A Glimpse of the Tree Circus

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Most woodworkers with a connection to the internet have stumbled on images from Axel Erlandson’s (1884-1964) famous The Tree Circus, a California roadside attraction that featured Erlandson’s amazing pruning and grafting abilities.

He made furniture and sculpture by grafting branches and tree together, coaxing them to create great geometric patterns and unusual structures.

The Tree Circus didn’t last long, but the photos crop up every few months on Facebook or Twitter. This weekend I got to see one of the great structures from the collection – “The Telephone Booth Tree” – which is in the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md.

As you can see from the photo, the tree is no longer alive, but it is still impressive. And it is much bigger than I imagined from the photos. I spent a good deal of time admiring the joinery and the form itself.

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And I thought: This guy had far more patience than your typical woodworker. Step one, graft branches. Step two, wait two years. Step three….

And, of course, I thought of the Welsh stick chairs from St Fagans that relied on branches that had been trained by the woodworker to produce the required shape for a chair while the tree was still alive.

You thought this wasn’t going to be a chairmaking post. Ha.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to A Glimpse of the Tree Circus

  1. johncashman73 says:

    No patience? Ha. Axel’s got nothing on me. I have a chair that’s been waiting four years for me to finish.

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  2. This reminds me of the pitchforks that are made to this day in the Cevenolles region of France.
    They plant the pitchforks as seeds and over a period of six years train and prune the resulting sapling into shape, before harvesting and finishing the pitchforks.

    You end up with a lightweight, flexible tool that needs no metal in its fabrication.

    http://fourchedesauve.free.fr/historiqueA.htm

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  3. David Traugot says:

    I wish I had known about this when my Dad lived by Santa Cruz and I would visit him every winter; the only thing I thought Gilroy was famous for was being the Garlic Capital of the world!

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  4. Patrick says:

    These trees still exist alive at a children’s amusement park in Gilroy, CA called Gilroy Gardens. https://www.gilroygardens.org

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  5. Joe says:

    Very cool. Thank you. This reminds me of my great uncle. My great uncle was born about 20 years later than this,individual and retired very young. He spent 50 hours a week in his garden on a near one acre piece of,property doing all kinds on neat things. As a kid a I recall the nice bonsai garden and koi pond. I spent a lot of time there as a child and helped some when I reached 10 years of age. Sadly he passed away in the mid 80s. No,one took up the mantle and the garden grew wild. Was sad to see happen. He also did much fine finish work inside the come with hand tools. I miss him.

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  6. Austin says:

    I think we all just got chair-rolled. It’s like rickrolling, but just a bit different.

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  7. Matthew says:

    Here is someone taking the approach of growing furniture and applying it to larger scale manufacturing. I came across this a few years back via an article and a TEDx video, I am glad to see they are still at it.

    Here is a link to the TEDx video:

    And here is the companies website:
    https://fullgrown.co.uk

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  8. Jeremy says:

    Reminds me of this project: https://fullgrown.co.uk/

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  9. Richard Mahler says:

    CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a segment about a current project doing the same thing on what they plan to be a commercial though never mass scale, growing furniture by training and grafting growth for a one-piece final product. Interesting story.

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  10. Paul Murphy says:

    I went to it as a child. It was in Scotts Valley, and it was called, “The Lost World.” There were huge plaster dinosaurs that could be seen from the highway. I wanted to know what it was. One day my mother relented and took me. So there I was, a little boy, and I was going to see all the dinosaurs in The Lost World! Wow! It was gonna be so neat! When we got inside, it was mostly some dumb trees. I tried to get into the spirit of it, and I actually looked at each and every tree, but c’mon; boys want dinosaurs not trees! Now I live in Gilroy. They’ve been in my new town quite a while, and I haven’t even gone to see them. Well, the trees are here anyway. I don’t think that the dinosaurs are here.

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