Monday, December 01, 2008

How To Build A Willow Tree Crèche

Well… it’s not a perfect replica of the famous (and pricey) Willow Tree Crèche, but it will certainly do as a great inexpensive backdrop to your Willow Tree Nativity set or any other nativity set in need of a rustic looking stable.

I actually think my version is better for a couple reasons: 1) It's larger, providing more space for various characters. 2) It's cheaper!

I’m posting this because I’ve noticed a good amount of traffic hitting here from Google searches with the search terms WILLOW TREE CRECHE BUILD. Last year I wrote a post about the crèche I built for my wife Michelle (Project Crèche Complete!). I didn’t give any detailed instructions or show photo’s, so I figured I’d do it this year in hopes of helping anyone that needs it to avoid the $75-100 cost plus S&H and build their own for up to 90% less.

First I should give you the bad news and good news. The bad news I’ve already mentioned- its not exactly a Willow Tree Crèche. The good news? It’s EASY to make and very inexpensive. I don’t have much experience in woodworking- this was only my 4th or 5th project. It cost a grand total of $30 and I got enough material to make 3 Crèches (so far I’ve made one for us and one for my mother-in-law).



Here are the detailed instructions:

Using any kind of wood you like (I used pine- cheap and easy to work with) create a base, backstop, platform, backdrop, crossbeam and Roof. Read through the instructions below carefully to make sure you get enough wood and other materials to complete the project.

BASE. This is the foundation of the crèche where all the remaining pieces (and the nativity set) rest upon.



1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 20” wide, 10” deep and ¾” high (fairly standard height for a plank of pine from Home Depot or Lowes).

2. Using a miter saw (or miter angle on your table saw) cut the length of the front of the BASE at a 45 degree angle.

3. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth, especially the front sharp angle resulting from the 45 degree cut- I sliced my finger pretty badly on my first crèche.

4. Stain all surfaces except the bottom to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

BACKSTOP. This is a lip at the back of the BASE that creates a slightly raised line along the width. I actually didn’t have to create this since the BASE I used was a discarded shelf that had this lip/backstop already on it.

1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 20” wide, ¾” deep and 1 1/8” high.

2. Fasten along the back of the BASE with nails ensuring smooth edges matching the bottom and two sides of the BASE.

3. Drill two ¼” holes, all the way through the BACKSTOP, for dowels (make sure you’re drilling down into the 1 1/8” height), 7” from each end.

4. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth.

5. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

PLATFORM. This is similar to the BASE, but smaller and rests on top of the BASE providing a higher elevation to lift up the main nativity set characters.


1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 10 ¼” wide, 8 ¾” deep and ¾” high.

2. Using a miter saw (or miter angle on your table saw) cut the length of the front of the PLATFORM at a 45 degree angle (just like you did for the BASE).

3. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth, especially the front sharp angle resulting from the 45 degree cut.

4. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

BACKDROP. The all important back of the stable creating the backdrop for the amazing scene of the birth of Jesus. There are actually 7 pieces to the BACKDROP- backdrop base, backdrop lip, beadboard paneling, 2 columns and 2 dowels. NOTE- It is important to have the BACKDROP be able to disconnect from the BASE and FOUNDATION to make it easy to store the Crèche flat during the year, so don't glue or affix the final BACKDROP to the BASE beyond just dropping the BACKDROP dowels into the holes in the BACKDROP/BACKSTOP. This will make more sense after you watch the video at the end.




Backdrop Base
1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 10 ¾” wide, ¾” deep and 10 ¾” high/tall.

2. Drill two ¼” holes, about 1” deep, for dowels on the bottom of the BACKDROP, 2 ½” from each end of the edges. IMPORTANT- prior to drilling holes, make sure the hole placements will match up with the dowel holes drilled into the BACKSTOP.

3. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth.

4. Stain just the two outside edges, left and right, to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

Backdrop Lip
1. This is similar to the BACKSTOP created for the BASE except it will be sitting on it’s side as compared to the BACKSTOP, creating a lip sticking out towards the front of the crèche.

2. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 10 ¾” wide, 1 1/8” deep and ¾” high. Fasten along the back of the BASE with nails ensuring smooth edges matching the bottom and two sides of the BASE.

3. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth.

4. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

Beadboard Paneling
1. Using light wood beadboard paneling (found at Home Depot or Lowes) cut a piece to the following measurements: 7 ¾” wide, 9 5/12” high.

2. Sand the outside edges (but not the front surface) until smooth.

3. Stain just the front surface to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

Columns (make 2 of exactly the same piece below)
1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 1 ½” wide, ¾” deep and 9 5/12” high.

2. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth.

3. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

Dowels (make/use 2 of exactly the same piece below)
1. Cut a ¼” wide dowel to 2” long.

ASSEMBLING BACKDROP. Now that you have the 7 pieces comprising the BACKDROP, you’ll assemble them into a single piece:

1. Lay the Backdrop Base down on it’s back and arrange the 2 columns (on the two opposites sides) and beadboard paneling (in between the columns) to ensure they tuck smoothly under the Backdrop Lip, are flush to the Backdrop Base sides.

2. Sand or trim cut to fit if it’s not. NOTE- there will be a gap below the columns and beadboard paneling where the Backdrop Base will be showing.

3. Place the PLATFORM on top of the BASE. While holding the Backdrop Base together with the columns and beadboard in place, ensure the assembled piece will sit flush on top of the BASE, BACKSTOP and PLATFORM. Sand or trim cut if necessary.

4. Using wood glue, glue the 2 columns and beadboard paneling in place to the Backdrop Base. Let dry.

5. Glue or fasten firmly the two 2” dowels into the holes in the Backdrop Base.

CROSSBEAM. A simple strip of wood that will sit on top of the BACKDROP (resting also on the two columns) providing some additional depth to the BACKDROP.




1. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 12 ½” wide, ½” deep and ¾” high.

2. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth.

3. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

ROOF. You’re almost done! These are the last two pieces. Two simple pieces of wood that will lean together (or you can glue/fasten them) creating an illusion of a roof.



1. Make 2 of exactly the same pieces.

2. Cut a piece of wood to the following measurements: 7 ½” long, ¾” wide and 1 ½” high.
Using a miter saw (or miter angle on your table saw) cut a 45 degree angle on both ends creating a trapezoid.

3. Sand all edges and surfaces until smooth. Ensure the two pieces lean together and balance/stand.

4. Stain all surfaces to desired color (SEE NOTE ON STAINING AT THE BOTTOM).

5. If you prefer, you can affix the two roof pieces together with glue or a framing nail. I didn’t connect them and just lean them together on the final crèche. While they fall down easily if the crèche is bumped, this is a delicate connection and for ease of storage its better not to affix them.

STAINING. This was actually the one part that I was most afraid of. Sure, I can paint- can’t everyone? You buy a gallon of interior, a roller and drop cloth, and whammo- slap the paint on the wall. But special effects and finishes? Frightening. Fortunately, the folks at my neighborhood Woodcraft Store helped me. They had a display from “General Finishes” paint products that allowed me to easily spot the look I wanted and what materials I needed to create the look. In my case, I wanted an old barn-wood look (slightly grayish with black and dark highlights) and the chart showed exactly what I needed to do. The instructions below are for the color I chose, but you can finish any way you like.

1. Purchase 1 pint each of "EF Products by General Finishes, Buttermilk Yellow Water Based Milk Paint" and "General Finishes Pitch Black Water Based Glaze Effects." I’ve made two crèches and have only used about half of each of the pints I bought.

2. Test the following on a few pieces of scrap wood (the same wood you’re building your crèche out of) to make sure you get the technique / look right. I can’t emphasize enough how inexperienced I was, and how easy this is. Once you get it right, repeat on the final pieces of the Crèche.

3. Using a lint-free cloth (code words for old t-shirt cut into multiple easy to handle pieces roughly 5” by 5”) and starting with the Buttermilk Yellow paint, dab directly into the paint can getting about as much paint on the cloth as you need for the piece you’re working on. For a big piece like the BASE or PLATFORM that might be about a tablespoon or two, much less for smaller pieces.

4. Hand-rub the paint over the desired surfaces of the piece you’re working on. Be sure to rub and dab deeply into the rough ends of cut wood that is across the grain.

5. Allow to dry (at least a full hour, best if it’s two).

6. Using a fresh cloth, and using the Pitch Black Glaze Effects paint, dab directly into the pain can getting a small amount (much less than the initial coat of yellow). Hand rub over the dried Buttermilk Yellow painted piece and watch the magic of yellow and black creating a rustic old barn-wood grey look. (NOTE- Pay special attention to painting the beadboard and make sure you get the yellow and then black paint deep into the beadboard grooves.

7. Allow to dry (at least a full hour, best if it’s two).


You’re finished! Wasn’t that easy? Now, check out this video to see how easy it is to set up the completed Crèche each Christmas season:




Whether you actually used these instructions to build a crèche, or just read through this far and watched the video for the fun of it, I hope you found this interesting and helpful. If you have any questions or need something clarified feel free to email me.





16 comments:

scrapworking said...

Thanks for the instructions and video. I bought everything I think I need last night to make mine this weekend. I'll let you know how it comes out. I'm limited on power tools (the guys at Lowe's and Home Depot cut everything for me, except the miters) and was afraid to ask them to cut anything with a fraction like 5/12th's... Thanks again!

Sharon in FL

DigitalRich said...

Good luck. Let me know if you run into any problems. Happy to help. digitalrich@gmail.com

Matt said...

I have been messing around thinking about how to make a creche for my wife's willow tree. I got all the Willow Tree figurines as a clearance deal and that place did not have the creche. I am going to follow my original plan but I really like your idea of using the dowels to allow the creche to be "broken down" for storage. THANKS!

DigitalRich said...

Glad I could help Matt! Good luck with your project. We're in year 3 of use (just decorated the house this past weekend), and my wife is so thankful for this project each time she's unpacked it and set it up.

Brian said...

This looks very nice and very well detailed. Once question though, you mention a measurement of 5/12" a few times. Do you actually mean 5/16"? I'm not sure how you would measure in 1/12" inches.

Thanks!

DigitalRich said...

Brian,

I know 5/12 sounds a bit goofy. But that is the exact measurement. The two places I use it are the beadboard backing and the two columns. It's an unusual measurement because it's a custom project and I backed into that measurement. The beadboard backing and two columns fit onto the backdrop, and need to drop into the base (via the dowels), and leave just enough space to have the platform tuck in between it and the base.

I recommend that you cut to 1/2" and then trim and/or sand to have it fit in just right. Or, you can certainly customize the heighth of the backdrop to your liking.

Rich

Brian said...

Rich,

I'm a little over half way through this, so I see what you are saying. I should be able to finish the cutting tonight and start staining. I'm not trying to nitpick, put in the Backdrop Lip section, Step 2, it looks like you repeated the measurement for the Base Backstop in the second line.

Thanks for taking the time to put this together, I'm sure my wife will love it. Have a great Christmas!

DigitalRich said...

Brian - good catch! A bit of left over text I will now delete :)

Rich

Amy said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! I've had the nativity for a few years and hadn't found a creche other than the ridiculously expensive Willow Tree one. My dad is a woodworker and is making this as we speak. The ability to store it flat and the design to accommodate the star backdrop (which I also have) makes yours better than the original. Great work!

DigitalRich said...

Amy! Thanks for stopping by- and so glad this was inspiring and useful for you. Merry Christmas!

Rich

laura prell said...

Thanks for posting this! We made my mom this for Christmas and she loves it!!!!

Anonymous said...

Where did you find the rustic stars? And how did you attach them?

DigitalRich said...

Anonymous,

The rustic stars are an official Willow Tree product and set right on top of the platform. You can see it here:

http://www.amazon.com/Willow-Tree-Metal-Star-Backdrop/dp/B000IL9TRG

Digital Rich

Strattocaster said...

I am trying to build one of these for my mother for this Christmas and was just wondering what materials I need?

Strattocaster said...

I am building one of these for my Mother this Christmas and I was wondering what materials you started out with?

DigitalRich said...

Strattocaster,

All the materials are detailed within the post. It's basically pine wood and stain.