Gift Ideas: Custom Board Game

A lot of people have asked me where I came up with this idea for handcrafted Christmas / why I decided to do this and I, unfortunately, don’t have a great answer. I can’t really remember! So, regardless of the catalyst, I decided to make a custom board game for one of my nephews. He is turning 7 this month, so he is reading and starting to become aware of his surroundings, including his neighborhood.

As a kid, I was always a fan of the Game of Life, but could rarely get anyone to play it all the way through with me. As I got older, I found the game Mall Madness and LOVED it, so when trying to come up with the premise for this game, I decided to marry the two to create: My Actual Neighborhood (the hubs picked the title).

Here’s how I did it:

  • Create the game premise. Before you start designing a board or anything else, it’s important to have a plan for how the game will be played. That way, you’ll know what the board should look like and what pieces, cards and other materials you’ll need. I decided that I wanted to include pictures of his neighborhood, so, for the gameplay, each player would draw a card that would give them a “mission” for the game. This “mission” would include 3 places on the board that they’d have to go to in order to win. I then created cute little scenarios to accompany each combination of locations. For example, one scenario was: You’re having a sleepover with your cousins at Grandma’s. Start at home and pack your bag. Then, go pick up your cousins from their house. Lose a turn at their house because they aren’t ready. Finally, head to Grandma’s for a night of fun. Other scenarios require the player to go buy something (like craft supplies for a gift for mom or dad), for which they must first earn money. In order to earn money, they can either complete chores at any of the locations (each location has a corresponding chore and payment amount) OR they can get lucky and land on a board space that pays them (for losing a tooth, having a birthday, etc.). I outlined all of this FIRST so I could think through how to design the board and what other pieces I’d need to create.
  • Design the board. My next step was to draw out what I wanted the board to look like. I did this on paper first and really started by thinking about the locations I wanted to include (I included 6: his house, his school, our house, another aunt & uncle’s house, houses of his grandparents on either side and his mom’s work, which is Wal-mart, so it worked out for a few of the missions) and where they exist in relation to one another. My original sketch was pretty tough to follow, so I added color and it looked like this:

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Note, I added the park as somewhat of an afterthought because I had a lot of dead space and I also wanted a neutral location for all players to start. The same is true with the Community pool (I had a few extra blocks I didn’t know what to do with).

  • Create the board. Next, I transferred my design concept onto the actual board. I wanted to get an understanding of the sizing of each space / the board overall so I could create the other pieces to scale. Since my original design was on a letter-sized sheet of paper, I wanted to try to scale it so I wouldn’t have to rework all the spacing. My final sizing was roughly 4:1 (just under) with the fold down the middle of the board. This required a little math to convert onto the board, but I just counted the number of spaces I needed vertically and horizontally and then divided the length and width dimensions of the game board accordingly to create evenly sized spaces. The materials I used to create the board included:
    • Tri-fold board from the Dollar Tree – I used one side flap and part of the main board piece to create a board that had a pre-built fold down the middle.
    • Exacto knife and cutting mat – I used this to cut the top and side to get the size I wanted. It’s really hard to cut straight, so a metal ruler would have been incredibly helpful for this part, but I didn’t have one so I free-handed it (after making line markings, of course).
    • Ruler and pencil – for measuring and marking everything; as mentioned, if you have a metal ruler, even better as this will help you with cutting too!
    • Calculator or brain – to do math
  • Add board details. Once I had the basic layout of spaces, I went back through and added pictures of each location and other board accents. For the pictures, I printed them out at home on plain computer paper and used double stick tape to attach them. I decided to include arrows on each space to indicate which way a player could move (like how roads work). I also added stoplight symbols on some spaces and location markers on others; more about what these mean below. To finish the game board, I applied a thin layer of mod podge to the bottom. I decided against applying a layer on the top because I was worried it would prevent it from folding nicely and/or would make the colors run.
  • Create your supplemental materials. Now that the board was done, I needed to create everything else to go along with it. The supplies I used (referenced below as well) included: paper cutter (super helpful for getting straight cuts!), stamp pads in red and blue, letter stamps and a location symbol stamp, number stickers (Dollar Tree), colored dot stickers, printer and a few colors of paper. Note, the preview / google docs version of some of the below templates don’t display correctly. For best results, download and open with Microsoft Word.
    • Money – I looked at pictures online of board game money to get an idea (and also based this off of the style of American money since that’d be familiar for my nephew). You can see my money template here.
    • Mission cards – I used Microsoft word to create 4 cards per page and wrote out each mission using a numbered list. I made sure to keep the formatting consistent so each card would be the same size. Then, on the back, I used stickers and stamps to label each as “Mission” with a number (so they can switch up what mission number they have each time they play). I made a total of 10 missions. You can see my template here. 
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    • Stoplight cards – as I mentioned, I drew little stoplight symbols on the board with marker, so I needed cards to go along with them to indicate what they mean. Each stoplight card had some sort of driving-related incident – a speeding ticket, out of windshield washer fluid, ran out of gas, etc. If the player lands on the space, they must draw a card and then either pay the fine (if they’ve earned money) or lose a turn. Again, I used Microsoft Word; you can see my template here. I printed these on colored paper to distinguish them from the mission cards. For the back, I used colored dots to make the little stoplight symbol.
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    • Location symbol cards – these are like bonuses throughout the game. If you land on a space with a location symbol, you’d draw a card and earn money for some reason (babysitting your cousins, helping an elderly person carry their groceries, picking up your neighbor’s dog’s poop, etc.). I used a different color of paper for these and used a location symbol stamp to mark the backs. My template (Microsoft Word) is here.
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    • Instruction sheet – definitely don’t forget this! You can see my template here. I laminated it after printing just because I love laminating.
    • Location Chore Payment Card – as mentioned, if the player needed to earn money to make a purchase, he or she could choose to visit an additional location and lose a turn to earn some cash. I created this little guide here to indicate how much money would be earned at each location.
  • Make the game pieces. Thankfully, my husband got a 3D printer for Christmas in 2017. I don’t have any great recommendations for you on how to create pieces without one (maybe find random knick-knacks around your house that you could include? Maybe make little cardboard people or stands?), but here’s the pieces we used from Thingiverse:

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  • Make the game box. I found a really helpful blog about how to make a board game box here. My husband was adamant that he didn’t want to just use a clothing gift box, so I followed the instructions using a couple of boxes I received some shipments (Amazon, Wal-mart, etc.) to create a custom-sized box. Then, I covered the entire thing with thing brown paper (from my massive roll I’ve used for all my gift wrapping). I used mod podge to adhere the brown paper to the cardboard. Then, I printed out pictures of all the locations on the game board and a few others (his dad’s work, restaurants and stores they go to in their area, the mall, a park, etc.) and used these to cover the top and sides of the top piece for the box. I used mod podge to adhere the pictures to the box and then applied a thin layer of mod podge on top as well to give it a shiny finish and protect it. I also made sure to include the name of the game right in the middle.

 

Once I had everything done, I used baggies and a little box we had laying around to keep the cards, money and game pieces organized. Here’s the final product:

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3D Unicorn Cake

I’m guessing it’s the sheer ridiculousness of the title that drew you into this post, right? I cannot claim any of the magic that you’re about to see as my own – only (most of) the words are from me. The rest is the great and fabulous talent of a very good friend of mine, heretofore referred to as HC. (Yes, there’s a story. No, I’m not going to tell it. Count your blessings.)

HC has a niece who was turning 5 this year. For whatever reason (what DOES go on in the minds of children?), her niece requested a black unicorn cake with a fairy perched on the tip of the horn. Ummmmm. Okay. Let’s break that down.

  1. A unicorn cake, in its own right, is hard enough on its own, especially if we’re talking 3D. You have to make multiple layers to give it dimension and then, of course, you have to figure out a way to mount the horn and add detail on a…vertical surface.
  2. A black cake is also incredibly tough. Black isn’t a color that’s easy to make with frosting and fondant can be a pain in the butt.
  3. A fairy perched on anything other than the cake is just absolute madness and also…a fairy…with a unicorn? I guess they are both mythical…

Anyway, despite having all the odds stacked against her, she created this gloriousness:

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Here’s how she did it.

Materials:

  • 3 boxes of cake mix (any kind or flavor will do)
  • Wilton mini cake pans (6″ and 8″)
  • Wilton frosting recipe ingredients (enough for 4 batches)
  • Fondant (she used both white and black fondant)
  • Cake board (10″ should be good)
  • Gel frosting dye (she used the Wilton neon dyes)
  • Wilton Color Mist (it’s a spray can – pic below)
  • Frosting bags and tips
  • Dowel rods (food-safe)
  • Straws
  • Fondant smoother
  • Pizza cutter (to cut fondant)
  • Fondant glue
  • Flower foam (optional – this may or may not work for you)
  • Fairy, if desired

Instructions:

  • Take a deep breath. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Party day -2: Roll out the fondant for your appendages (so, in this instance, the white fondant).
    • Eyes / lashes: roll into thin, worm-like shapes. Mold together into eye curves with lashes toward the ends and let dry.
    • Ears: Cut the shapes out of white fondant and pinch from the back to make an ear shape. Option to put onto a stick to dry (this will make it easier to put into the cake).
    • Horn:  Roll out a long worm-like piece of fondant and wrap around a straw, leaving the top a bit unfinished so you can wrap around the fairy’s foot when you assemble. Let dry. Option to stand up in the flower foam to dry. (Note, this could cause the fondant to slide down the straw; you may be better off letting it dry on its side and accepting that one side may be slightly flattened.)
  • Party day -1: Make the cakes and let them cool.
    • HC made a total of 6 of each size in a couple of flavors that’d pair well together. Feel free to get super creative and dye the mix for the layers (so the inside will be as magical as the outside).
  • Party day: Make the frosting and stack the cakes, layering with frosting in between.
    • *TIP: Use a cake board so it’s easy to move the cakes once they’re together.
    • Create two cake stacks with dowel rods through the middle to help them keep their shape: one stack of 6″ cakes and the other of 8″ cakes. As you can see from the pics below, the 8″ cakes are stacked up to 6 and the 6″ cakes are stacked up to 5.
  • Paint your accent pieces (eyes / lashes, ears, horn) and let dry.
  • Roll out the fondant for the main cake body.
    • Cover the sides of the cake stacks in frosting to adhere to the fondant.
    • Drape the black fondant over the cakes, covering each cake stack separately.
    • Start smoothing the lower part of the fondant sides with getting it to stick as your primary objective. Smooth up. Focus on having one good side (the front).
    • Use the fondant smoother to smooth into place and the pizza cutter to trim the excess fondant away.
  • Apply fondant accents (eyes / lashes and ears). You will want to use a combination of fondant glue and frosting to get the eyes / lashes to stick since they are attaching to a vertical surface. You may need to use toothpicks or straws to keep the ears standing up. Insert the horn into the cake.
  • Apply piped frosting accents. To create a multi-color effect, put stripes of frosting down each side of the bag, twist off the top and then slide it all down toward the tip. Be sure to use the frosting to cover any imperfections / the insertion point for the horn / any support for the ears.
  • Depending on when you assemble and when your party starts, you can store in the freezer to keep the frosting from sliding until you’re ready to present it. Putting the frosting and/or cakes in the freezer to flash-freeze as you make the cake is also a good idea. Your hand heat will warm the frosting which could cause your various designs to lose their shape.

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  • IF YOU MUST transport, arrange a trustworthy passenger to hold it and don’t plan on going far.

I would say “that’s it” but….well…that was a lot. Good luck. Leave a comment below if you decide to attempt this crazy feat and god speed!

Gift Ideas: Awkward Cat Calendar

If you read the title and thought ‘I don’t like cats,’ you are not alone. But don’t stop reading! Even if you are not a cat lover like I am, you can use the information to create a custom calendar about something you DO love…like your family, dogs, flowers, nature, etc. It’s totally customizable.

As this year was handcrafted Christmas, I decided to finally give in to what one of my sister’s had been basically begging me to make for years – a calendar full of awkward cat pictures. She does not have cats, so she finds it absolutely hilarious when they sit in awkward ways to lick their butts or generally lay very strangely. So, what better gift than 12 months of weird pics of cats? Here’s what I did.

Materials:

  • Paper – I used a thicker cardstock
  • Laminating pouches & laminator – optional, but this will not only create a better looking final product but, if you laminate like I did, you can create a calendar that can actually be used for years to come
  • Printer
  • Scissors
  • Markers – also optional, but I drew some designs on each page. You could totally print these off when you print the basic calendar layout if you don’t like to draw
  • Hole punch – I used a cat paw shaped one for some added fun; feel free to get creative
  • Binder rings – you will use these to put all the pages together but still allow it to fully open and hang; you could also use ribbon or similar, but I wanted something a little more hearty. I used these ones.
  • Picture corners – totally optional, but I wanted to give my sister the option to replace the cat pics with others in the future, so I put all the pictures in using these picture corners.
    • If you don’t end up using these, you’ll need glue or double-sided tape or some other way to attach the pictures to your calendar

 

Instructions:

  1. Choose your pictures – you will want anywhere from 3-6 pictures per page, depending on the size of the photo. I had a number of 4×6 pictures that I cut down to a much smaller size because, well, cats are smaller than humans, so they take up less frame. Since my calendar was all cats, I selected all my pictures and then organized them into themes and matched the themes up with the months:
    1. January – snuggly kitties (since it’s cold outside)
    2. February – all pics of Dex, since he was born in February
    3. March – all pics of G; we lost him in March of 2018 😦
    4. April – window perch pics since it’s starting to get a little nice out
    5. May – all pics of Jameson, since he was born in May
    6. June – Gemini sign, so pics of my “twins” – they are actually from different litters, but the same mama, but they act like twins with how they’re always together
    7. July – cats and humans
    8. August – sun porch pics
    9. September – all pics of Molly since she was born in September
    10. October – I call this the ‘murder series’ – my cats are indoor/outdoor and they are pretty serious hunters and, as such, bring us lots of ‘presents’
    11. November – twosomes and threesomes
    12. December – cats in boxes (like Christmas…with presents…ya know…)
  2. Print your calendar – this part is easy. You can use my calendar template here. I did not include the numbers for the month because I laminated my calendar. When you laminate paper, you can easily use dry-erase markers on it like on a whiteboard. So, my sister can add the dates on the appropriate days of the week depending on the year and use this calendar for years to come.
  3. Draw pictures and laminate – after I printed each of the calendar pages out, I felt like they looked a little bland. I’m not a huge fan of clipart, so I decided to hand draw two small images on either side of the month name. I chose images that I could (mostly) successfully draw and that would make sense for that month / their family. After everything was drawn, I laminated each page.
    1. January – New Year’s party hat and confetti / noise maker and a snoman
    2. February – snowflake and hearts
    3. March – shamrock and an Easter egg (although, unfortunately, Easter is SUPER late in 2019 at April 21)
    4. April – flowers and balloons (they have a birthday in April and April flowers bring…May showers…)
    5. May – balloons and an umbrella with rain (they have two birthdays in May and April flowers bring…May showers…)
    6. June – sunglasses and a flip flop
    7. July – American flag and balloons (they have a birthday in July)
    8. August – a sun and a schoolhouse (my sister is a teacher, so it’s back to school for her!)
    9. September – an apple and a football
    10. October – leaves and a pumpkin
    11. November – turkey and shopping bags (we LOVE Black Friday shopping)
    12. December – Christmas tree and a present
  4. Organize your pictures on the page – for this part, I HIGHLY encourage you to punch your holes on each month FIRST and then layout your photos. I made the mistake of not hole punching first and laid out all my photos, stuck them on and then had to try to work around them to create the holes on each page in roughly the same spot without ruining any pics. It was annoying; do better than I did. As a tip, you need holes at both the top AND bottom of each page. The holes at the top of the picture page will be used for hanging and at the bottom will be used to attach it all together. Be sure to remember that when you flip the month page up, it will be upside down and backward, so you need to put your pictures on correctly so they don’t end up upside down.
  5. Stick your pics and add the rings – once I had all my pictures cut to size and arranged, I started placing them on the page. After all my pics were in, I put my rings through to put the calendar together and that was it!

 

To complement the calendar, I provided my sister with two command hooks to hang it up (I thought hanging from two spots would be better than a center hole since the calendar had some weight to it) and some ultra fine point dry erase markers to write on each month (these ones).

Here are some pics:

(Apparently I didn’t take a photo of December…oopsies!)

Gift Ideas: A Year of Dates

As part of Handcrafted Christmas 2018, for the hubs, I decided to do a Year of Dates. I saw this idea on Pinterest from a number of pinners done a number of different ways. Everyone has their own preference to creating, so ultimately you do too, but I’ll include a number of different ideas / options / opinions below to give you an idea of all the variables you get to make decisions on.

This is a great idea for couples who don’t typically go out a lot together. We are generally homebodies and would much prefer a night in working on projects or hanging out than getting organized to go out. However, that sometimes means we don’t always make it a point to spend quality time together, so for this upcoming year, I decided to give us an excuse to do that.

Materials:

  • White and navy cardstock (or whatever colors you want)
  • Paper cutter
  • Various stickers and markers
  • 12 envelopes
  • Any supplements for various dates (print-outs, actual tickets, treats, etc.)
  • Box to hold finished dates

Variables: As mentioned, there are lots of different ways you can execute this gift. Below are a few callouts to the variable decisions you can make about how to do it.

  • Book vs. box – I saw lots of pinners who used a binder with page sleeves and letter size paper (or A4) for each date; I used a box with cards in envelopes because I got a few actual gifts to supplement some of the months
  • Pre-purchase vs. Post-purchase – some pinners recommended purchasing all the materials and tickets for every date in advance so the gift would be fully pre-paid and there’d be no excuse NOT to go do it; I opted not to do this for a few reasons:
    • We may change our minds on what a certain date is or where, so I didn’t want to be locked in
    • I want to use Groupon for some of the months and most Groupons only offer the promotional price for 120 days, so this wouldn’t work for anything after April
    • That’s a lot of money to spend at once vs. spread out over a year; especially if you’re already budget conscious at Christmas (who isn’t??), you may also want to opt to buy a few things only and save the rest as deferred payments.
  • General date ideas vs. specific activities & dates – for a few of the months, I picked a specific activity and corresponding date that we’d go. I didn’t do this for every month because, depending on the time of year, we may have a packed calendar and may need to work around other commitments. I didn’t want to buy tickets or spend money on something only to have to reschedule or miss out on something with one of our families. Also, my husband is not the type to be dictated to. He WILL, but it’s not his favorite, so I wanted to create some control/choice in the gift for him.

Okay, let’s get into the how to and the date ideas.

Instructions:

  • Brainstorm a list of dates that match your budget and location. Pair each date idea with an appropriate month. Determine the idea for each month BEFORE you start creating the date cards.
  • Identify an image, drawing or sticker you can use for each date idea (pre-plan your cards). I ended up using a lot of stickers, but I also hand-drew a few cards. It doesn’t matter if you are a great drawer – this is for your other half, so hopefully they’ll be understanding of your drawing abilities.
  • Create date cards. I had a couple of sessions when I sat down to do this. For me, it definitely wasn’t something I could just do in one go, both for time and creativity reasons. I used a variety of markers, stickers and drawings to illustrate each card and date idea.

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  • Purchase and organize any supplements.
    • I purchased some boxed candy to go along with May and July, both of which are “movie months.” I also created a supplemental doc to go with June which you can see here. We are going on an all-family cruise in June and our date will be to pick and enjoy an excursion together.
  • Label box and stack cards inside.

Here are some date ideas I used along with a bunch I didn’t. Keep in mind that you will have other ideas that are specific local activities unique to your area. There are a few on my list that are unique to where we live, so while you may not be able to do them, I’ve left them here to get you thinking about what you could add from your neighborhood.

Happy dating!

  • January – we’ll be going to see our city’s basketball team play; I got us super good seats (we aren’t doing so hot this season, so they weren’t terribly priced)
  • February – Tea for Two at my favorite tea room
  • March – Ice skating
  • April – Mitchell’s Ice Cream Factory tour (and ice cream!)
  • May – Dinner and a movie – we really want to see Avengers 4 when it comes out, so I picked May because it comes out May 4
  • June – Excursion on our family cruise
  • July – Drive-in movie
  • August – Picnic
  • September – Mini golf and ice cream
  • October – Glassblowing
  • November – Paint night
  • December – Couples’ massage
  • Other ideas:
    • Horseback riding
    • Beach day
    • Laser tag
    • Ziplining
    • Paintball
    • Bike ride
    • Amusement park or water park
    • Other sports game (soccer, baseball, football, hockey, etc.)
    • Concert
    • Play / musical
    • Comedy show
    • Murder Mystery Dinner Theater
    • Bowling
    • Kayaking / canoeing / paddle boarding
    • Hike
    • Escape room
    • Go kart riding
    • Museums

 

Gift Ideas: Couple Christmas Kits

If you’ve read Gift Ideas: For the Host(ess), then you’ve seen my dot design mugs. That technique, explained in the aforementioned post, was used for one of the sets below. As you may have seen in Gift Ideas: Family Tree, this year was handcrafted Christmas, where everyone on my shopping list received a handcrafted gift (in many cases this was alongside their regular gift). However, handcrafted Christmas or not, the below idea is great for a cost-effective, yet thoughtful and cute, gift idea. You could make this for a couple, like I did, or you could make it for a family or single person – just customize with the number of items you include.

Materials:

  • Mugs (I used white ones from the Dollar Tree, but you could use clear or a light color)
  • Oil-based paint markers, like these
  • Glitter (try to get fine glitter – it will lay better)
  • Dishwasher safe Mod Podge + application sponge/brush
  • Letter stickers or paper letters
  • Mug cake packs or mix (there are lots of great recipes for homemade mug cake mixes on Pinterest) – I bought mine at Walmart, but I’ve seen them at Aldi and Giant Eagle too
  • Fireside Coffee Mix & Jar (read the recipe I used here)

First things first, you need to make the mugs. I used 4 different techniques:

  • Dot Design – place sticker letters onto the mug and, using the oil-based paint marker, put a bunch of dots around the letters. Remove the stickers and fill in with dots, as needed, to ensure the letter (or word!) is visible.
  • Letter Block – place sticker letters onto the mug and, using the oil-based paint marker, draw a shape (square, rectangle, circle, diamond, etc.) around the letter. You could use a stencil but I just free-handed and it worked out okay. Then, color in the shape surrounding the letter. Remove the sticker and touch up as needed.

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  • Word Transfer – print out whatever word or name you would to transfer onto the mug and trace the BACK of the word with pencil, coloring in the letters completely. Then place the stencil against the mug with the front facing you (the backside with the pencil you just colored should be against the mug). Then, trace the letters again, fully coloring them in. Remove the stencil and you should have a pencil marking of the word on your mug. Using the oil-based paint marker, trace the letters of your word/name.

Note: If you’re using any of the above techniques with oil-based paint markers, you MUST let them dry overnight and then bake at 250° for 2 hours on a baking sheet. Otherwise, the paint will come off in the dishwasher.

  • Glitter dipped mugs – these were kind of a pain in the butt, but I followed the directions from this pin. The hard part was really just getting the glitter evenly dispersed with no white spots and no clumps. I found that pouring some glitter out onto a sheet of paper and gently dipping the mug onto it gave me a more even layer than trying to hold the mug and sprinkle glitter onto it.

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Once you’ve made your mugs, now you can make your Fireside Coffee mix (and mug mixes, if applicable). Don’t forget to add a label with directions for use!

Finally, put it all together. Since I didn’t make my own mug mix, I put the little pouches in the cups for a cute presentation. And voila – you have a cute, easy, and cheap gift. Who doesn’t love coffee and dessert with adorable and personalized mugs?

Merry Christmas!

Gift Ideas: Family Tree

This year, my husband and I (okay, okay, I basically coerced him) decided to do handcrafted Christmas. What is handcrafted Christmas, you ask? Well, basically we made homemade or personalized gifts for everyone on our shopping list. This started, in part, because I love to craft and wanted to try a bunch of different projects (but I don’t need a million crafts laying around the house), but also, my side of the family was doing a gift exchange this year, so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to buy for everyone. This way, I could still shop for my gift exchange assignments, but I could make everyone in the fam a personalize, heart-felt gift too!

As much as I’ve been wanting to post about these ideas for weeks now, I decided to wait until just before and then after Christmas to avoid any risk of anyone seeing their gift ahead of time. But, since I know my mom doesn’t read my blog regularly (thanks a lot, Ma hehe), I figured I’d be safe posting her gift a few days early.

I have a huge family – 4 siblings and lots of nieces and nephews. Family is really important to my mom (and to all of us, really), so I thought it’d be neat to make her something to showcase her big family, which is how I landed on creating a family tree.

I did a lot of researching online to get ideas for a family tree, but nothing I saw was really striking my fancy. There are lots of options on Etsy where you can get a printed version of a tree with text and it looks cool, but I didn’t just want a sheet of paper for her. There are also lots where you have a physical tree and then can hang little pieces with names, but I didn’t love this either, so I decided to create something of my own design. Here’s how I did it.

Materials:

  • Baltic Birch plywood (HIGHLY encourage getting nice wood for this – you will see below my first draft which was AWFUL in part because I used crappy wood)
  • Paper and pencil for drafting / practicing
  • Scroll saw or other type of saw to cut out your design
  • Sandpaper
  • Stain – I used Varathane Stain + Poly in Kona Semi-Gloss
  • Dremel or other carving tool (I used a Dremel Model 290 Engraver)
  • Command strips for mounting (I used the large velcro strips – I put them on the back of the tree and just left the wall side protective strips on so it’s super simple for my mom to hang up)

Instructions:

  • Draft the design. I made several iterations of the design before I got to one I liked. I started by writing out all of my family members’ names and grouping them together by family. I thought about including birthdates as well, but ultimately landed on just first and middle names. Once I knew I wanted to make an actual tree, I took my draft and turned it into a general tree shape with branches off the trunk for my mom’s kids (me and my 4 siblings) and then smaller branches coming off of our branches for the kids. Not all of my siblings have kids (for example, I have no children), so I either left it as a singular branch or added some small nubby branches for texture. My oldest sister has a kid who is already married and may be having children soon, so I made sure to include room on the branch for her husband’s name and two little branches off of their main branch for their future kids. Once I had my general design on paper, I put it onto the wood. Most of this I did free-hand, but you could find an image online and print it out. (The size I wanted would have been too big to print at home, but you can always print at FedEx or OfficeMax too!)
  • Cut it out. For v1, I used a jigsaw. This worked okay, but combined with the crappy plywood, it left choppy edges with some splintering. For v2, I used a scroll saw (never used one before this!!) and it came out super well. The biggest difference for me between the two is that it’s much easier to control YOUR speed on the scroll saw. You can set the speed that the blade moves, but you also move the wood rather than the saw, so it’s much easier to navigate slowly and steadily. Be sure to wear protective eye gear and keep your fingers away from the blade!
  • Sand and stain. You definitely want to sand the edges where you cut, including the tips of the branches. Be sure to give the front face a nice, quick sand using a high numbered paper (the higher the number the finer the grit, which means you’ll take less off for a smoother finish. If you have super rough edges, use a lower number grit to get more off at once). When you go to stain, definitely put down a cover for your workspace (it will make clean up SUPER easy) and be sure to start with the edges and then fade into the face of the tree. On v1, I forgot to do the edges first and you can see where I did them after the fact, which created somewhat of an outline effect to the tree. Do the edges as you go part by part staining in the rest of the tree to create a seamless blending. Let dry for at least 2 days in a well-ventilated, temperature controlled area (I let mine dry in my craft room instead of my basement so it’d go quicker).

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  • Carve. DEFINITELY practice on a scrap piece of stained wood first. Do not just dive straight into carving your piece. You need to get the feel for the tool and how it reacts to the wood and the stain. Be careful about making your letters too small – you may end up popping out any small portions completely, which doesn’t look great. Again, this is another reason to use the quality wood – I didn’t have any parts pop out completely, even with some pretty small letters. I free-handed all of my letters. You could use a metal stencil if you want, but if you practice enough (I had an entire tree of practice), then you can probably get away with free-handing as well. Just remember to go slow, take breaks, and breathe. Oh, and do a first pass of all the names and THEN go back and re-do any letters that didn’t come out quite right.

That’s it! All in all, v2 probably took about 4 hours in total (minus the lag time between staining and carving). It really wasn’t that tough of a project, but definitely learned a lot between the first and second version. If you apply what I’ve shared above, your first version will likely be amazing! See the huge difference between versions below. You can barely even read the names in v1, whereas v2 is clear and clean. Using better wood and a darker stain likely made this difference.

 

Take A Trip: Australia

I count myself lucky to be an American who’s had the pleasure of visiting Australia more than once. I’ve been twice now, both times for work, but with some fun sprinkled in. I won’t bore you with the details of the trips, per se, but instead will focus on the cool stuff I got to do along the way.

Before we get into the parts of Australia, here’s a few tips overall:

  • Check your visa needs before you go! You will get stopped at the airport (at least in the US/UK) if you don’t. If you’re coming from the US (and likely many other countries), you have to apply online for the visa ahead of time and pay a fee ($20 AUD). It doesn’t take long to grant the visa (less than 24-hours) and it’s electronic, but you still have to do it before you go. If you aren’t sure what visa requirements apply to you, one of my favorite sources is cibtvisas.com. Just put in where you’re coming from, going to and the country of your passport and voila!
  • Don’t count on American Express. My employer uses Amex for our corporate cards (which is a super nice perk and I’m very grateful for it!), but 90% of everyday places in Australia don’t take it. (Yes, the nicer restaurants / establishments tend to.) When I’m there and not doing stuff for work, I’d prefer to live like a local, which means going into small bakeries or hitting street sales. American Express is not your friend at these places. Make sure you’re traveling with Visa or Mastercard and ideally a chip card. Tapping to pay is also a common thing, so if you’ve got data on your phone, that’ll work. If you prefer to use cash, I’m a fan of just withdrawing money from an ATM with my bank card (vs. exchanging USD somewhere). I’ve never had an issue with it in Australia and with my bank, some ATMs are even free of charge!
  • Coffee is never regular (American) coffee. You will be hard pressed to find drip coffee in any part of the country, but if you like espresso, try a long black. Otherwise, find somewhere that offers french press coffee (even this is hard to come by). However, if you like espresso, get excited because they have TONS of amazing espresso for your enjoyment.
  • If you can manage business class (or find an amazing fare), DO IT! Coming from pretty much anywhere, the flight to Australia is worth the business class investment. For US folks, it’s basically a minimum of 14 hours and depending on where you live, you’ll probably need to tack on a few hours to get to a city where flights down under depart. I’ve flown through Vancouver, CAN, Houston, TX and Los Angeles, CA. All were pretty easy, but the flight times for the long leg varied a bit – LAX was 14 hours, YVR was 16 and IAH was 17. So, as stated, business class is WORTH IT. The food is amazing, the alcohol helps with sleeping and, oh yea, depending on who you fly with, you will 100% get a lay flat bed and maybe, just maybe, a pillow topper for that bed and PAJAMAS!!! Not to mention, you’ll get lounge access at the airport (so free food and drinks and a quiet, clean place to hang out). I recently flew United Polaris and the experience was insane. Here’s a few pics to show you what I mean:

(the cart shown was bringing around dessert – there were tiers of delicious treats and an ice cream sundae option as well; you can see the provided bedding and pajamas on the long haul flight; the food shown was on my flight to Houston before I picked up my long leg…so this was just basic first class food! I don’t have any Polaris food pics, but rest assured, it was fantastic.)

Sydney (NSW)

First up, Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. This is the major city for Australia, and where you will most likely fly into or through depending on your final destination in Australia or, in many cases, New Zealand. Sydney is BEAUTIFUL and has lots of great things to offer both in, around and not-completely-far from the city.

First, some general notes about Sydney:

  • There are two parts to the city itself: the CBD (Central Business District), which is on the South side of the bridge and North Sydney, which is on the….north side of the bridge. By “the bridge” I, of course, mean the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges in the world. (I think I might have a thing for bridges…). The CBD is definitely more active than North Sydney, but there is some neat stuff on the north side of the city that I recommend below (I stayed on the north side for work).
  • Public transit is great. I HIGHLY recommend getting an Opal card when you arrive. You can get them lots of places, including the train station at the airport. An Opal card makes it easy to use public transit to get into and around the city. The cab/uber ride from the airport into the city can get pretty pricey even though it’s only a 20-30 minute ride. The train is like $10-12 AUD. Anyway, the Opal card is great because you can use it for busses, trains, and ferries (all of which you should try – they are all easy to navigate especially if you have GoogleMaps or similar (or are familiar with reading timetables online)).
  • There are lots of neat neighborhoods just outside the city, including Bondi, Manly and Neutral Bay. Some are best to get to by Ferry (Manly), train (Neutral Bay), or bus (Bondi) – just really depends on where you’re coming from / going. Explore all options and see more of the greater city area than just downtown / the harbour.
  • Sydney isn’t really that far from great natural areas. Obviously, the ocean runs along the east side of the city with the very large harbour in the middle, but just about 2 hours slightly north and mostly west on a train and you’re in the gorgeous Blue Mountains region. It’s definitely worth the train ride out, but more about that below.
  • There are luggage lockers around the city where you can drop your bags when you first arrive or before you leave (if you can’t yet check-in to or have already checked out of your hotel). I think we paid maybe $15 to have our luggage stored for several hours before our evening flight out. This was great because it allowed us to roam around the city freely! We used this place, but there are lots of options.

Okay, now, let’s get into recommendations. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I am only one person who can only do so much!), but these were the things I did, and enjoyed, whilst there.

  • Botanic Gardens – this is a great ‘when you arrive’ activity. You can do as much or as little walking as you’d like – there are spots to just chill on the grass by the water, or you can wind your way through the miles of pathway. It’s also right by the Opera House, so two birds, one stone.
    • For Americans, you’ll get in usually pretty early in the morning. Hopefully you’ve caught some shuteye on the plane and can stay up for the day because that’s the goal. When you land, stay up as long as possible, ideally until at least early evening, and then go to bed and sleep until morning. This should get you acclimated within a day. PS, coming back to the states SUCKS and the jetlag is way worse so just prepare yourself. At least you won’t be tired on your vacation. 🙂
  • Opera House – this is right at Circular Quay, the central ferry terminal for Sydney (this is also a central spot to pick up a train, bus or cab). Quay is pronounced as key. Anyway, you have to see this while you’re there – you almost can’t NOT see it, so that’s good. But if you aren’t in the city, make it a point to get there to see it in person. It is both bigger and smaller than you think it’s going to be. It’s also apparently amazing to actually see shows in. I didn’t, but a colleague of mine did and really enjoyed it.
    • Note, there are lots of nice restaurants around this area. Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is quite yummy, although a little pricey. There’s also some shopping, although if you’re looking for a souvenir shop, I’d actually recommend just waiting until the airport on your way home. I found the airport prices to be cheaper than the stores in the city AND they had all the same stuff (maybe even more / better options!).
  • Syndey Harbour Bridge walk – this is simple and free – walk from the CBD to North Sydney (or the other way around) at least once. You will have beautiful views of the water, bridge and city. You could do the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, where you go up and over the bridge, but it’s somewhat pricey (I saw anywhere from $260-$400 AUD). I opted for the free version, although maybe someday if I’m ever back there, I’ll give it a go.
  • The Rocks Market – Every Saturday and Sunday you can find a little street fair market in The Rocks. This is an area to the Southeast of the bridge right by the water / docks. If you start at Circular Quay and you’re facing the ferry station, it’s to your left – follow the pathway around until you get just past the Art Museum and head up the hill toward the cobblestone road. You should see lots of stalls with handicrafts, clothing, art and food. If you aren’t there for the weekend, there are still lots of cute little restaurants and shops in this area.
  • Helicopter Ride over the city – my husband was able to come out during my first trip to Sydney and we did this together. There were INCREDIBLE views of all parts of the city and it really wasn’t all that expensive (maybe like $150 AUD per person, which with the conversion at the time was only like $115 / person for 15 minutes in the air). Here are some pics to show you why you should do it. We used Blue Sky Helicopters and took public transit to get there. That was a little bit sketchy, as we had to walk near a highway and around the airport, but we managed. The tour company was great – we were in a mixed group with two other couples and my husband got to ride up front with the pilot, so had probably the best view out of everyone!
  • Bondi Beach – we decided to rent bikes from Bronte (one neighborhood over) and ride to Bondi Beach. It was an absolutely incredible and enjoyable ride until we went downhill a TON and got to the bottom and realized we’d have to ride back up 🙂 That said, it wasn’t that bad and was totally worth it because the Icebergs Club and Bondi Beach are both beautiful. We happened upon the annual Sculpture by the Sea event, which is right near Bondi Beach in the cliffs and it was really cool. It was pretty packed, so beware that could be the case for you, but it’s every year right at the beginning of summer (so end of October / beginning of November – different hemisphere).
    • Coogee to Bondi walk – I have not done this myself, but I’ve heard from others who have that it’s amazing. It is an urban coastal walk which takes you on a 6 km hike/walk.
  • Manly Beach – this is a must-do in my opinion. If I were to live in Sydney, I’d definitely live in Manly. There is a great beach, shopping and tons of awesome restaurants and cafes. There is also a lot of hiking and other outdoor sport to do! And, it’s only a 20-30 minute ferry ride, with more great views, from Circular Quay. Please note, you can use your Opal card for either the normal ferry (30-minute ride, cheaper fare) or the Manly Fast Ferry (20-minute ride, $9.10 fare as of Nov. 2018); both have bars. Some of my favorite places in Manly are:
    • Hugos – this is right at the ferry terminal when you come in, but it’s also on the water. It’s an Italian restaurant with really fun cocktails (and even cocktail jugs – I had the apple / watermelon one and it was DELICIOUS) and yummy plates to share.
    • Manly Greenhouse – I went here for afternoon cocktails on a Sunday and it was jamming at the 3rd floor bar. However, this is where it’s at. It’s an open air spot with fantastic views of the water. They also have really fun cocktails and even pretty good “bar food,” which is much better than American bar food. We got arancini with fresh provolone inside, white bait (these are tiny little fish – you eat the whole thing tip to tail), and fat chips. Even the chips (aka fries) were great and they came with a really good aioli.
    • The Pantry – this place is right on Manly Beach (not across the road where the majority of places are) so it has unobstructed views of the open water. It’s pretty spectacular. They also have really nice food and you can get cocktails.
  • Manly to the Spit Bridge hike – if you do decide to make it over to Manly, which you should, then you could make your way back toward the city on the Manly to the Spit Bridge urban coastal hike. This is a 10km walk up and down the coast from Manly to Mosman. It is definitely a little bit intense in some parts, and it is pretty long, so be smart about if/when you go. Make sure to take plenty of water, wear sunscreen and dress for the weather. I made the trek on a beautiful 80 degree day and really enjoyed it, but I definitely was sweating up a storm and the sun was beating down on me. In hindsight, probably should’ve worn a hat. You can pick up this hike at either end – if you start at the Spit Bridge (probably a better starting point than a finish, because after you finish in Manly you could enjoy a drink or food and there’s not much near the bridge in Mosman), take the stairs beneath the bridge to pick up the trail. If you start in Manly, when you come out of the ferry terminal, turn left and follow the path behind the little beach there. You’ll see signs periodically to let you know you’re on the right path. At one point, I did have to ask someone for directions, but he was an incredibly friendly Aussie who told me exactly where to go to pick it back up.
  • Mr. Wong – this is a restaurant in the CBD. They don’t accept reservations unless it’s for a large group, so if you want to go, I recommend showing up right when they open so you can get a seat quickly. Otherwise, you’re in for a long wait. This place is a really cool and delicious Chinese restaurant. Definitely opt to share plates – we did a chef’s special steamed dim sum to start and then a veggie, a rice and two meats to share for our main (amongst 3 people) and it was the perfect amount. It is a pricier restaurant, but everything I’ve had there has been excellent (I went on both of my trips…so that might tell you something…)
    • On my recent trip, we wanted to go for a nightcap after dinner, so we headed to Tank Stream bar around the corner. They were closing, but directed us to this basement speakeasy around the corner (that, coincidentally, is attached to Mr. Wong through a door in the lower level) called Palmer and Co. It had a very cool 1920s vibe and really good cocktails to boot.
  • O Bar and Dining – the hubs and I have started to develop a thing for revolving restaurants (well, maybe I just like them and he goes along with it…I don’t know) but we went to our first one in Seattle at the Space Needle and had the pleasure of visiting one of the TWO rotating restaurants in Sydney, O Bar and Dining. From what I’ve heard, this is the better of the two (it’s in tall, circular office building, not the Westfield tower). The food was absolutely amazing and I got to visit this spot on both trips as well (we had a work event there one night on my recent trip). It is definitely on the pricey side, but with the 360 degree-view of the city every 80 minutes, it’s worth it. Plus, did I mention how good the food was?!

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  • Flaky Tart Bakery – this is on the north side of the city just over the Harbour bridge. If you decide to make that walk and are looking for a little snack before you head back to the CBD, hit up this little spot. Go down the stairs and turn right toward the road and then right again before the road. It will be directly on your right-hand side (you may or may not have to cross under the bridge, depending on which side you walked over on). I went there one morning for breakfast and had a fantastic quiche with ham and a fresh-from-the-oven, still-warm doughnut that really changed the whole outlook of my day.
  • Whale watching – this is only a good idea during certain parts of the year when the whales are likely migrating along the coast, but if you are there during the peak season, it’s a fun time. I can’t find the name of the company we went out with, but there are lots to choose from. Our boat was a pretty small, but very fast, one. I would not recommend if you get easily seasick – take a bigger boat out. We had a great time and got to see a few different whales while we were out.
  • The Blue Mountains – if you’ve got an extra day, fit this in. It’s a 2-hour train journey from the city, but the train ride itself is quite scenic and is very smooth. We grabbed breakfast and enjoyed it on the train and just hung out. When we arrived, we booked a bus tour which took us to a number of scenic spots. One of the best stops was Scenic World, which allows you to take a few gondola rides and this super steep train-like ride down the mountain. It would be a great place to take kids too! There are also some neat antique shops in town if you’re looking for more shopping. And then you can take a nap to recover from the day on your train ride back to the city.

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Melbourne (VIC)

I have almost no records of my time here (it was only ~2 days total), so I can’t tell you what I ate or drank or enjoyed (but do have some pics below), but here’s what I will say: Melbourne (pronounced by the locals as Melbun with the emphasis on the Mel) is a very cool city. It is a little more artsy / funky / laidback and is supposed to have one of the greatest coffee scenes in the world. So, if you have some extra time or want to city hop, I’d recommend this as an option.

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Great Barrier Reef (Cairns, Australia, QLD)

When the hubs came out to join me on my first trip, we decided it’d be a real shame NOT to visit the Great Barrier reef. It is dying, after all. So, we stayed for a few days in Sydney before heading up to Cairns, a coastal city that has lots of options for getting out to the GBR. I wouldn’t recommend the place we stayed (it was a bit of a dive hotel, but it was cheap), but this is a cool little town. Though they don’t have a proper beach for lounging, they do have tons of souvenir shopping and lots of options for getting out to the reef. We used Down Under Dive and had a great experience. We did two rounds of scuba diving and some snorkeling. It was our first time with scuba and it was such a fun experience. We definitely want to try it elsewhere.

Throughout our entire time in Cairns, we walked everywhere. It’s a very small town and easy to navigate on foot. A few places of note in Cairns:

  • Four Cinq – this was a really good ramen place we went one evening. If you like ramen, I would definitely recommend it because it’s actually authentic.
  • Foot and Body by Healing Touch – this was in the Orchid Plaza shopping centre. My  hubs and I got a couples massage for super cheap and it was really good. We walked out of there feeling dazed because we felt so relaxed.
  • The Esplanade Lagoon- this is right by the water and is a massive pool / kids water play area.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my personal recommendations on the best souvenirs to bring back home with you:

  • Timtams – these are an Australian cookie treat. There are tons of different flavors. This time I brought home caramel and mint chocolate chip and both were soooo good. You can buy these at any grocery store.
  • Kangaroo scrotum coin pouch – these are a huge hit with the family back home because they are so bizarre. And don’t worry, Aussies eat kangaroo meat (and they are kind of a nuisance like deer are in certain parts of the US), so nothing is going to waste. You can buy these at any souvenir shop / most shops in the airport.
  • Other Kangaroo leather products – shoes, glove, wallets, etc. You can buy these goods at many souvenir and airport shops.
  • Wine – Australia is known for its many wine regions, so there are lots of options to choose from. You can buy from one of the numerous wine shops around the city.
  • Aboriginal art – this work is often characterized by a dot painting technique and makes for very cool artwork. You can buy at one of the many galleries in the city or from souvenir shops.
  • Casey’s Chocolates – this might be harder to find, but I met this guy at a street sale in Manly on a Saturday and he let me sample (and ultimately sold me) some super delicious chocolate that he makes. It is all dairy-free and it’s quite a treat.

If you want more ideas or to chat through anything you’re planning, leave a comment below! I’m by no means an expert on Australia or Sydney, but I do have some base knowledge and lots of friends there who can help with expert advice too!

Brown Paper Packages: Festively Accented

The countdown to Christmas has officially begun! This year, I am feeling particularly festive and on top of the holiday (90% of my gifts are purchased, wrapped and under my fully decorated tree in my decorated house).

But, every year, I try to do something fun and themed with my gift wrapping. In the past, I’ve done the classic mix and match of cute Christmas printed wrapping paper, but starting about 3 years ago, I switched over to a brown paper base. There is a two-part reasoning behind this: 1, I like how clean and classic brown paper looks – it goes with virtually any color scheme of decor (except maybe like glittery / white / silver modern) because you can accent it any way you’d like and 2, I found this giant, and I mean GIANT, role of plain brown paper in the attic of the house we used to rent before we bought our home. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have just taken it with us, but, well, we did. Sorry, Dave.

Anyhow, it’s so massive, it’s lasted me through many years of Christmas and projects thus far. You can see it used in the first post in this series, Brown Paper Packages: Tied Up With String, or in other posts, like How to Host a Murder: 1880s Western or Thanksgiving Crafts for Hosting.

Last year, I went with brown paper wrapping accented with red and green glittery pompoms. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of my wrapping (what is wrong with me?!), but I got the pompoms at the Dollar Tree. I took two approaches to using the pompoms last year:

  1. I would put a few together for a cute bunch in the middle or corner of a present and write “To” and “From” in permanent marker near it. (I would usually do a mix of red and green and big, medium, and small.)
  2. I’d first draw some sort of picture that would be meaningful or related to the receiver and incorporate the pompom within it. For example, I did Santa playing basketball with a pompom as the ball for my nephew who plays basketball and a kitty with a Santa hat with the pompom as the ball at the tip of the hat for my niece who loves kitties, like me. You get the idea. And, like with #1, I’d just write the “To” and “From” in permanent marker (I also did the drawing in permanent marker).

They were cute. Sorry I can’t show you them.

This year, I saw some cute Christmas picks at the Dollar Tree and grabbed them just because. Then, when thinking about how to accent my brown paper packages, I decided, why not add a 3D element to my gifts and use the individual pieces of the pick?! So, I got a few more picks and a little bag of acorns so I’d have a good selection to work with and plenty for all of my gifts.

I also decided to do something a little differently for the “To” and “From” labels. As per the above, I’d done permanent marker and last year I did stamping. I always used to love gift tags and selecting which tag to give to which person, so I decided to look for some of these. What I found instead of the classic sticker gift tags were these cute little gift tag books with glitter that are on a sticky pad that pops them off the gift. I got a couple of packs of these to go with my Christmas picks and acorns (all of this from the Dollar Tree; the little book gift tags came in packs of 18 for only $1!). Then, using some classic white glue to secure my pick elements to the gifts, I went to work!

The final result was this:

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Gift Ideas: For the Host(ess)

I’m actually giving this gift at a party I’m going to tonight, so banking on the fact that the host of the party isn’t reading this post before he receives this (hi Adam!).

The hubs and I were invited to an X-mas Xtravaganza this year. We’ve never been to the home of this couple, so I wanted to take along a little host(ess) gift for them. Since we’ve never been there and I have absolutely no idea about the style / design aesthetic of their house, I decided to go low risk with a small gift basket with the following:

  • Hand-designed mugs. You can see a few other options for designing these in my post Gift Ideas: Couple Christmas Kits (coming Christmas 2018). For this basket, I decided to go with their first name initials, using the dot technique. I chose yellow, as I found out that’s their accent color in their kitchen (and mugs go in the kitchen….).
    • Materials:
      • Mugs – I got these at the Dollar Tree. Be sure to get oven safe ones.
      • Oil-based paint marker – Joann Fabrics sells these in packs or by themselves and has a wide variety of colors.
      • Letter stencil – I have a big book of pre-cut letters (which you’ll see I use in many of my crafts – it was a great purchase) which I used here, but you could also use letter stickers for this one. If you have a paper letter, you’ll also want a glue stick to attach it to the mug.
    • Instructions:
      • Choose what side you want the letter to go on / which way you want the handle facing. I chose to have the handles opposite each other, as it makes for cuter presentation when the two mugs are together.
      • Attach the letter in the center of the mug. Then, make a bunch of small dots around the edge of the letter so you have a good outline (but not completely solid). Then, get crazy with dots out and around the letter. I usually try to make a generally circular shape around the letter with good dot coverage and then add a few random floaters fanned out slightly from there.
      • Remove the letter stencil and let dry overnight. Then, bake at 250°F for 2 hours on a baking sheet. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

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  • Fireside Coffee Mix. This has been a holiday favorite of mine for over 10 years. My high school art teacher first shared it with me (I cannot for the life of me remember why) and I’ll pull it out every few years to make for myself or as a gift.
    • Materials:
      • Jar – I got this one from the Dollar Tree. There are tons of varieties you can get; a mason jar works great too.
      • Ribbon + tag – I made my tag out of Christmas craft paper I have (not pictured).
      • Ingredients for the mix- powdered coffee creamer, instant coffee, hot cocoa packets, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon
    • Instructions:
      • Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix together:
        • 4 packs hot cocoa mix
        • 1 cup powdered creamer
        • 3/4 cup sugar
        • 1/2 cup instant coffee
        • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
        • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
      • Transfer to the jar.
      • Cut the ribbon long enough to wrap around the mouth of the jar, with some extra to make a bow. TIP – I ALWAYS underestimate how much ribbon it takes to make a bow. You can always cut excess, but you can’t add more, so give yourself some length to work with. Then add the tag, tie the ribbon and that’s it!
  • Kahlua. This is a great addition to any cup of coffee and will be especially tasty with the cinnamon-y, chocolate-y goodness of the Fireside Coffee.
  • Chocolates. Lindor Lindt truffles make for pretty presentation in a mug or floating in a basket. And, they come in a variety of colors / flavors, so they can be a perfect, addition to many types of gift baskets, especially the color baskets (like this one). I chose gold (caramel and milk chocolate), as it would align with the yellow kitchen accent color. Then, I added teal and royal blue (milk chocolate and sea salt and dark chocolate, respectively) as the hostess’ favorite color is blue.
  • Cute basket. Since this was a home warming gift, I wanted to get a small basket that they might actually use in their house. I chose this sisal rope + navy basket because navy is pretty neutral (and again, blue is her favorite color) and the natural element of the sisal seemed like maybe it could work for them. We’ll find out!

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Gift Ideas: White Elephant

Happy (American) Thanksgiving all! My husband’s family likes to do a white elephant exchange on Thanksgiving, so while this post may seem bizarrely timed to some of you, it’s actually about something I made for today!

White elephant gift exchanges have recently expanded in terms of meaning. From my childhood, they usually meant something you were gifted or have (generally unused) that you don’t want and choose to re-gift (I have seen gently used videos or games exchanged before, though). However, nowadays, sometimes it means a small gift (usually $10-15) that you choose to either be silly or serious. Basically, it’s become a free for all.

For our family exchange this year, I decided to do one traditional option (two items I had been gifted and didn’t want) and one creative option – a gift I “made” that would be neutral enough for almost anyone.

If you’ve read my Happy Birthday: Poem Candy Board post, this concept will be familiar for you. Essentially, you create a short message and replace some words with candy. For this one, I went a little wild and bought a bunch of candy that I thought could work and wrote the message after the fact. It actually helped me to think outside the usual candy I could come up with. Plus, I wanted all bagged candy for how I planned to put it together, so I just went to the Dollar Tree and bought what I thought would work. I was working with a $10 limit, but I did go over by $2 (oops!). You could totally stick to $10, but I just wanted to get them all!

Materials:

  • Bagged candy with words that can replace parts of your message
  • A message that works for your theme (birthday, family, Christmas, congratulations, thank you, whatever)
  • Ribbon 
  • Index cards – I used green ones, as you can see in some of the photos
  • Permanent marker
  • Hole punch

Instructions:

  • Write your message and identify what candy you need OR hit the store and buy candy that could work and live dangerously.
  • Plot your candy in order and determine what parts of your message need to be written on cards; create the message cards using a marker and index cards. Punch a hole at the top of each card.

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  • Use the permanent marker to cross out any parts of the candy name that don’t work for your message.

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  • Starting with the middle of the message, string your candy and message cards onto the ribbon working from the middle to the beginning and then from the middle to the end (especially if you have thick ribbon like I did, this part can be tough, so working outward from the middle is more efficient).
  • Tie off the ends of the ribbon so you don’t lose any candy and that’s it!

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Note, I chose to string mine on a ribbon because I didn’t want a massive gift, which is what it would have been if I’d used a tri-fold board or foam/poster board. I wanted it to fit nicely in a gift bag, but still be in the right order, hence the ribbon and bagged candy approach. Here’s my message:

  • What’s one RIESEN you’re thankful this year?
  • Is it for the (sour patch) KIDS in your family? They’re the future.
  • Or, more generally for YORKin (like…your kin).
  • Hopefully you get to see them both NOW AND LATER
  • as we enter the season of silver and (Hershey’s) GOLD.
  • Maybe you’ll see them at (Milky Way) MIDNIGHT mass.
  • Be sure to hit them DUBBLE (bubble) time
  • with lots of (Hershey’s) HUGS and (Hershey’s) KISSES.
  • And remind them to be (Mr.) GOOD(bar)
  • if they want Santa to bring a BUNCHA (crunch)
  • Christmas (Maple Nut) GOODIES.