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A Simple Method to Build a Megatree Print E-mail

If you are looking for a centerpiece for your display, look no further than the 'megatree'.  Since you design and build them yourself, megatrees can fit into any sized yard.  If you have a computerized display like the one here at Land O Lights, megatrees can be animated with literally hundreds of different patterns, fills, and spins.  Even if your display isn't computer controlled, a megatree is still a standout. 

Building a megatree is easy and inexpensive.  Everything you need can be found at your local hardware, home improvement warehouse or department store. 

In this article:


There are as many ways to build a megatree as there are people.  Feel free to adapt any/all of these instructions as you see fit.  The type of tree described here is a simple 'to the ground' tree - basically a large cone made out of lights.  The lights are attached to the ground with tent stakes, run to the top of the center pole, and then back down again to be secured by another stake.  Most of the strength comes from the actual lights, and there is no need for guide wires. 

My tree is 10 feet tall, a good height that you too should consider for two reasons: 

  1. PVC typically comes in 10 foot lengths. 
  2. The length of typical 100 count Mini-light strings is in the 20 to 25 foot range.  Since we will be folding them in half, they are just the right size.

If you wanted, you could make the tree shorter, or extend it up to around 15 feet without too much problem.  Just remember you'll need to add more lights to each string if you go higher, and will have left-overs if you go shorter.  After 15 feet, PVC is not going to have the rigidity you need to stop the center from swaying.  If you are looking to create a tree this high (or higher) consider a flag pole instead.

In another article in this series, I give instructions on how to build a smaller version of the mega tree called a 'pole tree'.  If you are looking to build one of those, you should still read this article first; It has many hints and tips that will help you with the construction of your pole tree.  In 2008, I took even more in-depth photos of the construction of my tree which you can view while reading this article.

Decisions for Animated Displays:

If you have an animated display, there are a couple of decisions you should make up-front before beginning to build your mega tree (non-animated displays can skip this section):

1 - How many 'slices' is your tree going to be? 
Remember that most music has a beat that is easily divisible by 4.  You will have a much easier time sequencing your show if your tree has a number of slices that is a multiple of 4.  Much of this article talks about building an 8 slice tree, only because that's the tree that I currently have and know the most about.  HOWEVER, don't let that limit you to 8 slices.  12, even 16 slice trees are possible and desirable.  If you have the channels to spare, don't be afraid to GO BIG!

2 - How many colors is your tree going to be? 
Remember, each color you add is going to require as many channels as you have slices.  I have an 8 slice tree that is 4 colors - that means I need 32 channels to run my tree.

For those of you that only have a limited number of channels for a megatree, I did do some experimenting between 180 degree, mirrored 360 degree, and full 360 degree trees.  A 180 degree tree does not have a back side (reducing the channels by one half), while a mirrored 360 is a full tree where opposite sides share a channel (again, the number of channels is reduced by half).  Full 360 degree trees have slices that are all individually controlled. 

8 slice 360 degree tree layout

The full 360 wins hands down in all categories, especially for spins and other 'animation'.  The 180 degree tree is simply too limited and not recommended.  While you may think the audience can only see (about) 180 deg at a time, the back slices add a LOT of depth.  Do yourself a favor and build a full tree.

A mirrored tree where each slice is duplicated.

The mirrored 360 does have some of the same depth problems as the 180 degree tree, but they are not nearly as bad.  The problem really comes to light on the slices directly in front of the audience.  With a full 360 tree, on single-slice spins (the 'Whirling Dervish' pattern you can find in the 'Animating your Megatree' article), you definitely see the difference.

If I were to put up a tree with limited channels, I would first sacrifice number of colors before the number of slices or going with a 180 degree tree.  For instance if I only had 16 channels, I would go with an 8 slice 360 degree 2 color tree, instead of an 8 slice 4 color mirrored 360 tree, or a 4 slice 4 color 180 tree. 

There are many possibilities when it comes to channel configurations.  While all of the following examples assume you will make an 8 slice tree, the same concepts apply for 12 or 16 slice trees.  For example, you can create a 16 slice tree with 2 fully controllable colors with 34 channels (2 colors * 16 slices = 32 + 2 single colors = 34). 

  • 8 channels  - A single color fully controllable  tree that you can do almost all the different patterns on.
  • 11 channels - 4 color tree.  3 Colors each with a single channel, and then 8 channels for a fourth color.  This would allow you to turn your whole tree Red, Green, or Blue, while the other 8 channels of clear would allow you to do most of the different patterns (or turn on all 8 for a whole clear tree).
  • 16 channels - 2 Color tree.  Since you are able to fully control each slice with each color, all the patterns are available for you to use.
  • 18 channels - 4 color tree with 2 colors fully controllable.
  • 24 channels - 3 color tree fully controllable.
  • 25 channels - 4 color tree with 3 colors fully controllable.
  • 32 channels - 4 color tree fully controllable.

You may want to take a look at the 'Animating Your Megatree' article before making your choice.  That article explains many of the different patterns you can be animated, and may sway your decision one way or another.


  • 13 to 15 feet of 2 inch schedule 40 PVC pipe.  You need 1 whole 10 foot piece for the tree, and then 3-5 additional feet depending on how deep you need to bury the base.
  • 10 feet of 1 1/2 inch schedule 40 PVC pipe
  • 1 2 inch PVC clean-out coupler (one side is glued to the 2 inch pipe, the other side has female threads)
  • 1 2 inch PVC clean-out cap (this cap has threads to mate with the clean-out coupler)
  • 1 2 inch PVC coupler (both sides glue-able)
  • 1 2 inch PVC glue-in coupler cap (may be referred to as a 'bushing'.  You want one with a FLAT top)
  • 1 2"x6"x2' pressure treated lumber
  • 1 1"x2"x8' pressure treated lumber
  • 1 or more bags ready-mix concrete (depending on how deep your hole is)
  • 8 or 16 double hook closet hooks (depending on if you are making a single or double stack topper)
  • PVC glue and purple primer
  • Gorilla glue

  • 1 1/2 inch galvanized screws
  • 2 1/2 inch galvanized screws
  • 16 or more tent stakes
  • Masking Tape
  • Dark Green spray paint


  • Shovel
  • Post-hole digger
  • Wheelbarrow, large tub or bucket (for mixing concrete)
  • Hammer
  • Saw
  • PVC cutter (or use the saw)
  • Short level ('bullet level')
  • Drill & drill bits
  • Screw gun (or a screw driver and a lot of hand strength!)
  • Clamps

Building the base:

Megatrees are large and may need to carry substantial weight depending on the number of lights used.  For instance, the 2007 Land O Lights megatree was 10 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and had 64 one hundred count light-sets (6400 total lights).  That is a large load.

Since the megatree is so tall, it needs a stable base.  The easiest way to do this is to bury one in your yard, and then cap it off when not in use.  During the summer, your grass will grow over the top and you'll never know it's there.  When it comes time to put the tree up, you simply remove the cap, slide in the center pole, and start decorating.  

Click on any picture for a larger version.  Also remember that there are additional assembly pictures in the 2008 photo section.

To create the base, begin by digging a small hole using the post hole digger where you want your tree.  Here in Florida, we don't need to worry about frost heave, so I only went down 3 feet.  If you live where the ground freezes in the winter, you'll need to go deeper.  Check with your local building department how deep you should go to get below the frost line.  In all cases, I wouldn't bother going lower than 5 feet.  Going down 5 feet will allow for 5 feet of the inside support pole to be above ground at setup time.  Any less than that, and you may have problems with the outer pole bending.

Thankfully, the hole for the base only needs to be 6 to 8 inches wide.  If you have access to a power auger, use it and save a lot of time (and your back!).  Consider renting one if you have hard clay or rocky soil.  Florida is blessed with having nothing but sand for soil, so a 3 foot hole takes about 5 minutes to dig with a shovel.  

Your hole should be an inch or two shorter than the short length of base pipe you'll be using.  Once you have your hole dug, take the base pipe (the shorter 2" PVC pipe) and glue on the clean-out coupler.  To glue PVC, first use the 'purple primer' and swab the inside of the coupler and the outside of the pipe down about 1 inch.  Let the primer dry, then swab the glue on the inside of the coupler and the outside of the pipe.  Again, a light coat will do.  Once the glue is on both sides of the joint, quickly put the 2 parts together with a quarter turn.  Be sure the coupler is seated all the way down on the pipe.  If you'd like more information on gluing PVC, try this link: http://www.hammerzone.com/archives/plumbing/technique/pvc/gluing/joining_pipe.htm

Put the pipe into the ground (the clean-out coupler should be at the top), and place a piece of scrap lumber over it.  Tap the board until the top of the clean-out coupler is just above ground level, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch.  The pipe needs to be at least a little above ground since we need to level it and don't want the ground interfering.  Try to keep the top level as best as you can now, as this will make the final leveling much easier.

Carefully screw the clean-out cap on the end (so as to NOT knock the pipe out of plumb), and then cover the cap end completely with masking tape.  Taping the end prevents the concrete from getting on the threads which will prevent the cap from being removed in the future.

Mix a bag of concrete according to the directions, and start shoveling it in.  Use a section of the 1x2 to tamp the concrete down the sides.  Fill the hole to ground level.

Clean off the cap and carefully remove it.  Clean your 1x2 off as well as you'll be using it when building the topper.

Level the pipe by taking your small level and placing it across the top of the pipe.  Check from multiple angles.  If you need to shift the pipe, take your 1 1/2 PVC pipe and put it inside the 2" PVC.  Use it to GENTLY pry your 2" PVC into place.  Leveling is important, so don't eyeball it.  A level pipe now will mean a straight center-pole later.  Don't try to check for plumb/level on the 1 1/2" pipe, since it will have a tendency to bend.  Instead, remove the 1 1/2" pipe, and check across the clean-out coupler.  Be sure to remove the 1 1/2" pipe when you are done.
Once everything is level, allow the concrete to dry for a day and then put the cap back on.  Allow the concrete to cure for a week before use.

Introduction to the Topper:

The topper is the device that holds the lights and possibly a star or other decoration at the top of the tree.  My initial topper was built using a design from Darryl Brown found here: http://christmaslightshow.com/doityourself/tree_topper.shtml.

Unfortunately I, and many other people, have had catastrophic failures using a bunfoot as the topper.  The failures are due to the fact that a bunfoot is manufactured for indoor installation using many smaller pieces of wood that are glued together.  This glue is not weatherproof, and the bunfoot fails after a few weeks outside - even when painted.  My improved design uses pressure treated 2x6 lumber in an octagon shape. This has several advantages: 

  1. Since it is solid wood, there are no internal glue joints. 
  2. Using pressure treated wood extends the life of the topper.
  3. In the few places where we need to use glue, it is rated for exterior applications and will be backed up by screws. 
  4. The octagon shape is much easier to cut than a circle (don't worry, the tree will still be round!).

Construction of the topper depends on how many slices your tree will have, and how many wedges each slice will have.  Each slice will need at least 1 hook for each wedge.  If you are animating your tree with multiple colors, you still only need 1 hook a the top for each wedge of each slice.  For each slice, you'll take 1 of each colored light set and bundle them together.  That whole 'bundle' will go from a stake in the ground, up to one hook, and then back down to the ground. 

Notes about bundles:

If you are going to animate your megatree and use multiple colors, there is NO NEED to twist, braid, zip-tie every foot, or otherwise mangle your light-sets into 'super sets'.  The best thing to do is leave every string in a bundle separate, grab all 4 (or however many you use) sets at once, run them from the ground to the top and back down.  When you take down your tree at the end of the season, take a single bundle down, and then separate the light sets.  The sets may be twisted, but they are NOT tangled.  With a helper at one end and you at the other, you should be able to pull apart each string in seconds.

However making the bundles ahead of time DOES save you time during setup.  You won't be rushing on setup day to get lights out of a box, cut the wire ties on them, and stretch them out, etc.   So if you want to prepare bundles ahead of time:

  1. Take the light sets you need for a bundle and stretch them all out (tying the plugs of all the sets around a tree works).
  2. Using a single zip tie, band together the lights at the plug end.
  3. Using another zip tie, tie the lights together at the socket end.
  4. Wrap up the bundle as if it were a single set of lights and store until needed.

That's it.  A bundle only needs *2* zip ties:  On at the plug end, one at the socket end.  Trust me.

Building the Topper:

To start building the topper, download this octagon template (right click, then select 'Save Target As') print it, and cut it out.  You may need to re-size the template (using your favorite graphics program) until the opposite sides exactly span the width of your 2x6.   

You'll notice from the picture of my topper, that I used 3 octagons screwed and glued together.  This 'double-decker' topper allows for future expansion.  My current tree is 8-sided, and each side uses 800 lights (2 bundles of 100 count strings times 4 colors).  That means 16 hooks at the top would suffice -- a single octagon with 8 double hooks.  But in the future I plan on going with 12 sides, which will require even more hooks.  If you plan on expanding in the future, go ahead and build a bigger topper now.

Place the template on the wood, and trace the outline.  Using a saw, cut the octagon out.  If you need to create the 'double decker' topper, trace and cut out 2 more octagons for a total of 3. 

If you are going to attach a decoration at the top of your tree, you may need some additional support.  On my topper, you'll notice that I have an approximately 18" long 1x2 that supports my star.  I actually mortised out a hole to mount the 1x2,  which took forever and didn't add much to the strength of it.  Instead, go with a much easier way - notching the octagon.  Take a piece of the 1x2 and put it on top of the octagon (if you are going to use multiple octagons, you only need to do this to the top one).  Align it so the wide side of the 1x2 matches one side of the octagon, and centered between the cuts.  Trace around the 1x2 and then use a jig saw to cut the notch out.  Use Gorilla glue (or other exterior glue) to adhere the 1x2 into place, making sure the bottoms are flush.  Use a clamp to hold everything together.  Once the glue is set drill a small hole and then drive a 2 1/2 inch screw through the 1x2 into the octagon.  Note:  Make sure you don't put this screw in a spot that will interfere with the screws that will attach the hook to that area.

You may be wondering what those 3 screws at the top of my star-support are for.  Short answer:  birds.  My house is surrounded on 3 sides by water and cypress forests.  Every year, I contend with bunnies chewing up lights, squirrels bringing my wire-frames pine cone 'offerings', and birds that perch on top of my megatree and well...  make a mess.  The screws at the top prevent the birds from perching and thus 'eliminate the elimination' problem.  These screws are optional.

To attach the hooks, use a couple of small pieces of 1x2 side-by=-side under the octagon to prop it up.  Attach a hook to each side of the octagon.  Allow the bottom curve of the hook to rest on your workbench and drive in the screws included with the hook.  By propping up the octagon on the 1x2 when attaching the hooks, you ensure that all of them are at the same height. 

Depending on the size of your hooks, your final one may not fit.  If that is the case, use a hack saw and cut off one of the hooks on the double hook.  Don't worry about needing to double up when you are setting up your tree -- It will still look OK. 

If you are creating a double stack topper, also attach hooks to a second octagon.  To finish the double stack topper, you need to attach all 3 octagons together using Gorilla glue and screws.  The octagon without hooks goes in the middle of the stack.  Be sure all the hooks are facing UP (IE, don't glue one of the octagons upside down).

Center the 2" coupler cap on the bottom of the topper, and drill 3 holes.  Use 3 1 1/2 screws to attach the cap to the topper.  Slide the coupler over the cap.  If you like, you can prime and then glue the cap into the coupler.  I didn't, and have never had a problem with it coming apart.

Assembly of the topper is now complete, and all that remains is to give it a coat of paint.  I used inexpensive dark green spray paint.  You should also paint your 10 foot 2" PVC the same dark green.  In the pictures you may notice that my 1 1/2 pipe has also been painted green.  That is because I used it previously as a center pole for a shorter megatree, and am re-using it.  You don't need to paint that pipe since you won't see it.

Buying Tent Stakes:

The last thing you need to set up your tree are some tent stakes.  Take a look in the sporting goods section at your local Wal-Mart, K-Mart/etc. 

The sandy soil here in Florida (who are we kidding, it's ONLY sand!) requires large heavy duty stakes for mega trees.  The best stakes I have found are metal, around 15" in length with a V shape.  Plastic heavy-duty stakes which have a T profile (that is, they are 3 sided) also work well.  Floridians should stay far away from smooth metal type stakes - the ones that look like giant nails.  They do NOT hold in sand at all (I speak from experience). 

Depending on the soil at your house, you may need to experiment a little.  The best thing is to buy a small package and test them:  Drive one into the ground with a rope under the hook.  With both hands pull up and see if the stake comes out easy.  If it requires a good long hard pull they should work.

Assembling your tree is easy:

Step 1 - Math:

First, you need to do a LITTLE bit of math.  Get your kids help if needed!

Decide what diameter your tree is going to be.  Measure from the center pole to one side and then multiply by 2.  My tree has a radius of 4 feet (from the center to the edge), so that makes 8 feet (the diameter).

Multiply that by 12 so you have the number of inches.  My tree is 96 inches wide (8 times 12 = 96).

Multiply that number by 3.14 which give you the distance around the tree.  My tree has a circumference of approximately 301 inches.

Take the number of wedges you will have and multiply by 2.  My tree has 8 slices, each with 2 wedges = 16, times 2 = 32 (FYI:  this is also the number of tent stakes you will need).

Divide the total circumference by the this number:  301 divided by 32 = 9.4 inches (or approximately 9 3/8")

That means every stake should be 9 3/8" from the next one around the base.  The math is done!

Step 2 - Set up the center pole:

Slide the 1 1/2 PVC pipe into the 2" PVC pipe, and then Put the topper on the other end.  Remove the cap from the base in the ground, and carefully pick up the 2" PVC (which has the 1 1/2" PVC inside of it), and stand it upright allowing the 1 1/2" PVC to slide down into the hole of the base.

The center pole should stand up by itself -- no need for a helper.  Don't get discouraged if your center pole looks a little off-center.  Everything will be fine in the end!

Step 3 - Mark the locations of the stakes:

Here is where all that math comes in.  Tie a string to the center pole, and measure out from the center the size of the radius (Step 1 from the math above.  For me, 4 feet).  Put a stake into the ground at that point.

Tie or otherwise attach a tape measure to the string where this first .  Extend the tape measure out the final length you computed (for me, 9 3/8").  Be sure to include the size of the tape measure case (check the back, it will be printed there).  Alternatively, you could just cut a stick to the length you computed and attach that.  You'll have an "L" shape where the longer side is the string running to the center pole, and the shorter side giving the distance between 2 stakes.

Be sure to keep the string taut.  Place the back of the tape measure (stick/whatever) at the stake you put into the ground.  Keep the tape measure pointed so that you are making a circle - Remember that "L" shape!  At the other end of the tape measure, place the next stake.  Move the tape measure so that the back is now touching this newest stake.  Repeat until you have gone all the way around.  If the spaces between the last stakes are off a bit, move a few around by hand to 'split the difference'.  I typically start at what is going to be the left side of my tree, and work around counter clockwise.  That means the the stakes I may need to move are at the back (and not as well seen).

Step 4 - Install the lights:

Take the first bulb (or bulbs if using bundles), and place the hook of the stake between the first and second bulbs, close to the first, then drive the stake into the ground  Basically, you are using the base of the bulb to prevent the string from sliding out from underneath.

Run up the ladder, and hook the light string/bundle onto one of the hooks.  Keep things tight, but allow enough slack that you are not bending the pole or pulling out the stake.

Put the lights under the next stake, and drive it into the ground.

Keep repeating for as many stakes as you have.  Each stake should either have a plug end under it, or a socket end -- NEVER both.  You may notice your center pole bending to one side or another as you put up your lights.  If so, put up the lights in a criss-cross pattern instead of sequentially to even out the weight.  For instance, put up slice 1, then slice 5, then slice 7, then 3, etc....

While putting up your lights, be aware of something I call 'solar bend'.  Here in Florida, even in the winter the Sun is still strong.  If you look at the picture above, you'll see the top of my pole has bent quite a bit.  Since the center pole is painted a dark color, it absorbs sunlight and warms up faster on its sunny south side than the shaded north side.  Since things expand as they heat up, the south side of the pole becomes a fraction of an inch longer than the north.  This uneven heating causes the pole to bend.  Depending on how bad the pole is bending on your tree, you may need to adjust the tension in your lights as you string them.  While setting mine up, I leave a bit more slack on the north side, and a bit less on the south.  At night when the sun sets and the pole cools, everything will even out.

If you are using multiple bundles or sets per 'slice', it's easiest to make a large vee and then move to narrower vees within it.  For instance, I use 2 bundles per slice.  I start at stake 1 and go up to the top, and then back down to stake 4.   To finish the side, I start at stake 2 go up and come down to stake 3.  If you are using 3 bundles, start at 1, go to 6, start at 2 go to 5, start at 3 go to 4.

It typically takes me 4 to 6 hours to set up my megatree if I have pre-bundled my sets.  Without bundling it takes 8 to 10.  With a helper, you can cut these times by more than half - simply keep one person at the top of the ladder, and the other on the ground driving stakes and handing up the lights. 

Stand back and admire your work!

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