The Art of Tree Shaping

Becky Northey
Thursday, 30th January 2014

Becky Northey describes three different ways of shaping trees to make art installations, furniture, even bridges and buildings. Now that’s organic architecture!

The desire to live with trees is part of being human. This longing is planted deep in our consciousness, and open meadows surrounded by trees with running water is our preferred habitat. The concept of shaping trees appears in literature and art, with the earliest known painting by Jean Perreal in 1516. These were created by people with no understanding of tree lore and so their dream concepts don’t work in reality, but nor did the first dreamers who dreamt of going to the moon. The important thing is the desire to turn the dream into reality.

Discovering a repeatable process of shaping trees is a combination of different factors: An understanding of how trees grow; time to dream a design and then experiment which can take 1 to 20 years for each lesson learned; and persistence to repeat different designs until a body of tree lore is understood. Only then can you design with trees, knowing what the outcome will be. 

The three methods

There are three methods to achieving a shaped tree. Aeroponic root culture, Instant tree shaping (Arborsculpture) and Gradual tree shaping.

Aeroponic root culture is the growing of the roots aeroponicly. The roots are grown in a nutrient rich mix until the roots are five meters or more in length. This method of growing roots allows them to remain flexible enough to be shaped without damage before the root tips are planted into the ground. The idea behind this method is to grow large amounts of roots that can be used as a building material, thus creating almost instant living structures. As the roots thicken they will create a solid wall of trees over time.

This method is limited due to being only able to use trees that can cope with their roots being exposed to the air. Figs are the main trees being tested and they may do well with straightforward designs. The research into this is still ongoing and no experiments have been published. Time will tell, but this may be a very useful technique.

Plantware (now called Treenovation) has some interesting concepts, ideas and renders of how to use this method at their website.1 

Instant tree shaping 

Otherwise known as Arborsculpture, this is basically 3D pleaching. The method uses tree whips approximately 2-3 meters long. These are bent and woven into the design shape and held by metal bars until the trees new growth rings form a cast. The maturity of the trees and the damage done in the bending process will determine the length of time needed for the new growth to strengthen the cast, and then stabilise into the new shape. It can be anywhere from 2-15 years or longer. Some tree shapers are trialing this method to create benches, chair, bridges, fences and even living homes.

The advantages of this method is that an instant pleasant effect is achieved and the shaping can be done in as little as one hour for a chair or medium size project. People can see straight off what you are trying to achieve. The disadvantages are slow uneven growth and dieback, which can take years to show.

There are many images of projects just finished with this method but unfortunately not many of the images are of the end result five to 10 years later. The few to be found of finished pieces show the classic hall marks of this method, dieback and uneven growth. The best known photo is of Richard Reames’s peace sign. Some photos, most notably Axel Erlandson’s trees, are tagged with this method but they were created with the gradual method. If you are going to try the instant method, it is best to use trees that aren’t going to be grafted together. 

Richard Reames has two books detailing this method of shaping trees. How to Grow a Chair and Arborsculpture Solutions For A Small Planet.2

Lows Walpole is selling kits, a coat hanger and wine rack. 

Gradual tree shaping 

Gradual tree shaping starts with the supporting framework. Into this frame the growth pathways are built. These pathways are either on wooden jigs or a shaped wire pathway. Then seedlings or small cuttings 7-30cm (3-12in) tall are planted. The actual shaping of the new growth happens with the training of the shaping zone. This training is a daily or weekly shaping of young growth, depending on the size of the project as to how long it takes to grow a tree along the length of the design. Once the trees have grown the full length, wait for them to thicken the design with time.


The advantages of this method are that it is repeatable with even growth, and you can easily test your designs or grow other people’s proven designs to save yourself years of testing. You can leave a living legacy of your creation and it is also cheap to do. This method avoids stressing the tree and it continues to grow vigorously and evenly. The disadvantages are the need to spend 5-20 minutes a day checking and training the new growth in the growing season. It can take many years to learn the tree lore of a particular species.

Peter Cook and I, have written a number of books on this subject. The Knowledge to Grow Shaped Trees details two projects using this method.4

Dr Chris Cattle has kits for growing stools and tables.5

How the different methods achieve a braid 

Aeroponic culture grows the roots and then braids them together, similar to hair braiding, plants the root tips into the ground, and then create the framing to hold it all in place.

Instant method (Arborsculpture) would braid three already formed trees as one braid creating an instant shape. It then builds the frame to hold the trees until they cast themselves into place.

Gradual method would put the growing pathways and supporting framework in place first. Then, over the next season, the new growth of a seedling would be trained along the pathways forming a braid.

There are big differences between the gradual and instant methods, with various degrees of success. The hallmarks of success are fully shaped trees with even, balanced and vigorous growth. At this time there are very few tree shapers in the world and little published work so access to their experience is very limited but hopefully this will improve with time.

One massive advantage we have over history is the ability to easily get in touch with each other online. Before choosing a method do some research. Some images have been online since before the turn of the century with no updating of the living projects. They can be old signposts pointing you in the wrong direction. Start by checking out the images of the different practitioners. The proof is in the results. The type of questions to ask are:

After many years of practise are they still using drawings to represent their work?

Are they real living trees, or just a concept render or photoshopped images or dried willow forms under a tree?

How old is the image?

Can I find or get an up to date image of the design I like?

From different angles?

How was the shaping done?

Is the photo taken when the trees have just been shaped?

Can I find or have some photos of mature or finished pieces by the practitioner?

These questions will help you find the practitioners with a repeatable process of shaping trees. 

Peter Cook and Becky Northey were invited to be the featured artists at the 2005 World Expo in Japan, where they were acknowledged as the world leaders in this art form. With a combined 41 years of experience, they have developed the tree shaping process of Pooktre. As founders of Pooktre: a new way of viewing trees, they are internationally known artists, giving presentations, teaching individuals as well consulting with the Queensland government. In addition to this, life size photos of their trees have been exhibited internationally and there has been worldwide media attention of their trees both in print and film. They have also published five books on this subject available from their website. See www.pooktre.com or www.facebook.com/pooktre 

Incredible examples 

Some amazing shaped trees have emerged from a devise range of cultures. See the living fig bridges in Nongriat of India. Due to the high rain fall they are able to use the roots of the figs to create these living bridges. 

Sustainable Living Archictecture in India

Further Resources 

Axel Erlandson was a master of grafting which can be seen today at Gilroy Gardens. See www.gilroygardens.org

First known grown chair in the world by John Krubsack, it should never be underestimated the significants of his achievement. He was successful with his first and only shaping. See www.atlasobscura.com/places/chair-grew

Growing living structures is huge in Germany, unfortunately the major problem is adequate light for the trees but they are growing living domes which are wonderful shady places for afternoon tea. See http://treeshapers.net/live-houses-by-hermann-block or www.treedome.com

For multiple shaped trees created using the gradual method see www.pooktre.com

For some history and lots of different practitioners see http://treeshapers.net

1 www.plantware.org

2 www.arborsculpture.com

3http://loiswalpole.com

4www.shapedtrees.com

5 www.grown-furniture.co.uk

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