Introduction: Santa's Elves Yard Display

Picture of Santa's Elves Yard Display
After years of Christmas plywood cutout characters, we decided to follow the 3D trend and build some happy elves for our yard this year.

The elves are wooden skeletons with newspaper pressed and taped all around to form the shapes.  Two coats of paper mache, bits of clay added, gesso, paint, and waterproofing and they are ready for display!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Picture of Materials and Tools

The basic materials are:
2x2, 1x2, 2x4 lumber
masking tape
brown paper bags
paper mache - we use PlayBOX wheat paste 3lbs
paper clay - Creative Paper Clay Co.
gesso - Liquidtex surface prep
wrapping paper
decoupage - Mod Podge
Drylok Extreme Masonary Waterproofer paint without sand (UPDATED 12/2013)
Acrylic paints
Krylon acrylic crystal clear satin spray paint for waterproofing

Basic tools:
Craftsman jigsaw with foot switch
drill with large bits
medium fine sandpaper
hot glue gun

For the animated elf spinning package:
gear motor - Solarbotics GM21 $20
1/2" PVC pipe
Copper pipe
2 scavenged scooter bearings
5/16" plain steel rod
5/16" ID steel coupler
14ga steel sheet 9"x9"
Styrofoam brick
2 AA batteries and holder
hot glue and gun
misc washers, allen set screws, hookup wire

Step 2: Skeleton

Picture of Skeleton

Build a skeletal structure for your happy little elf out of 2x2 and 1x2 pine.  The feet are 2x4 pine for weight and stability.  The joints are pinned with dowels and wood glue.

The arms and legs are 7/8" hardwood dowels.  They are pinned and wrapped with paper mache strips of grocery bags.

Step 3: Filling the Frame

Picture of Filling the Frame

Lots of newspaper and masking tape!

Shape the body, head, arms, hands, and feet by crumpling up newspaper and taping it to the skeleton. You can round out things with more tape.  More tape is always the answer! 

Add elements like hats and collars with heavy posterboard paper. Check eye positions with colored paper cutouts.

Make it pretty firm so it will keep it's shape when paper mache'ing in the next step.

Step 4: Paper Mache

Picture of Paper Mache

Tear brown supermarket paper bags into strips. Do not cut them, you need the feathered edges from tearing. Bigger strips for the body and smaller for around fingers and ears.

Mix up batch of wheat paste per the instructions on the package. You can cover it and store it between sessions.

Dip the strips in the paper mache mix to coat both sides and lay down in random directions. Cover the entire elf.

Let dry then do a second complete coat of paper mache on the elf.

Use paper clay on the face, especially to pop out the eyes. On the hands to smooth them, and on the big buttons to give them dimension. Sand the paper clay lightly for a nice finish.

Step 5: Gesso and Paint

Picture of Gesso and Paint

To smooth the elf, apply 2-3 coats of gesso then paint it with waterproof basement paint (UPDATED 12/2013). The basement paint has really held up on other outdoor projects.

Use the small containers of acrylic paints common in craft stores or larger bottles from big box stores.

The present was made by just taking a cardboard box and taping it closed, paper mache, then decoupage Christmas wrapping paper to the box with Mod Podge. You can make a bow out of posterboard.  The bow was paper mache'd and painted.

Step 6: Animated Spinning Present

Picture of Animated Spinning Present

A spinning present on one of the elves finger was done with a small mail-order motor, batteries and some mechanical parts.

I bought a gear-drive motor from Solarbotics, 360:1 gear reduction that seemed
to spin at a nice rate with 2 AA batteries.

The motor fit nicely in some spare PVC pipe.  I hated to load the motor with the weight of the present, even though it would be made out of styrofoam, so I scavenged two bearings from a defunct scooter that were the same outside diameter as the PVC and slipped them all in a piece of copper pipe with some spacers.

To join the motor to the present, I drilled a 5/16" piece of plain steel and tapped a set screw to hold it to the motor shaft.  Then I brazed a collar on the shaft and brazed that to a piece of sheet metal that was lightened with holes.

Two halves of styrofoam were hot glued around the sheet metal and wrapping paper was decoupaged around the styrofoam.

The whole assembly fit into the elf's finger nicely, the hand was made to be removable.

I added a piece of a ping pong ball to round out the fingertip and shield the motor assembly.

Step 7: Protective Finish

Picture of Protective Finish

To make this even more waterproof, we sprayed the elves with a couple coats of Krylon indoor/outdoor clear satin acrylic spray paint.  Be sure to paint outdoors on a drop cloth with several light coats. Paint the presents too.

Water poured on the elf beaded up nicely so the are ready for our outdoor display. They have lasted 3 seasons now but we cover them in heavy rain (UPDATED 12/2013).


flamingo.mall (author)2014-08-20

Amazing, I presented this idea and this is the result... thanks so much¡¡

blipvert (author)flamingo.mall2014-08-23

Awesome! Thanks for sharing, the elves are busy all over the world.

bbuttry made it! (author)2017-11-09

Giving this a try but using PVC with 90 and 45 degree elbow connectors!

annie_o (author)bbuttry2017-11-15

Please post pictures of your final results! I like the PVC pipe idea.

blipvert (author)2016-12-10

Side views requested by user:

Kieran 4330 (author)2016-09-27

Hello i am wanting to make this will it be able to sappor hairy rain

Nanasworld (author)2016-04-29

I just found this website, new to it. I just typed in paper mache and when I saw these, I just laughed. I love whimsical, the more whimsical the better and these are just fantastic!!! I have never paper mached before and I think I would love it, so going to start small and move up!

SusanH75 (author)2015-12-10

Totally amazing. Wow

shew1 (author)2015-11-23

these are just beautiful but will they withstand our cold wet Oregon weather?

blipvert (author)shew12015-11-23

I undercoated them with masonary sealer paint which makes them hold up pretty good in the weather. Some people say marine varnish works well. We live in California so they have never been tested in really cold rainy weather.

veronika1972 (author)2015-11-18

I love these elves and trying to make them,having an issue with the hands can you give me some directions..Thank u so much

blipvert (author)veronika19722015-11-18

Hi- I just roll a tube of newspaper for each finger and sandwich it between two scrunched up flattened balls of newspaper. Then tape everything to hold it in place so the fingers look nice. A flattened bunch of newspaper for the cuff is taped to it and the wrist dowel is pushed through. Page 3 photos 3 and 4 can be enlarged by clicking on them to see a closeup. Enjoy!

veronika1972 (author)blipvert2015-11-19

thank you so much!!!

amerrill3 (author)2015-11-16

How many coats of mod podge did you coat the presents with?

blipvert (author)amerrill32015-11-16

To tell you the truth I switched to plastic light up presents. The presents in the picture didn't hold up to well in the weather. I did that so long ago I don't remember exactly what I did. Sorry I can't be more help.

Erika021084 (author)2015-10-17

Can't wait to make these for Christmas this year :(!!

blipvert (author)Erika0210842015-10-17

Make sure you send pictures when you finish them.

Erika021084 (author)blipvert2015-10-17

Will do!! Thank you!

westiez made it! (author)2015-08-23

This makes an awesome addition to our Christmas display. Many thanks. :)

blipvert (author)westiez2015-08-24

Thanks for the photo, looks like a fun Santa's workshop!

geminidizorder (author)2014-11-12

I have gathered all of my supplies to make these elves but I am a little confused what you mean by "pinned" as related to the skeletal structure. also can you tell me if the head is made just by balling up newspaper until you get the desired shape?

blipvert (author)geminidizorder2014-11-12

I am happy you want to make some elves!

For the joints, I drilled through both pieces with a drill bit that just snugly fit a length dowel. Then glued all around the joint and dowel held at the desired angle. After drying, trim any dowel ends sticking out and wrap with paper mache' to stiffen. For dowel arms and legs going into 2x4s, just a tight fit and outdoor wood glue.

Yes the head, feet, etc. are free form - bunching newspaper and taping it down. Lots and lots of masking tape helps keep everything in place.

madpiratebippy (author)2014-09-01

I want to make some of these but spooky style for Haloween! This tutorial is great, thank you so much for it!

anapet01 (author)2014-03-26

Sooo cute

lgreen21 (author)2013-02-04

Wow! Love this!!!!!! Do you take orders?
What a creative mind.

taria (author)2012-12-08

I love this! my only question would be, when you added the brown paper everything looked boxy, but after wards it didn't, how did you do that part? did you add extra for the pants and such?

blipvert (author)taria2012-12-14

That was a picture we slipped in. Being so messy, we didn't take any brown paper covering pictures of the elves. This is a Pinocchio pinata with paper towel tubes for arms and legs instead of wood dowels.
The clothing was done with poster board just like the hat and collar in the previous picture. Paper mache with newsprint then brown paper. It can get a bit soggy but everything works fine if you do it in sections and let it dry between coats.

taria (author)blipvert2012-12-27

okay I see, do you have a finish photo of this one? I would love to see it as well. Of course I was going to make your elves for myself, but I ran out of time doing things for everyone else. now Christmas is gone and they would look odd sitting outside my house/apartment during the summer time unless I dressed them in hawaiian shirts and Bermuda

blipvert (author)taria2012-12-29

Here is a picture of the finished Pinocchio pinata. It does take planning, especially since paper mache' dries much quicker in warm dry weather. Good luck and post your summer elves!

mygibzone (author)2012-11-19

What a FANTASTIC job! I am a huge fan of paper mache. This display looks better then any you could buy in a store! I really LOVE it!

cdahl (author)2012-11-18

wonderful job

wendpc (author)2012-11-17

muito boa criação amigo, gostei e vou fazer pra familia.
Poderia me dizer que carro é esse laranja na garagem?,estou muito curioso pra saber

blipvert (author)wendpc2012-11-17

Hello! It is my 1973 DeTomaso Pantera. It is very original condition and great fun. Here it is parked on a mountain trip, thanks for asking!

marsneedsrabbits (author)2012-10-23

Your elves have such amazing personality. Love the vintage feel. I can't wait to try them and agree with the person above who said you should be designing for a department store. These are wonderful!
P.S. Marine varnish after you've done all your painting on papier mache is supposed to work well outdoors.

Telluride (author)2012-04-13

Would you be willing to make these to sell?

tsylvia (author)2011-12-06

I was wondering how well the elves held up outside in the elements?

blipvert (author)tsylvia2011-12-21

They did get a little soggy with the rain but didn't turn into mush. So we overpainted them with outdoor primer and repainted. They have held up well this year with a few rainy days. Good question, one we were most curious about as well.

kitchin01 (author)2011-09-27

EXACTLY what I have been looking for!!!!!
Absolutely brilliant

blipvert (author)2011-01-13

Thank you all for your kind words and voting us into top finalist spot for the Krylon competition! Stay tuned for more fun through the year.

mary candy (author)2011-01-13

oh gorgeousss !!!

wizgirl (author)2011-01-12


cdawisconsin (author)2011-01-11

I'm happy you won. Really well deserved.

seamster (author)2011-01-11

Well-deserved win! Congrats!

WingsandFences (author)2011-01-03

These are so great! Now you just have to hide from all the neighbors who come begging to know where you found these smashing elves :0) I see orders in your future.

seamster (author)2010-12-22

You gotta love the newspaper and masking tape technique. You can make just about anything. These turned out great!

love2cad (author)2010-12-11

These are great!! Would it be possible to get a few dimensions? Such as overall height, hip and shoulder width. You seem to have nailed the scale and I would love to try and recreate one. Thanks!!

blipvert (author)love2cad2010-12-13

Thanks everyone for your great comments. Here are the dimensions of the 4 elves from left to right in inches:

                     Package Elf   Back Pkg  Front Pkg  Spinner
hat height      17                     20               20              13
head height  10                       9                10              10
head width    10                     10               10              10
head depth    10                    10               10               10
upper arm      11                      9                 9                  9
lower arm        9                       7                 6                  5
hand length     8                       9               10                  7
torso length   12                    16               18                21
torso width     12                    10               11               10
torso depth    12                     10                8                  8
thigh                  7                     13              13                12
lower leg        12                       9                 8                10
foot length      10                     11              10                10
foot width          5                       5                 5                  5

love2cad (author)blipvert2010-12-15

great.. thank you for the dimensions.

porcupinemamma (author)2010-12-11

They are very very cool. Way better than any store bought decorations. Beautiful job!

lemonie (author)2010-12-11

High-quality stuff there!


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