Five Ways to Thicken a Christmas Tree For Under $3

I mentioned yesterday that I have decorated a lot of trees over the years. A few hundred, in fact. It used to be my job.  Most of them were decorated for a purpose— either to sell goods or create a home-like atmosphere in a non-homey location (example: an insurance broker’s lobby).  To be clear, I never designed the trees – I was just a worker bee. Very few of those trees were anything special. Budgets were tight and time was precious, but, after all those trees, I picked up a few tricks along the way. A lot of people would be surprised how fast, easy, and inexpensive it can be to fill a very large and otherwise-empty Christmas tree.
Before we go on any further, let’s be clear; there is no right way to decorate a tree. There is no wrong way either. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do it. I’m just showing a few ways to thicken up a tree to bolster whatever decorations you already have. I like my trees big, thick and abundant. You might like something different. To each his own! 
There are a lot of ways to thicken a tree, but the basic concept is this: repeat a pattern. 
Pick one element and polka-dot it all over the tree. Lay that pattern under or over your regular ornaments and you will give a tree dimension. If you have the patience and pocket book to sandwich your regular ornaments between two ‘webs’ of pattern, even better. What I propose below are five ways to create inexpensive, high impact patterns. There are thousands more out there (I just couldn’t fit them in for demo photos last weekend).

Side Note: If you have 20 years of ornaments collected in a box already, you probably do not need this post. But if you are just a few years into carving out your Christmas traditions, and are looking for a few ways to make things look a little more abundant, keep going…

Tinsel Poufs ($3.00 a strand)
I think a lot of people are aware of the concept of ‘base ornaments’ (the first layer of ornaments that go on the tree, usually a series of solid colored mercury balls or some other repeating element that is impersonal or slightly less show-stopping). If you can afford to buy three dozen reflective gold or silver balls, go for it. The dollar store sells plastic ones cheap and plentiful. But….for a super-sparkly (and dirt cheap) alternative, buy a single strand of tinsel garland and snip it into small poufs. I like to buy the fattest garland I can find, cut it into 4” lengths, and then hot glue the tips together to form a doughnut. The little doughnuts slide nicely on to inside branches, providing a lovely, sparkly base for other ornaments.  
Note: The hot glue is important, not only because it forms the loop doughnut shape, but because it melts the tinsel in place and prevents it from falling off in little bits, which is critical for anyone who has children or animals in the house. Tinsel can cause considerable pain and damage if ingested – keep away from kiddos and fur babies at all times!
Pinecones (Free)
Pinecones. Pinecones. Pinecones. They make for  great base ornaments for folks who like a natural/rustic/ less is more look. One of the prettiest trees I ever saw was nothing but a beautiful spruce with white lights and pine cones. But for people like me who need some glitz, there is always the glittered pine cone. I make a batch each year. They look good in a basket on the table, or on the tree, or in a garland. Do I really need to tell anyone how to glitter a pinecone? If you answered yes, it means you are past due. Watch this video. Now get going.
Note: If you hate glitter because it gets everywhere, stick to fine glitter and mix it into the glue before you brush it on. It won’t sparkle quite as much, but it will lock in place for good.No shedding.
Note: Why not scent the pinecones before turning them into ornaments?
Sausage Ribbons ($2.99 per 10 yard roll)
Big fabulous bows are great on a Christmas tree. The problem is they are crazy expensive. Making big fat loopty-loos  is awesome, but they use up so much yardage that it’s easy to spend $10 or more on a single bow.  Honestly, did you ever notice how the craft and fabric stores hold bow-making demonstrations for free? Why—because they know as soon as it’s done you will walk over to the ribbon aisle and drop $50 in five minutes. Smarty pants!
Sausage ribbons are nice because they use far less ribbon and cover a lot more real estate. To make them, buy French ribbon (the stuff with the wires in the edges), cut into 20” -30” lengths, then wrap around a big fat marker (sort of like you would to curl your hair). Grab in the middle , twist on a hook or small piece of pipe cleaner, then latch on to the underside of one of the branches. Tada. One sausage curl looks pretty wimpy, but 10 or twelve scattered on a tree looks fabulous.  The curls give the tree a sense of motion. Almost perky looking, like someone curled its hair.
Note: To store, curl them up around your finger and secure with a bobby pin until next year.
Note: If you can’t find a good deal on French ribbon, many other kinds of ribbon can be curled using a hot curling iron. Some people even cut fabric on the bias to make their own ribbon. You tell me if it works.
Feathers ($2.00 a bag)
I am crazy about feathers on  Christmas trees.  Let’s be honest, I like feathers on anything, but white feathers on a Christmas tree are just about the most gorgeous thing under the sun. I stole this idea from a tree that used to stand in one of the lobbies of the Four Seasons in Chicago, only they used big fat ostrich plumes (cost about $2-$5 a piece) whereas I buy regular craft store feathers for $2 a bag. Just wrap the bottom 1” of the stem with a 3” pipe cleaner, then wrap it around the tip of a branch. You would be shocked how much dimension the feathers give to the tree. Between the base coat of ornaments on the bottom, a handful of favorite/unique ornaments all around, and a coat of feathers on top, any tree will look like a million bucks.
Note: I like to point the feathers upward because it makes the tree look happy. But if you use lots of white feathers and point them downward, it honestly looks like snow. Big poufy, magical, Liberace snow.
Asterisk Ornaments ($1.99 bag of 50 white pipe cleaners)
For the hipster George Jetson type, there are always asterisk ornaments. Just take 5 pipe cleaners, cut them in half, bundle nine of the stems together, then use the tenth to twist them all together. One by one, pull each leg down in a different direction. That’s it. They will stick to any tree without hooks, but if you want them toward the tips, fold a crook in one of the stems and use it for a hook. It doesn’t get any easier than this!
Note: I like all white, but I have seen these done in silver on a sparse tree and it looked pretty amazing. I’m also thinking these would be fun for kids to make in many colors. Cindy mentioned in the comments on Facebook yesterday about a skinny Christmas tree covered with stuff her kid’s made – 1) WHAT A GREAT IDEA and 2) wouldn’t it be fun to accent a kid’s art tree with a bunch of multi colored asterisk ornaments? Too fun. TOO FUN I SAY.
Note: These will bend in storage if you aren’t careful. It takes less time to flatten them nicely than to individually straighten each leg.
Other tricks….
Beaded Garland
A lot of people avoid the stuff because they don’t know how to hang it. Here is the thing, don’t just balance it on the branches or wrap it around the tree;  lay the stuff out on the floor and twist a wire hook every 20” (30” or longer if you like the big swoopy Victorian look), and hang the hooks from the undersides of branches. Cheap and effective. A little goes a long way.
Size Matters
If you like a rich, abundant look, get a smaller tree. The thicker you lay on the ornaments, the more  copious your ornaments will appear.  Likewise, if you take the less-is-more approach, get the biggest, fattest tree your room and wallet can afford.
The way people put lights on a tree is a highly personal matter, but I saw this tip about vertical strands in Real Simple a few years ago and it totally rocked my world.
Christmas trees have a lot more presence when you set them on a small table. You can make a small tree seem HUGE by placing it on top of a 30” dresser. This also makes it easier to access presents Christmas morning, but we are just talking decorative stuff  today. If you have an old end table in your basement (or can pick one up at the thrift store), think about using it under the tree.  Just cover it with a tree skirt or a lovely quilt and call it a day.    
Okay, that’s about all I know. Now I want to hear what you have to say; what is your favorite tip for decorating the tree?


  1. Anonymous says

    This is amazing! Definitely going to bookmark this post for when I (hopefully) start my own holiday traditions next year. My mom does two trees every year and makes it look simple but this really brings things to perspective.

  2. says

    We’ve used cocktail umbrellas and mardi gras beads draped the way you mentioned – they look absolutely adorable in a white tree with colored lights!

  3. says

    as an “old”dog” thanks for teaching me a “new trick”… I have the glass beaded strands Victorian style on my trees, always have… and have always struggled to keep them from sliding… what a a “doh” moment, thanks for the tip 🙂

  4. zinnia says

    I love this idea! As a matter of fact, this blog has so many great ideas it will take me years to try them!!!

  5. PeachesFreund says

    Best get started early!

  6. PeachesFreund says

    What a fab idea! Send me a picture!

  7. lucasuk82 says

    Love the tinsel idea!

    I printed black & white photos on vellum paper and tucked them into empty spots. The paper is translucent, so the image glows. I trimmed the edges with scalloped edge scissors to look like photos from an old album.

    I’ve never cut fabric on the bias, but I have cut tulle into strips and worked it through a whole tree in loops. Gold tulle with white lights looks very glamorous.

    I’ve also stretched out picks of berries by cutting them apart and gluing them to real branches, sometimes with a lick of paint.

  8. Shani says

    Thank you for the awesome ideas!! Do you have any ideas for outdoor decorations?

  9. Chelsea Pickard says

    I finally made little mirror ornaments this year for our tree. We have a white tree, which seems more sparse to me than green trees for some reason, and I wanted to add more sparkle to it, since there’s not as much contrast between the branches and lights. So, I cut lengths of white string, tied them in a loop, and placed it between two round, flat craft mirrors and glued together. It makes the tree brighter and look a little less sparse. 🙂

  10. says

    I have a small (3ft) silver tinsel tree and I put lights on it for the first time this year. I used binder clips at first, to secure the lights to the branches, so you would see less of the wires, but when I ran out of binder clips it occurred to me that I could use silver pipe cleaners to match the tree.

  11. PeachesFreund says

    That is a great tip! I like to do that too — I wrap a small strand of colored lights around the trunk then the rest of the tree white. It looks magical to me!

  12. Ninette says

    Thank you so much for your tips! The tinsel poufs were a completely new idea to me – and they will be perfect for one of our trees this year! 🙂 Thank you also for all the general inspiration – I love your blog, and I love your way of writing and your way of looking at the world! (the world needs more glitter, and more people doing their own thing)

  13. PeachesFreund says

    Thanks Ninette 🙂 Glitter all the way!!!

  14. smallfriendly says

    Killer tips! My tree is going to rock this year thanks to you! I also load up lights in two layers, one close to the trunk and another out on the branches 🙂

  15. Susan Beasley says

    if you are doing you very first ever “minimalist” tree with just lovely starfish and pinecones and full price from target button pearl lights AND you have a plus size calico cat remember this: Starfish, regardless of the drying and preserving process, smell like fish – if you’re a cat. And SOME cats (I’m not mentioning any names, Penny Lane) get lured into the tree by the smell and then discover that it’s also fun to bite the heads off the pricey lights.
    We are so many years into being a kid/cat household that we deliberately buy a tree with a “cat perch” and use the widest stand possible for stability.

    In all seriousness, remember that natural decorations still smell like themselves to your furbabies. Starfish on a tree with cats in your house is asking for trouble.

  16. PeachesFreund says

    Good points! I never thought about how much a starfish would intrigue a kitty. Hmmm….I might need to get one for *somebody*’s stocking. I also like the idea of getting a tree with a perch. Ha!

  17. Lauravic says

    my first mini tree was two years ago and my boyfriend and I (on our strictly student budget) just made teeny paper snowflakes. It was so simple on a tree that only about foot tall (bonus: it was actually a rosemary tree and smelled amazing!) BUT I wish I had known about you then, Aunt Peaches, because I definitely would have glittered the crap out of those snowflakes! Thanks to these tips, I am totally stepping up my game this year!

  18. says

    Great tips! I already decorated my tree, but I think I’m going to pull out more ornaments and some craft supplies and add to it!

  19. Kara DeCarlo says

    LOTS of lights. Like 5 strands per tree.
    I have given up on making my tree “look good”. I have inherited all of my mother’s unwanted ornaments, plus have all of my kids’ handmade ornaments. This year, I let the kids put the ornaments on the tree while I sat back and took pictures. It was oddly liberating.

  20. says

    I like to use round peppermint candies with a little bit of sparkly ribbon tied to make a loop. You can create a lot of these for very little money.

  21. PeachesFreund says

    What a great idea! I have used candy canes but I like your idea better 🙂

  22. Emmers says

    Oh my god – pulling our giant bag of mardi gras beads out: Right. Now. I’ll hot glue all the pink ones into a lovely bead garland. Awesome! Thanks!

  23. palak says

    We are going to put up our first tree this year– thanks for the tips!

  24. says

    I’ve always used green garland to fill the tree up. I recently saw a “pin” that said to use tiny mirrored ornaments to get a more sparkly tree without adding more lights.

  25. Allen Christiani says

    My daughter was given a 6 ft. Christmas tree that is nice, but sparse. We bought 2 Canadian pine garlands at Walmart for $2.00 each. We used them to form a full “greenery look” inside the tree (around the trunk) but not tight, wrapping around a layer, then going up to the next layer, all the way up the tree. We fluffed the garland and the tree and were amazed at the fullness. We also bought 4 1/2 cinder blocks at the hardware store and set the tree on them, giving it additional height. The previous owners couldn’t believe it was the same tree.

  26. Beth says

    I read this last year and added the ribbons, filled with green garland, etc.

    Totally missed the detail about how to string garlands. I have a bunch of red beads. I’m so excited to restring them tonight! Thanks Aunt Peaches!

  27. Laura M. Olivas says

    I really love your ideas!! Simple , inexpensive, but yet give the tree a nice touch of elegance.


  1. […] stuff to make decorations? Yes. Buying readymade decorations? Not really. A few years ago it was part of my job to set up Christmas trees for other people, but the budget was usually non-existent, so I never got […]

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