Happy Hanukkah! I searched high and low for a cool menorah last year, but most menorahs are either very traditional *cough*BORING*cough or exPONsive.
So I decided to make my own from polymer clay!
I’ve nicknamed this the “shtetl menorah” because “shtetl” is the Yiddish word for a small village or town.
This project can be easily modified for different candle sizes or styles — it doesn’t have to be used as a menorah.
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Or continue reading for the text/photo version of the tutorial.
I also left my village white, but you can paint yours if you want more detail!
Before you start, make sure to download your free template here.
Tools & Materials
- Polymer clay – I’m using Premo Sculpey in white. Check out my polymer clay tips for more explanation as to WHY I’m using this particular brand.
- Knife or clay cutting tool
- Rolling pin – If your rolling pin is porous (wood or bamboo), you’ll also want some wax paper or plastic wrap to protect the rolling pin from leeching chemicals from the clay.
- Wire – I’m using 20 gauge, but anything in the range of about 16-24 should work.
- Pin or needle
Optional Tools & Materials
- Candle cups – If you are making a menorah, look for cups with an inner diameter of 6/16″, which should fit most Hanukkah candles. You can also improvise with foil if you can’t find cups.
- Clay shaping/texturing tools – You can use fancy tools if you have them or just stuff you have on hand. A toothpick and an old toothbrush are great for adding texture.
- Gloves – I prefer to wear gloves when I work with clay, because it prevents fingerprints, but also I have super dry skin and the clay makes that worse.
- Liquid Sculpey – This is basically clay “glue” that will add a bit of stability.
- Let’s start by making sure our template has printed to the correct size.
2. And then we’ll cut it out. I’m not going to actually cut out each individual piece, and you’ll see why in a bit. I’m going to just separate out the houses, and the trees, and call it a day.
3. Next we’ll start by conditioning a chunk of clay, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re going to knead and smush the clay until it’s pliable and smooth.
TIP: You can use a heating pad to warm up the clay for a few minutes, which makes conditioning much easier!
4. Now I’m going to roll this piece of clay flat. This is going to be for the houses, so I want a fairly thin piece of clay. I’m aiming for about 3/16″. Maybe 1/8″.
I’m going to use two pieces of cardboard on either side to help roll this out into a nice even sheet.
5. Now, instead of trying to cut these out individually, I’m going to transfer the design onto the clay.
6. And it’s really easy to do. Just trace around the designs with a pencil, making sure you get each little window and door.
7. And then we’ll press that into the clay.
9. Now I’ll cut around each little building. Easy peasy!
10. For curved lines, I find a really sharp craft knife works well.
Tip: Save your scraps of clay to roll out for the next batch.
11. Here I’ve rolled out my clay to the same width and now I’ve traced the trees. Again I’m using my craft knife since the edges of the trees have a slight curve to them.
12. Here are all the trees and houses cut out. Note that I’ve cut out the trees twice so there are eight.
Tip: You can smooth out any imperfections with your tools once you’re finished cutting.
13. Now I’m going to cut out the windows of the houses. This is probably the trickiest part, because they are quite tiny.
I start by scoring the rough shape with my craft knife from the side with the tracing lines. Then I turn it over and cut out the other side. If my edges get a little wonky, I just use my tools to straighten them back out.
14. Instead of cutting the door out, I’m going to trace around it and then add some texture by scraping my knife lightly over the surface to give it a sort of wooden appearance.
Then I’ll use a toothbrush to add an almost stucco-like texture to the surface of the house.
15. Repeat this with the other trees and houses.
You can add the impression of shingles on the roofs and pine needles on the trees.
16. You can also roll out very small pieces of clay and use them to add some trim detail around the doors and windows.
Or if you want more of a minimalist look, you can leave them flat. It’s up to you!
17. Use a pin or needle to make a small hole on the bottom of the house.
18. Cut a piece of wire about 3/8″ long.
19. Poke the wire into the hole so that half of it sticks out (3/16″). These bits of wire will help keep our little pieces in place when it comes time to attach them to the base.
20. Repeat this step, adding wire to all of the pieces. You’ll need one pieces for each tree and two for each house.
21. Now it’s time for our first round of baking. I’m using the world’s oldest, crustiest pan. I mostly keep it around for craft projects, because then I don’t have to worry about messing up one of my good sheet pans.
The shiny white square is a plain ceramic tile. Baking clay on a tile like this helps the clay bake more evenly, but this is totally optional. I wouldn’t be baking on a tile at all, but I had some leftover from a bathroom renovation, so I figured I might as well make use of them.
Lastly, I have a scrap sheet of old computer paper.
22. The reason for the paper is that the bottom of the clay is going to kind of take on the texture of whatever is underneath it. The paper will give a nice matte texture, whereas something like foil or even the tile will give an almost shiny glossy surface, which I don’t particularly want.
For more polymer clay tips, check out this post.
23. Once you’ve transferred all of your clay pieces to the paper covered baking sheet, make sure everything looks how you want. (Sometimes these little dainty pieces can get a little wonky from being handled.) This is our last chance to fix any problems or add any textures, so make sure everything is ready to bake!
24. My clay tips post has recommended clay brands. Whatever type of clay you’re using, make sure you follow the instructions on the package.
My package says to bake 30 minutes per 1/4″ of thickness at 275 degrees F, but since I only want to partially bake these pieces for now, I’m going to bake them for ten minutes.
25. I also like to use an old aluminum pie pan to cover my pieces while baking. Polymer clay can be a little stinky and this keeps the smell to a minimum.
26. Allow the pieces to cool before handling. After partially baking, they are firm but probably have a little wiggle still. That’s fine since we’re going to be baking again later. That would NOT be good if we were leaving these as is.
27. For the base, we need a piece of clay approximately 1/4″ thick and 9″x2.5″.
Conditioning a large block of clay can be kinda rough, so I conditioned a bunch of smaller balls, rolled them into snakes, and then stuck them together.
28. And this time I’m using two pencils as thickness guides.
29. If your first rolling attempt is still wonky and bumpy, just fold it in half and roll it out again.
30. Here I marked each candle slot with a little plus sign, and instead of marking the entire rectangle of the base, I marked the corners and a few spots along the edges.
31. Press the template into the clay.
32. Your marks should be nicely transferred to the clay.
33. Now it’s just a matter of cutting along the marks.
34. I’m going to use an old plastic drinking straw to cut out the holes for the candle cups. Just press it in and give it a little twist and a wiggle. The little round plug of clay might come out in the straw, or you can press it through the back of the clay base with a chopstick.
35. Then you just press in the candle cups!
36. Don’t have cups? Grab yourself a Hannukah candle (or a pencil) and a 2″ x 2″ square of aluminum foil. Fold the foil in half twice and then place it over one of the marked candle spots. Use the candle to press the center of the foil into the hole you made in the clay.
Note: If you wanted to simply make candle-sized holes in the clay, that would probably fine. According to the internet, polymer clay isn’t flammable. But it is essentially plastic, so my intent with the foil is to keep at least something in between the open flame of the candle and the clay itself.
If you opt for no cups and no foil, it would be wise to blow out the candles before they burn down to the level of the clay.
37. There are eight days in Hanukkah, so you might be wondering why there are nine candles on a menorah. The 9th candle is called the shamash, and it’s used to light all the other candles. It’s common for the shamash to be set off somehow – either a bit higher in the center or sometimes off to the side.
For my shamash, I’m going to roll out another slab of clay 1/4″ thick, and cut out the small square template piece.
38. Then I’ll cut out the center hole with the straw again.
39. Before I place the shamash square, I’m going to cut a few more pieces of wire. It can be hard to get two smooth surfaces of clay to stick together well, so these wires are a way of adding some strength to the bond between the two pieces.
40. Once the wires are in, I press the square into place.
41. Add the cup and huzzah!
At this point, I like to smooth the edge between the two pieces of clay. Blend that seam so it looks less like two separate pieces of clay stuck together. This is another way to strengthen the bond between the two pieces.
42. Time to start placing our houses and trees! You can arrange them in whatever order you like. However you think it looks best. I like to start with the center and the edges and then fill things in.
Remember to stagger the pieces, some in front and some behind, so there’s depth. Like those dioramas we used to make in elementary school!
43. If you have liquid clay, you can use a bit along the bottom for some extra bonding strength, but this is optional!
Note: If any of your wire bits happen to be too long, you can trim them. You shouldn’t see any wire once your pieces are pressed into the base.
44. To support all those vertical pieces, I’m going to roll up some tiny snakes of clay and smush them into the backs of the houses and trees where they meet the base.
45. Here are all of the smushed snakes in place. And it won’t be at all visible from the front, so it doesn’t effect the aesthetics at all!
46. Now I’ll add another five pieces of wire to the very front edge of the base.
47. OK. One last piece to roll out, and that’s the little front facade that’s supposed to look like a snowy hill. I rolled this out a little thicker than the houses but not quite as thick as the base.
48. And then I’m going to texture it with an old toothbrush to make it kinda look snow-ish.
49. Press the snowy hill into the wires on the front of the base.
50. If it’s a little long, just trim off the end and round it off. Don’t forget to texture!
51. OK. Before we bake, there’s one last thing we need to do. This is important because I tried baking without it and it was a near disaster!
We need to add small reinforcements between the buildings to keep them upright when the clay gets soft as it bakes. So take a few pieces of folded up foil and stuff them gently between the layers.
I have another layer of foil at the front, and then I’ve rested a smaller pan in front to keep some pressure on it. You could also use coffee mugs (or other oven-safe item). Something heavy enough to keep a light amount of pressure against the foil.
These foil pieces are going to keep the trees and houses from going Leaning Tower of Pisa on us!
52. And now we bake…
(Note that I’m not baking on the ceramic tile this time… my base was too wide for the tile!)
Since the base is the thickest part (in particular, the stacked section where the middle candle goes), I baked this for 60 minutes. (Remember my clay instructions said to bake 30 minutes for every 1/4″. Since the thickest portion is about 1/2″ that gives me 60 minutes.)
After baking allow the menorah to cool before removing from the baking sheet.
Also, if you want to paint your little village now that it’s baked, go for it. I’m leaving mine white because I like how it looks like everything is covered in snow.
You can use acrylic paints, watercolors, and even chalk pastels to color your clay.
If you do paint your menorah, please see my Clay Tips for important notes about sealing.
53. Candle time!
I ended up buying some candles that are not real Hanukkah candles, and I knew were too small for these candle cups. But that’s OK! If your candles are too dainty, just add a little wad of foil around the base and abracadabra!
Now you can use a wider range of candles, especially if you can’t find Hanukkah candles.
Now it’s time to light!
If this is your first time lighting a menorah, the first day starts with 1 candle. (Well, technically two if you count the shamash. But you get my drift…)
The second day goes to two candles, and so on.
Now, the interesting thing about the menorah is that the candles go in right to left. But you LIGHT them left to right.
And as I mentioned before, you always light the shamash first and then use that to light the rest of the candles.
That’s it! Now it’s time to fry up some latkes and jelly donuts!