Tools

Blauuw Juniper Raft Planted on Limestone Slab

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.

First, the final product.

First, the final product. The soil surface was top dressed with shredded sphagnum.

First we drilled holes for wire ties. Initially, this was all we planned to do to the slab.

First we drilled holes for wire ties. Initially, this was all we planned to do to the slab.

We then decided it would be a good idea to use a belt sander (with a grinding belt) to flatten some parts of the bottom so it would sit properly on a flat surface.

We then decided it would be a good idea to use a belt sander (with a grinding belt) to flatten some parts of the bottom so it would sit properly on a flat surface.

This stone has a very narrow section which I knew would be problemmatic when planting time came. The solution? Extend it using another piece of limestone. Here we are rough-fitting the best stone we could find lying around.

This stone has a very narrow section which I knew would be problemmatic when planting time came. The solution? Extend it using another piece of limestone. Here we are rough-fitting the best stone we could find lying around.

We used a tile saw to reduce the thickness of the new piece of limestone.

We used a tile saw to reduce the thickness of the new piece of limestone.

Two galvanized nails (heads removed) were used as rebar to support the new piece.

Two galvanized nails (heads removed) were used as rebar to support the new piece.

Concrete adhesive was used to permanently affix the two pieces together.

Concrete adhesive was used to permanently affix the two pieces together.

The final slab ready to accept the juniper forest. The new piece is pretty obvious, but it is in the back and will blend in better after the stone builds up some patina.

The final slab ready to accept the juniper forest. The new piece is pretty obvious, but it is in the back and will blend in better after the stone builds up some patina.

A muck retaining wall was used. The muck was an eyeballed mix of clay, akadama, sphagnum, peat, and water.

A muck retaining wall was used. The muck was an eyeballed mix of clay, akadama, sphagnum, peat, and water.

Still not done. After planting, we used a grinder to improve some of the edges, particularly the extending left side which is a focal point of the stone.

Still not done. After planting, we used a grinder to improve some of the edges, particularly the extending left side which is a focal point of the stone.


Sandblasting Some Large Eastern White Cedars

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.

The tree before sandblasting. The trunk was wet at this point as it had been raining, so it is much darker looking than it actually is.

The tree before sandblasting. The trunk was wet at this point as it had been raining, so it is much darker looking than it actually is.

Preparation is important. Covering the soil prevents it from getting blown away. Covering the foliage is absolutely necessary. We chose to cover the live vein with modelling clay as insurance, although this is not strictly necessary if you are careful. The bark is surprisingly resistant to sandblasting. I've seen pictures from Takeo Kawabe's book (Kimura's student) who seems to sandblast junipers with no live vein protection.

Preparation is important. Covering the soil prevents it from getting blown away. Covering the foliage is absolutely necessary – it will die if it is hit by the media. We chose to cover the live vein with modelling clay as insurance, although this is not strictly necessary if you are careful -the bark is surprisingly resistant to sandblasting. I’ve seen pictures from Takeo Kawabe’s book (Kimura’s student) who seems to sandblast junipers with no live vein protection.

After about two hours of sandblasting. 90% of that time was waiting for the tank to repressurize. Sandblasting requires a high CFM compressor and the one we were using was unable to keep up for more than a minute or two.

After about two hours of sandblasting. 90% of that time was spent drinking beer and waiting for the tank to re-pressurize. Sandblasting requires a high CFM compressor and the one we were using was unable to keep up for more than a minute or two.

Unwrapped.

Unwrapped.

Very happy with the results.

The medium we used left a slight texture behind on the deadwood but it is all we had to work with. I am still very happy with the results. The live veins will be further defined over the coming years.

This heavy break will unfortunately be hidden in the back of the tree. It is gorgeous but there are always compromises with yamadori.

This heavy break will unfortunately be hidden in the back of the tree. It is gorgeous but there are always compromises with yamadori.

Another candidate for sandblasting. This tree was probably collected in the 80s and was once a bonsai, but  had been growing as a garden plant for 10-15 years. Most of the branches are unusable and it will be a challenge to bring this one back.

Another candidate for sandblasting. This tree was probably collected in the 80s and was once a bonsai, but had been growing as a garden shrub for 10-15 years. Most of the branches are unusable and it will be a challenge to bring this one back. I’ve been rehabilitating it for two years, but you can only expect so much backbudding from a thuja.

After blasting. No trunk protection was used to sandblast this one.

After blasting. No trunk protection was used to sandblast this one.

You can see where some of the bark was blasted away, but nothing too major.

You can see where some of the bark was blasted away, but nothing too major. I will likely polish the bark on this one anyway.

Original front of the tree 20 years ago. Likely the new back as the deadwood is quite flat and the inverse taper more pronounced.

Original front of the tree 20 or so years ago. It is likely to become the new back as the deadwood is quite flat and the inverse taper more pronounced.

An old picture of the tree.

An old picture of the tree from the Toronto Bonsai Society website.

This tree was also sandblasted then a basic structure was set. Sorry, no before picture. It was collected in the 90s by a senior club member and is very overgrown, therefore it will be a few years before it is presentable.

This tree was also sandblasted then a basic structure was set. Sorry, no before picture. It was collected in the 90s by a senior club member and is also quite overgrown, but not as bad as the previous one. It could be presentable in two years.

 


Japanese Web Retailers

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.

Capture

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.

CaptureAs 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.

 


Sandblasting Thuja Deadwood

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.

I've already spent lots of time picking and scraping at the dead bark on this one, but there is still a film of stubborn bark here and there, and the tiny jins on the character spire I am finding impossible to clean without breaking.

I’ve already spent lots of time picking and scraping at the dead bark on this one, but there is still a film of stubborn bark here and there, and the tiny jins on the character spire I am finding impossible to clean without breaking.

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).

The sandblasting was done with a standard glass bead abrasive. I found 70 psi to be pretty ideal.

The sandblasting was done with a standard glass bead abrasive. I found 70 psi to be pretty ideal.

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.

After sandblasting.

After sandblasting.

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Spring Work on a Siberian Elm & Bonsai Aesthetics Aluminum Wire

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.

Just out of winter storage

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.

Setting some secondary and tertiary branches with Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire.

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.

Reducing a massive taproot with a reciprocating saw, then a die grinder fitted with a carving bit.

The root system of this tree is not ideal, and needs much further reduction, but this is where I left the work for this year.

This Nick Lenz pot was the right size for the rootball, but the tree is not planted at the right angle. I'm not concerned about that right now, since this tree is still very much in training.

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.


Expensive Japanese Cut Paste: Is It a Waste of Money?

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.

Its dirt cheap, waterproof, easier to apply than the clay style paste, and it even comes in pink!