Conifer Bonsai Shaping
Learn about the art of wiring conifer bonsai. This is part 1 of the author's guide on shaping and caring for bonsai. Click here to read part 2.
A rock-planted conifer Juniperus chinensis 'San Jose' that is wind-influenced with dead wood features
I’ve been asked many times by newcomers to bonsai, “how does one start shaping or styling one’s first tree?” Putting wire on a tree and bending it to try and make it interesting can be rather intimidating for beginners. It is best to have a set of clear ideas going into the tree’s development.
With professional bonsai, styling a tree can get very complicated. The Japanese, over time, have developed many rules, or standards, that they felt were important. Everything has been judged according to those principles. Today, those rules are no longer the only standard, and bonsai is certainly more flexible for the hobbyist.
Choosing your Conifer Bonsai
Many trees in nature give us great ideas for how we would like to style our bonsai. You chose a tree because it speaks to you in some fashion, or maybe you saw a tree in nature and would like to duplicate it in miniature. That’s why I recommend that once you have your tree, study its structure, determine its strengths and weaknesses.
To find out more about finding plants, either to start as bonsai or to add to an existing collection of bonsai, read Jack Christiansen's Looking for the Perfect Bonsai.
Often, it is best to do this over a period of time, going back and forth to it, to gain new perspectives. Once you have a basic idea, sketch a few drawings to help you form ideas for how you would like to proceed.
Not all bonsai are stylized after trees in nature. In fact, many professional bonsai trees today take on bizarre forms, in which the artist expresses a unique style. Then there are trees that already have a shape or structure, crying out to be styled in just a certain way. You need to be attuned to all of these opportunities.
A great example of a nice little conifer that has never been wired. Pinus parviflora ‘Regenhold Broom’
Your first tree: observe and envision
Long smooth curves and movements on trees can be very appealing to the viewer’s eye. Strong structural movements can reflect extreme weather conditions that a tree might endure in its natural environment.
Observing nature provides many clues. For instance, a maple (Acer palmatum) will never have deadwood features like a juniper or a pine would have.
Keep in mind that your own self-expression and vision will guide what your tree eventually becomes. You don’t need to start with a bristlecone pine with all its strong features and dead wood. So long as it satisfies your own expectations, you have succeeded.
Your first tools: where to get started
There are many companies that offer bonsai supplies online. Local nurseries may offer bonsai starter kits. There may be bonsai clubs in your area that can refer you to preferred suppliers. Bonsai tools come in various prices, but can be more expensive than hardware tools.
An inexpensive set of three tools is all one really needs to get started. Wire cutters, pruning scissors, and a concave branch cutter will handle most of your bonsai requirements.
Once you have a plan for styling and the basic materials for your tree’s development, it’s time to cut back lengthy branches and begin the wiring process.
Juniperus chinensis ‘Shimpaku kishu’ never wired and right out of a 4-inch pot
First, cut away unwanted branches around the trunk and any dead or weak branches that clutter your pathway. Keep in mind that, in order to apply the wire to the branches and trunk, there must be a clear path so that you can systematically wrap the wire.
Using wire allows us to train, shape, style, and, ultimately, affords us the artistic ability to depict movement and stability.
Bonsai wire comes in two types, copper and aluminum. Annealed copper wire is used for most conifers, and aluminum wire is used for deciduous trees. If you can get only one type, either will work. Wire comes in rolls of various diameters.
Choosing Conifer Bonsai Tools and Wires
Make sure that you choose wire large enough in diameter to have the strength to hold the bends you want in the branches to be wired. Having three rolls of various diameters will take care of most of your needs.
It is necessary to cut the wire at least one-third longer than the length of the surface to be wired. Start by sticking one end of the wire down into the soil next to the trunk line, pushing it into the soil at the angle you’ll be spiraling the trunk. Two inches is usually enough to secure the wire into the soil. Then start wrapping the wire around the trunk at about a 45° angle, bypassing the branches and spacing the wire evenly all the way up the trunk.
Remember, care is needed when applying wire to the surface of your tree. Don’t strangle the branch with the wire, but also don’t loop the wire too loosely either. Simply wrap it carefully onto the tree’s surface, looping it around side branches at about a 45° angle.
When wiring your branches, always connect two branches at a time; one branch will be a support for the other branch after coming off the trunk line. It is helpful to practice this on a dead branch before you tackle your bonsai.
I highly recommend YouTube videos such as How To Bonsai - Basic Wiring Technique, or for a more advanced demonstration, Bonsai Detail Wiring by Ryan Neil, in order to understand the proper way to wire a tree. Learning to wire the entire tree properly is an art in itself. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be with the procedure, and your tree will be happier for it.
Once you have wired the needed parts of the tree, it is time to start bending and positioning the branches into the desired locations. Take care as tree branches can be brittle, especially at certain times of the year. Conifers can be more forgiving and flexible than hardwoods, but you’ll need to hold the trunk with one hand and gently apply pressure to the branch with the other.
If you hear any cracking, release the pressure, gently and gradually flexing the branch back and forth to increase flexibility. Start bending again, but go slowly and carefully. If the cambium layer of the branch is exposed due to cracking, it will have to be sealed.
Common Conifer Bonsai Mistakes
A common beginner mistake is to bend wired branches over and over again until the vascular sytem is imparied. This leaves the branch lifeless, and removal of the dead branch will create an open space in that area of the tree. This is a good reason to have a firm plan for positioning and styling before bending.
It is important to check periodically that the wire isn’t cutting into the branches, as spring and summer growth causes branch expansion. If necessary, cut off the old wire and rewire to prevent unwanted marks.
Photographs by Jack Christiansen.
Jack is an ACS member, an avid bonsai-enthusiast and bonsai-creator. His garden is an excellent example of creative design and the integration of bonsai into the garden. His knowledge and photographic skills are well-known and widely appreciated. He lives in San Jose, California. Over the years, Jack has been a valued contributor to the CQ.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.