Introduction: Customizable Motorized Tree Topper With Star Wars Flair

About: Just a guy who likes building things for my family.
This Instructable will show you how to make a motorized tree topper for your Christmas tree.  I made this as a surprise early Christmas present for my wife so she could enjoy it through most of December.  This is something that can be personalized to a huge degree and is somthing that can involve the whole family.

It has our family in a sleigh being pulled by reindeer.  I put a picture of our dachshund Frankie at the front of the reindeer leading the way.

After a couple days of our family flying around the star at the top of the tree I changed out the star for a picture of the Death Star from Star Wars and also changed the picture flying around the tree to an X-Wing fighter.  I didn't think my wife would want to keep those up long, but she wanted them up through the rest of the holiday season.

Step 1: Tools and Materials


The tools I used on the project were as follows:
  • Hand Saw
  • Drill press
  • Cordless drill
  • Hacksaw
  • Screwdrivers
  • Pliers
  • Sanding block
Not all of the tools in this list are required, but may make the construction much easier.  Your build may need more or less than what I show.  This may also vary based on the material that you use for your project.


12 volt dc wall transformer
Electrical wire
Wire connectors
Tie wraps (to hold the assembly to the tree)
Printed pictures

NOTE: If you plan on using any tool for a project please make sure you are familiar with the tool and all of the dangers associated with it. If you are not familiar with a tool then you should ask someone who is to show you the proper way to use it. A lot of communities have classes at local colleges on the proper use of tools and machinery. There are also local woodworking clubs that offer classes at very reasonable rates for beginners. I highly recommend using these resources for your safety and for the most efficient use of the tool.

Always wear eye and hearing protection.
Always work safe with the proper safety equipment and guards on your tools.

Step 2: Decide What the Picture Will Be

For our tree topper I wanted to have our family in santa's sleigh being pulled by reindeer.  I looked aroud on the internet for something that would work, but ended up using several pictures of sleighs, reindeer, and our family to piece something together.

Step 3: Edit the Picture

I used Paint Shop Pro to edit the pictures and piece the parts together.  Some of the screen shots are shown in the pictures.

First I found a good side view of a reindeer and added a harness from another picture I had found.

Then I took a side view picture of our dog to add to the front of the sleigh team (also with a harness).

Next I found a sleigh and added that to the end of the group.

I added some harnesses to connect the animals to the sleigh.

I added some presents and pictures of my wife and kids to the sleigh.

Step 4: Print a Regular and Reverse Image

You will want to print a regular and a reverse image of the final picture.  If you do it right then when you hold the pictures up to a bright light and have them back to back the images will line up.

Step 5: Set Up the Dowel Rod and Motor

The whole tree topper assembly isn't very heavy, so you don't need a lot to hold the motor upright.  I used a 3/8" diameter dowel rod because it was what I had on hand.  You can cut it about 18 inches long.

Next you need to add the motor to the rod.  Before you do that you need to drill a small hole through the shaft if you don't already have one.  The hole will have the end of the wire that supports the picture through it.

The motor should be about 5 to 6 inches below the end of the dowel rod.  I used hot glue along the edges of the motor where it was against the dowel rod.  Then I used electrical tape and wrapped the motor and the dowel rod the length of the motor.  I did this to cover up the sides of the silver motor and make it less conspicuous on the tree.

Make sure you have the motor rotated so the shaft of the motor will line up with the center of the washer in the next step.  They need to be aligned so the picture will travel in somewhat circular pattern.

Next add a washer at the top of the tree to serve as lateral support for the wire.  I just held the washer in place directly above the shaft of the motor and used some hot glue to hold it to the dowel rod.

I then took a green marker and colored the exposed part of the dowel rod to help it blend in with the rest of the tree.

Step 6: Attached the Wire to the Motor

Make a sharp 90 degree bend in the end of the stainless steel wire so it can be fed down through the washer and pushed through the hole you made in the shaft of the motor.  Later you can put a small piece of electrical tape around the motor shaft and wire to hold the wire in place.  It may be fine without doing this to hold it in place.

Step 7: Mount the Motor Assembly to the Tree

Next you will need to position the dowel rod and motor assembly at the top of the tree.  Take the assembly with the motor at the top and slide it vertically down so the dowel rod is against the back side of the trunk of the tree.  This will make it easier to hide in the branches of the tree.

Take one zip tie and wrap it around the dowel rod and tree trunk just below the motor.  Just fasten it loosely at first.  Next wrap one around the dowel rod and tree trunk a couple inches above the bottom of the dowel rod.  do this one loosely at first as well.

Check the dowel rod to make sure it is as close to vertical as possible.  If you are happy with the way it is positioned and will be easy to conceal with the tree branches then you can go ahead and tighten up the two zip ties.

Step 8: Bend Your Support Wire

Your wire will be now be sticking up and may be even touching the ceiling of your room.  You need to take the free end of the wire and gently start bending it down on the side of the motor where it feeds through the motor shaft.  It should look like an inverted "U" with a small piece sticking out of one of the legs when you are finished.  Keep in mind that you will be putting some weight on it when you add the picture so it might hang a little lower after the picture is in place.

You also need to add some bends to the picture end of the wire to hold the picture.  This will look like a capital letter "T" when you are finished.  You may find a better bending pattern for your use.

Step 9: Hang the Picture From the Wire

In order the hang the double sided picture from the wire you will need to glue both sides of the picture together leaving a short gap at the top of the picture that is a littl over half the width of the "T" shape that you put in the stainless steel wire.  This way you can slide one side of the wire "T" into the opening to one side and then the other.

Step 10: Come Up With More Pictures

I was planning on coming up with multiple pictures for the tree topper and then changing it every few days.  I thought it would be fun to put up a new picture every day kind of like an Advent calendar.  Unfortunately the necessary spare time wasn't available.  I may try to work ahead on some other pictures for next year.

Another thought I had was that it might be fun to add small items to the picture as well, such as hats on people, red noses on the reindeer, put the Grinch in the sleigh, etc.

Step 11: Optional LEDs for the Display

One of the first things my wife said to me after seeing the tree topper was that our dog needed to have a red light up nose like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer since she was leading the reindeer.  Moments later my kids came into the room and said the same thing.  I was going to add a 3mm red LED nose to the nose of our dog in the picture, but decided to wait until next year so the tree topper wouldn't be down for modifications.

Step 12: Going to the Dark Side of Christmas

As a fun change to the tree topper I decided to do something with  a Star Wars theme.  I did an image search on the internet and downloaded a Death Star and an X-Wing Fighter.

First I printed the Death Star onto some card stock paper.  Then I added a small loop on the back with a piece of the extra card stock using a hot glue gun.  The loop was used to go over the top of the tree where the Christmas star used to be.  So I replaced one start with another.

Next I printed out a regular and mirror image of the X-Wing fighter so I could add them to wire that held the sleigh and reindeer.
In looking at it after it was complete I wish I would have had one large X-Wing on the front side and 3 or 5 small X-Wing's on the back side.  That way it would be one large X-Wing when it was on the front side of the tree and closer to you and then smaller X-Wing's when it was on the back side of the tree and farther away and give the feeling of a little more depth.

Also, I should have added pictures of my two boys flying flying the X-Wing with one on each side and our dog in place of R2D2 on the back.

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