A couple of months ago, our friend Mary Welling-Bonney came up with a really cool idea for making an advent countdown gingerbread house out of either gingerbread cookies or polymer clay. The idea is to make an empty house to serve as Day 1 for the advent calendar, and then add a new piece to it each day until it is fully decorated for Christmas.
Jo and I loved the idea instantly and we knew right away we wanted to do this project. We made two full house sets (one for her family and one for mine) and we decided to use polymer clay (rather than cookie dough) so that the houses would be a durable as possible, and would last for many years to come. We also decided to go for a more realistic look for the house, rather than the candy-covered gingerbread house that was Mary’s original idea. Making these houses was a lot of work and took much longer than we anticipated, but each piece we made was so fun and adorable that it was easy to dedicate the hours to the effort. And now that they’re done, we are so completely thrilled with the results!
The finished house
I’m going to jump straight to the good stuff here and show you pictures of my completed house, with all the decorations added to it. Isn’t it adorable?
And here’s Jo’s house, which has a stone finish instead of brick. So cute!
Intrigued? Inspired? Want to make your own? Keep reading!
Working with polymer clay
Before I get into the details about making the pieces, let me give you a few overall tips about working with polymer clay:
- Buying the clay: You are going to need a LOT of polymer clay. I’m almost afraid to add up how much we used, but I think it was in the range of fifteen to twenty 2oz blocks for each house. The brand we used is Sculpey III, which is easy to find and easy to work with. The best way to get started is to buy a 30 color sample pack, which is an affordable way to get a lot of colors, and then buy individual 2oz blocks of colors you need more of, like green, red, black, and white.
- Conditioning the clay: When you open a package of polymer clay, it is very hard. Before you can work with it, you have to knead, or “condition”, it until it is soft and pliable. The easiest way to do this by far — especially for a project this large — is with an old fashioned pasta machine. Just roll the clay through the machine over and over until it becomes soft and easy to work with. This machine also saves you tons of time when you need to roll the clay flat for making pieces, because you can adjust the machine and get perfectly smooth and even sheets of clay in a variety of thicknesses. You can pick up a pasta machine for around twenty bucks and they’re often sold right there in the clay aisle in the craft store. If you’re going to do a big project like this, this will easily be the best twenty bucks you’ve ever spent. (Just remember that once it has had polymer clay in it, you can not use this for real pasta that you plan to eat.)
- Baking the clay: After your clay pieces are formed, you’ll bake them in a low oven according to the directions on the packaging. Do not put the pieces on a metal pan or foil, or else they will likely burn on the bottom. Instead, use scraps of regular brown cardboard cut from a box. Cardboard will work perfectly and the pieces won’t stick to it.
- Liquid clay “glue”: Some pieces can be completely made and then baked, but others will need to be made in phases (like the songbooks that the carolers hold). Uncured clay will not stick to baked clay on its own, so be sure to use some liquid polymer clay to act as a sort of glue. Just a tiny bit of this wherever two pieces are touching will turn into a super strong bond after baking. This stuff is amazing and you really can’t do this project without it.
- Other useful tools: There are several simple tools that Jo and I found invaluable during this project. The first was parchment paper, which we taped down to our work surface to give us a clean and non-stick surface to work on. Then we kept plenty of baby wipes on hand, which we used to clean our fingers and to clean the pasta machine between colors (just roll a wipe right through). Finally we made good use of simple cutting and shaping tools like a craft knife (for cutting holes and shapes), a long polymer clay blade (for cutting straight lines), a ruler, toothpicks, large paper clips, and tweezers.
Approaching the project
Here are some general tips about completing this project.
- Make a list: Write out every piece you plan to make and the colors you will use. Your house will be the item for Day 1, and since advent calendars usually cover 24 days, you’ll need 23 more items to add to the house. Think it through carefully and write it down, so you can plan.
- Start with the smallest piece: While it’s tempting to start with the house, it would be a shame to finish it and then find out that you can’t make the other pieces small enough to fit inside it. Instead, start with the smallest piece (for us, it was the plate of cookies), and make it as small as you can. Then build up from there and make the remaining pieces, keeping them all in the same scale.
- Make all the inside pieces first: Make everything that’s going to go inside the house first. Then arrange those pieces on a piece of paper in a way you like, and decide how big the floor of your house will need to be in order to accommodate all those pieces. Once you’ve got the floor size figured out, you can build the rest of the house from there, and you know that everything will fit inside the house.
- Make extras of some items: If you’ve got a particularly fragile or tiny item on your list that is prone to getting broken or lost (like our candy canes and candles), consider making a few extras now while you can. Then in a few years when one of them breaks, you’ll be all set with a spare.
Make the pieces
This is the part you’ve been waiting for, I know. It’s time to make the pieces for our advent calendar house! I’m going to make the assumption here that if you’re seriously considering making this project, you’re already pretty comfortable with making figures in polymer clay, so I’m not going to go into great detail on each piece (otherwise we’ll be here all day). Instead, I’m going to show you a picture of each piece we made and give you some general guidance on how we made it. If you have any questions or need more detail about any of the pieces, please feel free to ask us in the comments section and we’ll be more than happy to help.
These pieces are listed in the order in which we made them.
Putting the house together
Day 1 definitely needs to be the house and base, and Day 24 definitely should be Santa Claus. Everything in between is up to you to determine (and can be changed on the fly), but here’s how I plan to do mine:
|Day 1 -
Day 2 -
Day 3 -
Day 4 -
Day 5 -
Day 6 -
Day 7 -
Day 8 -
|base, house, and roof
|Day 9 -
Day 10 -
Day 11 -
Day 12 -
Day 13 -
Day 14 -
Day 15 -
Day 16 -
|Day 17 -
Day 18 -
Day 19 -
Day 20 -
Day 21 -
Day 22 -
Day 23 -
Day 24 -
candles in windows
table with plate of cookies