Introduction: Junk Mail Christmas Tree

About: Hi, I'm Marianne Bland, an artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2010, I completed a self-imposed challenge to create at least one new piece of art every day for a year. I published several instructab…

Turn a stack of junk mail (or old books, magazines or office supplies) and some spare time into a beautiful, functional Christmas tree for your home or office in 5 easy steps! Go colorful & quirky or elegant & wintry with this eco-friendly, ornaments-optional how-to.

A few days ago, I realized:
1. I had a huge pile of junk mail taking up valuable real estate in my art studio, and
2. I wanted a Christmas tree.
I also don’t have a lot of spare cash for a tree, am morally conflicted with supporting an industry of tree-killing, and am constantly on the lookout for daily projects as I’m about to finish up ArtProject2010, a self-imposed year-long challenge to make a piece of art every day. Et voila! Junk mail Christmas tree was born. As the stars aligned to bring me a project solving multiple problems of mine at once, I figured it was the least I could do to pass the holiday spirit on to others with this Instructable.

This project is best for a small, tabletop tree- unless you have many, many hours of free time and lots of paper. In that case, feel free to go bigger. ;) This is also an economical, festive way to display something like jewelry for sale.

For this project, you’ll need:
-Junk mail OR an old book, hymnals, Christmas stories, office supplies, old textbooks, love letters, newspapers, magazines, a phone book, scraps of wrapping paper, old Christmas cards or any paper scraps you care to use
-Acrylic matte medium OR Elmer’s glue watered down a bit
-A wide brush
-Packing tape (or duct tape; scotch isn’t going to cut it)

-A hole punch
-Small box for stand (recommended)
-Wrapping paper/fabric/ribbon for stand

Step 1: Cut Out Your Cardboard

Collect your cardboard scraps and draw a tiered tree pattern with a 90 degree edge on one of them. Use your first one as a pattern (or make a paper pattern so that your pieces are the same) and cut out 4 tree shapes. Create a tree shape that will entirely fit on to 4 of your cardboard scraps. The stiffer your cardboard is, the sturdier your finished piece will be.

I didn’t trust myself to get the tree shape right on my first try, so I made a pattern using a piece of 18” x 24” newsprint paper, utilizing the natural 90 degree edge of the page. I used boxes laying around the house for my cardboard.

If you’ll be using ornaments, make sure to leave enough space between branch tiers for them.

SAFETY TIP: Use scissors! If you use a utility knife, be EXTREMELY careful. Always cut away from yourself and keep in mind where the knife would go if you slip. Not only is it easy to slip and screw up your tree shape, it's also easy to slip and screw up your hand. So far I have one trip to the emergency room to attest to this. Don't let it happen to you!

Step 2: Assemble Your Base

Tape your four pieces together with packing tape along the straight edge. Start by taping two pieces together at a time, then tape your pairs together. Fold your cardboard pieces over and apply another piece of tape to the entire straight edge wherever the seam is still sticky.

Step 3: Prepare a Stand (optional But Recommended)

You can certainly set your tree flat on to a table when you’re done and omit this step, but adding a “stand” keeps your tree sturdy, gives it a little extra height, an additional tier to hang ornaments from and some space to place presents. It also helps keep your base up off the table while you’re applying paper, which makes that process easier. Hence, I recommend it.

Find a small box as close to cube-shaped as you can, about equal to half the length of your bottom tier. Using scissors, cut a thin notch about an inch deep into each corner, just wide enough for the cardboard to fit in it. I used my first cutout scrap as a guide to mark the other corners and make them all the same depth. I suppose a ruler would have also done the trick, but hey. I’m an improviser. Cut the top off of your box (if it has one) so that the tree can sit in it. Place your four tree tiers into the four corner notches of your stand. Don’t worry, we’ll gussie it up later. ;)

Step 4: Apply Paper

Now it’s time to apply your pine needles, i.e. paper. Luckily you have a big pile of paper handy, so cover your work surface with paper to protect it from glue drippings. Start with a “base coat”. Cut out a bunch of strips of paper, ½” to 1” wide or so, until you have a good pile of material to work with. Brush some medium (or glue mixture) on to a small area and apply strips in a downward diagonal direction (away from the center, out towards the branches). Brush some more medium/glue over them. Repeat until all of the cardboard is covered with paper. If you don’t like the raw cardboard edge look, remember to apply some paper over those too.

Keep an eye on the paper for a couple of minutes after you’ve first applied it, as paper tends to “bubble” while it sets. You can often smooth out the bubbles with your brush if you catch them in time.

After your “base coat” of paper is done, apply “fringe” pieces to the ends of your “branches” to simulate pine needle texture. To do this, first cut pieces of paper about 2” wide to fit the areas you want to apply this texture. Check them where you want to put them so you can cut the edge in the right direction (diagonal downwards). Cut into the paper along the desired fringe edge every ¼” or so, depending on how thin you want your “needles” to be, but only cut halfway up the width of your paper strip.

For a little extra pizzazz, snip each little “needle” in an upwards diagonal direction to give your needles pointy edges instead of blunt ones. Bend your cut edges upwards a little, apply some medium/glue to the branch where your fringe will go and stick it on. Make sure you only glue down the top part (the half of the strip that isn’t fringed) so that your carefully created needles don’t get stuck down. Fluff them back up if you need to.

You can do it only on the branch tips (as I did with the junk mail/color side of my tree) or all over (as I did with the book page/white side of my tree) if you’d prefer more texture. As these pieces will be wider than your base strips, either layer a couple more thin strips that you used for your base coat over them to blend them back in, or apply another fringe strip over the flat part of the previous one. Take a look at the pictures for some guidance in this area.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Now that your lovely little tree is complete and dry, add the finishing touches to make it complete, like covering/filling your stand and decorating it.

If you used a box “stand”, cover it with extra paper, wrapping paper, burlap, or whatever you have on hand that goes with your aesthetic. I used some gold fabric and holiday ribbon I had hanging around (but I kept the ribbon on the colorful side and went with plain gold on the white side). Your box will have some empty space in it that will be noticeable up close, so if you like, fill it with tissue paper, bows, or something else. I used to collect these tiny pinecones with my Grandma in the park for her craft projects. Christmas is always about family for me, so adding these to my tree is a fun little sentimental touch. Just be sure to leave your notches accessible so you can sit your tree back in your stand. I tucked the fabric in to mine; if using paper, just cut it back out after wrapping it.

String your tree with lights if you like. To decorate it, either put holes in it with a hole-punch for the curved-wire ornaments or simply hang them from the branch tips for the string-loop type of ornaments. You can also cut a tiny notch in the top edge of your branch if your ornaments are prone to slip off.

Find a blanket to cover your table/surface, set your tree in your stand and enjoy! I made mine half white, half colorful so I can change it depending on my mood. When I’m done with it this year, I will just take it out of the stand, fold it up (with some wax paper in between layers to keep the acrylic from sticking in the heat over the next year) and save it under the bed for next Christmas!

There are so many ways you could use this idea to make your own unique tree. If you’re a jewelry artist, punch holes in the edges and use it to display earrings for sale at a craft fair. Stuck at work pining for vacation time with the Grinch as your overseer? Kill some time at the office by making a tree out of old memos. Sincere about saving money? Bring some free holiday cheer into your home! Homemade cheer is always the best cheer in my opinion. :) If you have some helpers who can use scissors safely (i.e. older children / sober friends), throw on some carols and recruit them to turn it into a family affair.

If you enjoyed this Instructable, swing on over to my daily art project blog at ARTPROJECT2010.INFO and say hello! I’ve only got a couple weeks left and would love to hear from you. Merry Christmas everyone!

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