I’ve been working on this tree since 2013 and some of that work is documented here. Recently a friend helped me plant it on a natural limestone slab which I collected from a lakeshore. We decided to make some modifications to the slab, one thing lead to another, and it turned out to be a much larger project than I expected.
The photos below tell the story.
Prior to last week I had only tried sandblasting on one small cedar. The results were excellent, but I was limited to using my friend’s small parts sandblasting cabinet which could only handle a shohin sized tree. Recently, however, a member of our club got a full sized sandblasting tank and offered to let me try it out on some larger trees. Often sandblasting is done in an enclosed tent or room, but we just did it out on his lawn.
This tree was collected in spring 2013. Last year I did a rough initial cleaning on it using hand tools, but with a craggy old thing like this, sandblasting is the most efficient way to clean away all the old dead bark while preserving the details of the deadwood. Many of the cracks and crevices are impossible to access with hand tools. Sandblasting should be a once-in-a-lifetime event for a tree. Once it is done, the deadwood can be maintained over the years with gentle brushing (water and toothbrush) and lime sulfur application (although this is often unnecessary on thuja as their deadwood will naturally bleach in the sun as long as it is clean).
We used aluminum oxide media at 50-90 psi.
There are some retailers in Japan with an amazing selection of bonsai tools and accessories, and shipping is surprisingly affordable. In fact, I’ve found the shipping of these sites to be less expensive than what many American bonsai retailers can offer me. Two of these retailers I can recommend with confidence.
The first is Bonsai Network Japan.
They have a huge selection of Masakuni, Yoshi, and Nobuichi tools. Also available is a variety of display accessories, copper wire, and books including lots of Kokufu album back issues. To get a shipping price, you must assemble your order and submit it for a quote. To give you an idea, I ordered a large book, knob cutters, grafting tape, and wire cutters. The box was 30 x 20 x 15 cm and weighed over 1 kg. Air shipping from Japan Post was under $12! It arrived in exactly 13 days as promised, with no surprise custom fees. Maki from J-Bonsai is extremely helpful and is clearly experienced in shipping to other countries. I highly recommend this retailer.
Another great retailer is Kaneshin Bonsai Tools.
As the name implies, Kaneshin only sells one brand of tools, but their selection is incredible and the tools have a great reputation. They sell just about everything you could want and more. A nice thing about this website is that you can calculate the shipping costs yourself based on the weight of the items ordered. Obviously things get expensive as the size of the order increases, but I would say the economy shipping prices are pretty fair, especially compared to what I’ve seen some vendors in the US quote me.
For years sandblasting has been used in some bonsai circles to clean up deadwood. The idea is that it will remove fuzz from carving, smooth “new” sharp edges created from carving, and strip away old dead bark while preserving the natural texture of the wood.I’ve always wanted to try it on Thuja since they have so many intricate little details which are often covered by old caked on dead bark that is extremely difficult to remove. The alternative is that you pick away at the dead bark with your fingernail or a variety of pointy tools, ideally after rain since the bark is soft. Still, it can be very difficult to get everything and not destroy the little details.
My friend has a sandblaster with a small cabinet so I thought this little guy might be my first test subject.
Sandblasting works best on junipers or “driftwood species” like Thuja which have a defined live vein that has been cleaned of bark. To prepare the plant for blasting, use a tacky clay like Plasticine to cover the live vein from the soil line to as far up the primary branching you can get. Protect the foliage and pot as best you can. I used aluminum foil and shrink wrap. A cloth and shrink wrap would have worked just as well. This step is MUCH easier if the tree has no wire on it (I learned that the hard way).
I was very impressed with the results. I kind of expected the small jins to be blasted off, but they were left completely intact and clean as a whistle! Some people might be concerned that the natural silver patina of the deadwood has been lost. Well, if you use lime sulfur that shouldn’t matter to you. Furthermore, I find it takes two years in my yard for this silver colouration to return. In bonsai terms that isn’t really long. Is this a technique I will start using more regularly? While I still need to spend some time closely examining the results, it seems very likely.
This tree took a step forward over the last couple of weeks, but still has a long way to go. It is one of several Ulmus pumila I got from this old hedge in 2010.
As a side note, this winter I ended up with about 10 kg of Robert Stevens’ Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire. This is the first tree I actually tried it out on. It is pretty good stuff… only slightly softer than Japanese anodized aluminum with a bit less holding power, but at a fraction of the price. As is typical with aluminum on deciduous trees, I found myself using wire about 1/2 the thickness of the branch to achieve the desired bending power. It is worth noting that this wire is pure glossy black, as opposed to the copper-ish colour of Japanese aluminum wire. It will be interesting to see how the colour stands up to the elements over this growing season.
Root work came next. This is the first time that this tree has had focused root work since coming out of the hedge. Almost all of these elms had massive taproots. This one needed some work with the reciprocating saw and a die grinder to further reduce the taproot. Furthermore, a few excessively long roots had to be pruned back. This may look extreme, but every root I have cut back on one of these Siberians has produced new roots near the cuts – even tap roots 15 cm in diameter.
This Elm has an excellent trunk for a classic informal upright design, but the nebari is terrible due to the presence of large taproots. On an informal upright elm, the nebari is one of the most important features. Root grafting may be in this tree’s future.
The debate over whether or not to use cut paste will never end. I’m not here to discuss that 🙂 Let’s just assume you do use cut paste (like most bonsai professionals), but you have always secretly felt like a sucker for buying this stuff.
As usual, the professionals have found a cheaper and more efficient way to do it. At Aichi-en in Japan, they use regular old joint caulk. And they use it on everything – conifers and deciduous, tears, splits, clean cuts, everything.