Even if your township or city has a Christmas tree composting or mulching program, its hard to see such a lovely tree go. So why not harvest this year's Christmas tree to make next year's gifts or to make yourself a special memento?
This project upcycles a Christmas tree trunk into bases for lovely, simple reading lights. When used with an Edison bulb, it makes a natural, warm and cozy bedside reading light that's gentle on the eyes as well as the wallet.
- Basic woodworking
- Basic electrical
- Standard cordless drill
- 1-1/2 inch Spade or Forstner drill bit with shank compatible with standard 3/8 inch cordless drill chuck
- 1/8 and 1/2 inch standard drill bits
- 1/2 inch wood chisel
- Mallet or hammer
- Needle nose pliers
- Heavy-duty stapler with 1/2 inch staples
- Tape measure or ruler
- A vise or two 6 inch bar clamps or c-clamps
- Razor blade
- Two small (think eyeglass kit) flat head screwdrivers
- Hand saw
- Chain saw
- Pruning saw or shears
- Soldering iron with solder and desoldering wick/braid.
- Orbital power sander
- Router (low cost adapter kit for Dremels)
- Christmas Tree (duh!)
- Light pendant with switch
- Scrap wood
- Masking tape
- Edison light bulb, compatible with E26 or E27 socket, <100Watts (<60Watts recommended)
Note: I strongly suggest wearing gloves for all steps, until the wood dries out. Otherwise, as you can see from the picture above, you will get sap all over your hands, and its impossible to get off! Links to products are listed in case you don't know what a particular tool is, or are confused by all the options out there and all the lively debates you'll find on forums when doing your research!
Cost of materials can range from $0 (if entirely up-cycled) to ~$30 per lamp, if you purchase a new light pendant and Edison bulb and decide to apply stain and sealer (and need to purchase it). Re-use materials and borrow tools whenever possible! Look up local tool libraries and maker spaces, and utilize buy-nothing groups and thrift/re-use stores. You're also bound to have a neighbor willing to loan tools and scrap materials.
Step 1: Harvest the Trunk
Using a standard hand-saw, pruning saw or even a chain-saw, cut off the lower portion of the trunk from your tree. The location where you cut should be where the trunk becomes less than 3 inches in diameter. For a typical 6 foot Christmas tree, you should be able to salvage at least 1 foot of trunk which will make about 4 lamp bases. Although it doesn't have to be exact, a simple way to check the diameter is to cut a piece of string 9.5 inches long (Circumference = Diameter * PI, 3 inches * PI ~= 9.42 inches).
In order to make the cut, it might be necessary to first clear a few branches out of the way, either by breaking them or cutting them (pruning shears work best). Regardless of the method, be sure to not cut or break the limbs too close to the trunk, as you don't want to strip the bark. Its also suggested to make one continuous cut thru the entire trunk, rather than cut it from multiple directions, such that you have a nice clean cut that doesn't require excessive sanding to smooth out later. To do so, its helpful to have the trunk off the ground so its easier to saw.
Note: A sharp saw makes for easy work. Check out some videos on how to sharpen hand saws and cut wood just like butter!
Step 2: Prune the Trunk
First, decide whether or not you want to keep the lowest portion that was submerged in water. Personally, I cut off this section (easily identified by the "water line" or the depth of your tree stand) since the bark doesn't tend to stay on and it requires some cleaning prior to use.
Next, perform the limb pruning cuts. The images show before and after. Unlike typical pruning cuts on a live tree, I like to cut the limb flush with the trunk for a nice clean look, but how much limb you leave is completely up to your personal preference. Whatever you do, always try to cut limbs away from the trunk and take your time.
This step can be done easiest with a pruning saw, although I've done it with a standard hand saw as well. If you have a ton of branches and find its hard to make a good final pruning cut right away, then cut or break the branches leaving about 3-4 inches and then go back and clean them up.
Step 3: Cut the Trunk Into Sections
Cut the pruned trunk into sections at least 3 inches in length. This is the minimum length required to fit the suggested light pendants, which are 3.5 inches long including cable bend. This leaves about half an inch of the fixture protruding above the trunk section. If you'd like to use another light pendant or have different aesthetic preferences, then be sure to cut the trunk lengths appropriately following a similar method. Just be sure to have drill bits that are at least as long as your preferred length of the trunk sections.
When you make the cuts, its again easiest to have the trunk elevated in some way such that the cut can be made continuously. While cutting from multiple sides can be easier, it will require more cleanup later on in the form of sanding to get the surface smooth.
Step 4: Drill the Trunk Sections
Choose which side of each section you'd like to be the top, and using a ruler or just "eyeballing," mark the center. Personally, I like to use whichever side is slightly greater in diameter for the bottom so that it resembles the root flare of a real tree.
Using a 1/8 inch drill bit, drill completely thru the trunk section at the center mark. If you're using a cordless drill, start on speed 1 and have it set to "drill," which is represented by an icon that looks like the drill bit you installed. To avoid damaging your work surface, put a piece of scrap wood underneath the trunk section. This step is called drilling a pilot hole, which is an initial hole meant to guide a fastener or in our case, the drilling of a larger hole. Because it will guide all future holes drilled, make sure you have the drill bit perpendicular (at 90 degree angle) to the trunk section so everything is straight.
Next, wrap a piece of masking tape along the shaft of a 1-1/2 inch Spade or Forstner bit such that the lower edge of the tape indicates 2-1/2 inches from the start of the outer diameter of the drill bit (see image). Note that the 1-1/2 inch drill bit is whats required again for the pendant light fixture I've used, and it is selected for a snug fit. If you're using another pendant, then simply measure the diameter of the pendant, and use a drill bit that's equal to or 1/8 inch larger than the pendant diameter.
Install the 1-1/2 inch Spade or Forstner drill bit into your drill, set the drill bit into your 1/8 inch pilot hole, and begin to drill (slowly!) making sure the drill is again perpendicular to the trunk section. For this step, the safest option is to secure the trunk section using two clamps as shown.
A cordless drill is suggested for this step in order to maintain a slow, controlled speed. Just make sure its set to 1-speed, using the drill setting (icon that looks like a standard drill bit). As you drill, make sure you are going in straight and not at an angle, and make minor corrections as you go if you find yourself drifting. You'll also want to stop from time to time to dump out the wood chips. A vacuum is helpful here so you don't have to unclamp the trunk section. Stop drilling when the bottom of the tape mark is flush or level with the top of the trunk section. You can again just "eyeball it" or use a straight edge like a ruler to see when you're deep enough (see pictures).
Finally, using a 1/2 inch drill bit, drill into the center of the hole thru the bottom into the piece of scrap wood underneath.
Test fit the pendant by putting it upside down into the hole. If its too tight, run the 1 inch drill bit back thru the hole to clean it up, or use the next size up. The goal is for only a 1/16 inch gap or less so that the bulb stands upright and is not loose in the trunk.
Step 5: Chisel Out Cable Exit
Using a 1/2 inch wood chisel or a router, cut out a channel for the light pendant cable exit. Turn the trunk section upside down, and draw a rectangle from the center to the edge, 1/2 inch wide, in the direction that you want to be the back of the lamp. This will be the region that we chisel or cut out.
Using a mallet and the chisel, start by grooving the boundaries of the rectangle. Make sure the flat side of the blade is facing the outside of the rectangle so that you have nice clean edges later. Also groove the center of the rectangle several times, effectively dividing it into sections. This will assist later when chiseling out the wood.
Next, drive the chisel into the side of the trunk, about 1/4 inch from the bottom surface. Again, make sure the flat side of the blade is facing down such that the wedged side gets under the rectangular section you marked and can separate it from the trunk section. Continue chiseling until you've cleared the channel. You can smooth out the channel after most of the material has been removed by running the chisel by hand back and forth thru the channel, again with flat side down. Test fit the wire into the channel to make sure that the wire doesn't stick out and that the trunk base will be able to sit flat.
Note: Just like with saws, sharpening a wood chisel makes all the difference. Even brand new wood chisels can arrive with a dull tip, so if you have fine metal files, give it a touch up and a clean, sharp edge.
Step 6: Sand Down Imperfections (optional)
This step is optional and up to your personal preference. If you made clean pruning cuts and trunk section cuts, there won't be much to clean up and some 100 grit sandpaper followed by 220 grit will give all cut wood surfaces a nice smooth finish.
If your cuts were not very smooth and you'd like to smooth them up quickly, the fastest way is to use a power orbital sander. If the surfaces are very rough, again use a 60 or 120 grit first, then use a 220 grit pad for final finish. A hand plane or wood rasp is also a good "manual" method to knock down high spots if you don't have a power sander.
If you want to make the cuts SUPER smooth, keep going up in grit (320, 400, etc) until you're satisfied.
Note: If you're not familiar with sand paper grits, the small the number, the rougher the finish. For example, 60 grit is intended to remove large imperfections like splintering while 600 grit is basically used to polish. When increasing from low grit (i.e. 60) to high grit, never skip by more than 200 grit, otherwise you'll wear out the next piece you use. A typical progression might be 60, 120, 220 grit for most "rough finish" woodworking projects, continuing to 320 and 400 grit if you want a super smooth finish. Here is one example of many, many sandpaper guides outs there.
Step 7: Apply Finish (optional)
The photo shows the difference with (left) and without (right) a finish. This is again a personal preference, with the caveat that if the bark is already flaking off, you might want to consider apply a sealer to keep the bark attached to the trunk. So basically, if you like the natural wood tone, and your bark is sticking like glue to the trunk, feel free to skip this step and the added cost/mess that comes with it.
First, make sure the wood is clean where you'll be applying stain and/or sealer. Wipe it down with a clean cloth, and use a vacuum to suck wood chips out of the holes you previous drilled. Clean all wood surfaces with soap and water, or a cleaner such as Acetone, which will remove all wax and oils from the surface. If there is dirt, oil or wax, your stain and sealer will not look uniform in color and finish.
First, if you want to change or enhance the color of the cuts you made (top, bottom, limbs), apply a wood stain. Wood stains change the color of a wood or enhance its natural color (referred to as a "Natural Stain"). Wood stains can be purchased with and without sealer, and can be applied with a brush or rag. Regular stains are often marketed as "Penetrating Stain" while combination stain/sealers will advertise "Penetrates, Stains and Seals." Again, stain is put on the bare wood, not on the bark.
Sealer does exactly what its name implies: seals moisture in and keeps moisture out by creating a physical barrier. For this reason, its important that before applying any sealer, the wood is dried out. I make sure this is true by cutting up the trunk sections and letting them sit for about a month. If you apply a stain, be sure to follow recommended dry times before applying a sealer. Most stains will suggest a sealer product made by the same manufacturer, so feel free to use that product since its known to be compatible. Sealers can also be applied by brush or spray. I personally prefer spray sealer for smaller projects since you can easily and smoothly apply it, and you only need a little cardboard to prevent over spray. There's nothing wrong with using a brush, just make sure you put on smooth layers of sealer with each coat and use a good brush, otherwise you may leave brush marks that would require additional sanding to smooth out. Also be aware that you can buy sealers in different finishes: satin (matte finish, no gloss or sheen), semi-gloss, and gloss. If you like shiny things, use gloss. Personally, I like satin finishes so the wood still looks natural. When sealing, apply to every surface of the trunk section, including the bark. This is important, as the sealer will actually help to hold the bark onto the trunk.
Another alternative to using a sealer is to use wood oils. Unlike a sealer which creates a physical barrier, oils work by being absorbed by the wood, such that there is no space for moisture in the wood cells. Both oils and sealers have their pros and cons with appearance and maintenance, and there are plenty of articles on this topic from which you can learn a lot!
Step 8: Disassemble the Light Socket
Mark the cable at the bottom of the light socket strain relief nut with pen. Unscrew the strain relief nut and threaded adapter and slide them back down the wire. Using two flat head screwdrivers, pry open the tabs of the bottom portion of the light socket and slide it down the wire.
Using a razor blade, carefully slice the cable insulation between the two wires, down to the mark you made earlier. Be careful not to cut into the individual wire insulation! You just have to score it on one side, then you can easily rip the cable insulation in half. Peel back the insulation, but leave it attached as its needed later so that the strain relief functions properly. This step is necessary so we can push the wires and connected terminals further out of the light socket for ease of working.
Prior to wire removal, its encouraged to mark the color of each wire on the socket housing as well as the terminals they are attached to, in order to keep hot (120VAC) and neutral the same. Its not that important for this pendant type, but in most light bulb sockets, the hot terminal is purposely located at the rear of the socket, with a much smaller surface area, to minimize the chance of someone shocking themselves when the light is installed or removed.
Using a small flat head screwdriver, push in the terminal locking tabs such that the terminals can be released from the socket housing. Push them out using the wires from behind, or use needle nose pliers to grab them.
Next, remove the terminals from the wires. This may either be a temporary interference or friction fit (terminal squeezes wire), which you can remove by hand, or soldered. If soldered, apply heat to the terminals where the wire connects using a soldering iron until the solder appears to take liquid form. When it does, pull the wire and terminal apart and remove any excess solder using de-soldering braid.
Note: If you are worried that in the process of cutting the cable insulation you nicked or cut into the wire insulation, you can check for a short using a Multimeterset to "continuity check" (looks like sound wave symbol) or resistance check (Ω symbol). Attach the Multimeter leads to the cable power plug (one on either terminal). The meter should not beep and the resistance measurement should be infinite or "open." What this checks for is a connection between hot (120VAC) and neutral, which is referred to as a short circuit. Do not plug in the light socket if you measure a short circuit, but rather find where the two wires are touching, and apply proper shrink wrap or electrical tape to insulate the two wires.
Step 9: Reassemble the Light Socket
Now that the wires are free, slide them thru the bottom of the trunk section and up out of the top. Re-install the socket items in the following order onto the cable: strain relief nut, threaded adapter, and rear portion of light socket with tabs.
Next, feed the wires back thru the top portion of the light socket using the holes you marked before based on wire colors. Grab the wires, one at a time, and re-install the socket tabs (needle nose pliers recommended). Again, if soldering is required, pull the wire all the way thru the socket first, heat the tab of the terminal, and when solder will melt on the tab, join the wire to the tab. For this, a device called a "helping hand" or "third hand" will be helpful to hold the tab in place while you work with the solder and wire.
Once both tabs are attached, pull the wires back down into the socket until the locking tabs are in place. Test that they are locked by attempting to push them back out via the wires. Once you confirm the wires and tabs are secure, reassemble the light socket assembly by first snapping the rear portion into the front portion, then screw in the threaded adapter, and then screw on the strain relief.
If you'd like to paint the socket before installing it, use a colored spray paint intended for plastics and apply multiple coats. Make sure to protect the power cord as well as the inside of the socket from over spray (stuff socket with paper or a rag).
When the paint is dry (follow product instructions), slide the whole pendent back into the trunk section. It should be a nice, snug fit.
Step 10: Secure the Cable
Finally, turn the trunk over, and using a heavy duty stapler with 1/2 inch staples, secure the cable in the channel 2 or 3 places. Make sure the pendant is fully seated into the trunk before stapling. Also make sure to line up the stable gun center with the cable, and that the cable is centered in the channel first. You definitely want to avoid putting a staple THRU the cable, as that could cause a short circuit (connection between hot and neutral) or create a shocking hazard. If you're not comfortable using a staple gun, hammer-in staples can also be purchased at home improvement stores, which are typically used with Romex wire.
Step 11: BEHOLD YOUR MAGNIFICENT CREATION!
Install your light bulb...
plug in the lamp...
flip the switch and...
P.S. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed making this lamp and will enjoy many hours of reading by its light!