Home-made Holiday Gifts; Wood ornaments

Every year we try to make holiday presents for Yule. This year is no different. This year I borrowed a wood burning kit from my sister to use for making these;


These ornaments or keychains (or however you want to use them) are extremely easy to make. You simply use a saw (I used my circular saw) to cut slices of a stick. Then you drill a tiny hole in the top, and burn in your design. When you’re done, slip a ribbon through, add and secure a wood bead (if you like) and tie it closed.

You can see several different designs here. A star and a snowflake are simple and generic but they get more customized than that. One is a paintbrush and pencil crossed for an artist friend. One is a computer screen with YULE written on it in binary code for a friend who is a programmer. A third is an ornate cross and has a crown of thorns on the other side for a friend who is deeply Catholic (but celebrates my heathen holidays with me anyhow). There’ll be many more by the time I’m done. We usually have around 20-25 people over for Yule and each one receives a gift of some sort as a spiritual requirement for the holiday. That adds up, even if you only spend $10 per person. So we try to aim for home-made gifts as a frugal but thoughtful alternative. Plus it’s very in-tune with both the natural focus of the holiday and our desire to re-use and upcycle common items.

Here’s a step by step of how to make these neat little ornaments.

You’ll need…

  • A relatively smooth, straight and evenly round stick or small log of appropriate size
  • A saw of some sort to make clean cuts in the wood
  • A drill with a very small drill bit
  • A pencil
  • A scarp of thin cardboard with a straight edge
  • Sandpaper
  • A wood burning kit (These run from $25-$50 depending on what you get)
  • Ribbon, string or wire for the loops
  • Beads or other stringable decorations (optional)
  • Tung oil or other wood finisher (optional)

First, find a stick that you want to use that’s straight and smooth.


Some notes about the kind of stick you should use. The wood type isn’t really as relevant as the literal shape of the stick. You want to pick a stick that has a fairly consistent width and is as straight as possible with very few knots and knobs. Make sure it’s long enough to cut enough discs of the sizes you’d like with enough extra to hold safely while you’re cutting. You also need a stick that is VERY dry and has been stored indoors for some months. A wood that’s very dark in color will have less contrast then a wood that’s very light, especially if you choose to oil it.

Next, pick a consistent width for your tokens and mark off one disc of wood. Cut and repeat until you have as many as you want to make. You can wing this but if consistency matters to you it pays to mark and cut carefully.


Inconsistent cutting because I winged these means wild angles and different widths.

Next, put your drill to work making a small hole in the top of each one. Be careful about your angles. If your drill goes between the wood and the bark, the bark will probably peel away.


Note the red staining on the lower disc on the right. That came from the blade of the circular saw. It’s just a surface scuff and will be sanded off later.

Bring your discs to a flat work surface and start to sand them. Sand both sides and lightly sand the bark edge as well. This makes the surfaces smooth and clean and nice to handle. it’ll also keep the wood from flaking. If you cut a piece wildly uneven (like I did), you can use the sandpaper to help even those out. Don’t over-sand the bark edges. You’re just trying to rub away some roughness, not take off layers of the bark. The whole piece of wood should feel almost soft.


Now you’re ready to burn in some patterns. You’ll need a good wood burning kit. Choose a simple round pointed tip and set up your wood burner. I was using a Walnut Hollow kit, but there was a serious problem with it. The cord is extremely short, and it pulled itself off of the table onto the floor. One of the nibs broke and it snapped off inside of it. I have yet to restore the functionality of this wood burner. I had a backup, but in general, be very careful not to make my mistake.

A wood burner is just a hot metal pen, so you can draw anything with it if you’re careful. I did lots of designs, you can get extremely creative. I did a bear, a cat, a fox, a computer, a cross, theater masks, stars, etc. Just draw it out with a pencil first and then burn it in… But right now I will be showing you how to burn in a simple but pretty snowflake.

First, burn the ends of the hole open so they are clean and easy to work with. Then line up your straight bit of cardboard in the middle of the wood disc, across the hole to the bottom. I used a torn off tab from a box of cookies. Anything is fine as long as it’s straight and disposable.


Burn a straight line from top to bottom, then do the same thing at a 90* angle so you have a big cross in the middle. At 45* angles from that, still using your straight edge, burn an X shape that’s about half the length inside it.

Next, you simply start filling it out with the crystal structure. Whatever you do on one long line, do the same thing to all the others. They can be straight lines or at angles pointing outward or even X shapes, so long as they are symmetrical across all the long lines. On this one I went for pointed angles on the long branches, and then pointed angles on the ends of the short branches, with straight lines under it. A good rule of thumb is two branches on each line.

I filled up some of the extra space with a moon and some stars. Stars generally have five points so a simple round, pointed nib can make a fuzzy star shape by simply burning five equally spaced points as tightly together as you can.


At this point, I oiled all of the pieces I was doing. I used some tung oil that I had sitting around and an old scrap of towel to apply it. When you apply an oil like tung oil to the wood, it will dramatically change the base color of the wood. It will make it dark and rich, but it will also reduce the contrast. You may want to go over your wood burn again to make sure it comes out dark enough.

When you are done oiling you may find some of the edges of the wood are a little flaky, especially if you have a large grain sandpaper. That’s OK. Just use the side of your wood burning pen to burn those edges down flat.


You can see what the oil looks like on these various patterns as well, and you may notice some flaking on the edges. Note that the very center of the wood may absorb the oil differently than the rest of the wood disc. If this is very bothersome, gently and quickly burn over just the center to darken it just a bit.

Now I’ll show you how I attached the bead. Start by deciding how low you want the ornament to hang, then double it (because the ribbon will be a loop). Then add an inch or two depending on the size of bead you’re using, and another couple inches for the knot on the top. These were a larger sized set of beads so about 2 inches would be right. I just guessed at a ribbon length, personally. Cut your ribbon and run it through the hole. You may have to fold it or use a needle threader or some such to make it go through if the hole is very small like mine were. String your bead over both ends of the ribbon.


Part the ends of the ribbon down over the top of the bead, then bring them up through the bottom of the bead again one at a time so they form loops on opposite sides. Then simply tighten the loops with the beads close to the wood disc and it will hold very securely. Tie a knot at the top and you’re done!


Let them sit for a time to absorb the oils, but at this point your gift is done. Cute, pretty and simple. Possibly most importantly, nearly free (if you don’t completely break your wood burning tool in the process).

I hope you enjoy crafting these!



What if you make a mistake!?

If it’s a deep enough burn, you should probably just start over with a new disc. I mean, these are made out of sticks from your wood pile, after all. But if you have a light burn or don’t want to make a new disc you can actually just sand the burns out. It may take a while to actually get through the burn marks, but any blemishes on the surface of the wood can simply be sanded out with a little elbow grease and then re-oiled.

Happy crafting, friends! Until next time!

Homesteading Holiday Gifts; Caramels

Hi, folks! I’m back! I’m going to spare you the details of a long year for this post (maybe I’ll get to detailing it better later), and sum it up by saying that my partner, Greg, opened his own business this year with a retail board game store. (For those that don’t know, Greg and I are yonder modern and “nerdy” folks.) If that doesn’t eat up every minute of every day, I don’t know what does! Yes, I have continued homesteading… I have built a new garden bed, made some changes to my flock of chickens and herd of rabbits… But most of it came to a screeching halt over the summer as the store opened. The garden I built became over-grown with weeds (and volunteer acorn squash that grew from my compost, nothing I planted lived, really), and I fell behind on making any real advances.
Now that the weather is chilly again, and the store has settled in, I have time to start updating my blog again. Hopefully this will be more regular as well. Our homesteading task this month is tackling the holidays with a touch of old-timey know-how.
We’re making small gift baskets for our families. Gift baskets full of local and home-made gifts. We have several things going into the baskets, and each basket will be a bit different. We’ve already made Apple Butter and canned it in pint jars for a few people. (Something that I did last year as well.) The next step on our home-made Christmas gifts list? Caramels.

My sister and I are buckling down to make some candies this year. She’ll get some to keep and some to give to her husband’s family. I’ll have her dishwasher and more spacious kitchen and fancy cooking tools to work with… And more importantly, her company while cooking candies.

Last night we got together to make a bit of headway on the project. The goal is three flavors of caramels, and four (or so) flavors of old fashioned hard candies. We started with the big batch of classic soft caramels we were making and discovered that making caramels is STUPID easy. Unfortunately, Greg ran my phone through the laundry (and despite my best efforts to dry it, I will need a replacement) so I didn’t get any photos of the actual process. But I figured I could detail it for you below. This is a very old soft caramel recipe, is printed under lots of names, and makes some of the best caramels in the world, full of buttery goodness and a million calories. These are really, truly, some of the best caramels you will ever eat.

Soft Caramel Recipe
Makes: An unreasonable amount (More than 1lb, or about 200 candies depending on how big you cut them and how many you eat. This is enough to fill a whole gallon Ziploc with once wrapped, if you cram them.)

2 Cups of sugar
1 Cup of dark brown sugar (You can mix 1C white sugar and blackstrap molasses to make this, or I suspect you could just use all raw sugar instead.)
1 cup of butter
1 cup of cream
1 cup of milk
1 cup of light corn syrup (I don’t know any substitutions for this for people looking to avoid corn… If you do, please let me know!)
1 tsp vanilla

Making caramels is really easy. Start by buttering a flat pan, about 13×9 or a bit bigger. Make sure you butter the HECK out of it, especially in the very middle. Get a BIG saucepan. We used a small (6qt) stock pot and were pretty happy we did, but you could probably get by with a 4qt pan. Don’t go any smaller, though! This puffs up like popcorn! If you can get a nice heavy bottomed pan/pot that heats very evenly, and not non-stick, that would be your best option.

Just place the saucepan over medium heat, and add everything EXCEPT the vanilla. (I suggest adding the butter first, to start it melting so the rest doesn’t stick.) Then cook it forever and ever, stirring it pretty frequently. Once the butter is melted and you have a good boil going (this is when it will expand rapidly as the air gets mixed in), you’ll be wanting too cook it for another 20-30 minutes, still stirring. Your total cook time will probably look something like 40 minutes depending on your heat and pan type. When you’re done, the liquid will have reduced and the foaming will have gone down.

Around 15 minutes after it starts boiling, you’ll want to start to test for doneness. The easy way is a high quality candy thermometer reading 244*F exactly. But I don’t actually have a candy thermometer and my meat thermometer only goes up to 220*. Luckily there’s another way to check the doneness. Prepare a small cup of ice water, and then drop a small amount of boiling caramel into the ice water. It may sink as it falls in. Scoop it out and feel it. It should be pliable, but firm and holding it’s shape, feeling stiffer in the middle then on the edges. When you eat it, it should feel like a caramel in your mouth.
If the caramel is too soft, it needs to cook longer. If it’s too hard it’s cooked too long. Add two tbs cool water and lower the heat, mixing until it meets the above description. If your mixture meets that description, remove it from the heat, place on a trivet or hot pad and then stir in the vanilla.
When you add the vanilla, do not have your face over the mixture to smell the delicious sweetness, stand back a bit instead while stirring. As you pour it in, the moment it touches the lava-like candy liquid, all the alcohol will burn off IMMEDIATELY in a cloud of very hot steam that will be rather unpleasant to have your face in.

Once the vanilla is stirred in (this will only take a few seconds) pour the mixture into your buttered pan, scraping the inside of your pot with a rubber spatula. Work quickly as the mixture will start to cool as you pour and if you take too long it will come out lumpy and funny looking. It should pour in nice and smoothly and form a nice, flat surface to cool. Take this opportunity to immediately wash your pot or pan in hot soapy water before the caramel can cool and dry, sticking to the sides worse then glue.

Let your caramel cool completely… You should be able to gently tap the center of the caramel in the pan without leaving an indent on the surface with your finger, but it should give if you press on it. At this point you can cut it with any old knife and eat as is, but my sister and I found a better way. We pulled a large sheet of parchment paper out, and flipped the pan on top of it, gently removing the caramel sheet from the pan onto the parchment paper. We then used pizza cutters to cut the caramel into strips and then into small bite-sized pieces. We went for about 1″ strips, cut into about 1/2-3/4″ pieces. They varied in size a bit, but came out beautifully.

We then used the same parchment paper to wrap them individually. We had a 15″ long roll and cut that into 3″ strips which then got cut into quarters (making rectangles of about 3″x 3.75″). This size worked perfectly for wrapping them individually.


And voila! We sat and watched some TV as we wrapped out delicious little beauties into wonderful looking candies for Christmas! I hope you consider making caramels for your own family and friends for Christmas! It was extremely easy and they are delicious!

Next time, flavored caramel and hard candies!

Until then, stay calm and farm on!