Creating Deadwood Bonsai – Even When You Hadn’t Planned To
As you pursue the art and craft of bonsai, it’s a sure bet that all of your design ideas will not be realized. While this may sound like a bad thing – we’re in charge of designing and developing our trees, after all – it’s not necessarily bad. If you’ve done any significant collecting of material for bonsai, you’re bound to have run across trees with odd enough (but really cool) “designs” that you would never have thought of if you had had total control.
So, too, it often is with trees after they’ve come into our care. We begin with a design plan, which is usually given to us by how the tree has chosen to grow. We dutifully wire and shape branches and new leaders and wait patiently as the designs take shape. Most of the time we get what we set out to do, at least in the beginning. But on occasion a tree will decide to give up a branch; sometimes a storm makes a change we didn’t have in mind; sometimes a family pet or wild animal enters the design picture.
You last saw this loblolly pine bonsai, Pinus taeda, back in early October. I noted at the time that the first left-side branch needed chasing back in, as it was simply too long for the design plan. What I didn’t notice at the time was that the branch was simply weak; why, I don’t know. So the tree made the decision for me in regard to being overlong; it let the branch go.
Here’s the difference a month made. There’s been no harsh weather, no unusual dryness, no insect attack. The branch just died. This happens in the wild, as well. We just took a vacation road trip, and I couldn’t help but notice countless pines along the way (mostly loblollies, as it’s the predominant pine species in the Deep South) that had lost just a single branch. So at this point I’m willing to conclude that it’s not unexpected for this to happen with the species. I haven’t been working with loblollies but for a few years now, so I’ll learn more in time as I gain additional experience.
So a design decision has been made for me, which it turns out won’t be bad. This is because coniferous bonsai look older and more mature with dead wood features – primarily jin and shari. This tree lost a branch; time to make the most of it.
What follows is a tutorial on creating deadwood bonsai – which primarily consists of jin and shari, but in this case is limited to jin. Now, you don’t have to wait for your tree to lose a branch in order to add jin. With that said, however, you have to be as diligent in designing a jin or shari feature as you are in building your tree’s structure. Most of the time, less is more (this rule obviously does not apply to certain pine or juniper bonsai that are built around extraordinary natural deadwood – you’ve no doubt seen pictures of such specimens). In the case of my tall, graceful loblolly pine, I don’t need a lot of dead branches to make the appropriate artistic statement.
First of all, you only need three tools to create jin on your trees, and every bonsai artist must have these three tools regardless of the type of work planned: concave cutters, wire pliers and a sharp grafting or X-Acto® knife.
So let’s begin learning some basic deadwood bonsai techniques. Step one is to simply shorten the dead branch. Not too short, but not too long either. This looks about right to me.
Step two is bark removal (in the wild, the bark eventually falls off dead branches as they dry out before ultimately become bleached out by the elements). This is a two-part process, the first part of which is to cut through the bark completely around the branch as its base – you use your knife for this operation, as I’m doing here.
Next I take my pliers and, gripping the bark along the branch, crush and twist it until it separates from the wood beneath. For branches that are either still alive when turned into jin or recently dead, the bark comes off very easily.
And the result…. Isn’t it interesting how much of a difference this already makes in the tree’s appearance?
Step three is making the jin look believable, that is, not like someone just killed the branch, shortened it and removed its bark (which I did). This again is a two-part process, the first of which is to make two longitudinal cuts, at 90° angles to each other, into the tip of the branch. To do this, use your concave cutter as I’m doing in this photo. Don’t cut too far in along the branch; just enough to allow you to grip and separate three of the four segments by peeling them back with your pliers. This makes the jin look more natural.
Now, with your pliers carefully grab one of the segments at its tip and peel back toward the trunk. It’ll tear roughly along the direction of the longitudinal cut you made in the previous step. Repeat this process with two more of the segments. As you tear back the wood, be sure that you taper it into the branch so that it looks more realistic.
Finally, use your carving knife to complete the tapering down to a sharp tip.
This is the completed jin. It needs to dry out for a week or two before I apply lime sulfur to whiten and preserve it.