Monday, November 27, 2017

We Made A Phoenix Topper For Our Harry Potter Tree!

I still don't have the best pictures of this yet, but I just can't wait any longer to show you guys:

Our new Phoenix tree topper!


Would you believe we started this project almost two months ago? ARG. It's been a long road for a surprisingly simple DIY; we just had to find all the ways it wouldn't work first. Let me walk you through the process, then I'll show you the SUPER cool part at the end. (Spoiler: IT LIGHTS UP.)

I've been staring at this for too long, so you guys will have to tell me if it's blindingly obvious that we started with this:

The bird, I mean. Not Tonks.

That's a plastic eagle decoy, which you can get for about $22 online. It's hollow - so nice and light - with detachable wings.

Our first step was to cut around the feet with a Dremel tool, so we could get rid of the rock base:

We also glued the wings in place permanently and covered the screw holes with epoxy putty.
John built the perch from a scrap decorative rod and two finials. To hold the bird in place he later inserted two metal rods in the legs, which slot into pre-drilled holes in the perch. 

We used more epoxy putty to hold those metal rods in the legs, and also to fill out the toes and the backs of the hollow legs:

Next we used acetone to strip off as much of the body paint as we could:

Why strip the paint off instead of just painting over it? Well, see, we had this crazy idea...

And it kind of worked!

(We quickly figured out regular Christmas lights get too hot, so we swapped those out for LEDs.)

To keep my paint job a little translucent, I mixed regular craft paint with Mod Podge in a 50/50 blend. Then I went to work painting on a base coat of blended red, orange, and yellow:

I also painted the feet and beak black. It looks pretty terrible at this point, but hang on for two more steps - that's where the magic happens. ;)

Next John and I added some crown feathers, which help break up the obvious eagle profile:

The feathers are each inserted into little holes we drilled with the Dremel. I curled the feathers with a flat iron, and later I also tinted them to darken them up a little.

Now here's where the paint job gets better: I first tested the aging with black, but that was too much:

See the back? Yuck. So instead I applied a thin coat of dark burgundy for the aging (on the right wing) which was juuuuust right. As always, you paint on a small section, then immediately wipe it off again, so the paint sticks in the cracks.

See how all the feather detail stands out now?

The neck ruff area has been a constant thorn in my side; I feel like it's a dead give-away that this used to be an eagle. Short of re-sculpting the entire torso area, though, I don't know of any way to disguise it. I can only hope the full effect - and distance, since it's way up on the tree top - will fool people.

(By the by, my original plan was to cover the entire bird in craft feathers. That... didn't work. Ha!)

We removed the plastic eyes the eagle came with, then had some fun with googly eyes:

Not gonna lie: I am STILL laughing at this.

When we couldn't find any good translucent beads to use for the eyes, John decided to make his own with resin. He made some small clear domes, and then I scrunched up a little shiny foil behind them (a candy wrapper, in fact) to catch the light:

Sneak peek of the light-up action.

I chose to leave off the pupils so the eyes would have maximum glow, but you could always paint pupils on the back side of the resin.

I've always wanted a phoenix topper where the tail extends down the tree like garland. You know, because I always want easy, achievable things. :D

 So we started with a $6 feather boa:

(It's doubled-up here, so twice this long.)

Then I added feathers in red, orange, and yellow. The craft feathers I ordered were SUPER bright, though, so first I tinted all of them to darken 'em up:

I used watered-down black paint on the red feathers, and red on the orange and yellow feathers. They dried a lot lighter than I expected, so in the end the orange feathers look about the same, but at least the red and yellow have some nice toning. As you can see, painting the feathers also made them a lot smaller and sleeker, and just more "real." 

To attach the feathers to the boa I wrapped each quill in double-stick tape and just sort of jammed it in there. Probably not the best method, but amazingly enough only one or two fell off when I had to remove the entire tail and put it back on again. (Tree light drama. Ug.)

The tree itself has had a lot of starts and stops and complete do-overs as well, but I'm pretty happy with what we've ended up with so far. I ditched all the purple ornaments from last year and instead went with a subtle red/orange/gold ombre effect. I'll have final photos of it later, but for now here's a video pan-up to give you an idea - and to show you the lighted effect of the phoenix!

As you can see the lights are very spotty in the phoenix, but it's kind of a neat look, almost like pixie dust or flames dancing around on him. The twinkle gives it a more magical effect, I hope:

And that's our phoenix topper! I hope it was worth the wait!

We're getting SO CLOSE to our Fantastic Beasts Potter Party, btw, so expect a few more little (or not so little) projects over the next few weeks leading up to the big reveal!


  1. I love this! And thank you for the tutorial!!!

  2. He looks like he's about to burest into flames! Perfect!

  3. The lights look like embers to me! Like the phoenix is about to catch fire (in a great way)

  4. Oh my gosh Jen, I'm just frothing at your Christmas tree - honestly one of the most beautiful home-decorated trees EVER! You're such a craft inspiration! And the "eagle" can't be recognised as such. You look at it and DUH it's a phoenix. I'm blown over - so so great. All the hard work is definitely worth it!

  5. This is amazing! I would never have guessed it was an eagle in its past life. Great job!

  6. wondered if it was fawkes with the whole dry ice smoke detector mention. brilliant idea though and wouldn't have guessed it started as an eagle. could you use tinted fiberfill if you still want smoke (without the whole alarming)?

    Hey, sorry to complain, but I seem to keep getting some full page add on mobile that can't be closed and wipes out 2/3rds of the page with a big red box (at least once it's been a target ad...I've pretty much gotten used to closing your site when I see it as it doesn't go away). Doesn't seem to come up on the laptop (but in fairness I'm only on that as comments don't seem to work on mobile).

    1. *ad on mobile. not like an add-on mobile or add on to mobile. sorry, I should proofread more.

    2. Same, obnoxious full-page ad on mobile. =(

      Your phoenix is AMAZING. I agree with the comments about a slit pupil, and de-matte-black-in the beak and feet. But, stunning. And it lights up!!

  7. I'm not sure I could be more impressed unless you had actually dressed up Tonks like a phoenix and trained her to sit on top of the tree. Gorgeous!!!

  8. Beautiful! I couldn't tell you started with an eagle, although I'm pretty sure phoenixes are related to eagles anyway so it makes sense. :) The neck ruff looks perfectly natural to me. The only thing taking me out of the illusion is the flat/matte look of the beak and feet - maybe you could add a light gold wash?

  9. That is amazing!!! Oh I love it so much.

  10. Love this! Looks fantastic. The tail-garland is really what makes it I think.

    I've also had major trouble with craft feathers being too insanely bright, but always in volumes where I cant spare the time to darken them with paint :/

    Great job both of you. I also would not have pegged it as an eagle at its base without much scrutiny and thought so I wouldn't worry about that.

    I do wonder if you've considered a vertical / slit pupil? I think the eyes having no pupil at all is a little eerie but totally get wanting the full glow to come through. Could maybe compromise with a narrow, vertical one

  11. WOW that bird is amazing! from Eagle to Phoenix! Nice to see Tonks too.

  12. You too are so brilliant (like your phoenix!). Your creativity and cleverness never cease to impress and amaze me. Pip pip!

  13. This is absolutely AMAZING! <3 I especially love the last photo. Sooo preetty! :D

  14. Gorgeous! I think the ruff looks very Phoenix-like :) - lack of eye pupil looks fine to me, maybe just a bit of highlighting on the feet & legs so their texture shows up? Looks wonderful sparkling like an ember! <3

  15. Yep, I agree with all these fine folks - definitely wouldn't have even thought of an eagle. Definitely a phoenix!

  16. Ugh... I keep going back and forth between excitement about the party and stress that I still have no idea what I'm wearing to the party. lol

  17. I never would have guessed that started as an eagle. It is beautiful.

  18. Gorgeous!! Spectacular tree topper and the whole tree effect is incredible. You're very talented. Also I would give my left arm to be at that party and see this in person! Can't wait for the photos and recap of that. Thanks for sharing with us all.

  19. That Phoenix looks awesome! How did you get the lights inside?

  20. That's SO amazing! I'm glad I pegged it from the feathers in an earlier pic. :)

  21. I'm always amazed by all of your talents! It's beautiful. What amazes me most is not that you think of these ideas (because I think of a lot of cool things) but you figure out how to execute them-reasonably priced too (this is where I have a lot of trouble-the execution). Keep creating; I'll keep drooling!

  22. Is it bad that I really, really love the googly eye?

  23. Amazing, as usual :) I love the tail garland!

  24. This might be your best DIY. It's spectacular. I love it!

  25. Well done! I've always loved Fawkes, so I totally dig this. :)

  26. Aw, that's sweet. If you ever do make a second one, there are some hawk-shaped decoys on Amazon that don't have a neck ruff

  27. Oo, pretty! I love the lights.

    Lots of birds have a neckline like that, not just eagles, so I find it perfectly plausible that a Phoenix would too. But if it bothers you, you could always give him a collar or necklace of some kind - a ribbon or leather strap with a magical looking pendant, perhaps?

  28. Inserting the LEDs on the inside of the bird is inspired, I love the glow! And I can't believe you didn't caption anything with "Fabulous Harry, I love the feathers!"

  29. Seriously, your tree is #lifegoals for me. LOVE IT!!!

  30. You make so many beautiful things, but on this one, I still see eagle. The paint job and the feathers are great, but the shape of the wings scream eagle. Sorry :(

  31. Easy for me to suggest since I'm not doing the work, but what if you glue more feathers to the entire bird and especially wings?

  32. Hi Jen! Hi, John! Wonderful Fawkes! The ONLY one of its kind! Bravo for taking on the task. It... HE looks fabulous. Not sure I would've noticed the neck transition if you hadn't mentioned it, but if you're keen to change it, maybe a feather ruff or collar?

  33. OH.MY.GOSH! Jen and John, Fawkes is INCREDIBLE!! I really couldn't tell that he was an eagle, even after reading the whole post. Fawkes does have that whole "red head with the red coming down onto his breast a little bit" thing going on, so I think the bald eagle with the different feather texture on the head works. And his tail?!? Holy wow! That's all I can say. BOOM!


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