Wide closeup of the Nativity set after their makeovers

How to Makeover a Tacky Thrift Store Nativity Set

Our family heirloom nativity set that I grew up with is one of my favorite treasures of the Christmas season.

I’m so glad I didn’t have to wrestle my sister or brothers for it. I was prepared to, but glad it didn’t come to that!

As much as I love that set, it’s really all about the nostalgia, not necessarily its great style.

Although it is lovely, I have been longing for a really pretty set. The Hubs even bought me a set for Christmas one year, but it was too large for where I wanted to place it. 

I’ve seen a few lovely sets over the years. But the ones I love are always way beyond a reasonable price range for us. So I’ve been on the lookout for a thrift store or garage sale set.

Last July, I scored a great set at my favorite local thrift store. Well, actually it was two mismatched sets that I could make work together.  All together, 14 nativity pieces, plus a stable, for $12. 

I knew I could give this combined vintage nativity set a whole new look with just a little paint — specifically white spray paint. And then some accents.

Let’s Start With Some Inspiration

Always a good place to start, right?

Statue of Mary by Lladro

In my head, for a couple of years now, I was seeing glossy white, but new I wanted some accent? That lead me down the path of a Lladro-inspired creche.

But I didn’t want a spot on Lladro dupe, so then I veered towards metallic gold accents. Felt right for the wise men, but not for the baby Jesus and other important cast members. So both of these must not have been right since I’ve been dragging my feet for several years on this.

Then in October, on a visit to my favorite store in probably the whole Midwest — Nell Hill’s — I spied this set:

Inspiration Nativity set with statues in white with antiquing accent
Inspiration Nativity set with statues in white with antiquing accent

I could hear bells ringing and the Hallelujah chorus!

I finally had my inspiration and could clearly envision what my tacky, mismatched, forlorn nativity scene could become, minus the glittery snow!

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Let’s Transform a Tacky, Mis-matched Nativity Set​

Making Mis-matched Work —

Mis-matched thrifted, bright colored nativity statues are lined up on a wood table
Dated, brightly colored nativity statues are on a wood table

​Yes, mis-matched pieces can become a cohesive group if:

  1. You completely cover the original colors
  2. They are of the same scale
  3. The general style is similar, whether realist, simplistic and flowing, modern blockish, etc.
  4. The amount of detailing is somewhat similar, 

Paint Time

Just like any painting project, start with a good cleaning. 

Use a brush to get any dust or grime out of the cracks and crevices. An old tooth brush works great.

Next, we hung a plastic drop cloth on the installed paint tent framework and were ready to go,

We have a heavy duty vented exhaust fan in our hobby room and wear a respirator mask.

REMINDER: Please take precautions if you are spraying indoors. We only have one set of lungs, protect them!!!

By this time it was early November, so The Hubs did the spray painting as I was confined to my sewing studio with Christmas stocking orders.

two cans of spray paint are in front of hanging plastic drop cloth

We learned the hard way. 

Camel statue after one coat of primer

LESSON LEARNED: Take it from us, the best spray paint to cover all those bright colors is a definitely a primer in grey.  Then the white will cover much easier. 

We used a combination of Flat White Primer and then White Linen Chalk Paint over that. We still ended up with 7 thin coats!!! 

old nativity statues are primed and lined up on pieces of cardboard to get their spray paint

PRO TIP: Use a lazy susan for the easiest way to spray all sides of detailed items. 

PRO TIP #2: For multiple small items place 2 or 3 on a piece of cardboard on top of the lazy susan. Lift the cardboard to move them aside to dry while you spray the next set on another piece of cardboard. Repeat, and repeat and repeat again as needed.

Old, mismatched nativity statues are now painted white in front of the manger

For Christmas, I put the Nativity scene out like this. And it was lovely. It felt fresh and new, yet timeless and traditional.

Old, mismatched nativity statues are now painted white in front of the manger

I wasn’t thrilled. It wasn’t quite what I wanted.

I knew this would be my first project after Christmas as soon as the kids all returned to their homes. I would get to work with the accent painting to bring it closer to the inspiration — in time for the Epiphany.

Now For the Accent Paint —

I remembered the fine brushstrokes of dark charcoal on the inspiration set.

closeup of a woman's hand holding a small paint brush in one hand and scissors trimming it in the other

I started by modifying/trimming a cheap paint brush so only a few bristles are full length. This way I can dip just those couple of bristles in the paint and be able to keep the painted accents very thin and light.

Next I mixed some craft paint in a lidded condiment cup. I wanted a warmer grey — more of a warm taupe color. So I added several generous squirts of burnt umber and topped that with two squirts of steel grey. Mixed and thinned with a touch of water.

closeup of a camel statue painted white with thin taupe accents

I added some thin accents of this warm taupe color along fold lines and edges.

It made a nice difference, but honestly, I wasn’t thrilled. So I dug back through my phone and saw the pictures I’d taken of the inspiration set.

It was then obvious, I needed to do a wash of this taupe on the whole statue.

Paint Wash —

I started with an inconsequential lamb with a broken ear. Talk about sacrificial lamb. 

I misted part of the statue with water and then quickly slopped the paint on, making sure to get it in all the nooks and crannies. Then I patted it back off with a cotton rag.

Closeup of details on camel's bag after taupe wash is blotted off
Closeup of details on camel's bag after taupe wash is blotted off and then rubbed off

In some areas where the taupe was heavier than what I wanted, I misted and then wiped a bit harder to achieve the look I was going for. I wanted mostly white with a bit of accent.

This is a paint technique I have used time and time again. It is so easy to adjust for the look you are after. I used it to turn a scary rabbit statue into a charming garden bunny, and I used it when I made these tabletop birdbaths, and even on furniture like this bench, and this blue and brass beauty.

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Thanks bunches! Now back to the statues . . .

Wise man statue painted white is in front of a number of statues that have been taupe washed

I suggest, starting with a small statue, like the lambs, then I moved to the cow, then I moved to a kneeling shepherd, progressing to the largest. This way I built my confidence and shortened my time as I went.

However, even though they aren’ the largest, I did save the holy family to last. It just felt right.

I also learned that it seemed to work best for me when I started at the bottom and worked my way up.

Look at the difference between with and without the taupe wash. Above, they look quite dark. The shepherd on the far right is what I was going for. But no worries.

When the wash was done on all the statues, I realized that several of the early ones were darker than others. I could either add more wash to the lighter ones or I could adjust the darker ones, I decided I liked the lighter version best, so I misted the darker ones and rubbed with my cotton rag until it was the level I wanted. Wow! That was easy.

Looking back as my inspiration image, I added more accent streaks to the statues I had not done that to before the wash. It doesn’t seem to matter which goes first. Using my trimmed brush dipped just barely in thee paint, I very lightly dragged it where I wanted a worn spot.

Closeup of baby Jesus as found in a thrift store
Closeup of baby Jesus after spray painting white
Closeup of baby Jesus after painting and taupe wash and accents

Isn’t the progression these statues took amazing? The plain white is lovely. But then I added a light taupe wash and a bit of accenting, and it became exactly what I wanted. Perfect for my style and our home!

Finished holy family statues iin front of the stable

I’m thrilled with how it turned out!

Finished Wise men and camel statues on a linen backdrop

It’s neutral, but so much more than just white.

I use washed linen under the stable and to make hills over a base of books. I like to scatter some Spanish moss to soften the edge of the stable floor and tie everything together.

This has to be one of my favorite diy Christmas projects to date. And that’s saying a lot! I have done SO MANY diy Christmas projects!

This is a very easy diy project, it just takes a bit of time to get the wash applied and wiped off with some consistency. But, oh so forgiving in the process.

Be sure to pin this so you can find it when you score a sad, tacky nativity set of your own.

pin with image of wise men and camels with a title of "How-To Nativity Makeover"

Now my mismatched, tired thrifted nativity set is ready for the Epiphany and to take its rightful starring role next year.

Be sure to keep your eyes out for a tired, forlorn nativity set that you can transform for your family and home! They are often seen at thrift stores and estate sales and such.

As always, don’t hesitate with questions or comments!

round image of Diane smiling next to a Signature that reads: With Joy, Diane

5 Comments

  1. Missy

    You are truly a genius! This is such an amazing transformation! WOW! Can you hear me clapping and whooping in Nebraska? Fantastic!

    (And Nell Hills is my favorite store on the planet!) Well done, Diane!

    Reply
    • Diane

      Thanks bunches Missy!!!
      Do you come down here often? We need to get together! I live 15 minutes from Nell Hill’s. (can be dangerous ????)

      Reply
  2. Debbie

    Your Nativity turned out beautifully.

    Reply
    • Diane

      Thanks so much Debbie! I’m glad to hear it[s not just me. I’m so smitten with it.

      Reply

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