Turned Christmas Tree

Cut your own tree for the holidays 

For most woodturners, making Christmas ornaments is second nature. They’re fun and easy to turn from tasty wooden shop leftovers. They make great gifts, and don’t usually require special equipment. Such is the case with these Christmas tree ornaments, which can decorate a table or a Christmas tree itself. What’s special about them is that they’re decorated with ornaments themselves in the form of inlaid slices of colored pencils. The best part of giving away these little turnings is seeing people’s reactions when asked if they can guess what the little ornament balls are made from. It usually takes a minute, but when they realize they’re looking at the ends of colored pencils, a smile spreads across their face, and they want to know how I did it.

I make these trees in a variety of sizes. Small versions up to about 3" tall can be hung on a real Christmas tree. In that case, I just turn a tree body with an integral trunk, and install a shop-made wire hangar in the top. Table-standing models can range up to 12" or so, and include a base that attaches to the tree body with a dowel “trunk.” 

Here, I’ll take you through the steps of making a particular table ornament and hanging ornament. The overall dimensions given are not critical, and serve only to take you easily through my processes. Once you get the gist, you’re on your way making your own forest of ornaments. Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

Two tree types

A table ornament consists of a base and a body joined by a dowel “trunk,” while a smaller hanging ornament is simply turned from one piece that is drilled at the top to accept a shop-made eye hanger. On both types, inlaid slices of colored pencils serve as “ornaments,” and paint markers are used to apply rings of “garland” decoration. 

Cultivate the tree

Turn a 3-1/2"-square × 9-1/2"-long blank to a cylinder between centers. Then mark off the sections shown in the drawing to the lower left, and turn a 1-3/4"-diameter by 7/16"-long tenon at each end. (These tenons suit the #2 jaws on my Oneway chuck; size them to suit your chuck if necessary.) Drill a hole for the trunk as shown, then reverse the blank in the chuck. Make a parting cut to define the bottom of the tree body, rough out the conical tree shape, and turn the finial to 1/2" diameter.

Drill for the trunk. Mount what will be the top end of the tree in a 4-jaw chuck, and use a 1⁄2" bit in a lathe-mounted drill chuck to bore a 23⁄4"-deep hole into the opposite end. You’ll be drilling through waste and the base section into the tree body. 

Reverse and rough out. Invert the blank and bring a live tailstock center into play for support. Then turn the finial section to a 1⁄2"-diameter cylinder, and rough out the conical tree body, leaving it about 1⁄8" oversized in diameter for now.

Finalize the finial. Back the tailstock center off and turn the finial to its final shape, still leaving the tree body slightly oversized in diameter.

Trim the tree

With the blank still mounted on the lathe, mark out the ornament grid on the body using the tool rest to guide a pencil for making the axial lines. Use a seamstress cloth tape measure to evenly step off their spacing. To prevent tearout, don’t crowd the hole locations. Then poke starter holes with an awl. Referring to the tip on page 18, create a depth stop using a bit that matches the diameter of the pencils. Then drill the ornament holes as shown. Slice up some colored pencils and glue them into the holes, making sure to spread out the various colors. Finesse the body of the tree to its final diameter, flushing the pencil sections to the surface in the process. I use a 1/2" superflute gouge with a fingernail grind for this. Sand the surface, spray it with a coat or two of aerosol lacquer, then use ink markers to apply the “garland.” Finally, part the body free of the waste. I place a box full of shavings on the lathe ways to safely catch the falling piece.

Pencil plugs. Bandsaw 3⁄8"-long sections from a taped bundle of colored pencils, and glue them into the holes. A Q-tip makes a good applicator. Be sure to distribute the colors, and lightly tap each piece to fully seat it.

Draw the garland. After turning the “decorated” tree to its final diameter, sand it and spray it with lacquer. Then apply “garland” using your choice of paint markers while steadying your hand on the tool rest.

Make the base and trunk

After parting off the tree, the excess that remains in the chuck is the blank for your tree base. Begin by cleaning up the end, and then parting in a deep groove to establish the bottom of the base. Then turn the base section to a 2"-diameter cylinder and shape it as shown or as desired. Sand and paint the shaped base, then part it off, slightly angling your parting tool to create a shallow concavity in the bottom of the base. Finally, join the base to the body by gluing a 1/2"-diameter dowel “trunk” to both parts. 

Part off the base. After shaping, sanding, and painting the base, part it free from the waste. Angle your parting tool to create a slight concavity in the bottom for better stability.

Hanging ornament

Turn a 2"-square × 4"-long blank between centers to a cylinder with a 1-3/4"-diameter by 7/16"-long tenon at one end. Remount the blank, securing the tenon in your 4-jaw chuck. Mark a line 3" from the opposite end to locate the tree bottom, and use a parting tool to cut a 1/2"-deep groove there. Rough-turn the blank to a cone shape that begins at the groove. Lay out and install colored pencil “ornaments” in the same manner as with the table ornament. Turn them flush to the surface, create a 3/16"-diameter flat at the tip of the cone, and sand and finish the surface. Then bore a 3/4"-deep hole into the top end. Make the wire hanger as shown and screw it into the hole. Return to the groove you cut earlier and use a parting tool to deepen and lengthen it to create a 1/4"-diameter × 3/8"-long “trunk,” and then saw the finished tree free of the waste. 

Hanger twist. To make the hanger, loop a length of 18-gauge wire around a nail and then twist the legs together and snip them to 3⁄4" long to create a shank that will thread into the hanger hole.
Turn the trunk. Use a 1⁄4" parting tool to create an integral tree trunk. Afterward, saw it free at its base. 

About the Author

Jim Kelly has been a woodturner for 20 years, and resides in southeast Pennsylvania, where the hardwood is so plentiful it grows on trees.  He is a board member of Keystone Woodturners, a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners based in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to woodturning and woodworking, Jim enjoys historical restoration carpentry, is a board member of Historic Trappe, a local historical society, and is a beekeeper.

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