Meet the Maker: Tree to Treen

There are stories, anecdotes, dreams and realities of making a 'sea change' too numerous to mention in popular culture. Whether it describes a simple change of direction, or the radical and wholesale ditching of one lifestyle for another entirely different one, a sea change is usually undertaken for the purpose of altering and ultimately improving your life path. Geoff Hannis of Tree to Treen opted for the radical, and it is perhaps more appropriate to call it a 'green change.' 🌿

Geoff Hannis - Tree to Treen
Geoff is the founder and architect of the Tree to Treen project (treen - literally meaning 'of a tree') based at Grow Wilder, an Avon Wildlife Trust site in Frenchay, Bristol.  Grow Wilder showcases how growing food can have a positive impact on conservation as fruit, vegetables and herbs are cultivated alongside wild flowers across the site. The wild flowers are harvested for seed each year and cultivated to be sold in the onsite nursery,  increasing bio-diversity in the local area.
Wild flowers at Grow Wilder

The Tree to Treen project has several key aims:

  • Make beautiful functional objects for the home from locally sourced wood using greenwood techniques, such as the pole lathe.
  • Provide opportunities for people to try new crafts through workshops and volunteering opportunities.
  • Connect woodworkers in the Bristol area through initiatives such as Spoon club.
  • Promote wood as the raw material of choice when planning a project or purchase. Each purchase comes with info on wood miles* and carbon storage**.
  • Better understand the positive impacts of human intervention on a conservation landscape.

* Wood miles – the number of miles the log travelled to get to the workshop. Geoff is working towards making this as small as possible.

** Carbon storage – wooden objects are a great way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Roughly half the weight of a finished wooden product is carbon.
Tree to Treen workshop build in progress

Q1. Tell us a little about yourself - your background, when and why you started practising your craft?

I have a background in software engineering. However, 6 years ago I flipped my idea of an early retirement on its head, and had the rather romantic notion of seeking a job, or jobs, from which I would never want to retire. There are many reasons I was drawn to green woodwork: being outside; using ‘waste’ wood; using my hands and brain; the community; selling to customers and seeing the connections they forge with the objects I make.
Bowl cores and mandrels made from all sorts of UK grown wood

I also want to use my craft as a means of giving people the opportunity to potentially see the world a little differently. I encourage customers to reflect on where materials come from, the low embodied energy of wood compared to other materials, how effective forestry can improve a landscape, and how carbon can be stored through turning trees into treen. It always fills me with hope how many customers already understand these themes which are, in my opinion, crucial to our future.
Geoff onsite and holding an example of 'treen.'

Q2. What can you tell us about Tree to Treen and your association with Grow Wilder?

Tree to Treen has been running for 3 years now. Treen refers to small household items made of wood. I am really passionate about items being made and bought from sustainably grown and sourced wood if they can be (which is of course limited by what the object is, availability of material, and customer’s budgets).
The natural beauty of wood

Grow Wilder is an Avon Wildlife Trust site where food growing is linked to the lease of the land. As such it is rare as a nature conservation site, as human extraction (of food) is involved in that landscape. I find this all rather exciting, as a large proportion of our wildlife has evolved with farming practices over the past millennia, and is rarely celebrated or promoted by wildlife conservation sites.

I have sub-let a small patch of land from Grow Wilder in order to build my workshop to provide courses and also make items to sell.
Geoff with one of the Grow Wilder poly-tunnels as a backdrop

Geoff's workshop is a larch timber-frame and a space that, as with anything in the landscape, changes and evolves through the seasons.

Q3. What do students learn on your courses?

We offer a range of courses, all held in our open-sided timber-framed barn surrounded by a whole range of wild and farmed spaces. Courses tend to be one or two-day events including wood-turning using a pole lathe, basketry, carving, sharpening and stool-making.
A pole lathe, also known as a springpole lathe, uses the resilience of a long pole (sometimes replaced by a bungee cord) as a return spring for a treadle. Pressing the treadle pulls on a cord that is wrapped around the piece of wood (often greenwood) being turned. The other end of the cord reaches up to the end of a long springy pole or bungee. As the action is reciprocating, the work rotates in one direction and then back the other way. Cutting is only carried out on the down stroke of the treadle, with the spring of the pole or bungee returning the treadle to the raised position ready for the next down stroke.

Q4. Tell us about your team or the people who help to make Tree to Treen possible.

I organise the courses and also teach some of the wood-turning courses. The other courses are taught by a variety of wonderful tutors all who have links to Bristol in one way or another. Many are ex-apprentices or tutors from the Cherry Wood Project outside Bath, a place very dear to my heart.

Spoon carving with Rosie Mockford

Geoff has always been passionate about working with wood, however it wasn’t until 2018 that he discovered the joy of working  with greenwood through the Cherry Wood Project and the Somerset Bodgers at Tyntesfield House.
Stool making with Charlie Thacker

Q5. Can you tell us about some of your special projects such as ‘52 Weeks 52 Bowls’ and the Spoon Club.

The #52weeks52bowls project is a wonderful experience I had turning a different bowl each week from a different UK-grown wood for a year in 2022. I started it thinking it would be a nice way to learn about, and celebrate, all the different woods we can access here in the UK, however it swiftly morphed into a series of stories celebrating the connections between myself and the wider community of green woodworkers.

For other makers out there, I also really recommend it, as it allows you to hold onto a year’s worth of work, and really reflect on your journey through that year. For me, I started that year thinking I was a craftsman, then it swept into feeling like I was an artist, before finally settling in a place where I see myself simply as a woodturner.

There are spoon clubs all over the country, with the Bristol Spoon Club mainly on a Thursday evening. We make wooden spoons, but also other crafty projects. It is a lovely space to come together make, chat and have some tasty soup!
Spoon Club

Q6. What kinds of volunteering opportunities do you promote?

A few times a year we’ll have a long weekend and the odd day set aside to do some work on the workshop. This year we’re re-doing the roof on the workshop, and recently we built a ladder from some local ash and a cleft sweet chestnut gate for the site.
Holly and Charlie building a workshop ladder

Q7. Are there crafts other than green woodworking that you’d love to try but haven’t yet?

I’m sure there are, and I’ve tried a fair few, but none have quite clicked like wood turning. I love finding ways to include other crafts in my own pieces, for example leatherwork in the nutboxes I make. One day I’d love to knit my own jumper from my own spun wool and I’m also keen to get a blacksmithing space together to make my own tools.
Nut boxes combining leather with wood

Q8. Who or what are your biggest sources of inspiration?

I’m currently really inspired by the items of treen held in various museums across the country. I recently had the chance to visit one of them in Birmingham, and I found it fascinating handling objects close-up with new eyes, seeing not just the object, but also how it was made and why the maker made the decisions that they did.
Visiting the Pinto Collection in Birmingham

In addition, the crafting community as a whole is a wonderful source of inspiration every day, made easier by its open attitude to sharing. I think I am most inspired by those that push boundaries of what we as a community think is possible in green woodwork both by research and having-a-go, and in doing so opening up new opportunities. I believe that the community shares so much, as we don’t feel like we’re doing anything new, but re-learning that which has been forgotten.
Community in crafting

Q9. What advice would you give to other people looking to teach their craft?

At the Cherry Wood Project there was a saying: “See one. Do one. Teach one.” Teaching is a wonderful learning opportunity for teachers as well as for students. In my experience, it is a more fun day if there is an attitude of ‘let’s learn together’ rather than ‘I know best’. Of course teaching for money is a slightly different affair, and experience is important here, as all sorts of scenarios can crop up. Once you’ve taught some friends, you’ll have a gauge as to your experience level and if it is sufficient to teach people you don’t know. I don’t aspire to ever be perfect as a tutor, because that means there’s still space for me to learn.
Learning together

Q10. What is the most memorable thing to happen on one of your workshops or as a result of a workshop?

The aim of all workshops for me as a tutor is, in a way, that it is unmemorable, in so much that everyone consistently goes home with an item they’re proud of and having had a great day. Over time though, I can see the space and the workshop slowly building a community of greenwood workers, and this brings me great joy! Perhaps an attendee has re-visited the workshop after the course, or a text exchange occurred with advice on how to build your own pole lathe, or a new person at Spoon Club.
Sam on his bowl turning course - he has since built his own pole lathe
It's been absolutely fascinating learning more about Geoff's 'green change' and heartening to see his commitment, not only to making a positive change for himself, but for the environment and the community through green wood work and other heritage crafts. Thank you Geoff. We are excited to see where your new projects and ambitions take you.

If you would like to join Geoff and the other talented tutors at Tree to Treen to learn a new skill, you can book a place on one of the amazing courses on offer and perhaps start to imagine your own 'sea change.'

Useful links:

Grow Wilder
Avon Wildlife Trust
Cherry Wood Project

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