All decked out

A holiday decorating pro tells how to build a better tree


You could take home the greenest, fullest tree on the lot, thread some popcorn, collect strings of multicolored lights, shiny ornaments, shimmering garland and then gather the family for a delightful evening of wrap around the 8-foot fir.

Or you could pay someone like Russel Daff to decorate your Christmas tree the right way.

Is there really a right or wrong way to decorate a tree? Certainly, said Daff, who has spent nearly 30 years decorating trees after picking up the practice while working for a florist. Now, the Pittsburgh/Annapolis resident and regional visual manager for Victoria's Secret spends this time of year decorating Christmas trees inside and outside, for businesses and private homes - for about $1,000 for an 8-foot tree, excluding ornaments.

Even if you can't afford that price tag - or the more than 1,000 light bulbs he dedicates to each of his projects - you could still benefit from his tips to help make your tree the focal point of any room - striking but not too loud, and balanced with its light and color scheme.

"Always start with the lights," said Daff. "Everything else goes on top of the lights. I usually layer my lights for more design. Start from the inside of the tree, back out and then [go] back to the trunk. Weave your lights to the tip of the branch and then back. That way, you can kind of hide the wires, which are hard to hide on a real tree."

After the lights, Daff said, comes the tree topper - something most decorators reserve for last as a crowning touch to their efforts. But Daff said that could be a bit awkward, particularly if you have to use a stepladder. You risk knocking items off a fully loaded tree.

Once the top is on, then it's the ribbon and garland. "It should be carefully placed," he said. "I usually start at the top of the tree and I wire it to the branches."

Then come the ornaments: largest ones closest to the trunk so they reflect off the lights nearest the trunk. Smallest ornaments toward the end of the branch. That's followed by any specialty ornaments, and finally the icicle tinsel: one strand at a time from top to bottom.

Each year, Daff decorates a handful of trees and mantels for clients with more than discerning tastes. It's his job to give homes more of a holiday look and less stress. In fact, he got started in the line of work after a woman struggling to decorate her tree welcomed his voluntary assistance. He did such a good job that she recommended him to friends also struggling with their trees.

Now, the trees are his worry.

Daff spends up to 30 hours on each tree. Usually, he said, it takes about 12 hours for the lights alone. Then he wants to make certain that the bulbs and garland and tinsel are placed just right for optimum effect. To say he's meticulous about his work is an understatement. But his gripes will sound familiar to anyone who's ever tackled tree decorating.

"It's very stressful," said Daff. "There are times when you're 99 percent done, and then a string of lights goes out, and you have to start all over again. Or the family can have a dog that passes by the tree wagging his tail, and he knocks two ornaments together and breaks them. It's part of the trauma of the holiday."

Traumatic, perhaps. But for the most part, he said, it's thrilling to transform a tree into an opulent work of art - or rewarding to find ways to work with decorations more sentimental than dramatic.

Often he encounters families with children whose stringy popcorn and school-made paper ornaments would clash with his more elaborate creations, like his single-color trees. So, he decorates a smaller tree just for the young ones.

"The thing about something that's monochromatic is that it's almost more sophisticated," said Daff, "whereas a red and green tree with popcorn gives you that warm, homey feeling."

That's why ultimately, Daff said, there is no right or wrong theme. Some clients prefer a single color, others several. Some place few packages beneath the tree, others place colorful but empty wrapped boxes to give the tree additional color.

"This year," he said, "I'm seeing a lot more neon lights, acid green and orange, a lot more intense colors and figures."

Whatever colors or patterns you decide on, Daff said, make sure your decorations make up a design that's full, not blotchy. That's a problem usually solved, he said, with an abundance of lighting. And he means abundance.

"The rule of thumb is that one branch of a tree could have 100 lights," he said. "The bottom branches of an 8-foot tree could take a whole set of lights.

"A net [of lights] is an easy way, more of an outside way, to completely cover a tree or bush," added Daff. "The thing is, it's not getting on the inside. All of the lights are on the surface. By running lights on the branches, it gives a lot of depth, and it glistens when you're done."

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