The Spooky Old Tree

This fun project was an experimentation labor of the love. Full of challenges, I count it as mostly successful and can't wait to take another stab at it!

Do we dare make a spooky old tree?

Nature can be breathtakingly beautiful.  It can also be the stuff of nightmares.  Trees in particular have been depicted in film and spooky stories as everything from portals to upside-down worlds to child-devouring agents of paranormal mischievousness.  So when I tried to think of a centerpiece creepy enough to accompany our Halloween antics I naturally thought to create a spine-tingling tree.  I had never done so before, but thought this would be a great opportunity to apply my knowledge and mix it up with several new techniques I had dreamt up.

Here you will find a rough step-by-step accounting of my process.  When I get into an experiment like this I don’t always remember to take pictures of everything.  But what I lack in images I’ll try to make up for in the written account.  I’m looking forward to applying many of these techniques in future projects, and perhaps even another tree or two.

Kudos to Shawn Martin, who assisted me during the early phases of this project and jumped right into my crazy idea!  Experimenting is much more enjoyable with a wing man!

Armature Assembly

As with any sculpture, an armature should be fashioned to add stability to the project.  In this case I also devised a plan to add possible special effects to the tree which I figured might include built in lighting and/or fog.  With this in mind I chose PVC pipe as the medium for my armature.  It offered flexibility to my design and a potential conduit for wires and fog to travel through.

I began with a wide base and went up from there, adding a couple of branches at varying angles.  The nice thing about spooky trees is that you don’t have to adhere to exact angles and placement of elements.  I designer the tree to lean to one side, so as a precaution I added a wire brace to counter the lean of the pipes.  In retrospect I could have just epoxied the joints, but even if I had done so I would probably have secured the structure this way anyway.

Chicken Wire

With the super-structure in place the next step involved wrapping the pipes in chicken wire.  This is where leather gloves and a good wire cutter/snipper comes in handy.  After layering on a couple rounds of wire, a ghostly outline of the tree becomes visible.  I’ve seen this same effect used in other sculptural  applications where the shape of a person is made out of chicken wire and the result when viewed from a distance is a ghost-like apparition.  Anyway, the chicken wire provided me enough of a base with which to stick other materials I had planned to use.

Paper, Tape, and Foam

I once had a conversation with John Dykstra about his visual effects work.  In it he commented that set designers use all manner of materials to build props for movies.  I’ll never forget him saying, “…you don’t know if they are holding things together with toothpaste or cement.”  Well, this tree is no different because I used just about any material I had lying around.  Sorry the pictures got away from me a bit at this point, but you can see that I used a combination of paper, duct tape and spray foam.

The spray foam was planned for a different project, but I learned that with the right application, I could simulate the rough textures of tree bark, and even vine shapes.  Score!  Not only were these vine-like appendages able to add a touch of spookiness to the design, the foam added additional structure to the overall piece, making the tree more solid overall.

Notice also the hole at the base of the tree.  This is where I planned to pump in fog from the fog machine.  Time was running extremely low so I dropped the planned lighting effects.  I simply had not done enough testing and decided it would be something to try on the next project.

Base Paint

Partly during the tape and foam phase I began to add real branches and sticks to the design.  The nice thing about paper, chicken wire, and foam is that it is very forgiving.  Just stick it in wherever it makes sense, and tape it into place.  Add a little spray foam where the pieces come together and that twig isn’t going anywhere when the foam hardens.

Once the spray foam had set into place and hardened I added a base paint of black.  Beginning with black acrylic to ensure I got into all the crevasses, and touching up with a bit of black spray paint.  At this point it didn’t matter if the spray pain ate away at the foam a bit because that served very well to add to the creepy texture of the tree.


The entire process up to this point has been fun, but adding the finer details is what I enjoy most!  Once the entire tree was covered in a black undercoat, I went to work pulling out the personality of the tree.  I added a mix of brown and grey paint to the overall piece, especially highlighting the elevated vine structures.  I even used stone-fleck spray paint to add additional texture and dirty the tree.  I have since discovered wall texture in a spray can that I will keep in mind for the next project.

Spanish moss can add an especially creepy atmosphere to any project, so I had to use it.  I assisted it with a bit of hot glue, which to my delight added  thin, wispy, strands of glue to the tree each time I pulled away from it.  This seemed to simulate spider webs, so I left them to waft in the air and do what they may.

Special Effects

I don’t recollect if I waited for the paint to dry before I found myself firing up the fog machine and pumping heated vapor into the new creation.  I had planned certain exit points for the fog, but given the rushed nature of this project and the fact that I had poked numerous branches into various places throughout the tree, it didn’t seem to matter.  Fog poured out of every fissure, which in the end blended the effect nicely into the scene, rather than having distinct exit locations.

The tree made its debut a short time later and serves our family each year at Halloween time.  I can’t wait to create another spooky tree with the new techniques investigated here, perhaps an even larger one!

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