From an engineering perspective, I think paper mache is fascinating because it lets you make a mold, or a semi-permanent physical record, of something (i.e., a hand, somebody’s face, or a balloon) just using rather ordinary, inexpensive materials. A neat spin-off of paper mache is paper mache pulp – this “pulp” is basically like Play-Doh or clay, but like paper mache it’s made using paper and other common materials. Both techniques are also great because they’re pretty quick to create a product (this project is surprisingly fast – it took me just a couple of hours to make the entire tree, and then I let it dry about 24 hours).
This ‘ible combines both paper mache and paper mache pulp to make a mini light-up Christmas tree, which is perfect for sitting on a desk, small bookshelf corner, or other small space. The base of the tree is made using typical paper mache, and then the green “foliage” and decorations were made using dyed paper mache pulp. I chose to use newspaper because it’s a great way to recycle newspaper that’s sitting around (inexpensive too!), and I think newspaper gives paper mache a special kind of texture. (If you want brighter colors, you may want to use plain printer paper.)
Overall, this project uses entirely inexpensive, common household materials except for the LED light, which could be substituted anyway. The light used in the tree is an inexpensive flashing LED that can be purchased through Amazon. Other light systems could easily be used instead – I just had these sitting around from another project.
So if you want to make a quick, inexpensive Christmas tree that to add some festive lighting holiday cheer to your desk or other small space, then this is the ‘ible for you!
Step 1: What You’ll Need
Here’s what you’ll need to make your own mini paper mache light-up Christmas tree:
- Newspaper. You’ll only need about 2 full sheets.
- Food coloring. You’ll need green (for the tree) plus any other colors you want to use to “decorate” the tree (as ornaments, ribbon, etc.) – I used/created yellow, orange, purple, and blue.
- Wire. I used chicken wire with squares ½ inch squares, but other wire with small holes would also work. You just need a small scrap (approx.. 25 cm by 12.5 cm).
- Wire cutters
- Ruler or tape measure
- Toilet paper cardboard tube
- Gloves. You’ll want a work pair to handle/bend the wire without cutting your hands, and you’ll want a disposable pair to handle/mold the dyed paper mache pulp.
- Measuring cups
- Forks for mixing
LED light. You only need one, but I bought a set of 10 for just $8 from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005G0NMUO/. Other lights, or strings of lights, would work too – they just need to be placed inside the tree.
Step 2: Form the Wire Base of the Tree
In this step, you’ll be molding a rectangular piece of wire into a cone, which will serve as the base of your Christmas tree. (If you want to make a bigger tree, feel free to use a larger piece of wire and adjust the following steps.)
Cutting the Wire
Cut out a rectangular piece of wire to be about 25 cm by 12.5 cm (so, twice as long as it is wide). After playing around with the piece, I found that the best way to turn it into a cone is to make the cuts as shown in the first picture in this step. Specifically, in the middle of the rectangle (length-wise), you’ll want to cut the piece about two-thirds all the way across. Next to this cut, make two smaller cuts, each going about one-third across (going from the same side). Then on the two opposite corners, make cuts going halfway to the center (towards where the first cut was made). Please look at the picture for a visual of where to make the cuts.
Folding the Wire
Now go back to where the first cut was made (in the middle of the rectangle, length-wise), fold the piece along that cut to bring the two top edges together, and then fold these two edges together to hold them in place. See the pictures in this step for details. Basically, the point at the top of that first cut should become the top of the cone. While making these folds, also curve the surrounding sides to make the curved sides of the cone. (All of the cuts allow the rectangular piece to be folded into a cone – without the cuts, the wire wouldn’t be able to flex this way.) After folding it to look like a cone shape, you’ll be left with two triangular ends at the bottom – just fold those under the cone (those ends will actually be important later for attaching the tree trunk). See the pictures for visuals.
Do as much folding and bending as you want to the wire. I ended up squeezing the cone together more to make it a bit more narrow overall; it ended up being 12 cm high and 9-10 cm in diameter at the base. When you’re happy about the shape of your wire cone (i.e., it looks like a coniferous tree, roughly), you’re ready to move on to the next step!
Note: If you want, you can add the trunk now – see step 5 for details. In some ways it’s easier to add it now, before you add the paper mache.
Step 3: Form the Base Layer of Paper Mache
In this step, you’ll cover the wire tree frame with a layer of regular paper mache. I used newspaper, flour, and water for this, but there are many other ways it could be done – it’s just covering the wire with a layer of ordinary paper mache.
Preparing the Newspaper
Rip newspaper into shreds that are somewhere around 5 to 15 cm long and 2 to 4 cm wide. Prepare one cup of ripped newspaper pieces this way.
Preparing the Paper Mache Mixture
In a small bowl, mix ¼ cup of flour with ¼ cup of water. (If you need more, you can make up more just using this 1:1 ratio.) Mix it thoroughly with a fork. (If it seems a little watery, add more flour; if it seems a little thick, add more water.) (For the record, I adapted this recipe taken from wikihow.)
Applying the Paper Mache
Dip a strip of newspaper into the paper mache mixture and use your fingers to strain off any excess mixture from the strip. Press the damp strip across the wire frame – it should hold pretty well to the frame (and will hold better as you add more strips). (I used my fingers to apply the strips, but a lot of people like using paint brushes for paper mache – since you’ll be putting paper mache pulp on top of these strips, I didn’t worry about flattening them completely like you’d do with a brush.) Keep adding strips to the frame this way, making the first ones parallel to each other and overlapping a little (so there are no gaps) – see the images in this step for details. I went across one “face” of the cone this way, using slightly overlapping, parallel strips. Then I turned the cone around and did the same to the opposite face. Overall, keep putting strips onto the cone until it’s completely covered everywhere with 1-3 strips.
The paper mache doesn’t need to be completely dry before moving on to the next step and adding the paper mache pulp, but it should be a little dry (so things don’t just slide off!). I let mine dry for about an hour outside on a slightly breezy day – afterwards, it was still a little damp, but much more solid.
Step 4: Add the Green Paper Mache Pulp
In this step, you’ll make some green paper mache pulp and add it on to your cone to create the tree. (After this, you’ll just be adding decorations to the tree.) The pulp not only makes it green, but also adds some great texture, helping it really look like a tree.
Preparing the Newspaper
Cut the newspaper into as tiny shreds as possible. I did this by cutting many layers (held together) into strips, and then cutting the strips at a 90 degree angle into tiny squares/rectangles. I ended up making them around 0.5 cm to 1 cm long. The tinier the pieces, the better they’ll work as pulp. Prepare one cup this way. (If you want, you can make more now; you’ll need another cup in the next step.)
Preparing the Paper Mache Pulp Mixture
In a small bowl, mix 1 cup shredded newspaper, ½ cup flour, ½ cup water, and 40 drops of green food coloring. Mix it thoroughly with a fork. (If it seems a little watery, add more flour; if it seems a little thick, add more water.)
Applying the Paper Mache Pulp
Put on a pair of gloves and use your fingers to place the green pulp onto the cone. I did a layer just thick enough to completely cover the paper mache strips – see the pictures in this step for examples. By the end, it should be looking very much like a tree!
Again, the paper mache pulp doesn’t need to be completely dry before moving on to the next step, but it should be a little dry so things stay in place. I let mine dry for about an hour outside and this helped firm it up enough.
Step 5: Adding the Trunk
In this step, you’ll add a small trunk using part of a cardboard toilet paper tube. Inside the tube you’ll be putting the LED light later.
Cutting the Trunk
Decide how tall you want your trunk to be – I kept mine short, raising the tree up only about 3 cm. Double the length you want the trunk to be, and cut a piece of tube to be this long.
Attaching the Trunk
Next figure out how to attach the wire triangular ends into the sides of the tube – see pictures in this step for examples. Basically I suggest cutting slits on either side of the trunk (halfway up) and then sliding the triangular ends of wire into these slits. This takes some careful maneuvering of the wire so that you don’t disrupt the rest of the cone – take your time!
Step 6: Making the Decorations: “Ornaments” and “Ribbon”
In this step, you’ll make some paper mache pulp in different colors to use as ornaments (and other decorations, like ribbon) for your tree. You can use whatever colors you want; I made yellow, blue, and orange ornaments, and a purple ribbon.
Prepare more paper mache pulp as described in step 4, but use whatever color you want for a ribbon. I used some purple food coloring (which can be made by mixing red + blue). I used about 2.5 tablespoons (1/6 cup) shredded newspaper (and 1.25 tablespoons of each flour and water) and 10 drops of food coloring. While damp, I applied the purple pulp directly onto the tree to make a flat ribbon. It stuck on the tree well.
Prepare more paper mache pulp as described in step 4, but used different colors (other than green). I used yellow, orange (yellow + red), and blue food coloring for the ornaments. For each color ornament, I used about 2.5 tablespoons (1/6 cup) shredded newspaper (and 1.25 tablespoons of each flour and water) and 10 drops of food coloring. This amount made about 8 small-sized ornaments. Rolling them into balls is a bit tricky – it’s best to drain some liquid off of the pulp. I let them all sit on a plate to dry for about an hour before pressing them onto the tree. To put them on the tree, just press them where you want them, and they should stick right on! (If there’s any trouble attaching them, just use a few drops of white school glue and they’ll be securely attached.)
Before you let it completely dry, move on to the next step!
Step 7: Adding Light!
This step is pretty simple. First, take a toothpick and poke holes all the way through the green paper mache pulp and the underlying paper mache strips wherever you want light to shine through. I made many holes all over the tree. Move the toothpick around in the hole to make the hole larger so more light comes through. Next, place the little LED light (or other light source) in the “trunk” – the trunk should fit perfectly around the light. Turn it on and watch the show!
It’ll take about 24 hours for the entire tree (and decorations) to completely dry.
Step 8: Showing It Off!
When your mini paper mache light-up Christmas tree is all done, show it off! The lights are most impressive in a dark room, but still look festive in a dimly lit place. Even when it’s not lit up, the tree still looks quite colorful and is a fun conversation piece. (And a fun to show off as an example of what you can make using mostly newspaper and food coloring!)
Check out the videos of the lights in action (in this step)!