Each year, I try to come up with a unique take on a Christmas tree: a smaller, non-tree alternative for those who don’t have a lot of space, are allergic to real trees, or just want a more modern take on an old tradition. In the past, we built a wooden Christmas tree with rotating tiers and a color-blocked tree that updates the classic Christmas colors of red and green. This year, I decided it was time to up the game on these wooden trees by adding lights. This is a simple plywood Christmas tree that will light up your home and make it cozy. It’s a great alternative to a classic Christmas tree or a great addition to your front porch, entryway, or even your bedroom. I always love projects like this that can be easily altered, duplicated, and personalized for your home's aesthetic.
This Christmas tree turned out great and is pretty straightforward to build, but my first attempt did take a bit of trial and error. I initially tried to build this out of prefinished plywood because I figured it could save me a step at the end. I dropped this idea for two reasons. First, I found it very difficult to cut in a straight line with the circular saw. The surface of the plywood was so smooth that the saw slid around more than usual and gave a lot of kickback. In retrospect, applying some wide painter’s tape before cutting would probably solve this problem. The second reason I decided against prefinished plywood was because of all the drilling this project requires. Any splintering that happens around the holes on prefinished plywood is much more noticeable than on raw plywood that's finished later.
I tried making this tree with mitered cuts so you wouldn’t see any of the plywood edges, but this proved to be more work than it was worth (at least for me). And I actually like the industrial feel the raw edges lend to the project. I also ran into problems with the point of the tree, the Christmas lights, and drilling the wood. But we’ll talk about all of these problems and how I solved them in this tutorial.
Step 1: Cut wood for Christmas tree
For this project, I went with Arauco plywood. I picked it because it’s an inexpensive, light-colored wood. If you prefer a cleaner finish or a darker color, feel free to swap out my pick for your own.
Measure and cut out two triangle shapes that are 15” wide at the base and 24” tall. Then, measure and cut two slightly smaller triangles that are 14” wide at the base and 23 3/4” tall. Measure 1 1/4” down from the top of these smaller triangles and cut off their tops.
To cut these shapes the most efficiently, I like to alternate between right-side up and upside down across the 2’ length of plywood. It’s important to note that the slope of the triangles is not 45°—therefore, you can’t use the same line for both right-side up and upside down.
Step 2: Mark holes for the lights
Measure down the middle of each triangle and mark 4” from the top. Mark every 2” beyond that until you get down to the bottom of the triangle. Each mark will represent a row. Starting at the bottom, measure across the triangle (parallel with the bottom edge) and mark 1” away from the middle mark on either side. Mark every 2” on both sides until you come to the end. Erase the middle mark.
On the second row, mark every 2” out from the middle point. This will create an alternating pattern. Repeat these steps until you get to the top mark. Avoid marking too close to the edges of the wood—you’ll run out of room for inserting the lights, and it might end up looking a little awkward. From bottom to top, my rows looked like this: 6 marks, then 5, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 1 (for a total of 33 marks on each side of the triangle).
Repeat this process with all four pieces.
Step 3: Drill holes
This is the step where I ran into the most hurdles. First, I made the silly assumption that all Christmas lights with standard-sized tungsten light bulbs were created using the same molds, making them the same exact size. I was wrong! Each brand has a unique plastic casing for holding the same light bulbs—some casings are large, some are small, some are square or rectangular. Some strands of lights even have a few casings that are different from the other lights in the string. Weird, right? My lights, I learned, had four lights with casings that were different: one at either end and two right in the middle. These casings were too big to fit into the holes I had drilled for all the other lights, so I made the decision to skip them and leave them hidden inside the tree.
With this in mind, choose a drill bit that matches the size of your string of lights. Drill varying holes in a scrap piece of wood and check how the lights fit. Ideally you want the holes to be a little tight so the lights stay in place, but remember you'll need to fit over a hundred lights into these holes—so you definitely don’t want the fit to be too tight.
I also had issues with pre-drilling during this step. When I was testing out the idea for this tree, I drilled a bunch of holes into a piece of plywood and strung them with lights—and everything went great! But as soon as I started drilling through the actual wood pieces for the project, the drill started tearing up the wood, and the whole thing looked like a big mess. (Isn’t that just the way life goes sometimes?) My usual solutions of clamping the plywood down on some scrap wood or drilling through tape didn’t seem to make any difference. But I finally found a solution: clamping the wood onto a piece of scrap wood before drilling. It only worked when I was drilling close to the clamps—which meant clamping down the plywood with three separate clamps and only drilling on the half of the triangle closest to the clamps—then flipping the whole thing around and clamping down that side and drilling those holes.
I’m not usually this specific with my project steps, but this tree required quite a bit of trial and error—so pay close attention to avoid making the same mistakes I did. Clamp down the wood (with the best side face-down) on top of a scrap piece using two or three clamps. Drill the holes on the half closest to the edge of the table (and, therefore, closest to the clamps), then rotate the piece so the other side is now the side closest to the clamps and finish drilling. The top side of the wood will still look pretty rough, but when you flip it over, the bottom side should look nice—and that’s all that matters! Repeat these steps with all four pieces of wood.
Step 4: Sand the edges of the wood
Once all the cuts are made and the holes are drilled, it’s time to sand. Use a fine to medium sanding sponge or 150-grit sandpaper to smooth out the edges and the holes. I like to do a quick once-over on the backside to take care of any big splinters. Then, I devote the rest of my attention to the front side of the pieces.
Step 5: Assemble the Christmas tree
There are a few ways to go about assembling the four sides of the tree. I found the easiest way was to secure the pieces together initially with glue and then pre-drill with a 1/16” drill bit and add 1 1/4” finish nails. I used nails instead of screws because they’re less noticeable, but I always find it hard to hammer nails into a structure that isn’t already sturdy. The glue and pre-drilling help to take care of this problem.
Alternatively, instead of using glue, you can grab another person to hold things in place while you pre-drill and hammer in the nails. Because I’m usually working by myself (and I’m impatient!), I like to use a regular craft store glue gun with construction-grade hot glue from Dunn Lumber. I love these glue sticks because they cure in seconds and eliminate the need for another person. However, if your plywood is bowed at all and the seams don’t line up perfectly, you’ll probably need an extra set of hands.
As you assemble the tree, make sure the smaller triangles (the ones without tops) are sitting inside of the bigger triangles. Because of the shape of the tree, the bottom edge of the plywood won’t be sitting flat on the ground. Make sure the inside corners of the bottom of the pieces line up so your Christmas tree isn’t wobbly or crooked.
Step 6: Finish your tree
It’s best to finish your tree before adding the lights because the lights take quite a bit of time. If you’ve been following Dunn DIY for a while, you probably know I like to leave lighter wood, like this birch, unstained with an added clear finish. But pick whatever look you like best and make it your own!
Now it’s time to stain, paint, or add a design to your Christmas tree. I like to add a clear coat of polyurethane to protect the wood while the tree is on display or stored away in my attic.
Apply your clear coat following the directions on the side of the can, and allow the finish to fully dry before adding the lights. I like to use water-based polyurethane on raw wood because it doesn’t add a yellow tint to the color of the wood. And I use a matte finish so the wood looks virtually the same as it did before I added anything (which is my goal).
Step 7: Add lights to your tree
Now for the fun part! I love stringing up Christmas lights because it feels so cheery and festive—but this might not be my favorite way to put up lights. The process proved to be a little more awkward than anticipated and a little harder on my fingers. So, once again, allow me to help you, and learn from my mistakes.
First, I recommend wearing work gloves to protect the skin on the tips of your fingers. Second, you’ll need to find a way to support the tree at an angle so you can reach inside the tree, but not so far of an angle that it gets in the way of lighting the tree. I suggest either having someone hold the tree in place for you or resting the tree against some throw pillows.
You’ll need one string of 100 lights and another string of 50 lights. Start with the end of the light strand (the end with the female plug) at the top of the Christmas tree. Skip the first bulb if the plastic casing is different and won’t fit into the holes, then fit the lights into the holes, spiraling down around the inside of the tree. I found that as I got farther down, some of the holes were too far apart for the spiral method. Instead, I had to go around in a circle, then redirect down and back in the other direction. No matter how you do it, I highly recommend going from top to bottom and having some sort of pattern. Wrap the leftover lights together and hide them inside the tree.
I love how this tree turned out, and I can’t wait to use it to brighten up a dark corner of my apartment this Christmas! I’ll definitely be keeping this tree for years to come. As my space grows, I just might make a couple more in varying sizes that can all live together! Now that you’ve finished this project, make your own holiday stocking to go along with your new tree or DIY a parcel drop box to keep your packages safe. And don’t forget to show the outside of your home some love—check out our Christmas lights guide for inspiration.