Friday, December 31, 2010

Spooky Tree tutorial: constructing the Garden of Evil

Happy New Year, everyone!!! :D

Here we go- my first tut as per special request. Hope it's reasonably easy to understand! If not, feel free to ask away. :)

It's quite easy to get started- this piece is based on a 12 1/2" Sono tube. Decide how long you want your tree to be, but be aware that leaving it too long will be cumbersome.
We used a hand saw to put an angled cut on the bottom to lean the tree around 10 degrees. Then about 52" up the trunk make a dark line around the circumference, with a large hatch mark 180 degrees from each other. Then make another cut through the line between 10 - 15 degrees. Don't go any steeper than that. (I'll explain later). Now that you have severed pieces, you will notice that they are oval not round. So place the short section on the top of the long, rotate and line up the two hatch marks you made before. Now the ovals should lay on each other fairly evenly. Now get in touch with your inner Red Green and reattach the sections with duct tape, and then again with layers of strip paper mache for strength.
Here's why you don't go too steep on the angle, the photo isn't the actual tube I ended up using... after cutting and lining up the hatch marks we decided that the lean ended up being too severe and the tree too short. As you can see, the jagged detailing at the top has already been added.

The stand was built using the finished angle of the tube. Base it on whatever degree you like. But we set the sono tube on 3/4" plywood and traced the inside oval twice for a top and bottom piece. Then had (4) 2x4x36" cut with an angle to match the lean of the tree. Attach one to top and one to bottom with sharpest part of ovals facing the lean. In the photo there are (4) 2x4x30" feet attached to the bottom oval to support the tree and to give a base for "evil roots". 

Now you're ready to slide the tube over the stand, and wah-la, you have a free standing tree ready to work on! :)
Take your time in designing the face, the expression will determine the overall awesomeness. Go ahead and carve it with a rotary tool when you're ready.
Next, prime the interior, followed by two thorough coats of *flourescent* orange paint- we lovelovelove Wild Fire brand. You want to make sure the top of the stand is painted (see pic) and every little nook and cranny all around the tube up as far as you can go.
It's important to put a 'cap' inside the tube, so as not to lose light through the top. We used heavy cardboard, and paper mached over to secure it. I also mached around the features to smooth over any roughness- this is optional, but well worth it.

Nextly, you need to start giving your trunk an organic shape.
For the roots, cover your wood feet (and up the trunk a bit) with cello wrap. We used spray insulation foam to build up the detail. Taper the foam near the ground, and let it develop lots of lumps and bumps as you go. When it's dry- really dry, you'll be able to remove the foam from the trunk via the cello wrap. Now, against the trunk, continue the shape of the roots with foam or crumple paper mache, tapering it to blend. We added crumple mache branch stumps all over. Go crazy with detail- the gnarlier the better- just make sure you have a ton of good masking tape and duct tape.

foam & cloth mache roots in the final stage- getting paint work done

When you're satisfied with the shape of your tree, it will be ready for the bark detailing. Go to the thrift store and clear them out of well worn (this is important- NOT snappy new) bed sheets. We like white, no distractions. I'm pretty sure this tree took a good four or five twin sized sheets, and it only cost a few bucks. :)
Mix yourself up some thick paste. Easy- mostly white glue, some warm water, some white flour... don't worry,  it's hard to make a bad paste.
Working in manageable sections of sheet (about a third at a time is good), run it through the paste- squeegee off the excess with your fingers, but do not remove too much.
This is the funnn part!!!  Lay your cloth mache on the trunk with lots of drape, creating vertical texture as you go. Move it around, give it natural directional patterns. Don't forget the roots as well-  wrap that cloth around the back to conceal the foamy bits. FUN!!!! :D
Leave to dry for a day or two.

When the bark is super dry (hard), you'll need to bust out that primer again. Paint the entire trunk, making sure you get in all the grooves as you go. Now your tree needs to be painted in a true bark brown- a bit on the dark side is best, again, make sure you get in all those bark grooves to keep the illusion. (It's amazing how life like this looks in person!). When the dark brown has dried, you'll want to mix some of the leftover paint with a good dose of white. This gets ragged on, it will hit the high parts of the bark and add an excellent effect.

Now my friends, if you're still awake, it's time for arms!

Here we got kinda technical and dropped the duct tape. To frame the arms we used 5/16" threaded rod and cut them to 42". Using two small pipe wrenches, the rods were gradually bent to form branch frames, keeping them about 3" apart. Lay them on a table to keep them parallel and re-adjust where needed. If you have access to a welder it makes your projects easier. (sometimes) Weld the (3) 3" cross frame supports on to stiffen the arm frame. Otherwise, you can wire up the rods with mechanics wire. But don't bend the rod around to lock it in place as it does not have the give unless you really heat it first to make it pliable. 
**Just make sure that the rod ends that will break through the bark are parallel. This is very important because you will build some bracket supports that the arm rods will go through and if you have rods that are not parallel and you try to force them through the holes of your bracket, your neighbours will be learning all your new curse words. But most likely you will damage your tree.

Dashed line represents armature wire detail

With the arm frames finished, the next step is to transfer the desired position to the bark. With someone to help (unless you have three hands), hold the arm frame where you want it and circle the rod with a pencil. Then drill through with a clearance hole a bit larger than 5/16 such as 11/32 or 23/64.
Test the arm and make sure it passes through cleanly at least 3 inches.

If all is good than move on to the bracket supports.

Material 2x6x8-1/2 spruce. 3/4x2x6 plywood.

The arms may not weigh a ton, but it is smart to have some interior support to keep the rod's washers and nuts fom tearing through the wall. 

This is an edge on end view of the wood needed, 2x6x8-1/2. It shaped by a hand planer to reasonably match the curve of the sonotube inner wall. I know what you're thinking, why bother? I'll just put a 2x6 in and it will work. Sure it will. But it will also only be in contact at two points, whereas this exquisitly shaped piece gives full support with more weight distribution. On the outside I placed a 3/4x2x6 to further support the arm. Over tightening will inevitably distort and crush your tube and bark. Plus it looks better.  See comparitive image.

As you can see the block on the left that you took such time to craft sits flush in the tube and will give better support, far better than brand "X" on the right.
When the rods are placed through the holes of the support blocks, use a washer and a 5/16 nut to hold it in place. Tighten down but, do not over tighten as you will crush the bark.

When you have the frames mounted to the trunk of Spooky, grab a stack of newspaper and your masking tape, and go to town fleshing his arms out with crumple mache. Thicker near his trunk and tapering as you go keeps it believeable. Stop when you've mached up to the 'wrist' area. The fine finger branch detailing is done with armature wire. Double it up, and twist as much as you can. Snip the appropriate length, and attach to your arm by either wrapping around some exposed threaded rod, or jamming into your crumple mache. Again, tape the bejeezus at the connection to secure. Shape your wire to the desired position- nice and claw like. Repeat the cloth mache process along the entire length.
Since this is an illuminated prop, the next step makes this guy. Paint the areas you want to glow with white primer paint... it's necessary to have this base for the flourescent paint to be fully reactive. We wanted to acheive 'veins' up the trunk in a colour similar to what white fabric or paper looks like under blacklight. Usual white paint is uv inactive, so we mixed a violet shade with flourescent blue and flourescent magenta paint in a base of Wild Fire Luminous White. Paint this over the white details you added (I did several coats for optimal glow).

And finally, it's time to experiment with lighting! We placed a high lumen (140+) led flashlight in the mouth- it will sit perfectly on the stand (I like it facing the front of the tree). The outside requires a relatively strong blacklight... I super want a blacklight cannon, but until then, some compact flourescents worked just fine.

finished tree, no lighting

In retrospect one change I would have made would be to have the arm support blocks permanently mounted to the outside and inside of the body. Then lay the bark around it instead. Consider this as an option.


  1. Good Job! It looks like a lot of hard work. The tutorial turned out great, maybe you could sell some dvd's with your prop making techniques.

  2. Wow, I love your spooky tree!!! Great construction and great tutorial ;) I hope to make a bigger version of a spooky tree that I crafted 2 years ago. Your tutorial has provided great ideas for something that can be taken apart for storage, which is always my biggest obstical.