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Sunday, 9 May 2010

Building a bonsai bench

Building a bonsai bench
©Jerry Norbury, June 2009

Please Note: 
This article is published here with the kind permission of Jerry Norbury.  The copyright remains with him and I ask that you respect his intellectual property rights and ask for his permission if you want to copy or publish any of the text or images in this article.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 1

After thirty years working with bonsai I decided enough was enough – I needed one or more benches to display my ever growing collection of bonsai. It took me a further three years to finally get round to building the bench. It's the first large woodworking project I've ever undertaken which didn't originate from an Ikea flat-pack - and I'm really happy how well it turned out.

The basic design is built around the use of “standard” sized hardwood decking planks supported by a simple frame of treated pine. The deck planks are 215cm x 14cm x 2cm (7’ x 5.5” x ¾”). The rest of the framework is essentially sized around these dimensions. If you have different wood sizes you would need to design the overall sizes around your standard component dimensions.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 2

Component list
All the wood used for the frame is treated pine. There are two sizes used – 65mm square and 65mm x 48mm.
The planks used for the shelves are hardwood decking (Bankirai).
Length (cm)  Quantity     Description
208                  3                Horizontal beams (65mm x 65mm)
110                  6                Back and middle legs (65) – the long legs…
82                    3                Front legs (65) – the short legs.
20                    3                Top cross beam (65)
35                    3                lower cross beam (65mm x 45mm)
10                   21              Stainless steel bolts (100mm x 8 mm)
208                  2               back and front lateral beams (45mm)
89                    4               Horizontal leg support beams (45mm thick)
8                    16               Stainless steel bolts (80mm x 8mm)
215                10               Hardwood planks (215cm x 14 cm x 2cm) – uncut
                      40-ish         Stainless steel wood screws for attaching the decking to the frame.

Additionally you need the following tools:
 A saw – unless the wood is pre-cut. I used a circular saw.
 An electric drill
 A 22mm wood drill bit for sinking holes
 An 8mm drill bit
 A ratchet wrench (11mm for the bolts I used)
 A hammer for tapping the bolts through the beams.
 A workmate© for wood when drilling.
 A set square
 A spirit level
 An electric screwdriver

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 3
The assembly sequence is as follows:
1. Cut the wood. All joints are 90 degrees.

2. Assemble the top-most frame element from 2 x 208cm beams and 3x 20cm pieces. The centre support does not need to be exactly in the middle – but the centre legs DO need to be exactly in the middle. Sink the holes with a 22mm drill – to hide the bolt heads. Drill through the long beams with an 8mm drill – do not drill the short pieces; it’s unnecessary. Use 100mm bolts for all the 65mm square wood. Tap the bolts through the beams with the hammer into ends of the 20cm cross beams. Then use the wrench to screw the pieces together.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 4

3. Attach the 6 long legs (do not tighten the bolts fully – the legs need to be able to turn to allow the drilling of some holes later..). The legs go exactly in the corners and exactly in the middle. The photo also shows how the ends of the top frame element appear after assembly. Note: The holes need to be offset at the corners since there are two bolts which essentially cross each other at 90 degrees – one simply needs to be closer to the end of the beam than the other and then there’s no problem.

4. Complete all the long legs the same way. Use the workmate to hold the frame during assembly. Do not fully tighten the bolts yet…

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 5

5. Using one of the short front legs, mark out on the back side of the front legs where a sink hole must be drilled . The hole will be used to attach the second level to the long legs. Theoretically the position of this hole is the length of the front leg plus half the width of the support beam which will be on top of the leg (82cm + half of 6.5cm from the bottom of the front leg). Twist the front legs (the reason the legs were not tightened earlier) and drill through all three front long legs from the back.

6. Attach the front 3 short legs under the last remaining 208cm beam. Ensure that the centre leg is exactly in the middle of the beam. The beam goes on top of the legs.

7. Attach the 3 x 35cm support members at the corners and the middle of the beam to create an inverted “L” shape. This is unstable and needs to be held in the workmate. Again you have bolts crossing each other at 90degree in the corners and in the middle and will need to be offset. The middle leg and middle support must be EXACTLY in the middle of the beam – otherwise they won’t align with the legs on the taller frame.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 6

8. Attach the short front assembly to the long legs using the holes previously drilled through the long legs. The main frame is now complete. Unstable as yet. Go inside when it rains…

9. Making the lowest shelf supports. Measure a point on the back long legs 50cm off the ground. We will attach the back support beam (208cm x 65mmx 48mm) here. This photo shows the back beam attached AND the first front to back support. We use the shorter bolts now because the wood is not as thick. Get the main frame level (paper under the legs etc ) and then attach the back support beam to the left back leg – clamp the beam into place (level) and bolt in the right leg – then bolt in the middle back leg to the beam. We go through the beam INTO the leg this time.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 7

10. Attach the 4 front to back supports (89cm) on the side of the legs. They need to be perfectly level.

11. Finally attach the front beam. The frame is now complete. Tighten ALL the bolts.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 8

12. Start screwing the decking onto the frame. Add these two first and paint them with wood oil (later they are harder to get to). Paint whole frame now with wood oil and leave to dry.

13. Add the other shelves (three on top – no gap between, three in the middle with small gaps and two on the bottom with a small gap between) and screw into place (avoiding the corners where the bolt heads are!). The front of the deck hangs over the frame by roughly 4cm at the front and at the sides. The top level also hangs over the back of the frame by roughly 4cm. In my design I was initially aiming to have only 2 planks on the top – but that resulted in a big gap and no overhangs – which wasn’t attractive. I then went to three planks and no gaps.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 9

14. Oil the planks.

15. Stand round looking happy.

Jerry Norbury Bonsai Bench Plans Page 10

16. Try it out.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Wee Trees Competition 2010 - Styling of my entry tree

It may be interesting for some to follow the full process of the initial styling of a basic Garden Centre Plant and see the transformation in to a potential bonsai.

The competition ran from the end of March 2010 until the end of April 2010 and centred around styling a nursery plant costing no more than £20, that had no previous bonsai training.  Having  trawled my local Garden Centres and nurseries over a weekend,  I ended up choosing a little Juniper squamata "Blue Carpet" to work on.  The choice was really governed by the limited availability of material due to the continued cold spell of weather.

The first task was to clean out any dead foliage and find the where the actual roots of the plant were located in the pot.  Many people will be surprised to find how deep some of these plants are potted.  The actual root to trunk junction could be half way down the pot.

I removed about a third of the plastic pot by trimming it with a pair of garden scissors and started to carefully scrape away the soil.  I removed any fine roots emanating from the trunk as I went and finally found the main roots.  Typically for these young Junipers there were no strong buttress roots, but rather a bunch of fine roots coming from the trunk in a clump.  
Cleaning out the foliage followed.  I removed any dead foliage and branches and then moved on to remove any weak growth that would not be strong enough to wire.

Having tidied up the plant, I could now see the trunk line and available branches in order to determine my styling options.  The trunk had a nice curving line, but was very thin in relation to the foliage canopy.
There was no discernible taper and any useful branches were in the upper third of the tree.  This combined with the poor root  spread severely limited my options.

I decided to leave the tree overnight and come back to it in the morning with fresh eyes and maybe some new ideas.

I was still as clueless  in the morning and decided to place the tree in to an aproximation pot without removing any more roots and clean the tree up some more in order to further narrow down the options.  I studied all sections of the trunk in relation to the trunkline and aiming for a triangular shape, I eliminated any opposing branches and any finer branches that I thought would play no part in the final image.
This finally gave me a tree like image, although with a lot left to be desired.

So, what were my options at this stage.
Option 1: Literati- remove all but the top few branches and wire in a few severe bends.  Maybe add a spiralling shari to the trunk.

Option 2: Informal Upright- Enhance and tighten the bends to bring the foliage closer to the soil line and then wire the foliage pads so that they would hopefully hide most of the trunk.

I could really not see any other options at this stage and went to look at some of my bonsai books to get some inspiration and that was when I came across the third option.  What about a Tanuki or wrap around?
I have a good collection of odd pieces of driftwood, so I decided to explore this further.

I found a suitable piece of just the right size and tried this with the tree to see if it would make a convincing image.
As it turned out, the movement of the deadwood complemented the trunkline more or less perfectly and would allow me to keep working within the framework of branches I had retained.

It would involve however a major trauma to the tree in order to be able to show a live vein of wood from the front view.  That is I would have to split the trunk along a line to just above the roots in order to feed half of the trunk through the hollow section of the trunk and run the other half along the back.

I would not normally consider this treatment for a new tree, but with the relatively low cost of the material, and considering that this was a young and vigorous plant, I decided that I would risk it for this tree.

I carefully marked a line along the length of the trunk that closely followed the contours of the deadwood.
This would guide me when splitting the trunk and make sure that the live wood would match as closely as possible, making attaching it to the dead wood as easy as possible.

I don't own a trunk splitter, so I used my concave cutter to carefully split the trunk along the marked line, making sure that the split ended up above the roots in such a way that both halves of the tree would have sufficient root to support the foliage on that half of the tree.

I then placed the dead wood in to the split and checked the fit.
I had to make a small adjustment to the hollow section at the bottom of the deadwood in order to be able to feed the live vein through without having to bend it too severely, which would risk separating the bark from the wood causing major risk that this half of the live wood would die.
It was at this point that I realise that I should have marked the split line along the front of the deadwood, as this would be the side to be seen.  Live and learn!

On to attaching the live wood.
There are a few ways of doing this.  I could have used brass screws screwed through pre drilled holes in the live wood in to the dead wood every couple of inches.  While that would give me a good fixing, it would also risk interrupting the flow of sap.  Also, I could not find any screws that were thin and long enough to work, so I decided to wire the live wood to the dead wood, protecting the bark with a rubber padding..  While this is quite obtrusive, it gave me a good fixing.
I had to drill a small hole through the dead wood for the lowest wire.

The other wires were just brought around the deadwood.  Any visible edges of the split trunk were sealed with Kyonal cutpaste.  I would have preferred to use grafting wax, but the tub I had had dried out and was no longer usable.

I trimmed the rubber padding as closely as possible to the wires to reduce the visual impact on the final image.

With the tree now firmly attached to the deadwood, it was time to wire the tree ready for branch placement.  I generally keep a lot more branches than will be required for the final image, and apply wire to every branch starting with the trunk and strongest wire working towards the top and outer edges with diminishing wire size.
This allows me to place the branches in to their positions and then decide which ones will be required to obtain the final image.
I work on the principle that it is easy to cut more branches off, but very difficult to put more branches on if you find you need them.

With the wire applied, the branches were roughly placed in to position to produce a pleasing outline in proportion to the trunk.  This included a lot of severe bends to foreshorten some of the branches in order to bring the foliage closer to the trunk.

Again, I was aiming for a triangular outline to the canopy while following the general movement of the tree towards the right.

Once the general shape was established, the detailed placement of the small branches defined the foliage pads.

This was quite a fiddely operation and the detail wiring paid off at this stage.

I removed about another third of the remaining foliage during this stage as it was not required for the final image.

The pictures below show the tree after the initial styling and a top down view of the canopy

The tree had now been transformed in to a good potential bonsai and would require a period of rest to recover from the initial styling.  There is always the risk of overly stressing a tree by performing too many procedures in a short period of time.
The tree was now left in an unheated greenhouse, out of direct sunlight. I misted the tree daily and made sure that the soil remained uniformly moist.  As very little work had been done on the roots, I applied a weak solution of fertiliser to help the tree regain some strength.

After two weeks, the tree was looking healthy and the shoots on the growing tips were pushing out new growth.  Only one of the small branches at the back of the tree  had not survived the severe bending and had to be removed.  This required me to adjust the branch placement of the apex and back branches to cover the area left bare by the removal.

I shortened the long straight jin pointing to the right, as it disrupted the general flow of the foliage and
I decided to pot the tree in to a shallow oval container, but chose a slightly oversized pot, as I did not want to remove any more root from the tree.  This meant that I had to add some rocks and ground cover in order to fill the empty space in the pot, and the whole arrangement took on more of a landscape feel than I had originally envisaged.

Overall I am pleased with the outcome of this first styling.  It will now take a few years of growing and pinching in order to fill out the foliage pads and for the live wood to graft itself to the dead wood.

I will eventually repot this tree into a smaller pot, but for the time being, I will leave it in this container to promote strong growth.

Here is my final submission photo

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Branch Development on Squamata Juniper

Branch Development on Squamata Juniper

I will start this article with the statement that everything written here is based solely on my own experience and observations, here in middle England, with Meyeri and Blue Carpet cultivars and that I have no formal training in horticulture.

What prompts me to write an article on such a specific subject?
Having taken part in a recent styling contest and the subsequent voting on the completed entries, I could see that many of the entrants seemed to have difficulty with styling the branches on junipers that have needle foliage.

Admittedly, to develop mature looking branching and foliage clouds on these junipers is not a short-term project, but with a little work, convincing results can be achieved from the outset.

I normally start this procedure in mid to late spring, about three weeks after the new growth has started to push out.

Lets start with a few vital pointers:
  • Don’t try and style a tree that is not in perfect health.  The procedure described here is potentially stressful to the tree and you could easily do irreparable damage to a tree if it already stressed. 
  • Don’t use this method of styling on a tree that has had extensive root work done.  The tree needs to be able to produce prolific growth in the period after styling.
  • Make sure the scissors or shears you use are sharp!  A clean cut is less likely to promote disease.
  • Most important of all, have a plan!  You will need to have a final image in mind when you start.
  • If you are not sure if a shoot or branch is needed, leave it there for now.  You can always lose it later, but it’s not easy to stick them back on once they are cut off. 

So, how do I go about making a reasonable start on developing a good branch framework?

The way I went was to look at how branches develop on full size specimens.
In general, squamatas have dense foliage, leading to the foliage on the innermost branches to be deprived of light and air.  This causes the needles to die and eventually fall off.  Growth is generally strong on top and at the tips of the branches where good light is available.

My thought was that I could use these observations to my advantage if I could speed up this process.

Picture 1 shows a typical Squamata branch with its congested branches and needles.

(Picture 1.)
It would be virtually impossible to wire this branch as it is and achieve a satisfactory result.  To be able to make this branch more convincing, I will have to simplify it and reveal the structure of the secondary and tertiary branches contained within this tangle.  To do this I simply mimic the effect that lack of light would have on the needles; I remove them.

This is where sharp scissors and a lot of patience come in to play.
I carefully separate the individual branches and start cutting out the older needles starting from the area closest to the trunk and work towards the tip of the branches and stop when I get to within about 5 or 6 sets of needles of the growing tip. 
The needles are cut one at a time and as close to the branch as I can manage.
I remove any very weak shoots as I go and cut out any new shoots that grow from the crotches of branch junctions, being careful not to cut in to the small branches.

This is tedious work so allow time and take some breaks.  I usually do only one branch at a time.  The cleaning out of the old needles on this branch took about 2 hours. 

Picture 2 shows the same branch with most of the older needles removed.

(Picture 2)
I can now clearly see what I have to work with.  Now it’s decision time as to which of those branches and shoots to keep.
In general, I would remove anything that is opposing another branch and anything that looks weak.  Everything else stays until the wiring is complete.  I like to have plenty of choice when I come to the final placement of the branches.

For the purpose of this article I will assume that you are familiar with basic wiring techniques.
For the wiring on this branch I used 1mm copper coated aluminium wire, as all the branches were quite small and this is an exercise in positioning rather than bending.

Great care must be taken when applying the wire, as these little branches and shoots will easily snap of at the point where they are attached.  This is another good reason to leave as many as possible until the wiring is complete.  I lost three of the shoots during the wiring on this branch.

It is not necessary to wire every little branch in this initial styling. But enough wire should be applied to be able to fix the majority of the branches in place.

Once the wiring is completed, the branches and shoots can be arranged.  The aim is to give maximum light exposure to the growing tips while preserving a natural look to the branch.

A simple fan shape would suffice for the light requirement, but it would not look convincing as a branch arrangement.  I usually arrange the branches in layers and introduce some severe bends in the process.  These small branches are quite flexible and will take almost any shape.  The secret is to give good support while bending them in to position.  As mentioned before, they will easily snap at the point of origin.

Picture 3 shows the wired and arranged branch.

(Picture 3)

This tree will now be allowed a period of recuperation, with a good watering and feeding regime.  I would opt to keep it in full sunshine on anything but the hottest days.  It will not look its best for a few weeks, as the remnants of the cut needles will turn brown and wither.

From now it’s a bit of a wait until the little branches have set in place and the wire can be removed.  Depending on the tree this can take the full growing period.  During this time I carefully pinch out new growth if I feel that a particular branch is growing too strongly.

Picture 4 shows a branch that has been treated in the same way last year.  It is about to have the wires removed for further refinement to begin.

(Picture 4)

What remains now is to train any new shoots upwards to form the foliage pad above the branch framework.  Pinching new growth will promote lots of buds with short internodes to fill out the foliage pad.  Another two years and this one will be ready.

I hope this articles was of help to some of you.  Feedback and comments would be greatly appreciated.