Posted January 6, 2011 by Youri Boerlage in Techniques

Working deadwood and locating living veins

In bonsai one of the things we use to make our trees look older is deadwood carving or the making of Jins and shari. Jins are branch stumps that are carved in such a manner they look like they broke in a natural way. Shari on the other hand are pieces of the trunk where the bark is striped off, as happens in nature quite regularly, for example when a branch breaks off violently and rips a part of the bark on the trunk as well.

In bonsai, (except when you can afford to work with old yamadori with natural deadwood), it is sometimes necessary to make deadwood on a tree to mask a stump of a branch, or mistakes that we cannot mask in another way in the design we want. Sometimes if a tree has a boring or not really a good trunk for bonsai, making deadwood can make a lot of difference in visual impact. Sometimes carving a trunk can turn a tree from a worthless piece of wood into an acceptable starter tree.
Since the world famous bonsai master Masahiko Kimura wrote and published the book: The magical technician of contemporary bonsai. Part 1, in 1982 (when I was one year old), (and all the reprints since then), in which he showed techniques for carving jin and shari unseen before in any other bonsai literature, people worldwide have been trying to copy and improve these techniques working on their own bonsai.
Nowadays at bonsai shows you will see a lot of variations and improvements on those same techniques Kimura showed so many years ago. The tools that were used then and still are used today by Kimura are of his own design. These have been copied and in some cases improved by power tool companies and  enthusiasts alike worldwide. Everything from the machines themselves to the blades and carve bits are constantly rethought and redesigned for use on the hardest wood and in the most difficult (impossible) places.
I think everybody who reads this will have seen the beautiful pines and junipers and other suitable species of bonsai shaped in driftwood style. Large parts of the trunks are dead and carved into natural but spectacular shapes, with the remaining bark curling around it in “veins” all the way from the roots up into the branches. Whatever you think about it, (ugly, too much carving, torture of the tree, or you think it’s beautiful) it is a wondrous series of techniques that makes it possible for a tree to survive and even thrive in this state.

In this case I will just use conifers as example. Contrary to Japan, in Europe it is widely accepted to also carve deciduous trees but I will only do that myself on trees that have no other options left (e.g. big wounds that won’t close, or weird lumps sticking out ), or if they will greatly improve visually or health wise. In Japan it is (according to the “rules”) not done to carve deciduous trees. Some Japanese bonsai artists discard deciduous trees we would kill for here in Europe because they cannot be formed without jin and shari) not only because of aesthetic reasons but also because of health risks to the tree. This because conifers have a natural defence they emit the moment they are damaged, that deciduous trees don’t have. First of all a conifer will start producing thick sticky resin, which will form kind of a bandage fairly quickly so that unwanted bacteria, viruses, and other pest can’t get into the tree. As this happens the tree will form an impenetrable layer within its wood which also protects it from the problems named above. Deciduous trees can’t do this little trick and the core wood of deciduous trees rots away more easily because its softer in structure than conifer wood, which makes it fairly easy for a fungi/ disease or pest to get into the sap stream of the tree and damage and possibly even kill the tree.
When digging out a tree (for example) an urban-yamadori conifer, (like most of my conifer stock at the moment is) sometimes you need to take away a lot of branches straight away because they don’t fit in to any kind of bonsai design or the root system has to be cut back a lot to fit in a pot, etc. I always leave stumps of the branches I take off for eventual future design. Same goes for root-stumps that stick out of the nebari above the soil. When I’ve cut the branches I’ll try to remove the bark of those stumps as fast as possible because it is a lot easier if the bark didn’t have a chance to dry out. Firstly I will make a cut all around the branch 2/3 cm from the trunk; I always leave a little bit of bark to not damage
the bark on the trunk, in the end it’s possible to cut this last bark back with a scalpel or sharp knife. After I put these so called urban-dori in a pot I’ll leave them alone for up to 3, sometimes 4/5 years to settle down, doing only the most necessary pruning to get more compact foliage and feeding them in a very strict regime (according to the species) to get them as healthy as possible before styling and re-potting.

I will talk mostly about junipers because I have quite a few of them and they have a tendency to form beautiful “veins” when worked on in the right manner.
In the first (settle-down) period after collecting a tree I found there are 3 stages of recovery to health:

  1. In the first year the tree will de-stress and form the first wave of hair roots. At the end of the season there will be a lot of new roots but they won’t be very strong yet. Above ground (in case of the juniper) if there was some hard pruning of roots and branches the tree will usually form stress leaves (scale junipers form new growth with needles). Leave this alone and don’t prune; it will grow away in the next seasons, when returning
    to normal, the foliage can be pruned very lightly to start with, to get better spreading. No thickening of the trunk will occur during this first season! Always start every tree with cleaning the bark with a soft copper brush this will help to find the veins running to the live branches in the coming years.
  2. In the second year of recovering, the foliage will start to return to normal, and the roots will start to thicken nicely, the tree will start settling and a strong growth will occur (again with a good fertilizer/feed schedule). The veins that used to run sap to the branches I cut and cleaned of bark will now start to dry out visibly.
    In a very positive case I will do some first (light) pruning.
  3. The third year will usually show the tree completely settled and continuing the strong growth from the previous year, this is also the year I will see a clear definition between living and dead veins running up the trunk. The dead veins will, as said before, dry out completely and can usually be traced back from the stumps of the branches taken of in the first year.

The living veins (because they still provide the strong growing foliage on the branches with sap) will start fattening. They are quite easy to locate by just running your hands slowly along the trunk. Especially under the stumps the dead bark will be much further drawn back into the trunk than where there is still living tissue. I read an article once in which the author (I believe it was Marco Invernizzi) compared the height differences in the bark with mountains and valleys, the dead pieces being the valleys, and the swollen veins the mountains. I actually think this comparison is actually very accurate; feeling up and down the bark with your fingers while colouring the dead (dried out) bark with a crayon gives a very good indication on where the main lifelines of the tree are.
This is the moment I’ll take a very sharp scalpel and start taking off very thin strips of dead bark, starting at the dead stumps working downward. I cut first through the middle of the deadwood to the bottom and then sideways until I hit living tissue (visible by the green colour under the bark and the start of slight bleeding). The living tissue will feel different (less resistance) when cutting through it (I do this work in early spring so the tree will heal quickly because of the high sap pressure in the veins). I will try to clean the dead bark away as far as possible between the living tissue and even cut a very small strip into the living tissue to ensure the tree will start producing scar tissue on the edges of the veins and the dead wood. This will help fattening the veins in the coming years. I would recommend checking out a Welsh artist called Simon Temblet, who made some extensive studies into using scar tissue to dramatically change the appearance of trees. He did show some of his work in articles in bonsai focus magazine. Something very well worth reading in to!

When the veins are all kind of clean and the dead wood between is all cleared of bark I’ll then look into the overall shape of the trunk. If there portions (big or large) of the deadwood that need to be taken off I’ll start working with a Dremel power tool for some basic shaping. After that, or if there’s not so much machine carving to do I’ll get out my hand carving tools which consist of: jin pliers, branch cutter, a root/branch splitter, all kinds of cutting and carving tools, a very sharp and strong knife, and a small burner (for example the crème brulée burners you can find in department stores nowadays). Oh and before I forget: Play-doh clay! Yes the stuff for kids.

I found that if you start splitting and splintering an old branch stump with the root/branch splitter and jin-pliers, and start stripping down the wood fibres one by one I get the most natural shapes. The lines in the shari and jin will go over in each other more fluidly and will follow the natural grain and line of the tree. In some places I’ll try to take away more layers of fibre to get depth into the lines. If some of the lines are lying deeper into the wood shadows will be created which give the beautiful 3-D one can see in yamadori and old bonsai exhibited in the many bonsai show that get organised in Japan and world wide. A little trick I picked up from Kimura is that when you take away a small line of deadwood deeper than the rest all along the veins they will be (visually) lifted out of the
shari which makes them look fatter and better.

When the deadwood has the shape I want, I’ll start putting play-doh clay all over the living bark that borders deadwood. This is done to protect the bark during the use of the burner to burn of any of the fibres, splinters and wood fuzz that are still sticking out. If you just lightly move the burner over the wood the softer and higher layered wood will burn a bit, this is no problem and will actually give the wood an even more natural look. Just after burning, spray the wood with cold water to make sure the fibres of the tree shrink together, a technique taken from old time ship building to harden the wood, which actually helps preventing wood rot.

Brush the deadwood with a soft copper brush to clean off the worst blackening of the wood (always follow the grain of the tree while brushing) spray again with water. Clean off the Play-doh now, and with a very sharp knife or scalpel make sure all the edges of the veins are cut clean and straight. This is very important for healing. What follows next is personal choice you can choose to brush jin-fluid (sulphur based anti-fungi wood protector) mixed with a little bit of black ink (for more natural colour) on to the dead wood now, or, as I normally do, also leave the tree standing with unprotected wood for a few months up to a year to get a bit more natural looking decay by weathering before brushing the jin-fluid on. After all this work I’ll usually leave the tree for a while to regain strength, after which I can start forming the branches and foliage into a basic bonsai

I hope this article helps people to make more out of their trees and maybe helps them to take decisions in their bonsai designs they would normally not have taken.

Youri Boerlage

I’m 29 years old, and I live together with my girlfriend in Amstelveen in the Netherlands. I studied garden architecture/ landscaping and have a great love for nature in general. I design gardens next to my work in tourism in Amsterdam, and of course my never ending bonsai work keeps me busy the rest of the time. Since I got my first bonsai (Carmona) some years ago as a birthday gift ( it died….), I'm driven(and always busy) to learn everything there is to know about bonsai. In the beginning I learned from everything I could get my hands on, this ranged from books (some quite outdated),