DIYdiy projectskate pruitt

diy project: balsa wood mini tree

by Kate Pruitt

We’ve had a lot of requests for urban/apartment friendly tree ideas. I can say from experience that lugging even the smallest of live trees into an apartment can be messy, unwieldy, and inconvenient. But that shouldn’t mean no tree, either. For those who live in a small space but would like to have a tree you can decorate, this balsa mini tree is for you.

I scrapped several—okay, many—variations on miniature tree designs. Too many of them involved tools that not everyone has room to own or otherwise were unable to support ornaments. I settled with balsa wood because it is an urban crafter’s dream material: it’s lightweight, making it easy to transport and cut with scissors or a utility knife. This means you can shape it like paper, but it’s strong enough to support some weight without sagging or breaking. This if a prefect project for a snowy/rainy/cold day when you’re trapped indoors.

I’ve included the template for the tree limbs, which can be scaled up or down to suit your needs. This lovely tree can be left au natural to show off the lovely wood grain of the balsa or you can paint it. Green, white, multicolor, rainbow—go crazy! It’s your very own mini tree that lasts forever and makes zero waste or mess. Happy Holidays! —Kate

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!


  • 4 – 6 sheets of  1/32″ x 3″ x 36″ balsa wood (this should be available at craft, art, and hobby shops)
  • pencil
  • exacto/utility knife with sharp blade
  • cutting mat
  • hot glue gun and hot glue sticks
  • 3/8″ thick dowel 20″ long
  • hole punch tool (these are available at craft and art supply stores)
  • hammer
  • ruler
  • birch log slice (or any wood circle or block that has a bit of weight and a flat surface)
  • 2″ nail
  • drill with 3/8″ boring bit (optional)
  • tree limb templates (feel free to enlarge for a bigger tree. at 100% these templates will make a tree 11″ wide and about 20″ tall)
  • template 1
  • template 2
  • template 3


1. Print out the templates and cut out the shapes.

2. Lay the longest template on top of the balsa strip and make a mark 1/4″ beyond the end of template. Use your ruler to cut two strips of the balsa at the marked length.

3. Repeat step 2 with all of the templates. You should now have 2 identical pieces of balsa paired with each template.

4. Trace the template onto the two corresponding pieces of balsa.

5. Place the first balsa piece of a pair on your cutting mat and use the exacto knife to cut the shape out of the balsa. Balsa wood this thin will be fragile, so cut out small pieces and avoid the curved ends until the very end. If small pieces chip off, it won’t ruin the shape. Work slowly and carefully until the shape is completely cut out and repeat with the second balsa shape of the pair.

6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 with all templates until you have all the pieces for your tree cut out.

7. Take your hole punch and hammer out 3-4 holes in each piece in random places. Make sure you don’t place the holes for a pair of matching pieces in the exact same place, or the ornaments will hit each other. You can put the holes anywhere, but try to keep them at least 1/4″ in form any edge and away from the center line of the piece (this is where the piece will be glued to the trunk).

8. Lay out your pieces in the order you want to place them on the tree, top to bottom. I recommend alternating sizes every once in while so the shape isn’t an exact triangle (see below).

9. Take your dowel and hold it in the center of your log slice or wood chunk. Trace around with a pencil to mark where the dowel will go.

10. If you want the dowel to be inset a bit, drill in the center of this marked circle with your boring bit about 1/4″ down into the slice. Then stick your dowel inside and hammer the nail into the center of the dowel from the bottom of the slice to secure the dowel in place. If you don’t want it inset or do not own a drill, simply nail the dowel into place (it helps to have a friend hold it, or place a small dab of glue on the bottom of the dowel and stick it to the log before you hammer to help you keep it in place.)

11. Lay a line of hot glue down the center back of your bottom piece and stick to the dowel about 7-8″ up from the base (you can always cut a few more limb layers if you need them).

12. Repeat step 9 with the matching piece and place directly behind the first piece so they run parallel to one another.

13. Take the first piece of the next layer and run a line of glue down the center back. Glue to the dowel right above the first layer and tilted slightly left or right.

14. Repeat step 10 with the second piece of the second layer.

15. Repeat steps 11 and 12 with the rest of the layers, always tilting the next layer slightly askew from the previous layer in either direction, to make your tree fuller and three dimensional.

16. Once all of your pieces are on, you may want to add a couple half pieces or more full pieces here an there to fill in. Simply reuse the templates to cut more pieces, but leave them without holes (they will not be strong enough to support ornaments). Cut in half and run a line of glue down the back edge where it will connect to the tree. Stick to the tree and hold in place for a minute while the glue sets.

17. Glue a small circle or oval onto the very top of the dowel to hide the dowel. You can also glue a star or small tree topper to the dowel top instead.

18. Place mini tree in desired spot and decorate! You can also spin this tree around to get all the spots easily when hanging ornaments: another added bonus to the mini tree:)


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  • Oh, this is adorable beyond words! Our normally well-behaved cats tried to climb the last tree we had, and it was a disaster! Broken glass, glitter, pine needles, water, and fur – everywhere. I LOVE this tree, it is beyond awesome! I hope I get time to make it this weekend!

  • Hey – great tutoiral. We’ve been so busy making things this Xmas – I’ve spent the last 5 nights creating origami santas! This looks like a good one to start tonight. Thanks for posting.

  • NEATO!
    I’m a sucker for non-flora trees and this one looks super homey and fun. Everyday materials imitating nature ALWAYS intrigues me, but especially at Xmas time…..all the tinsel imitating icicles or something…I don’t know, I just love it!

  • I’ve had a Christmas tepee for a couple years now, it’s festive (I dyed fabric a dark green so it kinda looks like a tree) and you can fill the inside with presents!

  • This is so cool! I’m so tempted to stop on my way home from work and make one tonight. My sister was able to find a 3′ pretty skinny tree from Target for her tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s classicly festive and works for their small space. I actually wrote about it today: younghipandhandy.blogspot.com

  • I do like all these alternative X’mas trees that I’m seeing alot more lately. Perfect when one lives in a teeny wheeny apartment! So creative too!

  • I think this is really fantastic! I could see it looking really swanky with a green dye or stain brushed on and then wiped off, so that the wood grain still shows. Then a bit of sparkly white glitter paint on the edges of the branches for snow.

    Also, I think the design could be altered just a bit so you could disassemble it to pack it away without it being jacked up. Would take up a lot less space, too!

    The pairs of branches could have small blocks of wood sandwiched between them, one on either side of the center, to make a slit for the trunk. As long as the blocks are even slightly thicker than the dowel, this will work. You could use wood glue, which will be sturdier in the long run than hot glue.

    Each pair of branches could then slide down the trunk in turn to assemble, sort of like one of those baby toys with the stacking donuts.

    I’m gonna try this!

  • For anyone who loves this idea but doesn’t have the time for a complete DIY project (except maybe drilling some holes), The Container Store is selling 4 sizes of adorable ALPINE TREES made from 1/8-inch poplar plywood that are reasonably priced. The website says they are no longer available for shipping, but check a retail store near you. I work at the Cincinnati store and we have a lot left! We also have a variety of snowflakes made of the same poplar that make great place mats, plate chargers, or just decorations.

  • What a cute idea! I can fit a small tree in my house, but this would be adorable for a decoration in a kids room, too!

  • Awesome! BUT, how about instead of cutting out branch-shapes, each consecutive layer of balsa is a MUSTACHE shape! Huzzah! That would be some good hipster fun, now wouldn’t it?

  • Super cute! I was wondering, are the tinsel ornaments handmade as well? If so, can you point me in the direction of a tutorial?

  • Kelly-
    The tinsel ornaments are from Ikea a couple years ago, but if you’d like to make some from tinsel it would be quite easy. Snip a .5″ length off a tinsel garland and pinch the ends together forming a tinsel bunch. Straighten one end of an ornament hanger (or a small piece of wire) and wrap around the center a couple times to cinch into place, and voila! Good luck!

  • How wonderful. Thank you so much for putting this tutorial together for us. I have run out of time to make this next year but will give it a go next Christmas for sure! xx

  • I totally agree with everyone else that this project is AWESOME. One thing that struck me is that this mini-tree could totally double as a jewelry stand. AWESOME x2

  • Does anyone know where to find plans to build a balsa wood Christmas treetop ornament ? I made a cherub with wings and a trumpet years ago but lost the plans.