the main beam rests on one of the two wooden posts. On the right I cut a small notch into the XPS-wall, just big enough to hold the beam. One has to remember, however that the wall slopes down, so a little adjusting with the carving knife might be needed. The left of the three rafters holding the roof is somewhat shorter than the other two. This way the roof will have a more interesting form with a little protrusion on the right. I cut these small wood sticks with a Miter Cutter, but a small hand saw will do the job as well. White wood glue is the glue of choice, again. Figure 17 shows the timber frame assembly. The view is from below.
Instead of roofing battens, which would have become rather flimsy in this small scale, I used a thin layer of XPS to cover the rafters and support the tiles. To give it a the appearance of a wooden board, some work is needed. First we cut a small thin slab of XPS. The we introduce grooves similar to what we find in worn wood, where the summer growth has rotted away. For this I use a small wire brush which I gently pull along the run of the “wood”, see Figure 18. One has to remember never to push the brush as it would damage the part. The wires are comparatively stiff and would rip pieces of material out of the XPS surface.
Figure 19 gives a magnified view of the underside of the roof. The coloring was done with the same technique as the coloring of the bricks, see Step 8.
Now it is time to put tiles on the roof. For the small scale of this Creche the best method is the corrugated cardboard technique.
The source for my corrugated cardboard was a fancy box which was used as a present box for wine bottles. I removed the top layers of paper from the upper and the lower side of the cardboard. To do this one has to apply water with a sponge to the cardboard and soften the glue. The trick is to apply enough water to weaken the top layer, but not so much to damage the corrugated layer. If the outer layer shows pictures and advertisements, it is probably also very water repellent. In that case you might want to brush the cardboard with a wire brush to generate points of attack for the water. I remove the softened paper layers with a sharp kitchen knife, but one can also use a brush. Slight damage to the corrugated paper is o.k. I will give the roof a more realistic appearance later.
You don’t have to remove both the top layers on both sides of the corrugated paper. I find it gives a more real roof, well worth the extra effort, however.
Once all the corrugated paper is ready and dried, the roofing can start. Roofing starts from the bottom of the roof. The first layer is a very narrow strip right along the lower edge of the battens, see Fig 20. Its only purpose is to elevate the lower part of the first row of tiles. Otherwise they would be misaligned, since all the other rows rest in their lower part on the row of tiles below. For the tiles I cut a strip of cardboard across the corrugate. I mark start and end of the cut and use scissors to cut the strip. One wants to avoid a ruler, since it gives too straight a line which appears unnatural for an aged roof. Some waviness is intended. The strips are glued 1) to the top edge of the already existing shingles and 2) with their own upper edge to the battens, see Fig 21.
The first row of tiles protrudes above the lower edge of the battens. Figure 22. shows the arrangement from the side. To achieve a natural appearance I avoid gluing the lower edge of the tiles. Once all tiles have been attached and the glues has dried, I cut the rows to length with a pair of scissors.
Before we can continue and mount the pieces of the Creche to the base board, we first have do make a small door and hatch for the stable.
Since the stable will not be lit, we can make things easy and use a thin pane of XPS, cut with the hot wire cutter to a thickness of 5mm (3/16”), as a support. The piece is cut to size to fit snugly into the inside of the stable covering both the door and the upstairs window opening. Hold the piece there and mark the opening on the XPS – pane with a pencil.
Both door and hatch are made out of wood. We split small wooden shingles of a block cut to size with a saw. Splitting is best done with a large kitchen knife. One holds it across the wood grain and splits of thin layers of wood by tapping it gently with a wooden hammer. Alternatively one can use a home made “Schindelmaschine”, see http://www.mo-it.at/krippenwerkstatt/tipp_archiv.php?archiv_id=30 for details about splitting (in German only). The grain gives a very pleasant structure to the pieces. My shingles were a bit too large, so I split them into small planks with a small kitchen knife. Next one has to carve off the edge with a small kitchen knife or a carving knife.
One can use other thin pieces of wood, e.g. wood sticks from ice cream bars, as well. If you do, you have to brush them like the timber we used in Step 9 and carve the edges off.
The sticks are then broken to length and glued to the XPS – support. Braking instead of cutting gives the appearance of a used door slightly in disrepair. Make sure you stay inside the markings (see Figure 23), such that the door and hatch will fit easily into the opening.
The wood is stained similar to the timber, see Step 10.
If you want, you can cut along the top edge and one long edge of the door and push it sligthly inwards. This gives the appearance of a partially open door. The complete piece is then glued into the stable.