I like things that have utility, so this project appealed to me. It's a Nativity display but it's also a puzzle. The puzzle pieces are people and animals that can be set up into a Nativity scene on the flipped over frame. The whole family can use and enjoy it. It puts the Christmas story in your hands.
This is a project I made for my mom. She wanted a Nativity puzzle after seeing a simpler painted version at a friend's house. I wanted to surprise her at Christmas with a more intricate, detailed, heirloom version that can be passed down in our family for generations.
I began this project before seeing seamster's 2x4 roller coaster Instructable. It really inspired me how he used one 2x4 for the whole project. It made me realize that this project would be so much better if I used wood that had significance to it. I switched the wood midstream in this project so that I could incorporate a beautiful piece of birch from some stock I inherited from my Granddad. It was much thicker than my original plans for the project but the added depth gave it an appealing weight and gravitas that my original plans lacked.
In order to make it last I also used a wood burning tip to draw detail on the wood and then I used stains to add the color. I'm hoping it will be longer lasting than paint and, more importantly, we still get to see the lovely grain of the birch. This project takes some time, but the resulting piece is worth it.
Step 1: Gather Your Supplies
I went through several redesigns as the project progressed but here is what I used for the final project:
1. 14" x 24" x 1" piece of solid birch - you could use 3/4" or 1/2" and still have a solid puzzle.
2. A scroll saw
3. A wood burning tool
4. Colored stains
Step 2: Work Out Your Puzzle Design
To create a freestanding display you must have a piece for each person (or two people) that will fit together within the stable-shaped frame. You can start by drawing the puzzle's stable outline and then draw pieces one at a time into the open space until you have a working design. I considered just drawing a Nativity scene and then just cutting it out in pieces, but I wanted the puzzles pieces to also function as a Nativity display with freestanding full figures.
You can use an existing puzzle with simple shapes and just adapt the pieces to your design. My rough pattern is pictured above on my first-draft wood. I started with an existing puzzle design and then moved the borders to better shape the specific pieces. A long tall piece becomes a standing wise man, two squarish blocks become sheep by moving the border to form interlocking feet. You can make your design complex and interlocking or simple and minimalist depending on your tastes.
Step 3: Cut Out Your Pieces and Frame
When cutting closely interlocking pieces there is no substitute for a scroll saw. Unfortunately, I don't own a scroll saw so I tried cutting my first draft(s) with a jigsaw. I first tried to cut out individual pieces (without sharing a cut edge) but the pieces would not fit together tightly. I then tried to cut the pieces by drawing the full pattern on wood and simply cutting off/out each piece one by one. This failed also, I couldn't cut the detailed turns, plus the subtle curves and tight fit were lost. This is the point where I threw down my pieces and set the project aside for a while.
After I saw Seamster's roller coaster, I picked up the project again. I had discovered in the meanwhile that my friend Sandy owned a scroll saw and I now knew that I'd use the special birch, so everything came together at just the right time. I transferred the design onto my birch and cut it out using Sandy's scroll saw, frame first and then the individual pieces. When you use a scroll saw you just cut the border between the pieces. This creates a very tight fit and the cut is smooth and really beautiful. There were a few spots in the puzzle with open space so I trimmed those away while cutting. The results were everything I had hoped for, the right tool makes all the difference (I'm not sure how many times I'm going to have to learn that lesson before it sinks in).
Next I took the puzzle frame and glued and clamped it to the remaining wood. I removed it the next day and trimmed the outside of the frame again so now I had a frame outline on top and a solid piece on the bottom. It took much longer to cut through the thicker depth but slow cutting did the trick.
Step 4: Wood Burn Designs Then Stain
Next take your wood burning tool and draw your designs onto your puzzle pieces. Use colored stains to add some detail to the pieces. I burned wood grain patterns onto the top and sides of the frame to make it look like a wooden stable. Then I burned lines to look like straw on the bottom of the frame. I also flipped the frame over and burned more hay lines onto the back so that when the Nativity scene is set up it looks like the people are on hay in the stable.
Since this was a gift for my mom I added "Merry Christmas Mom, Love Jennifer" to the side of the frame. It reads right-side-up when the Nativity is set up. I am considering making an additional line with the year for posterity, I'm sure I'll eventually forget what year I made it.
Step 5: Add Cheat Lines for the Puzzle If Needed
My mom got a little frustrated with this puzzle so I added light "cheat" lines on the inside of the frame that outline the placement of the pieces. Anyone who wants to try assembling the puzzle can do so on the solid side. Younger kids (and Mom, lol) can use the other side to solve the puzzle (with help) and to put it away when we pack up the Christmas decorations after New Years. I hoped you've enjoyed this Instructable, Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!