Homemade Christmas Gifts: A Success Story

By , November 28, 2009

“Make homemade gifts.” The advice is so common, particularly at Christmas time, that it has become cliche, and easy to ignore. Last Christmas, however, I rediscovered that making gifts at home really is the best way to show those you love how much they mean to you.

I’ve made homemade gifts all my life. Some years this happened by decree, which I don’t care for. It’s never meant that way, but the homemade-only stipulation implies that we’re all agreeing to “settle” for homemade gifts. I prefer handcrafting as a voluntary method of giving the gift I hope to give. Homemade should be optional, not required.

Last Christmas was a decree-free homemade Christmas. Aly almost always makes the gifts she gives. Michelle and I happened to come up with ideas that could be made at home. In fact, with the exception of some fabric that Michelle ordered, all of the gifts we made used materials we all ready had at home.

Michelle bought a glider-rocker at a garage sale the previous summer. Her only complaint was that her legs weren’t quite long enough to rest comfortably when she sat in the chair. A quick sort through our lumber pile revealed a single plank with the right dimensions. From it, I built a slanted footstool that allowed her feet to rest at a comfortable angle. Aly and I worked together and finished it in a few days.

Aly is a history buff, and loves medieval weaponry and armor. I’ve always been puzzled by the most devastating weapon of that era, the trebuchet. Catapults I understand, but the trebuchet sling always mystified me—I just couldn’t see how that would work, but I never took the effort to learn the physics of it.

Aly has some toy knights, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity while making her gift by building a working model trebuchet to match her knights.

I consulted the library and Internet. I found a great site that showed what I wanted to build, including measurements and other data that proved very close to the scale of Aly’s soldiers.

I set up shop in the boathouse and got to work. I found a bundle of trimmings from the boathouse paneling. These were just the right width for a hefty scale beam. I cut, sanded and glued until I had a small superstructure. I built a crate around a slug of lead, filled the gaps with plaster, and sprinkled sand on top to make it look as if it had been filled with gravel. My fulcrum and other pins came from an old coat hanger.

The research and construction was fun, but the testing was best! The failures were hilarious, exciting, and instructive. I neglected to clean up the pebbles from my test-firing. While Aly and I worked on Michelle’s gift we talked about what she thought I had made for her. She guessed it was a catapult, based on the pebbles lying around. She wasn’t prepared for the trebuchet, though.

I cut some of the wine corks I hoard (’cause you just never know, do ya?) into thirds to make excellent ammunition that could be fired safely in the house. We also used wooden beads. I included a few pebbles, on which I wrote slogans (“knock knock!” “home wrecker” etc.).

The trebuchet.

The trebuchet with ammunition in the background (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

Trebuchet02 shows the weapon in firing position. The taut string over the arm has a loop in the far side of this view, pegged by a "key" made from a piece of coat hanger wire. She's about ready to pull that key, which will launch the cork piece (others of which you can see in the background).

The taut string over the arm of the trebuchet has a loop in the far side of this view, pegged by a "key" made from a piece of coat hanger wire. She's about to pull that key, which will launch the cork piece (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

I learned so many amazing things while studying trebuchets, I couldn’t wait to finally tell Aly all the stories. I regret not being able to share the whole process with her. I thought long and hard about presenting her the materials on Christmas day, deferring the construction until we could share the experience. Her surprise and pleasure on Christmas morning helped mitigate the regret.

The trebuchet works perfectly! at 1/72 scale an inch equals 6 scale feet, very handy when measuring distances. We can throw a cork 200-300 scale yards, which I think is just about right for the real thing.

Last Christmas reminded me the secret of homemade gifts: they give the maker/giver as much pleasure as the recipient. You can’t beat that!

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