Well, that’s not technically correct, because only God can make a birch tree. And I have all the more respect for Him after it took me hours and hours to make ten fake birch trees.
You may never need this information, but then again, perhaps one day you’ll be kidnapped and held in a bizarre game of, “We’ll let you go if you can produce a birch tree out of nothing but chicken wire, sheets, paint and a glue gun.” It could happen. And then won’t you be so, so happy you read this post all the way to the end?
First, the why. This past August, our church bought a new home. This one came with a long, inviting ledge above the stage, which I could see every time I looked out of my office window and down into the sanctuary. Pressed for time when we moved in, we stuck the obligatory fake green trees up there — the ones that churches seem very fond of.
They served their purpose the past few months, but with Christmas coming, I couldn’t stand it anymore. But what to put up there? Thinking and praying one day, this verse came to mind: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). I love that verse, and love the way it so succinctly sums up the Christmas story. Thinking about some sort of starlit wilderness, opening out to a simple manger scene with a light shining down as though from heaven, I started googling images, and one thing led to another, and I came to a website for church stage designers, where some people had made fake birch trees to go along with their very elaborate stage design. They had included one picture below the article that showed chicken wire and some sort of fabric, but that was as much direction as they gave for the trees. Still, I knew it couldn’t be that hard.
God bless Keith and Bette Getty. In the midst of my jumping up and down and clapping my hands and gushing about how fast and easy those trees would be to make, they humored me, gave each other knowing glances, and showed up uninvited the following Saturday to help. If they hadn’t come, I’d still be down there.
With help from James, the formerly-homeless guy who is staying the winter in a house our church owns, Keith cut and wired the tree forms, and Bette whipped out her glue gun and wrapped those trees in ripped sheets I’d picked up at the thrift store. Keith also came up with a design for holding and stabilizing the trees, and a design for adding branches. The painting was left to me.
The ingredients to a fake birch tree are pretty simple. With a little finagling on the third tree (piecing together the bottom with scraps), you can make three 9′ trees from one king-sized sheet. I later found out from the comments section on the church web design page that the original trees I saw were made of muslin, but the sheets worked great and were probably a lot cheaper. Along with that, you’ll need a roll of chicken wire. The roll I had was approximately 50′ x 4′. We happened to have it lying around at home because last summer, I dismantled the chicken yard to make more room for my garden.
First, we cut the chicken wire into 9′ pieces (some a little longer by design, just by an inch or two), and then cut those pieces into two skinnier lengths. So instead of one 4′ x 9′ piece, we now had two 2′ x 9′ pieces. In this way, we managed to get ten trees out of the chicken wire I’d brought. Those pieces were rolled as round as we could get them (some still had squarish edges on them, but in the end, I think it added to the effect), and used some of the raw wire on one edge to wrap and secure the circle together.
After measuring the circumference of the trees, we then ripped wide-enough strips of white sheets and glued those to the wire with a glue gun. On the third tree, as mentioned above, we had to patch together a scrap to cover the frame, but we did that on the bottom where no one would notice.
Keith’s idea for securing and stabilizing the trees was brilliant. He came back with wood platforms that were about 2 1/2′ square, then bent the bottom wire edge until he could secure them with nails that resembled staples. Picture “u” shaped nails with pointy edges on both ends. That’s the best I can tell you. If you think about stapling the wire down to the wood, that will give you an idea. But do it with those odd nails.
After the trees were secured and able to be stood up, we set them on a tarp-covered floor and I started painting them. This is what happened to me the last time I painted at church … without a big-enough tarp. And by the way, Keith and Bette came to my rescue this time too, swooping in and cleaning all the paint off the carpet so I could go home and spend the next four hours trying to unpaint my hair. Don’t you wish you had a Keith and Bette yourself?
You don’t need to tell me twice. I now use a very big tarp.
With my paper plate palette, brushes, and a ladder, I started painting. Though I love painting anything faux, I’d never attempted birch trees before, so I googled images until I found this picture from National Geographic:
To start, I began painting random black/brown stripes and holes.
At first, the holes and stripes were pretty sparse. But the longer I painted, the more dots, holes, slashes and stripes I added.
Here’s where I started adding the gold. Tim Shay (and God bless Tim Shay for making the black back-drop across the platform a reality. He found the black paper, drove to Seattle to buy it, figured out how to cut and hang it, and with his son, Kevin, spent two days making it happen) asked me, “Do you have a pattern you’re working from?” My answer is, “Yes. It’s the “paint until it looks weathered and distressed enough” pattern. 🙂
Keith’s zip-tie solution for securing the branches (which I cut from our little orchard) to the wire. Cut two holes, one on either side of a vertical wire, insert branch until it reaches and dips under a wire on the far side of the tree, and wrap with a zip-tie.
As I mentioned, I purposely made a few of the trees a couple of inches longer. That was so that Ben Getty, who popped in to help, could position the center trees as though they were leaning inwardly (see the back tree below). Basically, you just walk the trees upright until they hit the ceiling, then wedge them carefully.
Dave is always so good about setting down whatever he’s doing and helping me with the stuff I can’t do alone. What would I do without him?
See that window against the far wall? That’s my office, from where I kept seeing that platform every time I looked out into the sanctuary. Those black strips are sound panels (which Tim Shay made). They won’t be black for long. I just have to find the right fabric to match our walls.
Guess who made the manger? Yes, Keith.
Dave even vacuumed for me afterwards.
Although I planned on putting all ten trees up, we only had five trees set up by the Sunday that Alex and Laura got married. Two more were added this week, and the remaining three are lying down in Dave’s office, waiting for me to give them a purpose. It kind of looks like someone was logging in there.
So now you’re ready, just in case the kidnapping incident should happen.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).