Making a Tree Prop: Part Five

Here it is, the final tree making post. Settle in, it's a long one.

Before I get into it, I wanted to talk a bit about the measurement mix-up from Part Four. A friend (who will remain nameless) asked me

"Why did you share a screw up like that?"

They feared it makes me look unprofessional especially when possible future employers might read this blog.

I saw it as, warts and all, advice for creative people working in tandem with others. My track record in designing and making things for others is pretty good, but mistakes do happen. Although things can go awry creatively for a 1001 reasons, I've found poor communication is often a cause. Regularly updating those you are working with on a project is good communication. The "Spinal Tap Stonehenge incident" between Vickie and I was not a true screw up. Although embarrassing, it was just one step on a path that did eventually lead us to a final successful collaborative creation. And that's what the goal was. A true screw up would of been discovering that the measurements were off when she started to yarn bomb the tree LIVE on camera during the craft show.

Having said that, when we last left off, I needed to remake the branches smaller to fit Vickie's knitting. I went to work right away revising the prop once we were back in sync. Please note, the deadline clock was counting down, so I didn't take time to document the initial late night remaking process with photos. Bear with me as I only describe it in words. I took process pictures the next day though. I hope that makes tolerating my poor writing a bit better.

I had been working on the branches standing on a ladder, but felt it slowed me down. I decided to cut the top portion of the tree off so I could place at a more comfortable table height to work on. Time spent re-attaching later with a few short pieces of furring strip and patching the seam was far less time spent going up and down the ladder moving it every few inches as I went along.

I stripped the old branches back to their PVC pipe bones. Vickie and I had also agreed, while revising, that the first tree top could be less flat looking. So I added elbow joints a couple of feet before the curved ends on the branches, angling them up further creating a rounder top. Next, I replaced the original Styrofoam balls and insulation tube pieces I used as filler, beefing up each branch, with smaller sizes (always budget for extra materials just in case).

At this point, I was at a crossroad. It was late at night and out of the materials needed to move forward. Do I wait until morning and buy what I need setting me back several hours or get creative insuring I'd make my deadline?

I got creative.

Instead of using expanding spray foam to further build up the branch bulk, I used sliced lengths of pipe insulation tube lashed on with layers of good 'ol duct tape. I was also out of Fix-It-All patching plaster to use for paper maching, but I did have dry wall compound and decided to try creating "monster mud" for the first time. Monster mud is a mix of latex paint and dry wall compound made popular by Halloween prop artisans.

I decided the advantage of tinting/coloring the monster mud in a tree bark color, despite it's long drying time was equal to using fast drying plaster, followed by the time spent brushing on paint.

I made the standard 5 gallon bucket full with 4 parts dry wall compound and 1 part latex paint. It was far thicker than I wanted, but portions of were easily watered down in another bucket for dipping shop towels into as my first layer of paper mache.

Once that layer set up a bit, I brushed on the thicker mix of monster mud and ran my fingers through to create bark texture. Yes, it looked a bit grade school play prop-ish, but I knew Vickie's yarn bombing knits were going to cover it all eventually. I wasn't creating scientifically accurate tree bark for a diorama at the Smithsonian Institute.

Cut to the next morning... both the trunk and branch top sections had set up fairly solid overnight. The base color I tinted the monster mud was looking good too.

I stopped monster mud coating at the elbow joints, allowing the last sections of the branches to be removable for ease of transport and be plugged in on sight.

Those end sections still needed smaller branches though. The original tree had a larger fixed trident. Now needing to be thinner I could make the trident out of flexible wire and bend into more natural looking curves. I cut three equal lengths and stuffed into the PVC. I secured them in place and "sculpted" an organic look overall by wrapping with wrinkled layers of duct tape. Once done, they were given a few layers of thinned monster mud.

I then reassembled the tree and started patching the main trunk seam with monster mud.

Once dry I gave the entire tree a wash of thinned dark grey paint. Once that dried, I lightly sanded the higher textured areas creating contrast exposing the original lighter colored base coat.

I took the tridents off and wired on several leafy faux "ficus" branches to each tip. I found them at Michaels, along with the bright green craft fur I used as grass on the base (thought would compliment the surrounding pop colors I knew the knits and display were going to have).

In the end, the tree was made to literally support Vickie's knits, showcasing her yarn line and her talent. I think we knit it out of the park (forgive the pun, I couldn't resist).

Even celebrity knitter and Inside Edition host Deborah Norville who was there liked it. She Tweeted...

"Check out yarn bombed this tree. I think it looks "Suess-Ian!" 

And she linked to a (very blurry) pic she took of it... click here. Vickie has shared a pic of Deborah Norville's visit to her booth and other highlights from the CHA show on her blog.


  1. Clever adjustments! I like the idea of sanding down to expose the lighter color. I would have jumped for the dry brush and never thought of that.

    If I may add on, Monster Mud was specifically popularized by Terror Syndicate, who made nearly all their props out of it, in the early days of home haunt websites. They explain its origins here:

  2. Mr. Chicken, thanks for noting Terror Syndicate. I know they popularized the name "Monster Mud" (and should of mentioned) but the formula has been around a long,long time.

    I personally recall an old timer scenic artist telling me how to mix up a batch just calling it "wall texture" back in 1995 when I worked in a scenery shop for a few months.

  3. BTW he was chastising me, after I proudly told him I once created faux stone blocks on a wall using Spackle.

  4. I'll bet you've got a lot of good stories like that... might make for some good posts (hint, hint). ;)

  5. The tree came out great, both naked and bombed. Very "Who"-ish.

  6. Mr. Chicken, yeah I've collected a few tales in my travels. Maybe I should tell more.

  7. I just love your header!