We stumbled across the nativity at scrollsawer.com (click the link for the free plans) and I downloaded those and followed the instructions to make the puzzle pieces which we thought the students could then stain and decorate as part of their contribution.
We also came up with some animal drawings on our own and figured we would make one puzzle piece for each student by adding more angels, shepherds, and animals. As we added the pieces, however, it became apparent that we would need to put them in some sort of box. Then my wife had the idea of making a box with panels that the kids could "decorate" with Christmas scenes. This sounded great to me and my neighbor had a garage full of wood that her late husband had collected. I asked if I could have some of the reclaimed oak he had taken from a stair case. She was happy to oblige and I laid out plans for a storage box.
My wife immediately thought of the copper panels on the treasure chest lid, but didn't like the idea of the copper color. I suggested (jokingly) that we could use roof flashing as it had a gold side to it. I grabbed a piece from the shop and she fell in love with it! We messed around with markers and pens and finally found some that would draw on the metal and dry without smudging. She went to school and had all the kids and the teacher draw scenes. She brought them back and handed them to me. I had the beginning of my box.
The first thing I did was to clear coat all the flashing pieces with the decorated scenes. I applied about three coats on a test panel and I found that it worked perfect and no amount of abuse I would give the panels during construction would mess up the scenes. I used up a spray can of clear coat in the process of coating all the panels with three coats.
I finally determined that in order to get all the panels on the box, I needed to make it 5 panels wide by 2 panels deep on the lid and then 5 panels wide on the front and 4 panels wide on the sides. This would then get all of the 23 panels that we had a scene on exposed on the top or the sides, with the back side having plain panels on it.
I constructed the box using a mortise on the large "posts" in the corners and a tenon design on the upper and lower rails in between. I cut a kerf in the edge of the rails and the posts for 1/4" ply wood and assembled the front panels. The side panels and rails went in and I did a simple bottom using a support rail that I nailed to the sides and the bottom floor panel dropped in. I made the lid using 3/4" planed stock that I biscuit joined at the corners and added the kerf for another 1/4"" piece of plywood. I made some 1/4" trim pieces using the 3/4" stock and ripping to about 5/16" width that I planed and sanded down to make it smooth and routered the top edges. It was at this point that I pre-stained and put on three coats of finish on the box, lid and trim pieces.
I attached to the box with a piano hinge. I then started adding the panels with liquid nails, spacing them evenly. I cut the trim pieces that would seperate and hold the panels in place so there would be a tight fit between the top and bottom rails and glued those in with liquid nails, also.
The lid panels were installed the same way, gluing with the liquid nails and adding the trim pieces after the panels were in place.
It was after the box was complete that my wife stated that we needed a creche. Letting the dimensions of the box be my guide, I quickly made up a design for a creche that would disassemble and fit in the box. I used the 1/4" by 3/4" trim pieces I had made earlier and we added a star of my own design to the top. A little Christmas snow and our Nativity Scene was complete.
Our finished project (click on the image for more detail):