Introduction: 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!

Yard Elves Animation Video

2019- Updated with dimensions on page 3

Step 1: 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

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.

Here are the measured FINISIHED dimensions of the 4 elves 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

Step 3: 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

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

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

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

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).

Krylon Holiday Decorations Contest

First Prize in the
Krylon Holiday Decorations Contest

Craftsman Tools Contest

Participated in the
Craftsman Tools Contest