Bonsai Deadwood: The Best Techniques & How To Get Started

What Is Bonsai Deadwood?

Ancient trees in nature can boast some extraordinary examples of deadwood. The deadwood is likely to have been caused by an extreme weather event such as drought, powerful winds, lightning strikes, freezing temperatures or fierce storms.

Once deadwood has been formed, the exposed wood will be weather-beaten and bleached by the sun and give it spectacular contrast against the rest of the living wood and bark. It’s impossible to recreate these forces to fashion deadwood on bonsai trees, but there are some interesting aging techniques that will add character to your dwarf tree.

Bonsai deadwood is the ancient art of Japanese cultivation of miniature trees to create shape and preserve dead wood on a living specimen. The deadwood enhances the impression of age and beauty that indicates a flourishing and well-considered bonsai.

Various deadwood techniques are used for practical reasons and aesthetical appeal. Naturally, a bonsai might have deadwood from dying branches, pest infestation or even disease. The deadwood can be retained, partially or wholly removed to enhance or maintain the tree’s overall shape and the illusion of age. If the bonsai specialist decides to keep the deadwood, it must be chemically treated to produce the beautiful colouration of time and weather-worn wood, preserve it and ensure no disease remains.

Some bonsai artists enjoy the expressive nature of deadwood appearing in the overall tree design that can be used to enhance the tree’s shape, disguise unappealing features or purely augment its beauty.

Although you can use various techniques to create deadwood on a bonsai throughout the year, creating deadwood causes harm to your tree, and the wound will need to seal. Its recommended that you carry out deadwood processes in the late summer so that it is healthy before the onset of the cold winter months and the dormant period.

As the summer progresses, the tree sap becomes a lot slower, which means that the wounds will bleed less.

The Two Best Deadwood Techniques Explained

There are two types of deadwood that you can create on a bonsai tree. They require different techniques to achieve the distinctive intentional, artful effects. The techniques are also pertinent to specific plants. The application of deadwood works particularly well on conifers and deciduous trees such as maples and beeches because they naturally shed dead limbs. Other species tend to retain the dead limbs and form gloriously withered and gnarled, and appear like driftwood.

Jin

The jin technique is universally used on branches at the top of the bonsai.

The technique requires the complete removal of the bark from the branch you want to deadwood. The branch will then struggle and die to form the Jin. This practice aims to show the bonsai’s effort to survive and show age. Not only can the Jin system form aged branches, but it can remove unwanted branches from the tree entirely. Jin is a good habit to form when removing branches because you can permanently remove the entire branch if the design is not appealing. The overall shape is changed, and the illusion of age is formed.

The bent over shape mimics a tree in nature that has suffered injury from terrible storms or severe weather conditions. Because the deadwood is at the top of the tree, it produces highly appealing and visible results for a stunning bonsai specimen.

Shari

In wild trees, Shari would have been caused by a falling branch or a lightning strike. In a bonsai tree, the deadwood tends to be encouraged vertically at the front of the trunk and is usually obscured by new branch growth and living bark. The bonsai can also cause intentional damage to the trunk to force the it and surrounding branches to die, causing the beautiful driftwood style.

Sharamiki is likened to the floating portion of a tree floating in the shallows of a beach.

The driftwood techniques are very different to conventional bonsai art. The deadwood must be carved to suit the bonsai and appear to be like a time and weather beaten tree in nature. The deadwood process causes significant trauma to the tree, which results in an ethereal beauty. Shari cannot be removed from the bonsai tree, so don’t perform this technique on an expensive tree whilst you practise.

How To Create Deadwood On Your Bonsai Tree

When creating your Jin or Shari bonsai, it’s imperative to have the right tools to hand. You’ll need Jin pliers, graving tools and lime sulfur. Most importantly, you’ll need to ensure that your tools are spotlessly clean to avoid unnecessary trauma and infection. The Jin pliers are used to grip and break off branches and control bark removal to create the deadwood.

Manual tools such as graving chisels, blades and burins are used to carve delicate woodgrain and other delicate details into the bonsai for an aged appearance. In recent years, contemporary power tools have been introduced into the bonsai toolkit armoury. They include minute bits for carving and grinding. When the deadwood shaping is complete, a gas torch burns away any remaining tiny wood fibres and helps to raise the grain in the newly exposed wood.

Finally, various wire brushes and sanding implements remove the marks left from the tools and help imitate weathering.

Once the deadwood has been shaped according to the bonsai specialist’s design plan, the exposed wood is carefully treated with lime and sulfur bleaching preservatives. The preservative protects the wood from pest infestation, infection, and wood rot, giving it a silvery glow that resembles relentlessly aged wood. Both Jin and Shari add vast amounts of character to a tree; they can be created separately or on the same tree to give the impression of a very old tree.

Thankfully, there are very few health problems when creating deadwood as long as the tree is strong and healthy and the processes are followed with caution and accuracy. One crucial factor to remember is that it’s nigh on impossible to undo deadwood; your tree will retain its new appearance for a long time, so ensure that you have appropriate, slightly cautious plans in place.

Creating A Jin

Step 1: Get The Right Tools

Locate the branch that you would like to make into a Jin. You’ll need to consider the overall appeal of your bonsai tree to choose the right one, or if you are lucky, it might be an evident and natural selection.

Step 2: Locate The Defoliation Area

With your sharp blade, shorten the Jin branch to just over one inch longer than you want the final branch to look.

Step 3: Prune The Leaves

Again, with the sharp blade, carefully cut through the bark at the base of the Jin branch. You will need to cut around the circumference and length of the branch so that it is easy to peel the bark back and off.

Step 4: Aftercare

With patience, slowly peel the bark of the jin. If you practise the Jin in the spring or summer, the bark should be soft and easy to peel; however, if you are doing this in the winter, you might need a sharp knife or Jin pliers to help you peel back the bark.

Step 5: Locate The Defoliation Area

With your Jin pliers, pinch, twist or crush the end of the exposed branch stub. Artfully and carefully pull back small fibres of the wood to give it the sought-after natural look of Jin.

Step 6: Prune The Leaves

Continue twisting and preening the wood until you are happy with the final aesthetic appeal.

Step 7: Aftercare

Apply a thin layer of sulfur to the Jin to prevent infection, pests and rot. The bleaching agent will help lighten the exposed wood so that you can achieve the same colour that you would find in nature.

You should now have a beautiful looking Jin. The branch should have the same appeal as an ancient tree that had a damaged or lost limb from a winter’s storm many years ago.

Remember that if you want to prune larger branches, why not consider trying a Jin? The branch can always be removed if you don’t like it.

Creating A Shari

Step 1: Get The Right Tools

Think and plan long and hard before you create a Shari. It is a drastic and permanent change and can potentially ruin a good bonsai tree if finished poorly. The whole purpose of a Shari is to create a convincing aesthetic appeal that the tree has suffered trauma in nature; if not, the tree will look peculiar. If you are a beginner, don’t practise on your favourite tree!

Step 2: Locate The Defoliation Area

Look very closely at the bark, and you should be able to see some swollen areas or veins that are delivering sap to the tree’s extremities. You need to ensure that you avoid these; if you interrupt the sap flow, which always radiates outwards, you could cause damage to the branches that are higher up.

Step 3: Prune The Leaves

Now that you have your Shari plan in mind, carefully mark the edges of where you would like it to be on your bonsai. Be careful to follow the line of the trunk for natural appeal. Use a water based ink to mark the Shari because it can easily be removed. Be fluid with your outline so that you enhance the natural curves of the tree.

Step 4: Aftercare

Carefully cut through the bark using a clean, sharp modelling knife. Then carefully make another cut a few millimetres away, cutting at an angle so that it meets the first cut. The bark will be then be easy to remove.

Step 5: Locate The Defoliation Area

Continue step 4 until you are happy with the amount of Shari that you have created. Keep taking a step back and looking at the tree from the front and other various angles to ensure that you find overall beautiful artistic appeal. It’s important to do this slowly so that you don’t overdo it.

Step 6: Prune The Leaves

Apply a thin layer of lime sulfur on the exposed wood to protect it from disease, pests, rot, and sun damage. Remember, sulfur smells like rotting eggs, so apply it outside or where there is a breeze.

Annual Care

Make a note to apply lime sulfur each year to keep the Jin preserved and free from pests, rot, disease and sun damage. You might want to use a steel brush to enhance the Jin or Shari each year and then apply more sulphur. Keep an eye on your bonsai art and adjust your work where necessary because the bark is beginning to grow back.

We would love to see your tree, so leave us a comment and photograph. Also, please feel free to ask any questions.

Bonsai Styling

Deadwood is usually an aesthetic choice, but sometimes it’s a great way to enhance its natural beauty, create an illusion of age or hide defects. Because bonsai is such a formal art, various applications and predefined styles can help you make a development plan for your bonsai. There are accepted styles that determine which branches and foliage should be removed or reshaped and the Jin and Shari detailing that can be applied to the trunk and branches.

The quintessential bonsai is a single dwarfed tree in a small pot that has the appearance of a mature weather-worn tree with an impression of great age. A bonsai is always viewed from its ‘front’, so you can manipulate the tree to enhance the visual experience and its apparent age as a designer.

Generally, successful Jin deadwood is applied to conifers. More often than not, the conifer species retain the dead limb, which ages naturally and becomes weathered and bleached in appearance over time. Deciduous trees tend to shed their dead branches and seal over the wound in the form of a callus. Shari techniques work equally as well on conifer or deciduous bonsai.

The aggressive driftwood style where most of the trunk is managed much better by conifers.

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