This post will teach you how to treat tree branches for indoor use. Learning how to clean, strip, and finish branches for decor and crafts will ensure they look wonderful and last.
How to Treat Tree Branches for Indoor Use
I’m back from vacation 🙁 But I am really excited to get back to my projects list. Consider this post an appetizer for a post I have coming up later this week on how to make a cat tree out of a real tree!
I was starting to put together the cat tree post when I realized that it was going to be really long. So I decided to break out the part about how to treat tree branches for indoor use, specifically how to clean, strip, and finish the branches, and make it its own post.
Besides, stripping and finishing branches is something that I think a lot of people might be interested in. Not just those of you who want to build a real kitty tree.
I also absolutely love these tree branch drawer pulls by Kelly over at Design Asylum. The possibilities are endless, and if you’re lucky, you can get the materials you need to create these awesome projects for free.
When I started researching how to treat tree branches for indoor use, I was overwhelmed with the many different approaches. I had just pulled some branches from off the ground in the woods. We weren’t even sure what kind of tree they were from, although we had some guesses.
We also weren’t sure how long we had to let them sit out because we didn’t know how long it’d been since they’d fallen off the tree and what kind of conditions they’d been in since then. So consider the steps I followed below to be only one approach. I’ll provide some additional tidbits on other approaches I read about but didn’t use along the way. 🙂
HERE’S WHAT I USED:
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- Branches and a dry space
- A paint scraper—like this one here.
- Small hand-held saw—see one here—and a miter saw (not completely necessary, but we needed to trim some thick branches down).
- Assorted sandpaper—I used 100 and 150 grit depending on the spot.
- Minwax Stain in Natural and Rust-Oleum Ultimate Polyurethane in Satin.
Here are the steps to clean branches for decoration.
Step 1: Find a suitable branch
We foraged the woods behind my parents’ house and found two great branches that were already on the ground. I’d read that you had to let the branches dry out for a while—upwards of a year, even. So I thought it would be best to find something that had already been drying out on the ground.
We also didn’t want to hack up any trees that were still growing when there are plenty of fallen sticks and branches to choose from. Not knowing how long it had been detached from the tree was a risk we were willing to take. 🙂
After cutting the branches, we brought them into my dad’s workshop, which has baseboard heating, to dry out for 2 more months. We guessed the pieces we had were pretty dry since they did have some cracking, but we wanted to be sure. If we’d thought they were newer branches, we would have let them dry for longer.
Step 2: Remove bark from branches
After about 2 months, I started scraping the bark off. This is a very important step that a lot of people skip when bringing tree parts indoors. You need to scrap the bark off because there could be bugs living under it!
In fact, I found guide a few little guys while I was scraping. Bugs have a purpose, but I don’t want them living in my home 🙂 The bark will eventually fall off anyway, so it’s best to take it off at the start of your project.
There are lots of ways to de-bark trees. The ease with which you can remove bark depends on many factors, including what type of tree it is, how dry the wood is, and even what time of year it is. Unfortunately for me, my bark was not easy to remove—and it looks like that’s the case for many people if my Googling is any indication. But don’t worry, the results are totally worth the time and frustration!
While I read that a lot of people use a draw knife and even a pressure washer to remove bark, I used a paint scraper. It was my dad’s idea, and it worked really well! It just took time and elbow grease, and it was extremely messy.
Step 3: Sand and polish
After I’d scraped all of the bark off, I cried of happiness that the miserable process was over and grabbed some sandpaper. I used 100-grit sandpaper on some of the rougher spots.
Then I gave the entire piece a good, thorough sand with 150-grit sandpaper. I was truly amazed at how well sanding polished the piece. I did all sanding by hand since the branch was a bit curvy and bumpy—just seemed easier.
Step 4: Stain
After cleaning off my work space and wiping down the branch with a dry paper towel, I used a chip brush to apply a generous coat of stain. Minwax Stain in Natural really helped to bring out the wood’s character.
I didn’t even wipe off the excess stain—I just left it to soak into the wood for about 24 hours. Like I said, my pieces were pretty dry, so the stain soaked right in. (I also have a whole post about how to stain and finish wood if you’re new to the process!)
Step 5: Finish to protect
At this point I was giddy with excitement about how good the branches looked. I finished them off with two coats of Rust-Oleum Ultimate Polyurethane in Satin because I wanted to bring in a bit of sheen while providing further protection for the branches.
This is a water-based polyurethane that dries much faster than an oil-based one. I also really love Varathane water-based polyurethane in matte. I used it on my daughter’s dollhouse bookshelf, our cat house side table build, and our DIY plywood planter because I didn’t want much shine on any of these pieces. You can see it’s a beautiful, understated finish.
Left: Stain dried; Right Top: First coat of poly on; Right Bottom: Drying poly
And here they are finished…
You can see that the pieces have just the right amount of sheen for what I wanted. I wanted them to look polished but not super shiny and fake, and I think the water-based poly in satin really achieved that look.
They do look a but shinier in person—this was hard to capture in photos. If you want them to look like these pictures, I’d err on the side of caution and go with a matte water-based formula. You can always add a layer of satin on top of the matte if you don’t love it.
You can see the cat tree made out of a real tree build that these branches were finished for as well! And I also did a post about how the tree held up years later because I get a lot of questions about it. This is probably my favorite project of all time.
Also, while making the cat tree, we have to level off the branches. After all this work staining and finishing the branches, I couldn’t bear throwing out scraps we had to cut off. So I made a tiny faux succulent planter out of one of the branch pieces. It’s a cute and easy DIY!
Hey guys! Popping in with a September 2019 update. I have had a lot of traction on this post (and questions about it!). I’m working on a video showing the branch finishing process. I’ve also made a few other projects using some smaller branches, so here’s a peek at those in the meantime!
Share my tips about how to clean branches for decoration and crafts on Pinterest!
- Find a suitable branch. Ones that are already laying on the ground are best because they have already started to dry out. Note that is best to let them continue drying out for at least 2 months if you are wanting to use them indoors.
- Remove all the bark from the branch using a paint scraper.
- Sand the branch to remove any rough spots using 100 grit sandpaper. Then, using 150 grit sandpaper, sand the entire branch.
- Wipe down the entire branch with a dry paper towel to remove all the dust and debris.
- Use a chip brush to apply a generous coat of stain. No need to wipe off the excess stain, leave it to soak into the wood for 24 hours.
- Finish the branch with 2 coats of polyurethane in satin to protect it and you're done!