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My Steampunk Christmas Tree!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We've had our tree up for a few weeks now, adding new ornaments and finishing touches day by day - but I think we've finally reached a point where I can do the grand reveal:

So, without further ado:

Ta-da! (click to enbiggen)
Ain't it grand?

;)

Of course, I realize that's just a jumble of lights and colors from a distance, so here are some details:

First, the tree skirt I've been drooling over for three years and finally decided to buy. It's from Disney (note the Mickey heads) and was crazy expensive (thank goodness for friends with cast member discounts), but it goes perfectly with our tree's color palette:

I started with a foundation of shiny glass ornaments in shades of orange, gold, bronze, purple and fuchsia.

Can you tell that's Lily's favorite spot? Still, better on the tree skirt than under it.

Next I added things like those keys, owls, peacock feathers, and gems, which were found on the cheap at stores like Hobby Lobby and Marshalls.

Originally I thought we might use a plasma ball for the topper, but it didn't go very well with our tree lights. So just ignore the one in this picture:

Next we began adding the ornaments we made ourselves, like those copper swirl/springs.

That's also our first hot air balloon prototype back there. It looks a bit nicer now. (More balloon pics coming soon, along with a tutorial.)

The copper springs are some of my favorites; they catch and reflect the light beautifully:

To make them, we stripped thick copper wiring and wrapped it around a broom handle.

I also gave them a quick wipe-down with Tarn-x to bring out the shine:

See the difference?

To keep the shine you can clear-coat your springs with lacquer, but I didn't bother. I'll just polish them again next year.

Oh, and I should mention the tree lights: they're all amber, which I initially thought would look grungy somehow. Not so! The amber glow is warm and simply magical:

I also used a lot of them: 900 lights for our 6.5 foot tree. And because I was trying to hide the wires as much as possible - *and* keep it from obscuring my "snow" - it took me two whole nights to do. Yeah. There's no WAY I'm taking these lights off in January. I told John he'll just have to build me a "Christmas shed" in the backyard, so I can store the tree upright. :D

More of our handmade steampunk touches:

The gears are made of clay, and were punched out with a custom gear cookie cutter John made from roof flashing:

That's rolled out Fimo Soft. By using different sized circles to cut out the centers, we were able to get two or three different styles of gears. The Fimo is flexible, too, like rubber - so there's no risk of it shattering if we drop one.

The clay isn't perfectly smooth, though, and the metallic paint really shows every imperfection. That's great if you age them, because then they look like pitted metal, but for the tree I was hoping to have a porcelain smooth finish. Any advice, crafters? Is there a better clay I should be using?


I also experimented with some tiny vintage glass test tubes I picked up at a junk mart while on tour. I thought I'd try some kind of oil and colored water combination, but then I realized the only oil I had on hand was bright yellow vegetable oil. Um. NO.

So instead, I used corn syrup.

(Yes, it's technically light yellow, but in the tubes it looks clear.)

I transferred the stickiness to the tubes with an eye dropper, and then stirred in large glitter flakes with a metal wire. The syrup is so sticky that the glitter stays suspended; it doesn't sink. (And as a bonus, the air bubbles from stirring the syrup stay, too, which looks pretty nifty.)

Like so:



At this point I got all excited thinking I could mix in tiny watch gears and springs. So I did. And it looked AMAZING. And then they all slooooowly sank to the bottom of the tube. Curses!

The glitter, however, has stayed put. You could use lots more than I did, of course, and mix colors and whatnot. I was just trying to make something that looked like sample metal flakes for a lab experiment. (Yes, I make up back stories for my crafts. Don't you?)

When I was done I used epoxy to seal the cork in place, wrapped some thin brass wire around the top to form a loop, and then adhered that with another dollop of epoxy.


The gold rope garland is cheap tinsel rope from a dollar store, but I like that it's simple and doesn't compete with all the ornaments:



And finally, let's talk about the tree top!

The hot air balloons have been our longest and most difficult on-going project - we still have a few models in the works - so those will get their own post later. They're hung with fishing line from the ceiling by tiny clear thumb tacks, so they really look like they're floating in mid air - and I love them.

The topper itself is a reproduction Edison bulb from Lowe's. John wired it through a short threaded metal rod, which he inserted down the back of the tree. Because the new bulbs are really bright, he also installed a dimmer switch on it.


We had a lot of ideas for things to add to the bulb: big gold wings, a gear halo, a mirrored starburst mounted behind it - but as time was running short we settled for something simple. For now. [wicked grin]

The silver platter cost a whopping $1 at the Dollar Tree, and is attached to the bulb base with an L bracket screwed in place. It looks like an old fashioned picture frame around the bulb, which I kind of like.

The first time John got the bulb in place on the tree, I immediately remarked, "It's like our tree just had an idea." This made John laugh so hard that I've now dubbed it our "idea tree."

Well, I hope that was worth the wait, guys. Thanks for all the encouragement and ideas, and please, keep the ideas coming! I don't think I'll stop tweaking and brainstorming until well *after* Christmas. Especially for the topper; there are just sooo many more possibilities.

Posted by Jen at 10:05 PM Labels: , ,

89 comments:

  1. LOVE the tree. It's gorgeous, tasteful, and totally geeky at the same time! <3 The vials with glitter reminded me of the allomancy used in the Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson and I really want to make some now. The recent book is steampunk, so it's perfect. :)

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    1. Ahaahaa! I thought the exact same thing!!!

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  2. Love it!! You guys are so creative! Thanks for sharing all your cool ideas!

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  3. It really looks great :) Love the tree, and love your blog! Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas to you and yours :)

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  4. Beautiful! and I cannot wait for the hot air balloons!!

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  5. Great tree! I really love those test tubes!

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  6. Awesome! LOVE the topper - gorgeous!

    Have you ever used PearlEx powders with polymer clay? I have not, but it looks like you could get a smooth, metallic finish with it. I recently discovered paste wax (Minwax makes some, bought where you'd buy Minwax stains in the hardware store) - and I bet that could be rubbed onto the surface once the PearlEx is applied and set, and give you a really beautiful sheen without being too glossy.

    Hopefully someone else has experience with mica powders and can give you better information!

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  7. I love it!!!
    As for the sculpey not being totally smooth...hmmmm, my only advice is to use a pasta machine to roll it out, then cut the shapes and carefully remove the excess, and immediately bake it without handling it at all. Otherwise you could sand them and then glaze them...

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  8. Been waiting to see this, looks amazing!

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  9. This is a beautiful tree and i love all the original decorations you've devised! Sculpey is just as good a polymer clay as any other. If you want a really smooth finish, you could try sanding after baking, since you are painting anyway. But I rather like the slightly irregular surface.

    Looking forward to seeing how you accomplished the hot air balloons. Very cool!!

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  10. Aww, this makes me wish I had a real Christmas tree. Maybe I could make a little hot air balloon ornament for my paper tree.
    And also, it goes without saying, it is so beautiful it kinda makes me wanna weep.

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  11. Instead of corn syrup you could fill the vials with epoxy resin, and then your glitter and gears and springs. The epoxy would harden (less mess if it falls too and your gears and springs would stay suspended too.
    With the sculpey, you can burnish it with the back of a spoon before baking it. You could also try air dry clay. I always moisten my clay very slightly before burnishing the surface, it seems to help with the smoothing. Love the tree, it's so different!

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  12. Just a quick response to a better metal looking clay...there is a clay called metal clay (PMC). No joke. It has the consistency of modelling clay but is made with true metal particles. Art Clay is a my personal favorite to use.
    Best of luck!

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    1. Your tree is beautiful. This my first visit and I love your stuff!
      Lots of wonderful aspects about PMC...First of all, it's made from precious metals recovered from recycled electronics, etc, so you're saving the planet. Second, it comes in several forms, including syringe, making it super easy to use. Third, it is precious metals, mixed with organics, so after you design your project and take a torch to it, the organics burn off completely, leaving only metal. You can view a great gallery at fire mountain gems website. The only downside: it can be cost prohibitive if you're on a budget, especially since it's creative crack and once you play with it, you want more.

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  13. Love, love, love! I can't wait for the tutorial on the balloon ornaments... they look awesome! :) By the way, I'm the "Pregnant Holland Belly Cupcake" girl from Richmond, VA... In case you remember me :) Still waiting on the baby but he should be here anytime! Merry Christmas to y'all!

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  14. Very shiny tree!
    My mind went right to "goldschlager" when I saw the test tubes, it's a good thing you have a better back-story for them!
    Your comment about a Christmas Tree shed made me smile. I wouldn't want to take it apart after spending so much time on it, either!
    Marry Christmas!

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  15. I love your tree - it's really awesome!! The little flakes in the test tubes remind me of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy. Essentially Mistborns can burn certain metals to enhance certain senses, and they carry test tubes with flakes of the different metals they can burn on their person for use as needed. :-)

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  16. This is absolutely amazing! It's so creative and gorgeous, I love all the crafty homemade elements.

    I haven't used Sculpey clay in a long time, but for smoothing it out I would try using a flexible throwing rib - Sherrill ribs come in a variety of shapes and flexibleness-es (I don't think there's a plural for "flexibleness"). These are available from mudtools.com or through baileypottery.com. For smoothing flat pieces I would go with the soft or very soft in the #5 shape.

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  17. "Yes, I make up back stories for my crafts. Don't you?" You are awesome and so is your tree! It looks fantastic! I think my favorite part is the balloons (although the glitter tubes are pretty cool too). Can't wait to see your post about them.

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  18. Oh holy wow! Jen, you and John never cease to amaze me! I love this tree!

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  19. Did you get the matching stockings??

    http://www.disneystore.com/bohemian-holiday-mickey-mouse-stocking/mp/1291180/1000882+1000399/

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  20. Your tree is absolutely beautiful! Very drool-worthy!

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  21. The kitty under the tree brings the entire look together! lol

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  22. drool...... Next year I am definitely stealing some of these ideas for my tree, can't this year won't go with the current theme. You are a genius!

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  23. Your tree is gorgeous! I can't wait till I am finally able to get out living in tiny apartments with no room for the huge Christmas tree I so desperately want. My poor little tree is just too small for some of our best ornaments! They look ginormous on it. Tree envy, I has it=(

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  24. Your tree is beautiful! I love the gears - very creative.

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  25. I have to admit, my first thought on seeing your tree topper was that it looked like an old-timey streetlamp, which made me think of the lamppost in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." ^_^

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  26. I love love the tree, especially the tree topper.

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  27. For the gears, I was thinking shrinky dinks, because a mom of one of my students used them for a craft to make ornaments, but you would have to use a whole sheet to make just one. So if you wanted something bigger...maybe start looking around for broken bikes and taking the gears off of them and spray painting them? Good luck. The tree looks great. And I love, love, love the balloons.

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  28. I posted a picture of my tree on to my FB page, and it looks just like this! Well - "a" tree with "a" black & white cat underneath part ...

    Love the test tubes, love the hot air balloons ...

    LOVE LOVE LOVE .... "This made John laugh so hard that I've now dubbed it our idea tree." hahaha

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  29. Hey, I bought that same lightbulb! Still haven't figured out exactly what I'm going to do with it, but I had to have it. =)

    LOL - your tree had an idea!

    You give me so many ideas! I don't know whether to thank you or curse you (because I can't possibly find the time to do them all!).

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  30. Can I just say that Lily in the photos actually makes your tree look even more authentic and homey? Well, I just did. Thanks so much for sharing--it is gorgeous! And the tree topper is my favorite!

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  31. Don't mind me.
    I'm just going to sit here consumed by tree-envy for a couple minutes and drooling over every tiny detail.

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  32. Love the tree! Also love the furry gift under it.

    My verification is santr. Santr Claus is comin'.

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  33. someone else already mentioned epoxy resin and that was the first thing i thought of when you wrote about the gears sinking.

    i do a lot with polymer clay and unless you want to spend hours sanding a perfectly smooth finish is nearly impossible. mica powder will only enhance any texture inherent to the finished clay but adds a really neat sheen to painted or finished clay. if you want a glass like finish you might use the epoxy resin as the finishing step.

    i have made ornaments with the metallic paint/pearl ex/resin finish and they were pretty freakin' cool (if i do say so myself)

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  34. Re: gears and smooth finishes
    I've seen some ideas posted here that I'll definitely be checking out --- but my first thought was, why not coat them in liquid latex? Dip, drip dry, paint or not as you normally would... should work ;)
    Fantabulous tree -- and would he build me a Christmas shed too? My 2 C closets are overflowing!

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  35. First, your tree is fantastic in every way, I've been waiting with bated breath and it is now one of my ultimate Christmas wishes to make one for myself. Second, John's cookie cutter is just begging to be used for steampunk Christmas cookies!

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  36. I'm looking at this in the middle of the night on my iPod which is dimmed bc I can't sleep, in the dark

    And I thought, until the explanation, that the bulb on top was inside a giant bulb of glass!

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  37. I love, love, love those hot air balloons. I wish I had your imagination and patience;-)

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  38. It's gorgeous! I love the Edison bulb topper as muxh as I love my Weeping Angel topper ;-)
    John is amazing, making the homemade cookie cutter. Can't wait for the hot air balloon tutorial.

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  39. Hmm. I have had the same problems with oven baked clays. There are two things you can do. If you are using super sculpy you can 'wet' the clay with 90% rubbing alcohol, and brush with a soft brush until it's smooth enough. Or you can use Claystone. It's air drying, dries rock hard,and can be smoothed with water. Hope this helps.

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  40. To get a smooth finish on polyclay, I smashed use rubbing alcohol. It sort of melts the top layer and smoothes it. Now, if your surface is comong out pitted, it sounds like you may have gotten dirt or debris in it when you were working the clay which is hard to prevent. But the rubbing alcohol can take care of slight dents, fingerprints, stuff like that. Only problem is that, on something so thin, the alcohol would cause it to crumble if you tried to move it before it was fired. So you could really only do one side, and it would have to be on the sheet you're baking it on. Otherwise, I've had good results with sanding. Could also think about coating it with a resin or glaze before painting. Or mica shift techniques.

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  41. Creative, gorgeous and unique. WIN!
    I think the hot air balloons may be my favorite bits, but it's hard to choose.

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  42. Read some of the suggests for the gears and they all sound good.

    But one thing to remember is you may not like the look after you get them done.

    Metal should look a bit rough and not porcelain smooth. But try making gear, smooth on foil before baking, and then after painting, put on a thin clear glaze. That should give a porcelain look to it

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  43. Hi Jen:

    Your tree looks fab!

    If you want to use something that you can sand, and also that will start out smoother than the fimo clay, you can try Apoxie. Its a two part mixture that dries very hard. It air dries too, so no baking. You will have to work quickly but using the cookie cutters that shouldn't be too hard.

    Merry Christmas!

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  44. It is awesome! I can't wait for the hot air balloon post, they are my faves too, gorgene!!

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  45. Your treeis awesome! I can't wait for the hot air balloon post, they are my faves too, gorgene!! Love, love, love kitty-in-the-wild. :)

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  46. Jen and John,

    You two are an amazing team. Is there anything one can dream up that the other cannot fulfill? I can't say right now what part I like the best - it is all ??? - Hell, I can't come up with the correct word.

    Maureen

    P.S. It was great to see you in Pittsburgh!

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  47. So beautiful! I love all the purple (my favorite color!) And that tree skirt *swoon*. Once again Jen you have shown us how incredibly talented you and John are :D I can't wait to see the hot air balloon tutorial, I need those for my tree next year!

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  48. I prefer the Sculpey III clay over the Fimo, but I think that's more of a personal preference.
    If you cut the clay a bit thicker, you can use some damp wet-dry sand paper to smooth it out after you've baked it. I've never painted my clay, so I don't know how smooth it will be, but it might help.

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  49. LOVE *drools*

    I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday and I saw this and thought of you.

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  50. For a smoother look to the clay, consider a layer of thicker paint before the thin metallic paint. Perhaps white or yellow, so any underglow will enhance the amber lights.

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  51. So much to see1 I'll bet guests just stand and stare at every detail. The hot air baloons, as if they floated off the tree!

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  52. Make sure when you put the tree away to plastic bag it - either a ginormous leaf bag or one of the Christmas tree bags that some of the store sell. My grandmother always did that so she only had to decorate it "perfect" once and keep the dust off of it all year round!
    by the way LOVE your home made decorations and the theme! Spectacular!

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  53. http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/30204454/
    Can't beat the price!

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  54. Wow! The air balloons are so adorable flying over your tree. It's like tiny aeronauts are exploring the awesomeness of what you have created. Do people have gentlemanly bouts of fistocuffs for the chance to be invited to your holiday parties? ;)

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  55. Squee Lady from DallasDecember 18, 2011 at 5:55 PM

    Your bright tree with an idea runs circles around every other tree I've seen this season! And you know, whatever idea that it has - we're all sure that it is spectacular. (Now, if only it would communicate with us...)

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  56. For the test tubes, craft stores have a clear lacquer stuff that works well. My mom used it to make a miniature fishbowl once (the size of a quarter). I have no idea what it's called, but we used it with Fimo clay for other miniatures, too.

    For a less chemical way to "polish" your copper, try Lemi Shine crystals. They are in the dishwasher detergent area in stores, and my copper bottom pots come out looking brand spanking new after each load of dishes.

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  57. Hi Jen
    I love reading your blog, and have loved checking out the steampunk things lately. As much as I love looking at steampunk, I've never tried to make anything. Well, I joined a charm swap on one of my Yahoo! groups, and the theme was steampunk. Figured you and your readers might like to see what I made here and what I received in return here

    Wendy W

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  58. This tree is just awesome. I love the hot air balloons and the test tubes. Have a great Christmas

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  59. Your tree has put me in the holiday spirit! For clay, you might try Premo brand polymer clay. It comes in metallic colors, gold, silver, copper. the gold would look great on your tree. You may have to order from the Internet. The craft stores don't usually carry these colors. I'd recommend a pasta machine for a smoother finish as well.

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  60. Is it ok that I kind of hate you just a little bit for being so freakingly artistic and amazing?? And John as well! You guys make me sick! With jealousy. So much jealousy... Kylee (off to train my daughter in the ways of creating awesome Christmas trees)

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  61. To keep from getting bumps in the clay, condition carefully, preferably with a pasta machine and don't trap any air bubbles in the clay. Make sure that you fold the clay in half and put the fold through the pasta machine first, that way no air is trapped. Second make sure you roll it with a smooth acrylic roller. Third before you bake rub both sides of the gear or flat piece with cornstarch that takes a lot of the bumps and fingerprints out of the clay. Fourth, when finished baking, sand them with 400 grade sand paper, then paint.

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  62. Sweet! Have you seen this steampunk advent calendar?

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  63. I love your tree! I have been working on a Pinterest board of steampunk Christmas stuff http://pinterest.com/lisarooney/steampunk-christmas/. I added your steampunk ornaments to the board this morning.

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  64. Wow! Awesome! I love all the lights, and everything fits together so well. Great job -- and worth the wait to see it.

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  65. That is the coolest topper I have ever seen. Absolutely incredible - love the whole thing!

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  66. Oooh! Beautiful!

    For the smooth polymer clay finish, my mother (who does a *lot* of work with clay) uses a fine grain sandpaper and a buffing machine like
    this one.

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  67. Oh, wow. This looks absolutely AMAZING. It almost even makes me wish I weren't so sentimental that I could bear to put up something themed other than the usual, "Christmas stuff I've had forever and ever and ever."

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  68. It's stunning!

    I just spotted some glass light bulbs decorated with thin chains of beads to look like hot air balloons and thought of your tree ^_^

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  69. I think this belongs here.

    Also, beautiful tree! I love the glass vials.

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  70. WOW! That is one awesome tree! How you ever find time to do all this crafty stuff is beyond me - you're like the Martha Stewart of steampunk!

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  71. I absolutely love that tree topper!

    Have you seen the Sizzix "gear" dies that cut "gears" out of paper, grunge paper, thin baked Fimo, and cardstock?

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  72. AWESOME TREE!!! You guys are crazy talented and I love the post comments that go with the pictures. Who doesn't make up back stories for their projects and crafts? :D

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  73. That is an absolutely smashing tree! I want!

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  74. Love your tree!! They only have one steampunk airship ornament left but you might want to check out this etsy store -- wish list for next year.
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/FlightsofIndustry
    I too, never take the lights off after I put them on; ornaments yes (too fragile to leave on) but lights are on there till they have to be replaced by new ones.

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  75. Your tree is really beautiful and unique! I really love it! I liked the copper springs and the test tubes alot.

    I notice many people offered some really good advice on how to fix your gear ornaments and if you don't mind, I would love to offer my insight.
    I have been working with polymer clay since the 70s when Sculpey only came in white, Fimo was like a rock and I was still waiting to discover Cernit.

    For your really cool gear ornaments I would use Premo polymer clay in gold pearl AND a pasta machine (or a marble rolling pin). The pearl is a beautiful gold so no paint is required. The pasta machine will align the gold mica particles in the clay so that the gold is consistent in color. I would leave the machine on a number one setting and cut my ornaments out at that thickness. The pasta machine will keep the clay smooth with no blemishes. After baking if, you still desire a shiny look to them, dip them in Future Floor Wax and hang to dry. Check on them within the first 10 minutes and gently wipe the drips from the bottom of the ornament. Once the floor wax begins to set up, the drips will cease. The floor wax is acrylic based and is perfect with polymer. It gives such a beautiful high gloss shine with a pleasant smell.

    If you decide to go with the Apoxy Clay/Sculpt mentioned in one of the comments, realize that it is a chemical reaction caused by the two parts being mixed together that causes it to harden AND whatever tools you use with it require immediate clean up in warm, soapy water so the product doesn't harden on them (and ruin your awesome gear cutter).

    Thanks for sharing your magnificent tree and I wish you much success with your gear ornaments. Have a very Merry Christmas!

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  76. I did an "old fashioned" tree this year, sort of modeled after late 1800 to early 1900 American farmhouse look. I made about 90% of my ornaments, but when it came to the tree topper I was stuck. I REALLY wanted a candle with a reflector behind it (similar to your lightbulb setup) but couldn't find anything that I liked the look of - any ideas on transforming the lightbulb to an electric candle? Thank you!

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  77. You two are amazing. I admire the effort you put into beautifying your surroundings and the joy you take from both the process and results. I'm far too lazy to follow your example but I love the glimpse into the Jen and John way of life.

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  78. Hi there! Just going through your posts and found this one. I love the ideas you came up with for your tree! I don't know if anyone else suggested this, but I had an idea to prevent the little gears from sinking to the bottom. Tie a few gears to some clear thread, and then suspend them in the corn syrup. It could work! :)

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  79. So... how DID he make the custom cookie cutter??

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  80. It looks phenomenal! I would want to keep it up all year long!

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  81. I absolutely love your tree. I heart steampunk and am taken by the springs the most. Thanks for all the inspiration!!!

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  82. what a wonderful and charming tree.
    A couple of thoughts from your post:
    1) I too, have tried to suspend watch gears in liquid (in snow globes, not test tubes, but same idea.) Not only do they sink, they also rust over time! I'll figure it out one day ... haven't given up yet.
    2) if you want an evenly rolled clay and are using a marble rolling pin on polymer clay, get a pair of chopsticks or two same-sized pieces of balsa wood sticks the height you want the clay. (This is the width of the sticks when laid flat, not the length.) Put the flattened clay between them and roll away. The clay will be exactly the height of the sticks, as the rolling pin will be forced to roll evenly.
    3) If you'd like to see my steampunk Christmas Tree (all 2.75 inches tall), here it is: http://camrynforrest.com/2013/12/15/making-christmas-time/

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