Materials and tools for the crib

Once a nativity scene is established in our mind, the phase of materials and tools recovery starts.

It usually starts with the shaping of cardboard or other recycled material.

sagomazione di cartone o altro materiale da riciclo

The following images show some materials that are used in the creation of the crib, that is:

different types of wood as plywood
wine baskets and listels
polyurethane in sheets; drywall;

gommapiuma e materiali per presepi

The images show:

examples of polystyrene on the market with different densities and colors.
Examples of outline shapes to improve the project
Examples of raw material such as foam rubber,
polystyrene, polyurethane and wood, polystyrene,
various barks

materiali per sagome presepi

In the previous images it can be seen how the materials are decisive already in the initial phase of the conformation of the structures. Even the material found by the recycling, such as boxes or parts of packaging in cardboard and polystyrene, can be used to make the objects to be inserted in the crib, both as a matter of savings, and because very often the use of already existing things stimulate strongly the imagination of the artist who, through the manipulation of more or less regular forms, succeeds in giving life to numerous creations, not conditioned by the fear of waste.

It is therefore obvious that every existing element can be useful for making a crib, but to be able to use it in the best way, it is necessary to know its characteristics, as it is important to know some tools to be used for modeling the same materials.

realizzazione di un presepe

After this phase, we can start by arranging the work of a basic equipment that includes:

1) Alabastrino gesso or scagliola (a widely used, fast-drying material);

2) Stucco for wood or wall (used in combination with plaster or alone for works that require a plaster

longer processing time);

3) Paper and cardboard of various types and sizes;

4) Cork (much less used in the Neapolitan tradition than in the Roman one).

5) Polystyrene, Polyurethane, Polystyrene of various density and thickness;

6) Wood of various sizes: plywood and similar, boards of various thicknesses, strips, plywood;

7) Cutters with small and large blades;

8) Vinyl glue, hot glue, attack, polystyrene glues;

9) Crete, DAS and powdered clay, Cernit.

10) Balsa for modeling of various sizes

11) Nails, hammers, wood screws, pliers, pincers, various work tools;

12) Carpenter wire (very soft and malleable) and normal;

13) Foam of different thicknesses;

14) Screwdrivers (flat and cross-pointed), cordless drill and chisels;

15) Sandpaper of different sizes;

16) Colors (see chapter on colors);

17) Saws to cut wood, jigsaw;

18) of Juta (textile fiber used to transport coffee);

19) Tools to work the plaster: spatulas, trowel and containers for the dough;

20) Electrical and hydraulic material.

21) Rabbit glue for colors, linseed oil and turpentine essence.

22) Brushes of various sizes.

23) Borotalco (I recommend the authentic Roberts talcum powder, the one with the bottle green packaging, lends itself much better than the perfumed talcum powder of the other brands)

24) Hair dryer and kitchen blender

Let’s now give a quick description of the materials and tools used for the job, the following description is the result of my professional experience in the field, but I remind you that the tools that must never be lacking are passion and imagination.

If you want to learn more about the subject, I recommend buying my video course on DVD, there you will find the answer to all your questions !!!

So let’s start with the material that always appears in the construction of the crib:


Easily available on the market, there are two types of alabaster and scagliola. The substantial difference between the first type and the second lies in their origin and in the drying time during use. The first is slightly faster in the drying time than the second, the preference will focus on the one most useful to the needs, considering the fact that there is no substantial difference in the result.

Gypsum is very cheap and can be found in 1 kg up to 25 kg bags.

It is advisable not to take large quantities because gypsum is an hydrophoric material, that is, it attracts water, and for this reason if it stays a long time in contact with the air without being used, it loses part of its characteristics and can compromise the final result. However, I remember that nothing is wasted and that even old and compromised plaster can be used for other uses.

To work the plaster used special spatulas, there are various sizes and shapes, available in shops that sell building materials, hardware and in fine art shops. In the latter you can buy more particular and delicate spatulas with rounded or pointed tip, in many cases it is essential for the accurate processing of some parts.

The plaster must be mixed appropriately with water, remember that this operation should not be underestimated, you will have to pay attention to the times and quantities.

The proportions between water and gypsum depend on how dense it is and its final use. Our tradition, namely that of working with plaster for the crib, derives directly from the Spanish technique, and more precisely from the Catalan one.

The density of the plaster is chosen based on the type of work to be undertaken. If you want to make a rocky or mountainous system or cover the yuta, you will need to prepare plaster that is not very dense, to allow it to penetrate the web of the canvas. For a grouting of a wall on cardboard or polyurethane surely a thicker plaster is needed, such as to guarantee stability on the wall.

All this, however, ignores the actual preparation that must be done in a timely manner and with a little patience.

The preparation of the plaster, which is more or less dense, starts from the pouring of water into a container that allows it to be mixed. It is useful, for example, to use half of a plastic ball obtained from the symmetrical cut of a soccer ball available at any toy store (the historical supersantos or super telephones, for instance). The middle of the sphere is very practical, because it allows easy cleaning at the end of the work. Just wait a few minutes for the residue in surplus of the material it hardens, which with slight pressure on the rubber detaches itself from its interior, allowing immediate reuse.

Gypsum powder should be poured slowly, sprinkled on water until it rains

acquires the consistency of a milk. Now we have to wait, continuing to mix in a very soft way, this allows us to have a faster drying process, without the due stress the plaster takes much longer to solidify.

When it acquires the consistency of a yogurt it can be used to spread it quite liquid, for example by pouring, if you wait a little longer then it becomes like ricotta and is excellent for vertical grouting. If the plaster is used in this way the same will remain, even after soft drying by incision and modification.

As soon as you decide to use it, you have to do it quickly because the drying time is fast enough, that’s why it is advisable to prepare quantities of chalk a little at a time, working in the crib on small portions. To ensure good drying, it is necessary that the room in which you work is sufficiently ventilated as it is the air itself that dries the moisture given by the water. A room that is too humid, in addition to delaying the drying of the plaster, can compromise the quality of the work.

It is possible to speed up the drying of the plaster even with hot air using a hair dryer or a fan heater, but in doing so you need to be very careful because you risk accelerating it too much, making work fragile and risking the formation of cracks. It is advisable to always leave the plaster to carry out its drying cycle naturally and to possibly accelerate this process only if strictly necessary and not on delicate jobs such as grouting and finishing.

To avoid the formation of lumps, pour the plaster very slowly, the so-called rain method, if the plaster, during processing, should harden too quickly, add a small amount of water to keep it malleable, but this addition affects the quality of the plaster because it will lose elasticity and adherence so this practice should be implemented only in cases of strict necessity. Dye can be added to the mixture, but remember that additions imply an acceleration of the drying process, so if you are not an expert, leave the plaster in its original variant, color it only later. Wall stucco, in addition to being more expensive, can be used instead of plaster in the case of long and complex grouting jobs where a more ductile and easily correctable material is desired, such as joints between bricks or grouting of hard to reach corners. This material is very similar to gypsum, if you buy the formula in powder form, but the sale of the one already ready for use is more widespread on the market. Use this material together with the chalk powder to obtain elasticity and therefore a satisfactory result.

For more detailed explanations and more advanced techniques, but explained in a simple and intuitive way, I recommend buying my video courses on DVD.

Polystyrene is a material with a thousand characteristics:

light, cheap, easily available and easy to cut, thanks to its practicality it is widely used in the construction of large structures. To cut it, use a hot knife or a metal wire, pay attention to the fumes emitted because they are harmful. Polystyrene stands out both for its thickness and for the density of the characteristic balls that make it up, the greater this density, the greater the resolution of the objects that can be obtained, so to create a very small and well-defined house in detail, a very compact polystyrene.

Instead, to create a proscenium, a polystyrene with a larger grain will suffice. The polystyrene is assembled by means of special glues, on the market there are various adhesives and grouts specifically designed, but unfortunately they have a very high price, alternatively, however, you can simply use vinyl glue or dried plaster or stucco. If vinyl glue should be used, which has high drying times, it is advisable for the parts to be assembled and held in place with clasps such as toothpicks. They cannot be used for obvious hot bonding reasons, it is only possible if a voltage variator is placed upstream of the hot gun which regulates the temperature of the same, as the polystyrene is subject to deformation and melting in contact with heat. One of the materials most used for quality yield and ease of handling, is the polyurethane sheet, commonly used for the thermal insulation of the walls of buildings and available at construction stores. Yes pit resides in slabs of various thickness (2.3, .. 6 cm.), covered on both sides with dark brown paper, the paper must be removed with the aid of a cutter and above all with a lot of patience, letting emerge the yellowish surface of the polyurethane. The spongy nature, but at the same time dense and homogeneous, allows easy use of this material, in fact with a simple incision by means of a cutter, we can model fine and detailed details. Quick and easy assembly can be done with hot glue. Polyurethane, due to its waterproof characteristics, does not allow coloring by means of water-based colors such as earth or tempera, therefore it is advisable to coat it with a thin layer of plaster, unless acrylic colors are used (for coloring refer to the specific section of this course).

The plaster, well compatible with the polyurethane, should be spread on the surface with a spatula or brush, depending on the density with which it is prepared and according to requirements, once applied, it should be sanded after drying with fine sandpaper to remove any surface imperfections. The bonding of the parts of the polyurethane takes place with hot glue that is applied with a special gun, this material is going to disuse The hot glue is also a recurring element in the construction of a crib due to its particular simplicity and rapidity of application. When using hot glue, pay attention to two very specific things; touch it only after it has completely cooled, since it can cause burns to the skin, make sure that there are no burrs during its use, if they should be eliminated in time, as it does not allow the application of plaster and colors. Hot glue exists in various types and is generally presented as “candles” of different sizes depending on the size of the gun used to apply it.

The hot glue and the attached gun for use can be purchased at all hardware stores and DIY stores.
For the nativity scene, another very popular material is plasterboard

Available on the market at construction stores and widely used for the construction of false ceilings and building coatings. You will find it in the form of slabs of various sizes and thicknesses. It is not a particularly expensive material and offers an excellent quality performance.

The plasterboard needs patience and care in use, it must be cleaned from the paper that covers it from the side that you want to work. The paper is very resistant and to be removed it must be wet and scraped repeatedly, until the white surface emerges. During this operation pay attention, this material having a rigid and thin conformation, can imply its irreparable split. Another flaw of this material lies in its assembly and in its support, to obviate all this, it is necessary to create support structures in wood or with another material that supports its weight.

Another material used is jute:

textile fiber that generally serves for the creation of bags for the transport of coffee and other agricultural products. In the crib it serves to make rocks, mountains and in any case almost the whole part that houses the vegetation. It is available in stores that sell products for agriculture and in some hardware stores and should always be used together with gypsum.

For tiles, floors and coatings in general, two materials are used, namely clay and DAS:

they are very workable thanks to their composition and structure. The clay is much cheaper than the DAS, but it is more difficult to find than the DAS, in fact it is available only in specialized shops for ceramics and fine arts in packs of 1 kg and above.

To finish this section dedicated to a simple description of the materials and their use in the crib, let’s not forget the importance of foam rubber and cardboard:

These two materials make it possible to create natural landscapes and particular structures, but unlike the others they do not necessarily have to be purchased. They are in fact available from the recycling of boxes, packaging and old mattresses

In the photos you will have a visual picture of the described materials and a valid support to the literal description provided.

For more detailed explanations and more advanced techniques, but explained in a simple and intuitive way, I recommend buying my video courses on DVD.

materiali per presepi

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