How Our Trees Are Made
A Little Background
We started out as a mom and pop shop, Jeanie and Glenn. We make all of our trees by hand from start to finish in the fine tradition of true artisan crafters, as described below. While our situation has changed somewhat, our trees continue to be handcrafted one at a time.
It was Jeanie's idea to make ceramic Christmas Trees - just like the ones everyon'es grandmother or mother had. When we first started, we had to find all the parts - the lights, stars, light kits, and glaze. We were able to find everything made in the USA except the stars, lights, light bulbs, and the light kits.
We started in 2009 with our miniature Christmas Trees and they were a huge success! So, we decided to get the next larger tree for 2010. We couldn't keep up with the orders and actually had to stop production in mid December and defer those orders to January 2011.
While the Dark Horse Arts and Gifts LLC elves were in the midst of a month and half long non-stop production party in November and December 2010, we decided to make the next two larger tree sizes available as well for 2011.
We also came to the conclusion that we could only make so many trees each year, because elves get grumpy when they get 5 hours of sleep a night for prolonged periods of time, and grumpy elves just aren't much fun.
Jeanie hurt herself in the latter part of January of 2011. As it turned out, her back broke lifting a bucket of slip (liquid clay). The chief reason was because she had breast cancer (unknown to us at the time) which spread to her bones. Many thanks to our wonderful customers who graciously and patiently allowed us to defer the delivery of their trees even longer, both in 2011 and in 2012.
Jeanie passed away in September of 2012. Her mom and I continue to make our handcrafted, ceramic Christmas Trees with the same attention to detail, care, and love that Jeanie put into every tree.
The Making of a Ceramic Christmas Tree
It begins like this...
All of our ceramic pieces start from liquid clay, called slip. After mixing the slip well it is poured into a plaster Christmas Tree mold. The plaster molds are in two or three pieces and must be banded together at all times, except when releasing a poured piece from the mold. The 19" Christmas Tree mold weighs about 30-35 pounds dry and a bit more after we add a couple of gallons of liquid clay.
The slip is poured out of the mold after it has formed a skin inside the mold. The slip has to sit for a a while, sometimes several hours if it is a large piece, to solidify enough to be removed from the mold without collapsing.
Using our magic Elvish powers ;) we know exactly when to remove the first two sections of the Christmas Tree mold. Sometimes it is necessary to let the tree sit in the last section for a while longer.
Then we very carefully remove the tree from the mold altogether and set it on a flat, hard surface to dry. If we do everything right we have a beautiful tree to make, if not we have a pile of wet clay that must be cleaned up, and we have to start all over again.
Holes, holes, holes...
The next step is to put the holes on the branches where the lights will go, on the top where the star goes, and in the base where the light and plug pass through. The clay is still very wet at this point and one, heavy handed move could crack a branch or cave in the whole tree or base, if that happens we have to start all over again.
After the holes are drilled, the tree must dry until it is hardened. Even when hardened in this state (called greenware), it is still very fragile. Depending on the time of year, the 19" Christmas Tree can take up yo 2-3 days to dry fully enough to move on to the next step.
Each tree must be cleaned to remove the mold seams, the excess from the drilled holes and any other marks that were inadvertantly imprinted in the wet clay. Using small sea very fine sanders, sponges and water, care must be taken not to remove any of the many intricate details in the piece itself.
Firing to Bisque...
Once the trees are cleaned they are ready for their first kiln firing. The pieces are gently arranged inside our kiln. They get fired for about four hours, in three stages, up to about 2000 degrees F. After the kiln shuts off, the kiln and the pieces must cool off before they can be removed. The cooling period is about 8-10 hours before the kiln can be opened and another 0.5-1 hour with the kiln lid open before they can be taken out. These fired pieces are called ceramic bisque.
All of our trees get 2-4 coats of paint (called glaze), each depending on the style and color. Each coat of paint must dry before the next is applied.
After the pieces are glazed, we check for any imperfections and fix them. If the tree is to have snow on it, an additional snow glaze is applied at this time. There are extra steps when we make the painted holly bases as well which are also done at this time.
The glazed pieces are again very carefully arranged in our kiln and fired again to about 1800 degrees F, and again must cool for about 8-10 hours and 1-1.5 hours, respectively (as described above).
Let There Be Light...
The lights get placed and glued in next. The bases get wired with the light fixtures and we test the tree to make sure it looks absolutely beautiful and can pass the most important inspection test - yours!