This year, my husband and I (okay, okay, I basically coerced him) decided to do handcrafted Christmas. What is handcrafted Christmas, you ask? Well, basically we made homemade or personalized gifts for everyone on our shopping list. This started, in part, because I love to craft and wanted to try a bunch of different projects (but I don’t need a million crafts laying around the house), but also, my side of the family was doing a gift exchange this year, so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to buy for everyone. This way, I could still shop for my gift exchange assignments, but I could make everyone in the fam a personalize, heart-felt gift too!
As much as I’ve been wanting to post about these ideas for weeks now, I decided to wait until just before and then after Christmas to avoid any risk of anyone seeing their gift ahead of time. But, since I know my mom doesn’t read my blog regularly (thanks a lot, Ma hehe), I figured I’d be safe posting her gift a few days early.
I have a huge family – 4 siblings and lots of nieces and nephews. Family is really important to my mom (and to all of us, really), so I thought it’d be neat to make her something to showcase her big family, which is how I landed on creating a family tree.
I did a lot of researching online to get ideas for a family tree, but nothing I saw was really striking my fancy. There are lots of options on Etsy where you can get a printed version of a tree with text and it looks cool, but I didn’t just want a sheet of paper for her. There are also lots where you have a physical tree and then can hang little pieces with names, but I didn’t love this either, so I decided to create something of my own design. Here’s how I did it.
- Baltic Birch plywood (HIGHLY encourage getting nice wood for this – you will see below my first draft which was AWFUL in part because I used crappy wood)
- Paper and pencil for drafting / practicing
- Scroll saw or other type of saw to cut out your design
- Stain – I used Varathane Stain + Poly in Kona Semi-Gloss
- Dremel or other carving tool (I used a Dremel Model 290 Engraver)
- Command strips for mounting (I used the large velcro strips – I put them on the back of the tree and just left the wall side protective strips on so it’s super simple for my mom to hang up)
- Draft the design. I made several iterations of the design before I got to one I liked. I started by writing out all of my family members’ names and grouping them together by family. I thought about including birthdates as well, but ultimately landed on just first and middle names. Once I knew I wanted to make an actual tree, I took my draft and turned it into a general tree shape with branches off the trunk for my mom’s kids (me and my 4 siblings) and then smaller branches coming off of our branches for the kids. Not all of my siblings have kids (for example, I have no children), so I either left it as a singular branch or added some small nubby branches for texture. My oldest sister has a kid who is already married and may be having children soon, so I made sure to include room on the branch for her husband’s name and two little branches off of their main branch for their future kids. Once I had my general design on paper, I put it onto the wood. Most of this I did free-hand, but you could find an image online and print it out. (The size I wanted would have been too big to print at home, but you can always print at FedEx or OfficeMax too!)
- Cut it out. For v1, I used a jigsaw. This worked okay, but combined with the crappy plywood, it left choppy edges with some splintering. For v2, I used a scroll saw (never used one before this!!) and it came out super well. The biggest difference for me between the two is that it’s much easier to control YOUR speed on the scroll saw. You can set the speed that the blade moves, but you also move the wood rather than the saw, so it’s much easier to navigate slowly and steadily. Be sure to wear protective eye gear and keep your fingers away from the blade!
- Sand and stain. You definitely want to sand the edges where you cut, including the tips of the branches. Be sure to give the front face a nice, quick sand using a high numbered paper (the higher the number the finer the grit, which means you’ll take less off for a smoother finish. If you have super rough edges, use a lower number grit to get more off at once). When you go to stain, definitely put down a cover for your workspace (it will make clean up SUPER easy) and be sure to start with the edges and then fade into the face of the tree. On v1, I forgot to do the edges first and you can see where I did them after the fact, which created somewhat of an outline effect to the tree. Do the edges as you go part by part staining in the rest of the tree to create a seamless blending. Let dry for at least 2 days in a well-ventilated, temperature controlled area (I let mine dry in my craft room instead of my basement so it’d go quicker).
- Carve. DEFINITELY practice on a scrap piece of stained wood first. Do not just dive straight into carving your piece. You need to get the feel for the tool and how it reacts to the wood and the stain. Be careful about making your letters too small – you may end up popping out any small portions completely, which doesn’t look great. Again, this is another reason to use the quality wood – I didn’t have any parts pop out completely, even with some pretty small letters. I free-handed all of my letters. You could use a metal stencil if you want, but if you practice enough (I had an entire tree of practice), then you can probably get away with free-handing as well. Just remember to go slow, take breaks, and breathe. Oh, and do a first pass of all the names and THEN go back and re-do any letters that didn’t come out quite right.
That’s it! All in all, v2 probably took about 4 hours in total (minus the lag time between staining and carving). It really wasn’t that tough of a project, but definitely learned a lot between the first and second version. If you apply what I’ve shared above, your first version will likely be amazing! See the huge difference between versions below. You can barely even read the names in v1, whereas v2 is clear and clean. Using better wood and a darker stain likely made this difference.