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Bonsai Dragon & Deadwood Tips


Do you like deadwood on bonsai? If so, are you in the let’s not overdo it camp, or are you a proponent of the no-holds-barred, go for broke approach that’s expressed loud and clear on Masahiko Kimura's Dragon?

The no-holds-barred deadwood approach by the grand deadwood innovator and master, Masahiko Kimura. He named the tree Dragon. The photo is from Bonsai Today issue 2 (long out of print). It also appeared in The Bonsai Art of Kimura (also long out of print).

Or maybe you don’t like deadwood at all. If so, you might want to stick with deciduous or tropical trees, where deadwood is a lot less common. So you won’t be tempted.

No need for deadwood on this famous tropical masterpiece. It's a Ficus microcarpa by Huang, Ching-Chi of Taiwan.

If you stray into conifers (especially junipers) where most trees these days have experienced at least some carving, sooner or later you'll most likely find yourself succumbing to the urge.

Maybe it will be just a small jin on a little branch stump. Or a modest shari to cover an accidental wound on a trunk (that happened to me just the other day).

This is where it starts, but if you’re not careful some day you’ll end up carving trees that look something like this. Well. maybe not really like this, but you get my point.

This photo is one of many that were taken by Andres Bicocca at the 2017 European Bonsai San Show in Saulieu France. None of the trees or artists are identified (no blame, they were no doubt taken on the fly and I’m just happy to have them). The tree might be called sculptural. It's a look that seems to offend some people. The primary complaint is that it looks plastic (I think Walter Pall used that term). Another is that it doesn't look like tree. As John Naka said "Make your bonsai look like a tree".

John Naka, the Dean of American bonsai with his famous Goshin. As you can see, Mr Naka used ample deadwood - even whole trees in his forest are dead - but the planting still looks natural. Photo by Cheryl Manning.

François Jeker, deadwood artist and author of Bonsai Deadwood does some of the most detailed and natural looking carving anywhere.

One mistake beginners (and others) make, is to carve too much too soon. If you jump right in without much experience (or without a plan) and start peeling and gouging away, you can do a lot of damage in just a few minutes (take it from someone who knows first hand).

These illustrations by François give you a glimpse into the depth of his understanding of deadwood (and of his talent as an illustrator). They originally appeared in Bonsai Today issue 103.

Before you start carving, it's critical to know where the living veins are. If you damage a vein that supports a branch or even a whole side of the tree (or even the whole tree) you can easily end up with dead branches or worse, a dead tree.

Living veins are roughly analogous to blood vessels (or highways) that move water and nutrients from the roots to the tops and vice versa. Some elements go up from the roots to feed the tops and others go down from the foliage to feed the roots - an ongoing and critical exchange (this exchange is interrupted during dormancy).

Close up of live veins on a Rocky mountain juniper that belongs to Michael Hagedorn. I borrowed the photo from a post on Michael's Crataegus Bonsai blog titled Juniper Live Veins and How They Move.

Live veins aren’t always obvious, though they often bulge a bit. So if you find a bulge running the length of the trunk with crevices or indents on either side, then you’ve located a live vein (live veins also run out branches).

Another way to locate living veins is to gently scrape away loose dead bark. If the cambium layer underneath is alive (green) then stop scraping. If it’s not alive, continue to scrape the bark away and expose the deadwood underneath. Just be sure to stop when you come to a live area. Now you’re on your way to successfully locating and distinguishing living veins from from dead tissue. It's these area with dead tissue that are okay for carving.

This almost otherworldly carving job belongs to Harry Harrington. The tree is a Yew (Taxus baccata). We’ve shown it a couple times on Bonsai Bark, but I think it’s worth another look. The built to fit pot is by Victor Harris of Erin Pottery.

Once you’ve located dead tissue, feel free to carve it. But as you’re peeling away the bark that's covering the dead tissue, be careful not to peel bark that’s covering live tissue. This may sound simple, but it takes some practice and judicious care.

There’s much more on the art of carving, though if you proceed with caution and remember to locate the living veins and take care not to damage them, you might be successful.

Olive deadwood by Harry Harrington. You can create deadwood that looks old with skillful carving and finishing, but only nature and time can create aged bark .

Almost forgot... Not all carving is done on tissue that is already dead. You can also intentionally kill living wood by carving it. This is okay if you know what you're doing and you make sure to save the essential live veins you need to support the parts of the tree you want to stay alive and healthy.

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