I love the nativity set my parents have because it’s simple and classic. Nativity sets can easily become cheesy and kitschy, and I've had a hard time finding one I love as much as theirs, so I decided to come up with a streamlined, modern, clean one of my own (with the creative help of one of our amazing designers) that happens to be relatively easy to cut with a jig saw.

When I saw the nativity set design for the first time, I thought it was so sweet and charming—and I loved the color palette: it’s in line with the Dunn DIY brand, but it’s also my personal color palette. Plus, it’s festive!

I definitely don’t feel like this nativity set is cheesy (the camel is just so cute!) and it will be a staple of my Christmas decor for years to come. Let’s get to it!

Step 1: Print and Cut Shapes

This set includes: 

  • Mary
  • Joseph
  • Jesus in the manger
  • Shepherd 
  • Sheep 
  • Donkey 
  • Camel 
  • The Three Wise Men 

Download the template below to print the full set of shapes. Then cut out the individual shapes using a pair of sharp scissors. Printing on a thicker paper (like cardstock) makes the next step easier, but you can get away with printer paper.  

Dunn DIY How to Make a Wooden Block Nativity Set print template Seattle WA 1

wooden nativity set plan

Step 2: Tape Wood and Trace

Put tape over the wood, then trace the outline onto the tape. You can fit all of the figures onto an 8' piece of 2x6 and have plenty of room for trial and error, but you can also use some scrap 2x4 for the smaller pieces. 

We put tape over the wood to help with the cutting. The jig saw tends to leave a rough edge on top of the wood, and the tape holds the wood fibers together for a much cleaner finish. We used a pencil to trace the lines, but a pen works just as well and would be easier to follow. When tracing the design onto the wood, face the most complex side of the design closest to the edge—this will making the cutting process easier.

tracing nativity set

Step 3: Cut Shapes

Clamp the wood down to a sawhorse or work bench and cut with a jig saw.

If you find the curves of each shape are too challenging to cut, use a ruler and a pencil to turn the curves into straight edges. Then, cut the straight lines—you can smooth out the sharp angles into curves with an electric sander later.

One of the tricks when cutting with a jig saw is to create enough space for the blade so it doesn’t get stuck. It’s kind of like cutting a curved shape in thick cardboard with scissors—it often helps to make shorter, smaller cuts than try to make the cut in a single, sweeping motion, but it’s also an art. It just takes some practice.

Another trick is to think about how the jig saw comes into the design, and to approach the cut from different angles. Because they're small, it's easiest to keep the figures attached to the remainder of the board until the final cut (rather than clamping them down and continuing the cutting process). This takes some deliberating with how you lay out the patterns and which cuts you make first. 

Once you’re finished cutting, remove the tape.

cutting wood

cutting wooden block

measuring wood block nativity set

removing tape from wood block

Step 4: Sand

Sand out any imperfections and sharp edges until the pieces attain your desired look. Use a piece of sandpaper for any tight corners, and a small handsaw for any bits the jig saw didn’t catch.

The grit of sandpaper you use depends on how the cutting went: for the blocky pieces with really tight curves that were easier to cut with straight edges, start with a 60- or 90-grit sandpaper.

For smoother pieces, start with a 100-grit sandpaper, then move to 150-grit.

sanding nativity wood block set

cutting nativity wood block

Step 5: Trace Outlines

Now it’s time to bring the blocks to life. Cut out the painted parts of the printed template and arrange them on the corresponding wood pieces, then trace with a pencil. You can also trace the shapes onto stencil paper, then cut out the shapes with an utility knife. It just depends on your preferences.

If you’re not super comfortable with a paint brush, you can use acrylic paint pens—the color choice is more limited, but it’s a super easy way to paint.

cutting pattern for nativity set

Step 6: Paint

If necessary, mix paints to get the desired colors. Use white to create the slightly lighter shades of red and blue which represent the swaddling clothes and saddles. Using a paint brush (or acrylic paint pens), fill in the traced outlines. We used two different paint brushes: one that’s more fine-tipped for the little details, and a wide, flat one that worked well for doing the straight lines. Now let everything dry.

Acrylic paint is great because it dries really quickly, so you can allow one part to dry before you layer the details. (That way you don’t risk smudging paint all over your pieces.)

The blocks are thick, which makes them a little awkward to paint. To get your wrist up to the same height as the block, rest it on a scrap piece of lumber.  

You can get away with painting one coat, but it may look a little blotchy—especially with certain colors like red. Two coats is better and won’t take that much extra time.

painting wooden nativity block

paintbrush on nativity block

Step 7: Cut Dowel 

Cut a 1/8" dowel for the shepherd's staff and glue into place. I cut the dowel with a hacksaw but you could probably get away with a pair of scissors or a utility knife. Lean it against your shepherd block, then adhere with a dab of glue. For a more durable (kid proof) option, glue the dowel parallel to the shepherd's body so that there's more surface area to glue.

cutting dowel

wood nativity set

I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be able to pull off cutting out all of these shapes with a jig saw successfully, but after some trial and error, I’m really happy with how they all turned out! This nativity set is currently sitting on the coffee table in my living room, and will be a holiday staple for years to come—we’ll definitely be keeping this around for our kids.

How to Make a Wooden Block Nativity Set