All in this has cost me about $300, so it's not cheap. Most of the cost ($250) was in the branches, but I really didn't want to skimp on unrealistic boughs. Those looking for the bargain route could pick up an overstocked artificial Christmas tree and strip it for parts.
The basics of the plan are simple:
1) Find and prepare a trunk out of a real tree branch
2) Build a base to match the trunk
3) Drill holes in the trunk and stick in the branches
-- Tree branch to serve as trunk. Obtain with permission from tree-owner, of course.
-- Polyurethane. $8.
-- Pot. Mine cost $15 in wood and parts.
-- Cement. 1 60# bag will do. $3.
-- Rebar, 1' lengths x 3. $3.
-- 4" PVC connector pipe. $10.
-- Rubber cement. $3.
-- Artificial boughs. $250 including shipping, in my case. I used 25 of the 30 I bought to make this, so could have been cheaper.
-- Dried moss. $8.
-- Spray adhesive. Any crafter has it already.
Step 1: The Trunk
Cut off the branch, then cut off all the sub-branches that look too weak to support an artificial branch later on. You might leave one or two dead branches intact for verisimilitude. I didn't.
Next, using a wire brush or broom, scrub off the loose bark and dust.
Then, seal the branch in several coats of polyurethane. I used water-based, but spar would work well if you can stand the smell as it dries. Don't forget to seal all cut off ends. This sealing will slow the drying of the branch, preventing splits and rotting.
Even mat-finish urethane will leave an unnatural shine. It's probably not necessary, but I air-brushed the entire thing in a thin, brown-grey coat of acrylic paint. Gives it a nice, dusty look.
Step 2: The Base
With the pot in mind and the size of the trunk known, I needed a sturdy way to connect the two. My trunk base was about 4.5" diameter, so I found a 4" PVC connector pipe at the hardware store. I trimmed enough bark off the trunk to allow a tight fit in the PVC pipe. For further stability, I drilled a hole in the pipe to allow a lag screw into the trunk.
Next, I trimmed one end of the pipe to match the desired angle of the trunk as it exits the "ground". I also taped over the open branch of the connector to prevent cement from entering.
I built a form out of 2x4s and nailed it to a scrap board, sized so as to fit easily inside my wooden "pot". I positioned the PVC pipe inside the form and attached it to the form with rubber caulking so that it would not move during cement pouring. Then I wound wire around inside the form and added some short rebar pieces to strengthen the cement. Mix your cement according to the bag's instructions, and pour.
The final base!
Mine rests on several pieces of scrap styrofoam to elevate it appropriately relative to my pot.
You'll want a natural-looking dirt or moss covering for your cement base. I used some dried moss sold at the garden shop.
Step 3: The Branches
1) Hobby / interior decorating stores, such as Michael's or Hobby Lobby. Did not stock attractive pine branches when I looked.
2) Stripping down an artificial Christmas tree for parts
3) Online bough sellers. There are a few out there. Most are not designed to sell to consumers, but allowances can be made. The best-looking I found were at http://www.commercialsilk.com. The tree shown here was made with 30 branches of 23" Scotch Pine ($168 + $78 shipping). Fire retardant!
Time for some artistry. Look online for images of the tree style you want. Notice the density and direction of branches. Keep sample images handy for reference.
Grab that drill. Find a bit that matches the artificial bough diameter. Use masking tape to mark the maximum depth you wish to drill, so you don't come out the other side of the branch.
Drill downward-sloping holes into your trunk. Dip an artificial bough in rubber cement (to adhere and seal the hole) and insert. Bend/spread the bough into an aesthetically-pleasing shape.
Your tree will look less artificial if you separate some of the artificial boughs into smaller parts, for variety.
Keep going until satisfied.
Sit back and see if people can tell it's A) artificial or B) home-made.