Not handicrafts AGAIN!
September 21, 2010 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I know we've got some fabulously crafty people hanging out on the Green. What have been some of your best appreciated, cheap Holiday projects?

I'm trying to come up with this year's creative, fun, possibly even useful gift project for the Christmas --something so cool as to delight 17 members of my extended family, and yet so cheap as to be do-able, in time for shipping, 17 times on an extremely limited budget.

In the past we've done:
Birdhouses from scrap wood & salvaged paint (cost: drill bit & finish ~$30)
Ornaments from sculpey (One variety pack + string ~$15)
Photo calendars from the huge backlog of un-mounted photos on hand (calendars + mounting tape ~$20)
Ceramic tile hot plates w cork feet (tile + studio fees & cork...maybe 60$?)
posted by Ys to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 161 users marked this as a favorite
We made homemade vanilla extract one year, packaged in large bottles (bought in bulk on the internet) and finished with a custom label. The cost per was right around 6 dollars, and people still mention it.

The downside is it takes too long. Unless you can figure out a way to speed up the process, it takes about six months for the vanilla beans to simmer in the alcohol.
posted by mattybonez at 10:46 AM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

A lot of my family members work in office settings where they have metal desks and filing cabinets close by. One year I made glass marble magnets and they were quite well-liked. I varied the style based on the person. My mom got botanical drawings of birds, my sister got origami paper in colors she likes, and my dad, who writes software, got a big set of 1s and 0s to make binary messages.

The tutorial I linked is fairly accurate. You can actually get the marbles in a variety of sizes; I find the larger ones make it easier to display things like photos or individual images. The small ones are good if you want to use patterned paper. It can be a bit challenging to cut out and center an image with the smaller marbles. The epoxy is perfect and gave me no trouble. Do make sure you get strong magnets, as the marbles are heavy. I found everything at the craft store for about ten bucks (depending on how many you want to make).

You could also probably make pendants for jewelry or keychains in the same way--just epoxy a loop or hook to the back of the marble to connect it to something.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 10:51 AM on September 21, 2010

Oh sugar, how about the tutorial link?
posted by Fui Non Sum at 10:51 AM on September 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Not sure where you're living but if it's anywhere cold during the winter, these are fun and easy and cheap as hell which I mentioned in this post last year...

Hand warmers made from recycled old wool sweaters.

1. Throw the sweaters in the washer and dryer to felt them (throw a pair of jeans in too for an agitator).

2. Cut rectangles out of the fulled wool about twice the length of your palm (2.5" x 5").

3. Face right sides together and sew around three sides plus some of the fourth.

4. Use a funnel to fill with rice or buckwheat.

5. hand sew up the final edge

Package with instructions to warm in the microwave for a few seconds (test this!)

This is awesome if you have any fair isle sweaters with moth holes or can get some from a thrift store.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:53 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

We did candy one year - nothing complicated. Just dipping a variety of things into melted chocolate and then rolling/sprinkling/drizzling (to look fancy, but also to minimize the visible 'bloom' on the untempered chocolate.) Good stuff to dip includes pretzel rods, marshmallows, rippled potato chips, crystallized ginger, oreos, nilla wafers, blobs of Nutella dropped onto waxed paper/cookie sheet & frozen, etc. You could also get into homemade toffee, make caramel clusters, cover small bite-sized rice krispie treats, etc.

We also made fortune cookies with handwritten fortunes. (the fortune cookies can get the chocolate treatment too.)
posted by Lou Stuells at 10:57 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

One year, a friend and I made REALLY REALLY boozy homemade eggnog, and packaged them up in mason jars, attaching a note recommending it be diluted with milk, or used in coffee or hot chocolate, instead of straight (unless you want to get hammered). The ratio of booze to dairy/eggs kept things from spoiling. People loved it - it was homemade, better than what you'd buy in a store, and sort of grown up and fun, which are unusual attributes for homemade gifts. (I'd supply the recipe, but it was my friend's.)

Also, if you knit or crochet, and are fairly fast at it: winter hats.
posted by Kololo at 10:58 AM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you know how to knit? If so, these mini-sweater ornaments are a nice gift. I have made them before and they are well-received by people who like handmade Christmas ornaments.

Each one takes very little yarn, and you can use whatever you've got lying around. It's a good way to use small bits of luxury yarn left over from bigger projects. Or you could make 17 out of one 200 m skein of yarn (The pattern says you need about 10 m of yarn for each one.)

If you started now you could get them done by Christmas. They are somewhat time-consuming, but the pattern is easy and they are very cute.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:00 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Brownies in a Jar and other kinds of "in a jar" mixes are always welcome, because it looks pretty when nicely put together in layers, and it's consumable. Plus you can buy the ingredients in bulk and save.
posted by lizbunny at 11:00 AM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: My daughter makes ornaments from used horseshoes. Clean them up, prime, paint a festive color, and decorate. They are guaranteed to not get crushed in the box being stored in the garage for next year. You can probably buy used horseshoes on Ebay dirt cheap, or hit up a friend with a horse to ask their farrier for some.
posted by COD at 11:01 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two things that go over well when I do them are silhouettes or hand-painted ceramic whatevers.

Silhouettes, either of them or their pets....everyone loves them. I get people to email the photos of themselves or their pets, and open them in photoshop or psp or whatever, and make the face stand out in contrast to the background by posterizing it or upping the contrast or adjusting the threshold....there are a ton of ways. The fun part is that you can do the drawing by tracing what you see, right on your monitor. Make the profile the size you want it to be, and put a piece of printer paper right on your monitor, and lightly (so as not to harm your screen) trace the outline of the face with pencil. Cut it out, and use that as the template. Get black construction paper and cut out a face, or use your template to draw it again and paint it black...whatever. Frame it.

The handpainted ceramics: I link to two tutorials below this, check them out for inspiration. Buy a bunch of white ceramic things at the dollar store (sake cups, piggy banks, espresso cups, bowls, vases, etc, and draw on them and then paint them in with pebeo ceramic markers and paints. You "fire" them in your oven, and they are AWESOME if done right. Louche Lab at Etsy is really good at this. In a similar vein, glass can buy bulk carafes or vases or shot glasses or whatever....the dollar store is just great for that kind of thing.
posted by iconomy at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You could make a magnetic spice set with custom spices for each recipient. You can either make these from watchmaker's cases or food tins -- the latter are nicer, but a bit more expensive. Either way, you can make them for less than $1 per tin, including neodymium magnets and (bulk) spices.
posted by vorfeed at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding candy. If you have an upright mixer, marshmallows are sooo easy to make and loved by all. Here's a great recipe that's easy to scale up.

Last year I made some using strawberry puree instead of half the water and then dipped them in chocolate. The year before I used broken up candy canes instead of sugar and made peppermint ones and I've also cut them into shapes with cookie cutters.

They really are very simple and people request them every year.
posted by Saminal at 11:08 AM on September 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Homemade Baileys is, to date, the most popular gift I've ever given - homemade or not.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:09 AM on September 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

I was going to ask a very similar question! I've got a very large extended family and I was looking for homemade *household* gifts that are not food-based.

So far the best I've got is a calendar with everyone's birthdays and anniversaries on it.

I'm also making rag rugs, but I haven't got the time or inclination to do one for every household (and half of them wouldn't appreciate them anyway).

Oh, and everyone gets fleur de sel caramels.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:12 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Homemade bath salts are soooo easy. You just need Epson Salts, baking soda, glycerin and essential oil. Google will give you the ratio. If you use some soap colorant you can layer two colors together in a glass jar, which is really pretty. It's kind of girly, but if you make it with peppermint and tea tree oil you can package it as a manly foot scrub!
posted by Biblio at 11:12 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can do Sophie1's handwarmers in about a 13" x 5" pouch (so 13" x 10" piece of fabric, I use all-cotton flannel, but the key point is, NO SYNTHETICS IN THE MICROWAVE) but fill with cherry pits. You can buy a 40-lb. bag of them for $30 here. You microwave them for about 2 minutes and go stick them at the foot of your bed 10 minutes before you get in and you have a nice warm bed.

We've also used them as heating pads for tummy trouble or for sore muscles. They hold a warm, fairly moist heat for a long time, and smell like cherry pie when heated. We did these one year for Christmas and people are still asking me to make more. :) You can also stick them in the freezer, though they don't hold cold as long as they hold heat. But they're nice for those "frozen peas" types of situations.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:15 AM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've been doing homemade food gifts for the last two years:

Homemade caramels and caramel turtles (incl. a bag of 'evolutionary mistakes')
Apple butter
Cake bites

The cake bites are easy, cheap, and scale well. They're very easy to mix up flavors or add to (mint chocolate and chocolate-peanut butter have been the favorites) by adding mint extract or replacing some frosting with double amount of peanut butter.

The spiced apple butter also gets rave reviews and cooks well when left to its own devices on a stove to reduce for hours on low.

I'll be watching this thread for ideas for this year!
posted by bookdragoness at 11:29 AM on September 21, 2010

Best answer: Similar to the photo calendars, one year I did a personalized cookbook for a women's group I belonged to. The biggest effort was culling together the recipes, since I use layout software fairly regularly. Pulling together family heirloom recipes can be fun, and wonderful to be shared, and a nice legacy. I did the printing at OfficeMax since they could do double sided color printing with a middle staple, ending up with a folded 8x11 booklet, outside pages in cardstock. If you can get enough family recipes together to do different sections, then add in filler photos of say, Uncle Steve carving a turkey, or Auntie Carol toasting the camera, it works nicely. I still have people asking me when the second volume is coming out.
posted by librarianamy at 11:31 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you have access to a sewing machine? I've given a lot of handmade cloth grocery bags and they're always appreciated, it seems. If you assembly line the creation they're very quick to make.


webbing for straps (or you can make straps from the fabric, but that's slower. If you're doing a lot just buy webbing)
1/2 yard fabric / bag. I get sale cotton from a place like which often has fabric for $3/yard

Then here's a good tutorial on making them. Or If you want to skip the separate straps, burda style has a basic pattern that's very easy: Charlie grocery bag
posted by lyra4 at 11:32 AM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I hate "stuff" so am big on gifts that can be consume. Past holiday offerings include brandied peaches, homemade limoncello, and forced paperwhites that are ready to bloom. (Thrift stores are great places to find cheap vases/dishes for forcing.)

Last Christmas we made seasoned salts from my friend Eric's amazing blog. Tangerine, lavender and smoked pepper, in small jars from the hardware store, about a dollar each for the jars. They were a huge hit.
posted by cyndigo at 11:44 AM on September 21, 2010

Limoncello needs to be started about now, but it's reasonably easy/fun and a batch in a gallon jar will be waaaaay more than enough. You can get very pretty little bottles, sometimes at places like World Market.

Of course, you have to be careful about laws regarding alcohol shipping, but there you go.

(Also, it's really fun to go to a liquor store and have people say to you, "Um... are you SURE you want that giant bottle of Everclear? Wait, you want TWO OF THEM????")
posted by Madamina at 11:44 AM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

Adding onto handwarmers:
Simple rectangle pillow filled with rice can be a neck warmer. Great for winter nights, or anyone with tight muscles.
Works great with funky terrycloth (old bath towels from thrift stores)
posted by jddizzle at 11:52 AM on September 21, 2010

Hand soap pump - $3.00 max (and you can personalize it!). Add a hand towel for a buck or two more.

Children's Tool Belt.


Whammy Diddle.

Sunburst Mirror.

Hooded Towel.

Washer Necklace.

Stamped Washer Necklaces

Lotion Bar

Bandana Tote

Chess set made from nuts and bolts
posted by Sassyfras at 12:12 PM on September 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mini quilted coasters, like these.

Bottles of chai syrup, using this fun recipe.
posted by illenion at 12:13 PM on September 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

We got in to canning this year. Everyone's getting homemade foodstuffs, mostly fruit we picked ourselves and turned into jam. It feels a bit nicer on our end if we know that we've put in the labor of picking the fruit ourselves, rather than buying a mess of stuff from the supermarket.

So, about four or five different jams, apple butter, and probably some homemade tomato sauce and soups. We're going to get some nice baskets to put it all in (not quite crafty enough to make those ourselves).
posted by backseatpilot at 12:17 PM on September 21, 2010

lyra4 has it. I was going to suggest the same thing. If you go with that, you can also make drawstring bags out of tulle (or another mesh fabric). They make excellent farmer's market bags, and the ones I made last year went over very well.
posted by bibliogrrl at 12:17 PM on September 21, 2010

Yeah, cloth grocery bags are great! You can never have enough of them, and those things are getting more and more popular anyway.

One year I bought some cheapie pre-made tote bags and stenciled them (quite fashionably, I like to think) with fabric paint. I think it went over well.
posted by the_blizz at 12:28 PM on September 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Homemade granola went over big in my family. Biscotti would probably be similarly good -- keeps a long time, good with tea or coffee, you can't so much buy any that's worth eating.
posted by clavicle at 12:37 PM on September 21, 2010

We made homemade vanilla extract one year, packaged in large bottles (bought in bulk on the internet) and finished with a custom label. The cost per was right around 6 dollars, and people still mention it.

We did this as well one year, it was so well received that we're considering doing it again this year (even though my grandmother refused to use it once she found out we made it with vodka, but really, how else did she think extract was made?).

Last year we made homemade mustard and ketchup, then canned them and used custom labels. Sent them with a few baggies of beer bread mix (instructions: add one beer and bake!). I'm still making the mustard and ketchup for our own use at home, but I don't think it was as well received with the family as the vanilla.

The box full of homemade sweets is always a hit, but for a few years I noticed my family was getting buried in homemade cookies and candies and fudge and sugar. Some of my siblings have canned jam and salmon for gifts, and I'll tell you I ate all of it right up.
posted by rhapsodie at 12:42 PM on September 21, 2010

Almost forgot, the year after we gave vanilla, we made moose-poop shaped vanilla-scented soaps (we're Alaskan, moose-poop gifts are a novelty here, yes we're aware it's weird).
posted by rhapsodie at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2010

One year I tried about 5 caramel sauce recipes. I ended up using this one and giving it out to local friends and family. It was a huge hit. (I stuck with local because of the perishable nature of the gift; didn't want to add shipping time to its shelf life.)
posted by peep at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2010

What my aunt did one year was come up with a short list of questions about Christmas, things like "What was your favorite gift?" and "What was your most memorable Christmas?" and so on. She quizzed every member of the family on them at Thanksgiving, and for Christmas had them done up into a book - your basic copy shop fold-and-staple job with pictures by her kids inside, nothing fancy. Each question got two pages, with the answers listed under the questions.

She gave them out at Christmas, and we had a ball reading and discussing them - especially as she left the answers anonymous, so we had to figure out which were whose.
posted by telophase at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife and I usually make and can a few kinds of marmalade and give one of each to everyone. In addition to this, we also knit something (she knits the complex stuff like socks and I knit hats and scarves.)

People that have not enjoyed the knit wear get generic gift cards in small amounts now instead.

Only two people (out of probably 15 or so) get gift cards, so i'd say its working fairly well. ;)
posted by schyler523 at 1:25 PM on September 21, 2010

Crafty Nest just did 137 inexpensive, handmade holiday gift ideas (in seven parts). Photos, tutorials, links, I love this person's craft / cooking / lifestyle blog. I recommend you browse through it.
posted by eatdonuts at 1:27 PM on September 21, 2010 [16 favorites]

I'm also a recipe book giver... I had been asking my sister to put together a book of our childhood faves, since every time I attempted one, I had to call my mom for the recipe. Sister never came through, so I made one for myself and then just made copies for the rest of the family. VERY well received.
posted by sarajane at 1:35 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

These all sound so much nicer than the mason jars full of peppercorns and little stuffed pantyhose buttockses we all got one year as "pickled bums".

If you don't have enough recipes for a full-on book, how about ten family holiday recipes on decorated index cards, slipped into a square fabric potholder pockets?

hmm, that example, used for style and shape only, is also suspiciously buttock related. coincidence. I would make them out of something else. Terrycloth. Cotton print. A square of quilting.
posted by Sallyfur at 1:46 PM on September 21, 2010

rhapsodie, how do you make your beer bread mix? My family loves beer bread!
posted by misha at 1:47 PM on September 21, 2010

I'd love the recipes for canned mustard and catsup!
posted by cyndigo at 1:57 PM on September 21, 2010

Somebody got homemade bacon caramels last year; they were delish. And I've made candied bacon, which was very popular. Makes a mess of the kitchen, but well worth it.
posted by theora55 at 2:37 PM on September 21, 2010

I went through and organized my family's huge collection of print photos spanning several decades (most with missing negatives), picked out the nicest ones, made copies, and made photo albums for everyone in my family. I just used patterned paper instead of page inserts, and didn't get very scrapbooky beyond that. It was a huge hit. There were tears from multiple recipients.
posted by emilyd22222 at 2:56 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

We made bottles of Cherry Bounce last year, which was a HUGE hit. Liqueurs are easier than you'd think, and tend to impress. We're doing mead this year, but had to start it months ago.
posted by honeydew at 4:32 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made these Christmas tree ornaments last year. You can knit about four a night without much trouble, so start a few weeks before Christmas.
posted by lollusc at 4:40 PM on September 21, 2010

Response by poster: There are so many great ideas here! I marked a couple that really fired my imagination... vorfeed --those spice containers are SO cool! Are they actually practical to use, do you know? But I think my absolute favorite was the idea of a recipe book: I have such a sprawling, segmented family, -I LOVE the idea of a gift that could give them all a peek at each other. ...although the mind boggles at the scope of the project; prying recipes out of all of them. Might be worth the trouble & expense of printing...

Thank you so much! And I'd be thrilled to hear more ideas; from the number of followers this question has, looks like I'm not the only one out there trolling for ideas.
posted by Ys at 4:57 PM on September 21, 2010

Yes, the spice containers are practical to use. I've got 'em in my kitchen. They're very attractive and super convenient -- I've got mine on a stainless steel sheet I bought at Lowe's, surrounded by a frame I made out of molding. Looks good and is exactly where I wanted it to be. The only thing I don't like about these tins is the lack of a shaker top. I took a tiny bamboo spoon and glued an extra magnet to the back of it, though, and that works well for sprinkling ground spices when you want more than just a pinch.

If I had it to do over again, I'd have used those square tins I linked to earlier, instead of the watchmaker's cases. The lids on the latter are sort of wonky and loose. They do work, though, you just have to pinch them shut now and again.
posted by vorfeed at 7:20 PM on September 21, 2010

Herb-infused olive oil, in mismatched thrift store bottles, with wax seals on top. Not expensive, easy to make, tastes great. I don't have a link handy right now (I'm on my phone), but they're out there.
posted by kostia at 10:36 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I took those cheap glass bulb ornaments from michaels, painted them with glue and covered them with little tiny glass beads (also from Michael's, not on the jewelry aisle they are on like the mask decorating aisle I think). Then I put a really pretty ribbon on them packed them in a box and gave one to each family in my extended family. I can't tell you how many people in my family have requested more. I think my mom is up to 12 or 14 now (yes I know moms aren't particularly a good measure of daughter's craft ability but my mom is pretty anal about her tree), a couple of my aunts have 2-3 each. Yeah. I think each one cost like <$3 to make.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:49 AM on September 22, 2010

I got homemade mustard (ala rhapsodie above) from a friend last year. It was a real revelation--all whole seeds and deliciousness. If you have friends who aren't into sweets, I think it's a nice choice. Pair with a box of TJ's crackers and/or a stick of salami (which doesn't have to be refrigerated), if you like.

Ideas from CRAFT: Yoda hat, cat toys, more; truffles, sugarplums, more; book, candy tree, more...

Photo dioramas, pinwheels, snowglobes, and more if you have photos of your friends and family.

A delicious Chowhound thread.
posted by wintersweet at 11:07 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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