December 10 is my birthday. I know some people don’t like having birthdays during the holidays, but I think mine is positioned perfectly between Thanksgiving and Christmas—it doesn’t interfere too much with the holidays (aside from those dreaded combination birthday-Christmas gifts), but it’s still during all the hustle and bustle. My birthday memories are wrapped up in the holiday traditions my family has passed down over the years. As Christmas is a time for family, it’s always the time of year I’m reminded most of my Scandinavian heritage. We always celebrated with a big dinner with my aunt and uncle on Christmas Eve, and my aunt would put out all of her Swedish gnomes and trolls and her Norwegian Christmas pyramid. We’d sing “Silent Night” in Norwegian, led by my mom.
When I was 10, I read about the Scandinavian celebration of Santa Lucia Day. Santa Lucia Day falls on Dec. 13 and is celebrated by the youngest daughter in the family waking up early in the morning, getting dressed in a white nightgown and putting a wreath on her head, and waking up the rest of the family by candlelight with a tray of braided bread. Once I learned of this tradition, I told my mom about it, and we both decided we needed to incorporate it into our family traditions. As the youngest in the family, I got to be Santa Lucia—I felt like Santa Claus.
Some of my most special Christmas memories are tied to my Norwegian and Swedish heritage, and I think about it a lot this time of year. This project is a nod to that heritage and will make a great gift I can give to a number of family members this year. Let's get started!
Step 1: Print or make your template
Print out the provided template, or draw your own on cardstock. I drew a design of a Dala horse, which is a Swedish symbol that’s been around for hundreds of years (I have a figurine of one that I bring out every year for Christmas). I enjoy meaningful Christmas decorations like this, and this ornament will be another subtle nod to my Scandinavian heritage.
If you’re designing your own template, choose a design that has some square corners and doesn’t have curves that are too tight. This will make the cutting process easier. Also, make sure all of the inside corners (like where the leg and belly meet on the horse) are sharp and not curved.
Cut out the template.
Step 2: Trace template onto wood
For this project, I picked a 1/8” birch plywood called a door skin. Door skin is exactly what it sounds like: a skin of wood you place on a door that’s hollow in the middle. I picked this because it’s good quality birch that doesn’t have any knots, which means it’s pretty and easy to work with. It’s also thin, which makes cutting easy, and it’s under $20 for a 36 1/2” x 84 1/2” sheet (note: that’s not the same size as regular plywood because it’s for a door). If you have 1/8” plywood on hand that you like, or if you prefer a different species of wood, feel free to change it up—the thickness is what’s most important for this ornament.
Trace your template onto the wood. I find it easier to work with a smaller section, so I used a handsaw to cut out a corner of the door skin. You can also use your utility knife to score lines, and then break off a piece. For our Dala horse design, the bottom of the legs and the back of the horse fit evenly into the corner of the wood, which makes for less cutting. Trace the template with a pen or pencil (you can sand off any markings at the end).
Step 3: Cut out the ornament
Start by taking a utility knife and tracing the outline of the design. Score the wood so the saw has a bit of a path to follow. I found that cutting with a coping saw through the 1/8” plywood was actually fairly difficult because the wood is so flexible. Fortunately, I was able to solve this problem by clamping two pieces of 1/8” plywood together. You don’t need to retrace or rescore the design onto this second piece of wood; just make sure the edges line up if they’re part of the design. The added bonus of cutting through two layers? You get two ornaments for the work of one! Clamp the two layers of plywood together, hanging the wood off the table just enough to make the cuts (the bigger the overhang, the more movement the wood will have, and the harder it will be to cut).
Begin cutting out the design with a coping saw. Start the saw by moving it in the opposite direction of the teeth on the blade. This will create the least amount of friction and make it easier to start the cut. I found that the table tended to get in the way of cutting and forced me to saw at an awkward angle. If you're running into this problem, try moving the wood around so you're cutting parallel to the table, not perpendicular. Also, keep in mind that the saw blade on the coping saw rotates!
I found that the coping saw worked great for cutting out most of the horse, but the curves of the horse’s neck and underbelly proved difficult. This is because both of these places are bookended by sharp inside corners, and there’s no easy way to get to them with the coping saw. But don’t worry; the solution is easy! For these sections, I went back to the utility knife. Unclamp your wood and deal with each piece separately for this step. Continue scoring the wood with the utility knife (using a fair amount of pressure). You can score repeatedly until you cut all the way through—or if you’re impatient, you can score most of the way through, then carefully break off the remaining bit. You can clean up any messy pieces with the knife.
Step 4: Sand the ornament
Once you’ve finished cutting out the ornament, take the sanding sponge to it. I started with the rougher side of the sponge and sanded the sharp corners down to a soft curve, and then smoothed out any bumpy areas. I then used the finer side of the sanding sponge on the rest of the edges.
Step 5: Drill a hole
To determine where to put the hanger, I pressed a push pin into the back of the ornament and checked to see if it hung straight. Use the mark of the push pin as your guide. Clamp the ornament right-side down onto a piece of scrap wood, and drill a hole through the back side of the ornament with a 1/8” drill bit. This technique should prevent any splintering from happening on the front of the ornament.
Step 6: Wood burn
Draw a design on your horse (or whatever design you chose) with a pencil.
I copied my design from a wooden recorder my parents bought in Norway back in ’84. I love the simplicity and charm of the imperfect art. Wood burn over the pencil markings and erase any marks left over. If you don’t have a wood burning kit and don’t want to buy one, you could get away with using a fine-tip sharpie for a similar effect. You could also decorate your ornament with acrylic paints and copy the designs of traditional Dala horses.
Step 7: Hang your ornament
Cut a length of jute twine and thread it through the hole in the ornament. Tie and cut off the excess twine.
I love this project because it’s small and simple, making it an easy DIY gift you can give to multiple people. Use a design that’s meaningful to you and your family for an extra special gift that’s made with love.
Now that you have some beautiful new ornaments, make sure to check out our Christmas tree guide to learn how to find the perfect tree for your home. And don’t forget to show the outside of your home some love with Christmas lights and a DIY porch package drop box for all those incoming Christmas presents.