What do you buy your sister for her birthday when she already has everything? Answer: Nothing. You make something instead.
This project started out looking quite different from the end product, as I kept on changing and adding a few details as it progressed, but the basic idea was always the same: recover wood from a broken old pallet, join and shape the planks, and then add a series of branches made out of copper. The branches would then transform into leaves and/or photo holders, and would be set at different heights over the wood so it would look more three dimensional.
Step 1: Materials, Tools and Preparation
The stuff I used is very basic and extremely cheap: wood slats recovered from an old pallet, and copper wire.
For the pallet, I am lucky enough to work in an industrial sector of our city, so every now and then some companies leave old and broken pallets out for the garbage company to pick up. I just got to one of those pallets first, and that was it. You can also get a whole bunch of them for free off of site like kijiji, so take a look if you don't have easy access to them.
As far as disassembling the pallet goes, it's quite simple and there are tons of videos on the net about doing this (so I won't go into too many details about it). You basically need to separate the planks as carefully as possible to avoid braking them (especially if they are old and gnarly, which would offer a look you'd probably want to keep). Once separated, use a stiff hand brush with soap and warm water to thoroughly wash the boards and then set them to dry.
Copper - I stopped by the local hardware store to buy it, and basically picked up about four meters of coiled copper wire that did not have the plastic shielding around it (about $3 a meter). It's composed of about seven relatively stiff copper wires which is excellent for this project. One end of the cable remained coiled (representing the bottom of the branch), and you just uncoil some of the wire strands as you build the higher (and thinner) branches which then also becomes leaves and photo frames.
I used a combination of power and hand tools, and aside from the regular assortment of stuff you'll find in a tool box, you'll need a scraper (or planer), an angle, circular saw, clamps, wood glue and a drill.
A rough sketch of what you want the branches to look like always helps. I taped four letter sized sheets of paper together and then drew the branches and frame locations on it. This would later on serve as a guide to size the wood panel and lay down the wires.
Step 2: Preparing the Wooden Slats
Once the slats have been removed from the pallet, it's time to prepare them for the frame. I wanted to try and keep as many unique features as possible, which included knots, nails, stains, etc. My initial design called for keeping quite a few of them, but as I kept on shaping the project a few of these items fell by the wayside. Just remember that none of this is written in stone and that your design may change all the time.
Start by taking the slats and cutting them to perfectly straight boards. If I had a table saw and planer I could have done this quickly, but since I didn't, it was the old fashioned way. I started by laying the boards down flat and marking straight parallel lines where I would off the edges. The edges were then removed with a circular saw.
The saw is unfortunately not the best tool for making perfectly straight cuts, so after this step I clamped the boards in a table vice, laid the long edge of a metal ruler on top of them, and looked for the high and low spots (most easily done if you have a light source behind it). The high spots were then shaved off with a scraper (or planer).
Once all the boards were perfectly straight, it was time to put them together and prepare for the glue up.
Step 3: The Glue-up
Gluing everything together is a pretty rewarding step (but not as rewarding as the final staining and varnishing), because it highlights all the hard work you put into the straightening and scraping. In this step you need to remember that everything is being done upside down for the simple reason that the boards are all of different thicknesses (unless you're lucky enough to have a thickness planer, which I don't). Gluing them face down will ensure that their front surfaces will all be flush and will look good on the final product. The back will remain quite uneven, but I think this actually adds to the overall image.
While the glue is drying the whole thing will need to be kept in long clamps (going from side to side) in order to keep them all tightly together. Doing this, though, will end up bowing the whole thing either up or down, and the boards will just pop out of place. To prevent this from happening, lay two 2"x3" beams parallel to each other under the structure, line it with newspaper (so the structure does not stick to the support beams), lay the boards down (applying glue to the edges of every pair), and then followup with another layer of newspaper and two more beams right on top of the first pair. Ensure all four beams are longer than the structure.
Also note that since the boards are not all of the same thickness, there will be gaps between them and the top clamping beams. I placed wads of crumpled newspaper on those low spots to provide extra pressure on the boards and ensure they don't move while sitting in the clamps.
Use four small clamps to hold the clamping beams together, but don't tighten them too much (the boards need a little wiggle room when getting clamped down from the sides). Then use two long clamps to hold the whole thing together from the sides, and start tightening everything by alternating the clamps (i.e. tighten one down a bit, move on the the next one, etc).
When everything is tight, position a couple of small boards right in the centre (but without touching the long clamps) such that the boards end up being higher than the long clamps. Then put a heavy weight on top of this, providing clamping to the centre of the panel.
Leave everything sitting like this for several hours (I left it overnight) and then you're done. The following morning the clamps can all be removed, the news paper peeled/scraped off, and you're ready to start the final shaping.
Step 4: Shaping and Sanding
This part is a lot of fun, but takes a bit of elbow grease if you don't have a good orbital sander. There's no feeling like the one of sanding a wooden project and feeling the smooth surfaces come out, the glue stains disappear, and the clean grain of the wood start showing through.
First lay down the design of your branches and figure out what shape you want the wood to have. I started out thinking I would just leave the boards at odd lengths, then moved on to a square-like shape, and finally decided on the uneven curved one you see in the final product.
Sketching the outline to cut off and remember to keep the wood clamped down to the work surface while you're cutting. The boards are only glued to each other, and might be old and fragile to begin with, so letting the whole thing shake around too much may not be a good idea. Keeping it stable during the cutting step will help ensure it does not break.
As an added touch I also decided to remove some material from the middle, so I drew a couple of freehand shapes and cut them out.
Once all the cutting was done, I used a rough file to clean up all the edges (except for the natural hole left on the bottom right hand side), and went over the front with an orbital sander to remove the last bits of newspaper and smooth everything out. Where the sander could not reach (e.g. the inner edges of the inner cuts) I used regular sandpaper. The back remained rough and untouched.
Step 5: Constructing the Tree Branch and Picture Frames
Now that the work with the wooden section is over, it's time to start with the copper part. This is essentially a tree branch that splits into several minor ones, with each sub branch sprouting leaves and/or picture frames. The basic design was done on paper at the beginning of the project, and although the final look did deviate a bit from it (I ended up with less frames, for example), it served as a good basis.
To start with, take the coiled ground wire, tape one end about four inches from the start, and clamp it down where the branch is supposed to come out of. Then unwind one of the wires from the other end all the way down to the taped location, and clamp the remaining wires down as well at the other end. The single wire you've now unwound will become a separate branch of its own, and will have some leaves and/or a frame in it.
The leaves are pretty simple; just make an oval at any point, twist it at the base so the wire can continue on to become other shapes, and pinch its tip. You can then pull and bend the sides of the leaf at will to give it a more natural shape. The tips of the leaves can also be bent up or down to make it more realistic.
The frames are quite straight forward as well. They are designed to stay almost entirely behind the photo, except for the corners which go over it and keep it in place. To make them, shape them into a rectangle the size of the photo you want to hold, and then bend the wire back on to itself at the starting point of the rectangle so the branch can continue on. Bend the corners inwards, as well as some of the wire between the corners in towards the centre. Finally, bend the corners up a little so the photo can fit under them. This part is a little hard to put in words, which is why a picture is worth a thousand of them. Refer to the attached photos for a better idea.
Step 6: Attaching the Branches to the Wood and Wrapping Up
The final step is to attach the finished branch to the wood base. I wanted a way to do it that would let me position different parts of the branch at different heights, and that would also not take away from the wood+copper look. What I came up with was a copper attachment that hooks on to any part of the branch, goes down to the wood, sits on the surface with the aid of two little footings, and then goes through the wood and is fully attached on the back.
To get this right, I experimented first and got some of the attached photos that way. You basically start off with a wire about ten inches long which you wrap once around the part of the branch that it will be attached to. You now have two legs dangling down from the branch, and you bend them at 90 degrees where you want the footings to be; this will dictate how high up above the wood this part of the branch will be. Bend the footings back on themselves again, and then bend them one last time so that they continue down, parallel to the rest of the leg.
Now mark the location of the two legs on the wood, drill two holes, and push the legs through. You still need to finalize the attachments on the back of the wood, but don't do this just yet as you still need to stain and varnish the base first. Once you've got all the attachments in place, and you like the final look, take the whole structure apart and have the base stained and varnished.
After everything is dry (it will take you a good day or two if you follow the manufacturer's instructions and apply several coats), you can reassemble the branch on to the base. Insert the copper attachments into their holes, and with their footings firmly on the front of the wood, bend the wires on the back, bend them back again, and snip the excesses off. I'm not sure the final bend-back is actually necessary, but I just got into the habit of doing it.
That's about it. Hope you enjoyed it, and if you do end up building something like this, please post the photos. I'd love to see how it turns out!