Herstories and How-to’s: a special holiday craft!

How to Make Civil War Salt Dough Ornaments for Self, Friends or Family.

(In the interest of full disclosure: This time of year is busy and full in all kinds of wonderful ways. Balancing a full agenda of merry making with my desire to not miss a deadline, this month I’m giving myself the gift of time by re-posting a tutorial I wrote a few years ago. While the focus of the original tutorial was the many, many handsome dudes of the Civil War, the same steps (and many of the jokes) could be used to make ornaments featuring one of the many badass ladies of the Civil War…*)

Step one: Make the dough. There are more recipes for salt dough on the internet than there are johnnies in the North. I ended up using a 2-1-1 ratio (2 parts flour, 1 part salt 1 part water ). Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then add water, stirring as you do to avoid lumps. Once it’s fairly well mixed, knead it a little with your hands on a floured counter-top . The final texture should be close to slightly sticky play-doh. If it feels too sticky, add a little bit of flour (though be sure you don’t add too much or the dough will be as tough and unpliable as Stonewall Jackson.)

Fun fact: Should you find yourself suddenly in the trenches and with rations running low, you can simply adjust the ratios to make hard-tac!

salt dough_1
Watching Ken Burns’ ‘Civil War’ helps to infuse the ornaments with a sense of historical gravitas appropriate to the holiday season.

Step Two: Get Sculpting! Using either the internet or your companion’s illustrated Generals of the Civil War books set, begin to model the faces of your favorite generals. Salt dough doesn’t lend itself to subtle details, so I recommend sticking to generals with interesting and distinctive hair/facial hair (which- Good fortune! Is roughly 95% of them)

salt dough_2 burnside

To get the small details I used a defunct ballpoint pen. I also found it advantageous to sculpt them directly on a cookie sheet covered in foil , that way transferring them to the oven was undisasterous. Also, don’t forget to poke a hole through the top for the string to go through.

Step 3: Bake the ornaments. According to the source I used, salt dough should bake for 2 hours at 250 degrees F. Two hours?! Balderdash! I’ve got nog to drink and carols to sing. I baked mine for an hour, handled them gently afterwards and they seemed fine.

My oven is boring and disgusting, so here’s a picture of a civil war campfire recreation instead.

Step 4: Decorate! If you want your ornaments to reflect the scarcity felt by the soldiers on both sides during the lean months of winter during those cruel war years, you can pull a loose thread from your grey or blue shoddy, string it through the top and stop here.

If you, like me, wish to give the ornaments a weathered, metallic sheen- as though it were a metal earned through service rendered and passed down through the ages, start by painting the whole thing black with acrylic paint, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies in those magnificent beards.

salt dough_3 grant
Oh W.T. Sherman, not even salt dough can diminish your raw manliness.

Once the black has dried , lightly brush a layer of gold acrylic paint over the top

Braxton Brag- your service to the Confederacy may have been controversial, but there's no controversy about that rockin' beard.
Braxton Brag- your service to the Confederacy may have been controversial, but there’s no controversy about how rockin’ that beard is.

Step 5: Finish it! Attach a bit of grey or blue felt, maybe a bit of lace if that’s your thing (and it should be) and your ornament is done, ready to be gifted to starving Georgians under-seige or hung on your tree, next to the hardtack and salt pork***

photo credit: Allison Buenger of the Creative Cleanse.


**And omg, if you DO choose to make Civil War Women Espionage ornaments, please send me a picture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *