Saturday, November 10, 2012

If you give an engineer a gingerbread cookie ...

I was at first a little surprised by the request for a piece on gingerbread houses. The leaves were still changing colours, and the air was warm with the residual heat of summer. Gingerbread and the Christmas season appeared so distant that the request seemed to be incongruous with the current weather conditions. Then two weeks ago came – Winter Wonderland! So, now I am in the right frame of mind to address the subject of gingerbreading.

I tend to get a little carried away with things, and gingerbread is no exception. My fascination with creating buildings in miniature from edibles began
at an early age. I remember a book my mother read one Christmas about a little girl in Germany who wanted a gingerbread ship she saw in a shop window fromSt. Nicholas (spoiler: she got it). This opened my mind to the idea that a gingerbread house needn’t be four walls and a roof, or even a house at all. My head would fill up with a dozen ideas each year I saw the gingerbread house displays at the Festival of Trees.

So far I have made Notre-Dame Cathedral, Cologne Cathedral, a Victorian Mansion, and now (in development) a carousel that will operate, God willing. To quantify how carried away I can get, it took one week to design the mansion, three full days baking 87 pieces, two full days decorating, and close to $70 in candy. For my next house, I will be downsizing I can assure you – as the War Amps say, never again.

Last year I wrote a set of instructions with a pattern for the Victorian Mansion gingerbread house as a donated item for a silent action. Follow this link to the instructions ( This guide provides a wealth of information about gingerbread construction, including recipes for the most structurally sound gingerbread and royal icing, many tips and suggestions I have found in my experience, and of course building directions and patterns.

Since there is lots of good information in the instructions, I won’t be touching any of that in this post. Rather, since we are all engineers, I will be focusing on the design process and considerations when creating your own gingerbread design.

Using computer software can really help in planning out your design concept, modeling it, tweaking elements, and ultimately creating a pattern. I would however suggest starting with pencil and paper to sketch out a basic idea of what you want to make.

Sketches of layout/plan and the different faces/elevations of will help guide you in creating a digital version of your design. Once you have a decent idea of what you want, I recommend using a program like PowerPoint to draw out the plan and elevations of the design. It doesn’t matter what the dimensions are – you will be able to change and scale all that later. Just get all the lines down first.

Next you will want to make a separate PowerPoint file and change the page dimensions using the page setup to make the page very big (36” x 50” for example). This should give you enough space to play around and represent your pattern in real dimensions. In your first file, select all of the objects and group them into one object. With both files open, select this from the first file, copy it, and paste into the new one. Now you will scale the group to the size you actually want to build in gingerbread. The scale is determined by your preference, but is ultimately limited by the constraints of the area of the base you will construct upon and the largest size of baking sheet at your disposal (your largest pieces cannot be bigger than your baking sheet). Check the width, length, and height of the entire structure to see if it seems reasonable (take out a ruler to help you visualize).

Once you are happy with the size you have scaled your plans to, check the dimensions of your smallest pieces to ensure they are not unreasonably small. Generally, no piece should be narrower than an inch (the taper of any triangular pieces excepted). You can go narrower than this if the piece is relatively short and you watch the piece during baking like a hawk so that it does not burn. Small pieces should always be baked together on the same sheet so that they are all done about the same time. Working with small pieces can also be frustrating – they are hard to handle and are especially prone to breaking. If using such pieces, bake more (2-5) than you need in order to replace any pieces that will inevitably break. About 3/8” is the narrowest I have ever gotten away with.

Now it is time to represent your structure in the pieces that will make it up so that you have piece-cutting templates. Follow this link to my pattern ( . Using the dimensions of your plans, reproduce the shapes of the panels with autoshapes. This is most easily accomplished by tracing new autoshapes directly over the plans and them moving them to somewhere else on the page. This method can only be used directly for shapes where panel is in the plane of the page. For example, if you have a North, South, East, and West wall, these will be in the plane of the elevations you drew. But if you have a sloping roof, you will need to use the dimensions from the plan (overhead) as well as an elevation. To draw sloping pieces, draw all of the horizontal edges (those that do not slope) using the plan as a guide. Then, draw all of the sloping lines using the dimensions of elevations (side views) that illustrate this sloping roof. Alternatively, if you are fine with trigonometry, bust out that calculator and start working out angles. You need to keep in mind that baked pieces have about 1/4” thickness, and this needs to be accounted for where pieces meet (e.g. if a box is to be 5” x 4” in plan and 3” tall, the long sides can be 5” x 3” while the shorter sides should be 3-1/2” x 3”).

Since it can be difficult to mentally visualize the entire structure and all the pieces it will require, I recommend making a cardboard mockup for complex designs. If you made an error in the dimensions or missed a piece that is needed, this will become obvious when making such a model.

An alternative to drawing plans and elevations in PowerPoint and building a cardboard model is 3D modeling with something like the free software Google (Trimble) SketchUp (link to download Google SketchUp here). Using SketchUp, you can draw out flat pieces, extrude them by 1/4" to give them thickness, and move or rotate as needed. You will be able to get a very good feel for how your creation comes together. Any aspects of your design that you may have overlooked in the 2D world will become very apparent in the 3D model. This can save you the frustration of when half way through building you realize that you missed part of the roofline in your design. Follow this link to download of my 3D model (

Like drawing in PowerPoint or other drawing programs, dimensions in your 3D model are not important at the start. Once you are happy with the way your model looks, use the scaling feature to expand or reduce your model to suit the dimensions of your base (the upper threshold is that no piece can be larger than your largest baking sheet). As before, check the dimensions of your smallest pieces to ensure they are not unreasonably small. Now, take down the dimensions of the pieces and draw them out in PowerPoint. By left clicking on a line or autoshape and choosing the “Size and Position…” option, you can enter the exact dimensions of the piece.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether your dimensions are tidy (eg. 4-1/2”) or not (eg. 4.39864”). Since you will be making a pattern electronically and using this pattern directly on your gingerbread as a tracing/cutting template, dimensions are not important.

Depending on the structure, you may need to consider using internal supports to add stability to your design or support edges of certain roof elements. For instance, the cone roof of the tower of the mansion needed a few triangles of gingerbread inside to support the roof panels during construction. The tower walls themselves needed octagonal pieces at the top and bottom to keep the narrow pieces in the proper arrangement during construction. Such constructability and stability concerns are more readily apparent if you try to make a mockup model first.

Now that you have a pattern for all of the pieces drawn up in PowerPoint, group the objects for each piece. Open another PowerPoint file, this one with Letter sized slides. Copy and paste the templates from the large file into the smaller file, arranging them to fit on the Letter size pages (you can move and rotate them, but do not scale them). For any pieces that are larger than a single page 1) double check that this piece does not exceed the dimensions of your largest baking sheet, 2) put the template on two pages – you will be able to join the pieces with tape later. Put a text box with a unique number on each piece, and possibly with a short description and/or an arrow depicting the orientation (e.g. which direction is up). These markings will help you identify which pieces are what as well as tell you which side is the top and bottom of the template. Follow this link to my pattern (

Finally, print the Letter size PowerPoint file using an inkjet printer (Do not use a toner laser printer). After cutting out your templates, brush canola oil onto each piece until the paper is imbued and turns translucent. Wipe off the templates with a paper towel to remove the oil. Now the pieces are ready to be placed directly on the gingerbread and traced around with a knife (the oil prevents the paper from sticking to the gingerbread). If a toner printed pattern is used, the oil will end up dissolving the toner, either making a mess or causing the toner to disappear. Instead of using toner printed patterns directly, trace around the paper patterns onto wax paper and use the wax paper templates instead.

Armed with your design, now you need only build it. Follow the directions in the Victorian Mansion instructions I gave to fill in the gap between design and fruition.

If you are concerned about the intellectual property of your design, you probably shouldn't post it online for all to see. I'm not sure if this is an uncanny coincidence, or the sincerest form of flattery, but I noticed this photo below on the Saskatoon Festival of Trees site this year. Hmmm...

Unfortunately, I won't be entering a design with the Festival of Trees this year. I am much to busy with my art courses to attempt such a time consuming project before the end of November this year. However, I may be able to take a stab at the carousel over the holiday. Hopefully I have been able to encourage others to try their hands at making their very own gingerbread design. Happy building!


  1. Jeff, I'm pretty sure I'll never get sick of hearing you talk about gingerbread houses.

    So much of the stuff in this post would never even have occurred to me.

  2. Jeff, this was an excellent tutorial. It is kind of funny how similar your methods are to what I use for building armour. Start with a design, 3d model it, create templates, and then put it all together! But I don't think I will be making a gingerbread space marine anytime soon. Keep us posted on progress with the carousel, as that sounds amazing!

    PS - you forgot to insert the link for google sketchup.