Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Decor: the Ornament Tree

My original inspiration, from one of Martha Stewart Living's early books: Handmade Christmas
I am not a handy person, nor am I particularly good at arts and crafts. Having said that, during the holidays I do pull out my glue gun for one particular type of decoration and one only: the lovely ornament tree.

As the name suggests, the ornament tree is a tree-shaped decoration comprised externally of glass ornaments, typically glass balls. In order for these trees to look truly special and timeless, I have found through experience that at least a third of the ornaments used should be vintage due to the gorgeous luster and patina that old ornaments have developed after years of mouldering away in attics. Because one of the easiest and most reliable places to find vintage ornaments is on eBay; I thought these holiday decorations would make a fitting topic for a December blog.

I first learned about the ornament tree in Martha Stewart Living's 1995 book, Handmade Christmas. The magazine's version, pictured above,was accompanied by the instruction to find an 18" styrofoam cone and 250 vintage glass balls between 1/2 and 1" in diameter. Those, plus a glue gun and an antique urn would result in a beautiful and timeless Christmas decoration.

One of a pair of ornament trees I made for my sister. They look so pretty in candlelight!

Above, you have my first effort. I kept the colors in the aqua, silver and gold family because I gave a pair of these trees to my sister, who has hand painted wallpaper in her dining room in these muted tones. This year, she put the trees on her living room mantle and went sans urns, which as you can see looks nice as well.

Now, from my earlier comment, you probably have gathered that I do not use purely vintage balls. This is because they are more expensive than new ones, and when you're using 250 balls or so, that price difference is really noticeable. What I recommend instead is creating a stockpile of old and new ornaments and stuffing them away until inspiration strikes.

New Ball Ornaments
Obviously, it's much cheaper to buy glass balls after the holidays when stores have them on sale, so be on the lookout. That said, I have found that the cheapest, most reliable source for contemporary glass balls to be florist supply websites, which sell them in large boxes. Designed to be attached to wreaths, the balls are on a stem, which is perfect for this use because the stem can be poked into the styrofoam form ( you need to use glue as well, which we will get to in a minute). Be sure you have a set of pliers on hand to cut the extra wire, as you won't need the full length of it.

Glass ball ornaments, designed for wreaths., are perfect for ornament trees.
 I really like Kelco, which has so many colors and sizes and also sells their balls in varying quantities, for those of you with limited storage space (or a reluctant obsession). Jamali Garden is a bit pricier, but the site is very user friendly and has a variety of colors (the store, located in the plant district in NYC, is fun to visit too).

Vintage Ball Ornaments

As mentioned, vintage ball ornaments are readily available on eBay. Note that the prices can really vary, with the "Buy It Now" options typically being more money than they are worth. Shiny Brite was a very common mid-century brand and works very well for this project. (Searching for Shiny Brite glass ball ornaments also narrows your results to a more managable quantity.)

Here's an example of a typical eBay auction lot that would work nicely:

A nice sized lot of vintage glass ball ornaments on eBay.
 Note, you don't want many, if any, balls bigger than 1 1/2 inches (or the 35mm size). You will need a lot of very small, feather tree ornament sizes for the top of your tree and to fill in gaps, so stock up those.

Other Supplies

A more modern, red-themed ornament tree, topped with a vintage indented Shiny Brite ornament purchased on eBay.

In the interest of variety, you might wish to purchase vintage ornaments in other shapes. I find these trees look really nice with a tree topper, and love to use an indented ornament for that, such as the one pictured below. Other supplies you'll need include tree forms in either styrofoam (which I have used), bottle brush or tinsel (which I haven't but want to try). Of course, this ornament concept works well in wreath form too, and I see no reason why one couldn't do small balls or a topiary form. Blues and silvers would be gorgeous for Hanukkah. If you use the styrofoam, you are better off spray painting your forms with either a silver or gold so that the gaps in the balls don't reveal such a bright white. A floral supply shop will have both the forms and the paint.

You also need suitable containers, either old or new. Err on the side of too small a container rather than too large, for if the container is too small, you can always whittle down the styrofoam, and it will make for a tighter fit. I recommend that you design your tree in container you'd like to use, so you stop gluing at the appropriate level. .
Gardeners like Bunny Williams
may not need to go far to find suitable containers for ornament trees. Urns are particularly well suited.

Don't forget your glue gun. It is vital that you use a strong glue that bonds at high temperature. The high temperature glue is tricky because it can cause very thin glass to shatter, so it's a bit of a balancing act. I still prefer it because the lower temperature glues don't form a strong enough bond, and your ornaments will loosen and fall off your trees too easily...which leads me to the final thing you'll need. Save those styrofoam pellets, they make the perfect "nest" for your trees during the off season! You'll want to carefully place your tree or wreath in a garbage bag first, though, so you don't lose any loose balls in the pellet miasma, never to be found again.

Those are all the tips I have for now. Please write me and let me know your experience making these pretty holiday decorations--I will post any success stories to my blog! Merry Christmas! Happy bidding--and happy tree trimming too!