Introduction: Antique-ish Christmas Tree Topper

My wife and I are preparing for our second Christmas together as a couple. Last year was a blur and we accumulated a few ornaments and decorations, but this year, as we were putting up our tree to prepare for the festivities, we remembered that we never got a star for our tree. Immediately the gears in my head started to turn, and what came out was this antique-ish Christmas tree topper complete with LED accent lights. Here's what you'll need to complete this project:

Tools: Jig saw, power drill, 1/2" and 7/32" drill bits, rotary tool (Dremel or the like), 1/4" and 1/2" sanding bands for rotary tool, soldering iron, hot glue gun

Supplies: 12"X12"X1" piece of wood, 5 yellow LEDs, 18-22 AWG wire (I used 22AWG), 9V DC power plug (wall wart), a small enclosure (AA battery case or Altoids tin), wood stain or paint (in my case both), hot glue, solder

The cost of this project for me was completely free as I was able to scrounge up all of these supplies from accumulated scrap and left-over components I had laying around. But if you had to purchase all the supplies I would guess $20-$30 would do it, but I think that part of the fun is finding stuff you already have and making it work with the project.

Step 1: Cut It Out

The first step in this process is getting the basic shape of the star (or whatever shape you choose) cut out. I had a scrap piece of solid oak left over from a step stool project I completed a year or so ago that seemed to be the right dimensions, so I decided to use that. So I used a photo editing program to create a star, printed and cut that out to use as a template for my star (see attached PDF). Once I saw the star was traced onto the wood, I thought it was a bit small. So I decided to use a straight edge and add an extra 1/2" or so to all the lines (that's why you see pencil markings inside my cut in the picture below :)

I made my cuts using my jig saw loaded with a fine cut blade (8-12 TPI) to so I'd get nice clean edges. I wasn't too worried about straying off the lines as I thought that would add to the antique look of the star.

Step 2: Sanding the Edges

Next I took my Dremel tool fitted with a 1/4" sanding band and started sanding out the inside corners to get rid of any lines where I cut too far in. After this was complete I used a 1/2" sanding band to sanding down random spots along the edge of the star to make it appear distressed and worn. I tried to make it look as authentic as possible by spacing out the worn spots and varying the size and depth of the worn spots. The end result pictures show this better.

Now's a good time to start sanding the whole star as well to get rid of blemishes, burn spots (if you're the impatient type with the Dremel) and pencil marks. I started with a 100 grit sand paper and moved up to a 240. The more sanding, the better the surface and finish.

Step 3: Make Some Holes

Next I clamped the star to the side of my desk and drilled a 1/2" hole in the bottom of the star to be used for mounting the star on the tree. I found 1/2" was a good median size for my tree and the thickness of the wood (this is why it's important to use at least 1" thick plank). Make sure you keep the drill as close to level as possible so you don't end up drilling out the side of the star. My drill has a little level on the back which makes this a bit easier...or if you have a drill press, that would be even better.

While I had my drill out, I went ahead and drilled a hole in the end of each tip of the star that will be used for mounting the LEDs. I don't have metric drill bits so I ended up using a 7/32" and reaming the hole out a bit by moving the drill around in all directions to widen the hole slightly (not too much!).

Step 4: Stain and Paint

I wanted to get a really nice distressed finish on the star, so I started by applying a generous coat of stain. I used Minwax "Natural" stain and applied using a cheap brush, I let it soak in for about 5 minutes and wiped down all the edges with a rag to ensure I didn't get drip marks or streaks. Then I let it sit overnight before wiping it down one last time.

Next I applied a coat of yellow acrylic paint to the front of the star. You could use any color paint, but this paint I found was the exact color I was going for so I didn't have to do any mixing. I let the paint dry for about 30 minutes before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Distress It!

This is probably my favorite step, because the antique look really starts to come through. Plus there is an artistic element to sanding, which is usually just annoying and painful :) I used 100 grit sandpaper and started working at the edges to remove portions of the paint. Once I had the edges about where I wanted them, I started working on all the points of the star to wear (ever so slightly) the paint away. I think I even got carried away and worked at the middle of the star a bit. Either way, I just kept checking the area I was sanding frequently to make sure I wasn't getting too rough with it. I think another important part is to make sure you vary the amount of pressure you apply to the sandpaper so the worn spots don't look too uniform.

Step 6: Prepare the LEDs

Now it's time for this star to shine. I started by preparing the LEDs for their new homes. To do this I snipped the leads pretty short and soldered my wire to each lead paying careful attention to which lead is the positive and negative. Then I wrapped each LED up nicely with some heat shrink. I did this to each LED until I had all 5 wired up and ready to go.

Step 7: Wiring It All Together

For the power supply I decided on a 9V power adapter mainly because I didn't want to have to change the batteries once I got the star on top of the tree, plus I had one kicking around that would work. I'm an IT guy by day, and we're constantly throwing AC adapters away, so I usually snag a couple and keep a nice stock pile of them for those "just in case" moments. Obviously because this plugs into a standard 110V outlet, use all the necessary precautions of working with live electricity. Don't do any soldering while live power is applied, so on and so forth. Consider yourself warned :)

I also chose to wire the LEDs in series so each LED will receive 1.8V...probably a little low for what these LEDs could handle, but they shine bright enough for this project. I usually like to play on the safe side when it comes to LEDs anyway, especially since these were loose LEDs that I found in my "bag-o-tricks."

To make the wiring a little cleaner looking, I decided to use an old AA battery holder I had as an enclosure. So I started by drilling out a few small holes around the enclosure for the wires. The enclosure already had a larger hole pre-drilled, so I used this for the power adapter wire. Then I pre-drilled a couple of holes through the plastic and into the star for mounting. A couple of small wood screws do the trick of holding the enclosure securely in place.

To wire the LEDs properly, I started by soldering the positive from the power supply to the positive of the first LED. Then I soldered the negative of the first LED to the positive of the second LED, and so on all the way around the star. On the last LED, solder the negative to the negative of the power supply and that should do it. I tested my LEDs before wrapping the connections in heat shrink, just to be sure.

Step 8: Hot Glue

To finish off this project I got out the trusty glue gun. First I filled the LED holes with glue, stuck them in and let them cool. Then I filled in the front of all the holes with glue to make the light disperse better. Then, just for added support, I glued all the wires down to the back of the star.

Finally, put the star on your tree, plug it into the wall or a spare receptacle from your string of Christmas lights, sit back and enjoy!

Things I would have done differently:
Considering this was a throw-together/free project, I'm quite happy with the outcome, however, there are a few things I would do differently if I ever did this project again. I would most likely use a darker stain. I guess I would like to see a more dramatic distressing, and darker stain would probably help in that department.

If I had more time I would have wired the LEDs in 2 series loops using resistors to limit the voltage, making sure each LED received 2-3V. I may actually do this after we take the tree down so it's ready for next year.

Another thing I would have done to make things cleaner looking on the back side is Dremel out little channels from each LED to the enclosure, once I knew everything worked I would have puttied the channels and sanded them down so the wires weren't so exposed. The hot glue worked, but this would have been a nice touch.

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