Middlebury's Treeline Terrains Marries Art and Tech to Craft 3D Landscapes | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Middlebury's Treeline Terrains Marries Art and Tech to Craft 3D Landscapes


Published December 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Nathaniel Klein (left) and Jacob Freedman - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Nathaniel Klein (left) and Jacob Freedman

Thin blue lines wind across the slab of hardwood, clearly suggesting the curving shores of a lake. Rising from the shoreline, detailed carvings capture the peaks and valleys of the Adirondack Mountains.

This intricate model of Lake Champlain and its surroundings is the work of Treeline Terrains, a budding company founded by recent Middlebury College graduates Jacob Freedman, Nathaniel Klein and Alex Gemme.

Treeline's work stands at the intersection of technology and art: The business partners create 3D wooden sculptures of beloved landscapes with the help of computer code, shiny machinery and human hands. Already, Freedman estimates, the 9-month-old business has sold more than 150 models, ranging from $14 key chains to a $3,500 sculpture of the Middlebury Snow Bowl.

Their models have found other local showcases, as well. The Middlebury Area Land Trust awarded the company a grant to model the Battell Trail on Mount Abraham and has commissioned a model of the town of Middlebury. The Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance commissioned Treeline to craft Camel's Hump in wood to honor U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) with its inaugural Trailblazer Award. 

Treeline has found enough success since its founding in March — in the basement of Klein's grandparents' home — to warrant moving to a rented workshop in Middlebury. The business has become a full-time job for all three men, and Freedman said they're proud that much of their profit goes right back into growing their sales.

Nathaniel Klein running a CNC machine - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Nathaniel Klein running a CNC machine

Treeline's intricate models begin as lines of raw computer code, collected from state and national geo-mapping sites. Freedman developed ways to shape the code to Treeline's needs, transforming raw data into 3D topographic models. The code is fed into a computer numerical control machine, or CNC. Guided by the coded instructions, the CNC spends hours carving each detail into pieced-together slabs of wood chosen to evoke the unique topography of a mountain or national park. Mind-bogglingly intricate, even a small model requires hundreds of thousands of lines of code. 

Companies such as Tesla employ larger, $80,000 CNC machines on their manufacturing lines. But the works that Treeline produces with its machine are finished by hand. After carving is complete in their Middlebury workshop, the men return to their shared apartment and second work space. Klein sands each piece by hand, then treats them with linseed oil to add sheen. As a result, the right chunk of cherry wood can become a national park; a slab of maple and epoxy can capture New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. 

The friends' idea for the company began as a thank-you to a supervisor, Daphne Diego, at the Snow Bowl. As sophomores, Freedman, Klein and Gemme worked as instructors at the mountain and realized that not every student could afford to enjoy the ski area. With Diego's support, they created a fund to provide free ski lessons to students on financial aid. Then they looked for a way to thank Diego for her help in developing the fund.

The answer came from their different skills and shared love of skiing. Gemme, a biochemistry major, had been experimenting with a CNC machine in the college's Makerspace, available for free to students. Interested in using his new skills, he discussed the possibilities for the machine with Freedman, a geography and environmental studies major, and Klein, a chemistry major with a passion for woodworking.

They crafted their first model, the gift to Diego, in the Makerspace. The 6-by-6-inch model of the Snow Bowl, made from shellacked scrap wood from a college science class, captured their signature layering of different-colored lumbers. 

A model of MIddlebury Snow Bowl - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • A model of MIddlebury Snow Bowl

"It really was about connecting to the place that you're living [in] in a new way," Freedman said. "When we made that first model, that was really a key part of it — that this is a place that we love. To be able to hold the place that you love so close to you, I think, was really special, especially for our supervisors who spend so much of their time at the Snow Bowl." 

Though the CNC machine works its magic automatically, selecting the right wood for a model is "like finding a diamond in the rough," Freedman said. Klein, who selects and prepares their wood from A. Johnson, a lumber company in Bristol, said he looks for size and quality in each piece. Though most furniture distributors see knots, unusual measurements or discolorations as problems, Treeline uses those variations to make a model special.

From the start, the three founders wanted their company to have a social impact, as well. That has led to their largest project so far: a 3D model of the slopes of Sugarbush Resort's Mount Ellen, created for Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a nonprofit organization that provides all-season sports programs for people with disabilities.

The model, which Treeline donated, will allow visually impaired skiers to explore the ski area with their fingers and become deeply familiar with the terrain before they head out for a day on the hill. Treeline's work will become a permanent installation in VASS' new $2.5 million facility at Mount Ellen. One day, Freedman said, he dreams of creating a similar model for every VASS facility across Vermont.

The idea for Treeline's work with the nonprofit was born when Freedman was still a student. In a senior-year class on inclusive mapping, he explored how environmental maps can better account for both conservation and accessibility. He realized how his research connected to his fledgling business and emailed VASS about creating 3D terrain models. The nonprofit was excited to collaborate, he recalled. At the time, the three men had not yet put a model up for sale. 

At first, Treeline aimed its marketing at skiers and snowboarders. After the Snow Bowl, the men created models of Pico, Killington and Stowe mountains. But as they began exploring the technology and honing their craft, Klein said, they realized just how far they could expand their reach.

A model of MIddlebury College by Treeline Terrains - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • A model of MIddlebury College by Treeline Terrains

"We realized we can sell to anyone, because everyone has a strong connection to someplace," Klein said. 

When asked which place they personally would like memorialized in wood, Friedman and Klein answered at the same time: Lost Lake in Groton, Mass. They have already created the piece, which captures the landscape of the Bay State lake by which Klein's grandparents live and Treeline came to life. They turned the model into a cribbage board on which they played many a night. Klein hopes the piece, like the Massachusetts property, will stay in his family for generations. 

The partners speak of their company with the enthusiasm of parents, proudly showing off model after model. In the confusing ether of COVID-19-era young adulthood, the business has been a unifying experience for the three graduates.

"We're not stepping on each other's toes," Klein said. "We're learning from each other and doing it all as a group."

"Everyone was feeling so weird post-college, so it feels good because ... I do enjoy doing this," he added. "You know, [we] wake up every morning, and we're excited to go get the day started. Can you ask for a better feeling?"  

The original print version of this article was headlined "Holding Space"