Thursday, December 1, 2011

DIY Upgrade For Your Christmas Tree!

This year I got it into my head that I wanted a more natural looking, flocked Christmas tree. (Translation: fake snow on it. And maybe some pine cones.) Here's an example I found online:

This 7.5 foot tree costs over $400. Yee-OUCH.

So I started watching all the sales, and John and I hit every store we could think of, but all the artificial trees were either too tall (we like 6.5 foot trees), too expensive, or out of stock. Plus, the fake snow was always so flaky; bump it, and the powdery stuff goes everywhere!

Finally, I started thinking how we could reuse our burnt-out pre-lit tree from last year. It's a nice enough tree that we've had a few years, but half the light strands wired into it blew out, way beyond repair.

In the end, we went from this:
(minus the pine cones; I forgot to take a proper "before" pic)

To this!

Here's how we did it:

First, John spent a night painstakingly cutting off all of the pre-wired light strands. By the time he was done our living room carpet was littered with hundreds of plastic tie-clips - yikes!

Next I started researching fake snow kits. They exist, but start around $40 - too rich for my blood. Canned spray snow (which we dutifully purchased and tested) looks like chalky white spray paint; there's no texture or body to it, and it gets all over you if you brush up against it.

There are recipes online for mixing Elmer's glue with shaving cream, or Ivory soap flakes with glue, etc, but I didn't have those items on hand and I was convinced there had to be an easier way.

We finally decided to test slightly watered down lightweight drywall Spackle. (The lightweight part is very important - don't try this with heavy weight!)

Mixed up, it looks like this:

Using a stiff bristled chip brush, I did a test batch on a piece of garland:

Not bad! And once it dried it was nice and hard; no powdery residue, no shower of flakes.

Next John and I did some serious research into the flammability of this stuff - I don't want anyone burning their house down because of one of my tutorials! John even went so far as to take the garland outside and set it on fire. Which smelled so, so bad.

Bottom line: yes, it will burn (as will your artificial Christmas tree, if put in a direct flame) but no more so than anything else. Obviously it's not flame-retardant, but I'm comfortable saying your Christmas lights won't make the stuff ignite. (We also looked up the MSDS, the Material Safety Data Sheets, and found nothing to indicate any increased flammability. Expert opinions are still welcome, though!)

Now, before I could flock the tree I needed to attach my pine cones. Surprisingly, pine cones are really hard to find in stores! We found crushed potpourri-soaked ones, and a few small ones in floral sprigs, but that was it. Urg.

Finally we found an entire pine cone wreath at JoAnne's on sale down from $40 to $12. Even better, each of the 40+ pine cones already had a floral wire secured to the bottom. SOLD!

John disassembled the wreath and added more floral wire to each cone so I could attach them to the tree branches:

Then I attached them randomly around the tree:

Next came the fun part:

Painting the tree!

If you try this, don't be afraid to use a really heavy hand with your Spackle. The more clumpy it is, the better it looks! Concentrate the heavy clumps with a stippling motion on surface areas where snow would naturally fall, and then brush the branches around it to give them a lighter dusting of Spackle. If you're like me, you'll find yourself going back to add more and more with each pass as you see how nice it looks.

In fact, in the end I think our tree turned out WAY better than any flocked tree I've seen:

Also, to add a little sparkle, I stopped every five minutes or so and sprinkled white iridescent glitter all over the wet Spackle. It's a subtle glimmer - and ohmygosh so messy - but I think well worth it. Since the Spackle dries with a matte finish, the glitter adds a bit of shine.

To be honest, John and I were completely gobsmacked this came out as well as it did - and how easy it was to do! (Although I wouldn't let John do any of the painting. That was all me. :D)

And here she is again, in all her snowy glory:

I'm getting a total Narnia vibe. And I love it.

(Also notice Tonks down there rolling in all the excess glitter. Greeeeeaaat.)

I used two tiny batches of Spackle to do the entire 6.5 foot tree, and it took me maybe an hour. Since we already had the Spackle in the garage, the only expense was the $12 pine cones - and we got to salvage something destined for the trash! Now that's my kind of craft project.

This is only the beginning, though: this is going to be our steampunked Christmas tree, so we have much, MUCH more in store for it. And I am so excited. Stay tuned!

* Want to see how my tree looks after being stored in the garage for a year? Updated pics here!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas Tree Surprise

I put our living room tree up a few days ago (still working on our top-secret* steampunk tree!), and last night I noticed the tree skirt was all rumpled.

I decided to investigate:

I guess I should be glad that's the extent of her "destruction." ;)

* Ok, so "top-secret" just got downgraded a little...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Audio Book Review: Ready Player One

For the book tour I packed a whopping fourteen audio books, and the one I was most excited about was Ready Player One, which I mentioned here on Epbot a few months ago.

Now, I should point out that I always prefer reading a book to listening to it - the exception being when I've already read the book and/or it's being performed by several readers as opposed to a single narrator. So bear that in mind.

I won't keep you in suspense: I liked it.

Just not nearly as much as I expected to.

Here's the thing: Every review I've read, and almost everyone who recommended the book to me, made this book sound like the Ultimate 80's Geek-Fest. Like every other line would be a Ghostbusters quote, or a Star Wars homage, or something to do with Princess Bride and Michael Jackson and Rubik's cubes and every other bit of 80's nostalgia I could think of.

It's not.

In fact, this is a story grounded just as much in the 1970's, and much of it extremely obscure - like 1970's-era Japanese Manga shows, and text-based computer RPGs, and the first generation of arcade games, like Joust. I think if I'd been born about ten years earlier, I might have gotten a lot more of it. As it was? The vast majority sailed cleanly over my head, and I felt less and less like a real geek with every passing paragraph. It got to where I felt a pathetic pang of victory every time I did recognize something. ("Oh! Pac-Man! I know that! And Monty Python! Yes!")

To be fair, there *are* some casual mentions of X-wings and Deloreans and even a Serenity-class ship, but for the most part, and for most of the important plot-points, Cline could have been making up a lot of random dates, factoids, names, and song lyrics, and I'd never have known the difference. (Although now I feel the need to see War Games.)

This isn't Cline's fault, of course. It just means the target audience is older and harder-core geeks than I am. (I'm 33, btw.)

Ok, so with all that said, let's talk about the actual story.

It's good.

It starts out slow - painfully slow, in fact, if you're listening to it. After two hours John and I gave up, half-asleep and shaking our heads in bewilderment. It was like having someone read the encyclopedia to you for two solid hours: only it's an encyclopedia written in the future about the past which is still in your future. (Got all that?)

When we ran out of other books to listen to, though, we decided to dive back in and give it another try. This time, after another 30 minutes or so, the story picked up, and from there on it was a good ride.

Again, I should point out that I'm sure I would have liked Ready Player One much more if I'd been reading the book instead of listening to it. Don't get me wrong: Wil Wheaton does a fine job narrating - it's just too slow for me that way. Fact is, I've often listened to books I've read before and loved only to find I don't like them nearly as much anymore, all because they progress so slowly in audio.

If you haven't heard anything about the actual story, Ready Player One is a little like the Matrix, minus most of the action and with a scavenger hunt thrown in. Cline spends a lot of time telling us how much the future sucks (about two hours, in fact) and how everyone spends every waking moment plugged in to a virtual reality called the Oasis, which is basically an MMO ala World of Warcraft on steroids. You can get a more detailed synopsis on any book site, but that's the general gist.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments - the best being an all-too-brief stint in the technical support department - but it's not a screwball comedy. This is a respectable adventure story with real life-and-death consequences, nasty bad guys, a healthy dash of suspense, and even a love interest.

So...should you read it?

Yes, if you're a WoW fan, have ever played Adventure, and remember owning a TRS-80.

Also yes if you don't care about getting all the references and just want a good story - but realizing you'll be missing the nostalgia kick the story is built around if you're under 38.

No, if you're expecting lots of "It's a trap!" and "As you wish!" and Jem and the Holograms concerts. (Which, for the record, would have been AWESOME. [wistful sigh])

I hope this review helps those of you who've been on the fence about reading Ready Player One - and please, feel free to share your thoughts/disagreements/polite accusations in the comments!