How to Build a Book Tree

How to Build a Book Tree

I'm a holiday decor minimalist. I haven't put up a Christmas tree since adopting pets (because I learned the hard way that cats and Christmas trees don't mix). Instead, I've opted for a novelty Charlie Brown tree and some garland around my fireplace mantel. But I was recently at Cathedral Cafe, a charming little eatery in Fayetteville, W.Va., and was quite taken with their giant book tree. Despite the fact that it's mid-November, I raced home to give it a try myself. 

There are already plenty of how-to guides online for making a book tree. Some suggest using boxes or small tables in the middle. Some don't. Some trees are small and some are the size of actual Christmas trees. I wasn't sure how much space I would need, how many books I would need, how decorative I'd want to get. Basically, I knew nothing, which is often a great way to start a project. So I decided to document my process for those of you who don't want to do a lot of research, but just want a cool holiday decor alternative. Here goes.

  1.  IMG_2188Bring all your books to the living room (or wherever you want your tree), away from where you plan to build. I had no idea how many books I have and how tall a tree they would make. For a writer (and writers are supposed to be quite well read, mind you), I don't own a ton of books. But I hauled most of them downstairs and piled them up. I add the "away from where you plan to build" part because I did not do this, and it got quite cluttered around my workspace. 
  2. Sort the books by size and style. This is dull work, but it helped. Large hardbacks in a pile, small hardbacks in another pile, large paperbacks in a pile…you get the idea. This came in quite handy when needing to fill tiny gaps for balance, which we'll get to soon.
  3. Choose a space and create the base of your tree. The size of the space you've got to work with will determine the girth of your tree. Make the base as big as the space will allow by forming a circle with your heaviest hardback books, spines facing outward. I placed a couple big books in the center of the circle mostly to get them out of the way and figuring it could help make the middle a little sturdier. I then placed an empty box in the center to add more stability as the stack grew. 
  4. Build your tree layer by layer like a pyramid, using the heavier books first and working your way toward the lighter, smaller books as you progress. Each layer will rely on the layer under it for support. The trick to getting the treelike look is not stacking each book directly atop the one below it, but to stack a book atop the two books beneath it so that the ends of the book are resting on each of the two books below it, and there's a bit of a gap in the center of the book. Continue building in this manner.
  5. As you build, you'll inevitably need to fill gaps caused by books of varying thickness. Use the smallest of your paperbacks or thin hardbacks to help even things out as needed. This is where the sorted book stacks come in handy. You'll know just where to find those small books without much digging.
  6. Eventually, your layers will reach the top of your center box and start closing in around it as you near your tree top. Use the boxtop as a base of sorts and stack books directly on it at this point, using the same layering method as you have all along. Soon, you'll come to the top of your pyramid and can place your last book to top your tree.
  7. Decorate! As I said, I'm a minimalist. I wanted to be able to read the spines of the books so I simply used a string of white lights and a star to top the tree. But be as creative as you would with a real tree – garland, ornaments, the whole shebang.

Here's a little video I made of the process.

Some Additional Tips:

  • IMG_2193Not sure how many books you'll need? I wasn't either. Just use what you've got and see what you end up with. I didn't count my books beforehand, but I ended up with a just-below-waist-high tree. I'd love to have a full-size one! I guess I've got some more reading to do.
  • Convinced you don't have enough books? Been downloading too much stuff on that Kindle? If you don't mind spending a little money, check out thrift stores, libraries, used book sales, etc., and stock up on cheap books. Or ask your friends to borrow some of theirs. [Attention my friends: please don't ask this of me. I hate loaning out books. They never seem to return!]
  • Put your favorite books in the front. Visitors will likely check out the books in your tree, so put those old books you can't even believe you own (or those thrift store finds) in the back, against the wall.
  • Never leave your tree lights on unattended. Paper is flammable, you know.
  • Don't use any books you intend to read before the end of the holiday season. I accidentally put my copy of Career of Evil, the latest Cormoran Strike novel, into the tree and had to very carefully remove it, Jenga style.

All in all, I'm pleased with my experiment. It could've been a little tidier. It could've been a little bigger. But it's certainly adorable.

Happy Holidays!

But wait, there's more! A day later, I decided my tree was just too dang small. So I made it bigger. Learn how in How to Build a Book Tree, Part Deux!

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