Building Treehouses for a Living: Being a Carpenter with Nelson Treehouse

Words by Patrick Willse
Photos by Patrick Willse

After a long day at the office, we all sometimes need to head to nature to get away from all the screens and sitting involved in everyday life. To some, this ritual is far from their reality. For Patrick Willse, this couldn’t be more true. Being a carpenter for Nelson Treehouse, Pat has been fortunate enough to call nature his office and travel to some truly amazing places while building some truly incredible tree houses.

In order to get a better sense of what this incredible team is up to, we sat down with Pat to learn more about the company and see what life is like working a job that our 5 year-old selves would be proud of.

1. How did you get involved in everyone’s childhood dream of building treehouses for a living?

I met the Nelson Treehouse team while they were building for a family friend of mine in Ohio. I volunteered two weeks of my time and “The Treehouse Man,’’ a.k.a Pete Nelson liked my work. I mentioned to him that I wanted to move out west and Pete, being the spontaneous guy he is, hired me on the spot. I was on a plane less than a month later to build a treehouse in Dallas, Texas and a few whirlwind weeks later, I was driving the work truck back to Fall City, WA which would soon become my home. Fall City, WA is “Treehouse HQ” – where Nelson Treehouse and Supply shop lives, as well as Treehouse Point, the Bed & Breakfast.

2. You were originally born and raised in Ohio, how has the transition into PNW living been going for you so far?

I love it out here in the PNW. I live out in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range. There are so many trails, rivers, and mountains right out my back door. Since moving out here 5 years ago, I got married to Emily Nelson,(yes that is Pete Nelson’s daughter) bought a house and we have our first kid on the way! Besides family, the things I miss most about living in Ohio are thunderstorms, the sound of bugs at night, and snow. But at least now I don’t have to scrape snow off the car every morning…but still get to enjoy the snowy ski hills are only about 45 minutes away.

3. Can you walk us through an average day at Nelson Treehouse?

I’ve recently settled in at our shop in Fall City as the pre-fabrication lead. We build as much of the treehouse parts and pieces that we can before shipping the prefabricated package in a semi truck to the jobsite. We build walls, cut rafters, make interior railings, cabinets, and any other tricky features of the treehouses. Everything is custom, and doing everything at our shop rather than on site is more efficient than at most of our job sites. They tend to be in remote locations, deep in the woods, without electricity or any kind of flat spot to set up our “mobile shop” At our office and shop we have a design and architecture team, carpenters, project managers and administration staff working together to build treehouse “packages” that will to be sent all over the world!

4. What have been some of your favorite builds so far that people can check out?

Some of my favorite builds have been the public structures that everyone can enjoy. I was able to be a part of a project built in Flint, Michigan at the Genessee County Parks. It is used as a classroom for their nature center and is fully wheelchair accessible. Since we built two years ago over 80,000 people have been able to enjoy it. I love thinking that so many people get to experience that treehouse! This spring we had the opportunity to build for a great family of surfers in Kauai. They had an existing treehouse with one bedroom but we wanted to add something cool in an adjacent Pacific almond tree. Our plan was to get a surf lookout platform as high up in the tree as we could. With one bridge and 3 custom ships ladders and landings, we topped out at 65 Ft. in the air, enough height to see the surf a few blocks away.

5. Care to share a funny or crazy stories while building?

Everyday at work is crazy. My last road gig was up in the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, WA. It took two boat rides just to get to the job site. It is crazy to sit back and stare at the treehouse and realize that every single piece of wood traveled hours from our shop by truck, onto a ferry to an island, then across the island to a barge to another island then through some woods up a hill and installed 15’ up in some trees.

6. With so much focus on building a house that lasts, how does Nelson Treehouse and Supply go about preserving the natural integrity of the nature incorporated around it?

We take great care in maintaining the habitat that the trees live in and the trees themselves. The trees and the soil around them is the foundation of the treehouse. A lot of people ask if the hardware we put into the trees to support the treehouse harms the trees. The answer is no, the hardware acts like a really strong artificial branch. The trees will grow reaction wood around the hardware a lot like how the collar of a branch bolsters the branch. As far as the area around the tree or trees goes, we like to build work decks/ scaffolding off the ground that we build before construction begins in the trees. It gives a flat spot to work, store tools and prevent us from trampling the undergrowth. When we leave the jobsite and pull up the deck the ground looks untouched, like a treehouse formed out of no where.

7. Any upcoming projects that have you really excited and how can we follow along?

Next year we will be heading to Maine, The Big Island in Hawaii and Louisiana! But, what we are most excited for is finally getting to build the seventh treehouse at Treehouse Point! This will be an ADA accessible treehouse and the final treehouse at the bed and breakfast.

8. Finally, any advice you would like to give to the aspiring DIYer on building their own childhood dream?

If you are going to build your own treehouse I suggest concentrating on the foundation and platform. After you have something to stand on at your new elevation, get up in the tree and feel it out before you finish designing your structure. Once you see the perspective at new height you might get some fresh ideas. Check out our website for instructional guide, plans, hardware and coming soon… Pete’s DIY hardware!

Keep up with Patrick Willse @patrickwillse and check out @nelsontreehouse to see what crazy ideas they’re putting into trees next or past projects

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