It Takes A Village, Part 1

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been collecting ceramic Christmas Village pieces from a variety of dollar stores.  A few dollars here, a few dollars there… and now I’ve got nearly a dozen buildings, people, trees, etc.

  When you go into the front door of our house, you’re met by a set of stairs and a shelf.  That shelf is where we put the Christmas Village last year, thanks to Margo’s suggestion.  I really liked having the village there, it was great.  But I wanted to improve it… and remembered a story Allen had told me of his childhood, how he had built a landscape for his Matchbox electric race car set.  I wondered if we could do something similar for the Christmas Village.

  Not only did he say it was possible, but we had a unique opportunity yesterday.  Allen was off work and so was Margo.  We decided on the spur of the moment to just go for it, so off to the home improvement store we went!

We decided to take advantage of the 20-foot ceiling in our entry way, and build the landscape into a mountain, cutting the wood and screwing it together into a base with three tiers.

We used chipboard for the flat surfaces and 1×2 pieces for the columns.  We quickly discovered the wood screws were splitting the 1×2’s, so we had to pre-drill holes in them before screwing them in place.

The whole thing will stand about 3 feet tall, and 3 feet long.  It will probably weigh 50 pounds when we get done.   I got a steal on rail road track – 25 cents per package – so we’re adding a train and tunnels.

Once the tiers were in place, we checked the placement of the village pieces.  We put everything on it, including the people and dogs and fire hydrants.  If you’re interested in a village, you can buy one for $36.oo from Dollar Tree.

In my case, I’ve been buying pieces from different dollar stores so I don’t have a matching set.  There are some pieces I really want… the sleigh ride and the nativity.  I’ll keep my eyes open for them, in coming years.

Once we had the placement of the pieces where we wanted them, it was time to start stapling on the chicken wire.  Allen and Margo even made shelves with the wire, to add another half-level down at the base near the ice skating pond.

We used a staple gun and 1/2 inch staples to attach the chicken wire.  We chose the square wire rather than the hexagon, because it was sturdier and we would only need one layer of wire instead of two.  All of the wood, wire, screws, staple gun and staples cost us about $35.00.  We used a table saw and miter saw to cut the pieces… but you could use a hand saw and still not take that much time.

After we got the chicken wire on, we put the village pieces back on and re-checked the placement.  We realized we needed a few little cliffs here and there, and a half-shelf for the tree house.  Our friend Becca did her Bexzilla impression.  Love you, Bex!

One of the things we quickly realized is that I have a whole LOT of pieces, and getting them all to fit on the landscape is gonna be a bit of a challenge.  Especially when you add in the electric lights in each of the buildings.  We pre-drilled holes in the chipboard underneath each building, so that there was a place for the string of LED holiday lights that will run underneath the plaster.  We hope someday to have a real working train on the track, so we left plenty of space in the back for train tunnels that would allow the train to run around and behind the mountain, coming out again on the other side.

Now comes the fun part… adding ‘flesh’ to the ‘bones’.  Or more accurately, putting newspaper strips dipped in plaster all over the base and tiers.  Our friend April selflessly cut paper after paper after paper.  I didn’t get a good picture of her but I will next week.  She cut strips of newspaper and then tablet paper, for hours!  We used plaster instead of starch or paper mache, because the plaster was all I had.  Come to find out it was a pretty good choice, as it dries fast!

I can’t tell you how messy this is.  Allen loaned us a couple of old t-shirts of his so that we wouldn’t get plaster all over our clothes.  You mix the plaster powder 2 to 1 ratio with warm water.

We quickly realized that this was gonna be a 3-person job.  The plaster gives you about a 10 minute working time before the plaster in the bowl starts to set.  Allen kept the bowl filled with fresh plaster so it wouldn’t dry out on us.

We started at the top and worked our way down, dipping the strips of newspaper into the wet plaster and then laying it over the chicken wire.  At first, the plaster wasn’t sticking to the wire.

So we had to make the plaster a little bit thick for the initial layer on the wire.  It’s going to take about 5 layers of newspaper and plaster to get it thick enough that the edges are nicely rounded.

The first layer is finally done and drying.  This landscape is probably going to spend a week or two on our kitchen table as we continue adding layers, doing the stucco, and painting.

One of the reasons we decided to jump on this project and keep at it until the first plaster layer was on has to do with the timing of Allen’s Big 50th Birthday Bash on December 2nd.  We wanted this family project to be the first thing people see when they walk in the door.  I’m thinking of naming the village “Allentown” in his honor.  We couldn’t have done this without his direction and assistance.  He’s an awesome husband and father.

We nearly had a major disaster:  I had thoughtlessly started rinsing plaster down the kitchen sink.  Fortunately Allen caught me before too much of it went down the drain.  “You can’t do that!  It’ll clog up our house pipes!”  Hadn’t even occurred to me.  So we had to go out in the back yard – where it was raining cats and dogs – to rinse ourselves and our equipment off.

I was sooooo ready to be done.  We’d been working on this for 6 hours!  I had plaster up to my elbows.  I would have had it in my hair, too, had we been outside where I could have safely started a plaster fight with Margo.  I mean, c’mon… you gotta throw this stuff.  It’s just too much fun.  But since we were in the kitchen, I restrained myself.  I’ll be back with an update on the village when we finish getting all the layers of plaster on.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jael
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 10:40:46

    That looks like so much fun!!


  2. Charlene
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 10:42:15

    It was! I’m already thinking of what I could do for other holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Easter…


  3. Trina Williams
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 10:43:17

    Looks like you are decorating a cake! Can’t wait to see it finished.


  4. Charlene
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 10:48:28

    It does, doesn’t it. I was thinking of my friend April, who wants a peacock decoration for her restatement of her wedding vows ceremony. Maybe I could make something like that for her…. Oh the joys of a discovery (plaster)!


  5. bluedamselflyjewelry
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 21:57:10

    What a wonderful time together and it will be real nice for the holidays enjoy!


  6. Margo!
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 12:02:52

    I like that you used my home alone impression photo in your story.


  7. Kelly
    Dec 13, 2011 @ 13:46:30

    What a great project. I have the smaller village like yours but I also have the larger Lemax houses/ business. I don’t think I could build a big enough permanent structure for mine. Though it is going to see the light of day for the first time in 6 years this year! I’m so excited. Can finally display the house Brett gave me for a going away present 🙂


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