A Pallet-Shaped Christmas Tree

Or is it a Christmas Tree-shaped pallet?

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

Continuing our theme of the Christmas set, today we’ll talk Christmas trees. In past years, we’ve set up a giant, 20’ artificial tree on stage. It looks good enough, and is pre-lit, so it’s not really that hard to set up (after we finally got all 9 sections labeled properly…). But this year, we wanted something different. I had been looking through ChruchStageDesignIdeas.com and saw this set from Grace Church in Camus, WA. I liked the look of it, and it fit in with our “vintage” look that we’ve been going for. But we had a few challenges.

Where do you find pallets?

Pallets proved to be harder than we thought to acquire. My ATD Jon spent a few days calling around and we eventually spent a morning with a trailer behind his truck picking up pallets in various states of disrepair. I have to admit to being really nervous about how much would we could harvest from the pallets, thinking we wouldn’t have enough. Our big tree is 16’ tall and required over 30 courses of wood to complete. That seemed like a lot of wood, so we collected over 20 pallets (and I didn’t think it would be enough). 

As it turned out, we were fine. I think we broke down about a dozen pallets and had more than enough wood to build the 16’ tree and three 8’ ones. Now we have to get rid of the extra pallets…

A good structure is needed.

I’m not really a set carpenter; I’m a residential/commercial carpenter. For that reason, it’s possible I tend to overbuild things. My dad and I used to joke that if we ever started a residential building company, we’d call it Sessler & Sons General Contracting and our motto would be, “If it ain’t overbuilt, we didn’t build it.”

My big fear with a 16’ tall tree made of pallet slats was racking. I knew we would be using two slats per course on the bottom half, and that would mean we would need at least three points of connection per course. I designed a basic box frame with a 16’ tall center pole, two 10’ tall outer poles, all tied together with 18” spacers. I planned four courses of spacers, but one of my volunteers talked me out of one of them (it probably was overkill…).

I used 2x8 for the frame for two reasons. First, I knew it would be more than strong enough to stand up straight without racking. Second, we had a bunch of 2x8x16’s laying around from another project. I had some of our teen volunteers paint them black a few weeks ago, so we would be ready come build day. 

Breaking down pallets is surprisingly hard.

Those things are built to last, and they don’t come apart easily. We used a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade to cut the nails off behind the slats. Once we had a good collection of slats, I sorted them by length and width. I started by laying out the outline of the tree on the floor with tie line. A basic triangle with an 8’ wide base, a 1’ wide top and 16’ tall. Once I had a general spacing layout to work with, we built the frame. 

We cut some 2” spacers from scrap to keep our course spacing consistent. It took a while but eventually we got into a good rhythm of selecting boards, laying them up, marking the length, getting them cut and screwing them in place. Once we moved to the actual frame, we screwed down the bottom and top courses and stretched some tie line very tightly between them to define the side shape. 

Once all the courses were in, we stood it up and used another 2x8x16 as a diagonal brace. We thought we would need to sandbag it, but there’s enough weight back there that it doesn’t need it. 

Smaller copies complete the layout.

We also made three 8’ versions. These were much faster to put together; the big one took us about 3 hours, while the small ones took about 30 minutes each. The small ones are made from a single 8’ 2x8 with a 40” piece of 2x4 screwed to the back of the 2x8. The 2x8 is wide enough that a few sandbags on the 2x4 give us plenty of tip resistance, so we didn’t diagonally brace them. 

Lighting really makes them sing.

While the trees look good on their own, we are going to use ETC Parnells to light them up from the ground. The warm light of the Parnells makes them glow wonderfully, and accentuates the rustic nature of the wood. 

So there you go. That’s our version of the pallet tree!

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