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Restoration of the Agnes Dunham Life-Sized Wax Nativity Scene of Dunlap, Iowa

Updated on November 18, 2016
Agnes Dunham's Nativity Scene, 1960s
Agnes Dunham's Nativity Scene, 1960s | Source

In the early 1950s, my grandmother began work on her life-sized wax Nativity Scene. At first, it was just Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. But she and my grandfather, with the help of her sister and brother-in-law, created an inspirational work of art that still draws crowds to Dunlap, Iowa, today.

The Scene had unfortunately suffered from several years of neglect (it costs a lot of money to maintain), so I was very honored to be asked to assist in restoring the Scene for the Dunlap Booster Club.

Many thanks to the years of dedication and hard work from folks like Fonley Allen, who have put so much into maintaining my grandmother's work of art, and that they have a constant dedication to this site, a site that has stood as an inspiration to the faithful for many decades.

Creating a Base to Decrease Weight and Save Clay

I used pre-cut PVC pipe and newspaper from a move to make the head forms.  Some people prefer pre-made styrofoam heads, but they weren't sturdy enough while sculpting.  They also cos a lot more than the pipe, paper and tape.
I used pre-cut PVC pipe and newspaper from a move to make the head forms. Some people prefer pre-made styrofoam heads, but they weren't sturdy enough while sculpting. They also cos a lot more than the pipe, paper and tape. | Source

I began with the following materials: PVC pipe, newspaper, styrofoam balls and tape. I very tightly wrapped the newspaper around one end of the pipe in the shape of a head. I then wrapped the head with tape. This was to cut down on the amount of clay used, and also decrease the weight of the head. I used the pipe as a stand, in order to work on the head more easily.

It is important to wrap the newspaper (which you can buy at most hardware stores) VERY tightly, then secure it with tape equally as tightly.

If it is not wrapped tightly, you will have difficultly building on top of the first layer of clay because it will always be sinking into the hole.

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For sculpting the head and face, I used plastiline clay, because it doesn't dry out and I can continue working with it indefinitely. I cut the styrofoam balls and in half and glued them to the head, so it would leave a hole for the eyeballs I would later insert. I also used a fondant (frosting) roller and many special clay tools for the sculpting.

I realized, after pouring a couple of heads, that I should have left the two holes without eyelids, in order to insert the plastic eyeballs.

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After tightly wrapping the newspaper in plastic, I stuck the PVC pipe into a clay flower pot filled with kitty litter. The pot and litter were heavy enough to support the substantial weight of the clay.

Sculpting the Faces

It is important to use a clay pot and cheap cat litter to support the base of the head.  Plastic pots and lightweight cat litter aren't heavy enough.
It is important to use a clay pot and cheap cat litter to support the base of the head. Plastic pots and lightweight cat litter aren't heavy enough. | Source
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Cover the entire base with about a centimeter of plastiline clay.
Cover the entire base with about a centimeter of plastiline clay. | Source
Be sure to leave holes for eyes, but if you are adding plastic or glass eyes to your finished product, don't worry too much about making eyelids.
Be sure to leave holes for eyes, but if you are adding plastic or glass eyes to your finished product, don't worry too much about making eyelids. | Source
Make your noses sturdy!  They are the most fragile part of your wax head.
Make your noses sturdy! They are the most fragile part of your wax head. | Source

I then rolled out the clay into thin strips and applied them to the head, adding more to places like the chin, nose and brow.

I used a thick mantle of plaster to make the molds.
I used a thick mantle of plaster to make the molds. | Source
It is VERY IMPORTANT to seal the seams on the mold, before you pour the wax, again to prevent it from leaking.
It is VERY IMPORTANT to seal the seams on the mold, before you pour the wax, again to prevent it from leaking. | Source

Pouring the Beeswax

I first applied a thick layer of Crisco over the entire head, to keep the mold from sticking. Several sites recommended using non-stick cooking spray, but I didn't have luck with it, it was just too thin. I then applied a thick layer of plaster to the outside of the clay head to make a mold. It is not the most ideal medium for mold making as it sets quickly and is very heavy (and talk about messy!!), but it withstands high temperature and is incredibly cheap. If you have the money, you might want to use something else. After it set, I knocked off the plaster, very carefully, with a knife and hammer. I then closed the mold back up with plaster, secured it, scalp down in a bucket, and poured about a gallon of melted beeswax into the mold and let it harden.

Again, you must reapply the plaster or the wax will leak out of the seams.

I used a mixture of mostly beeswax with some paraffin candles for color and stability. I also used crayons and professional grade wax pastel crayons for color and for added stability. The cost of the wax (plus paraffin candles and artist oil pastels) for 7 heads was substantial: Almost $1000.

I will talk a bit more about this process in case there are others looking for instructions; the only site I found was Madame Toussauds, and they have resources unavailable to regular people (like Japanese beeswax).

As I said, you have to seal the plaster with additional plaster or the mold will leak. I tried using tape but that was a terrible failure. To melt the wax, I used a large soup pot and a very large wok, purchased from our local Asian market, that served as a double boiler. Do NOT put this amount of wax - any amount of wax, actually, but NEVER this much wax - directly on the stove. You will most certainly burn your house down if you have an accident.

This process was incredibly messy. The wok was a good choice, but I still had a lot of issues with spillage while pouring. Also: Be prepared for a mold to leak and pour a good amount of hot, colored wax all over your floor. If you love your floor, be sure to put something on top of it before you start this process! Also, each head has a big time commitment. It takes a long time for the wax to melt. It takes time to pour. It takes time to set. While it's setting, you have to be there with it. So don't begin unless you have the time to see it through to the end (for each head).

While pouring, you will get a "hole" in the middle. There are many candlemaking sites that discuss how to prevent this, but in reality, I should have just left the holes, allowed the heads to cool completely and then added the support bar, repouring a much smaller amount of wax at that time. At first, I was quite diligent with filling the mold while the initial pour was still warm and liquid, but regardless of how careful I was, the new pour would still go around the outside of the old pour, basically ruining the heads. Had I just left the initial pour as it was and added a support bar to the hole, I could have avoided this. There were a couple of heads I had to completely melt down and redo because I poured hot wax in just that much too late and that pour created a kind of mask on the outside of the face that broke off when removing it from the mold. In a couple of instances, it caused the nose to separate from the face.

I then took the form off the wax head, repaired some areas with a hot glue gun (minus the glue), added additional wax where needed, painted the heads and tried to add the eyes. I thought it would be easier to add the eyes (I purchased them online, they are doll eyes), so my suggestion is to leave a hole where the eyes are going to be, WITHOUT sculpting a lid beforehand. Just leave two big gaping holes in the face, you can add wax later for eyelids. I would also suggest not being terribly concerned about the holes in the nose, as they can also be problematic when removing the mold from the face.

I painted the faces with oil paint. It required almost no paint at all and came out very well, except, I think, on the angel. I would like to repaint her when I get the chance.

I used wool roving for his hair and beard.
I used wool roving for his hair and beard. | Source
I used wool roving for his hair and mohair for his beard.
I used wool roving for his hair and mohair for his beard. | Source
I used bamboo roving for his hair and beard.
I used bamboo roving for his hair and beard. | Source
I chose to not add any hair to the Baby Jesus.  This can change in the future.
I chose to not add any hair to the Baby Jesus. This can change in the future. | Source
I used wool yarn for Mary's hair.
I used wool yarn for Mary's hair. | Source
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Hair for the Wax Figure

The hair was a bit of challenge. Human hair is unbelievably expensive and fake hair looks terrible, so I tried to come up with a happy medium. I used wool roving and mohair on several of the characters and bamboo roving on the white-haired Shepherd. I used long pins to secure the roving on the head, heating the pins with the hot glue gun before inserting them.

The hot glue gun became one of my most valuable tools for this project!

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