Pushing the Limit!

Pushing the Limit!

One day, Mr. Tanaka brought this Japanese Black Pine into the workshop and said, “clean this tree up for the auction tomorrow.” I sat there looking at the tree and the bark and figured it was about 50-60 years old. I asked Mr. Tanaka how much he wanted for it and it turns out the tree was not very expensive at all. I couldn’t help myself and bought the tree from him. I figured this tree would be a fun project to practice on during my time at Aichien. Hopefully I can make the tree look good, sell it and make a bit of extra money for another Bonsai pot (Mr. Tanaka gets a cut of course)! Since I knew wiring and styling the tree wouldn’t really make the tree much more valuable, I had to do some big changes. Changes in this case turned out to be two big bends on the trunk which I will chronicle in this post. Let’s get to work!

Scott from Melbourne Australia was here for two week participating in the Aichien Apprenticeship Program, so I got him and Juan involved in the bending process. Here’s Scott feeling sorry for what we’re about to do to the tree. ;o)

My plan is to compress the slight bends that are already on the trunk. Looking at the first bend point, we knew that this one branch on the right had to go so Scott cut it off.

Now that the branch on the right is out of the way, we can start the bending process. Our goal here is to see that jin touching the trunk underneath it. About 20-25 degree bend.

Since the trunk can sometimes be stiff, I needed to use a fairly strong stainless steel screw for my anchor point. The first bend point is about 6cm (2½in) wide.

We used an impact gun and put this screw into the back of the trunk. The reason why we didn’t anchor the tree to the pot is because I may repot the tree in the Spring.

We also put a screw on the upper portion of the trunk.

We then attached a stainless steel wire to the top screw

We then tied the wire to the bottom screw

We plan on using a clamping jack to compress the trunk. Since the trunk angle was a little bit wide, we couldn’t put the jack on the tree just yet due to the fingers wanting to slide. We had to compress the trunk a little bit first before the jack can be placed. Here we attached a second wire to the top screw.

We then attached a third wire to the bottom screw

The second and third wire was used so the jack had something to grab on to to start the bend.

As we compressed the bend, one of us would tighten the guy wire.

Once the top part of the trunk was parallel to the bottom of the trunk, we removed the jack and the second and third wires. Now we can place the jack on the trunk itself and continue the bend.

Here’s the jack attached to the trunk. Note that there is no padding on the jack fingers. The reason why we didn’t use padding is because the fingers are sitting on thick bark. The bark itself acts as a padding for the tree. Also notice that the outside of the bend is starting to break apart and a visible wound is showing.

Here’s Scott and Juan (BonsaiTico.com) finishing up the bend.

Here’s a better shot of the open wound. As we bent the trunk, the wound didn’t tear across the grain but along the grain. When tissue separates with the grain, the healing process is much easier for the tree. Having said that, it’s still a pretty big wound.

Once the bend was to where we wanted, the jack was removed.

Here’s me putting some cut paste putty into the large open wound. It’s important to protect these breaks because water can pool in the wound and rot out the wood. I want this break to completely heal in the future.

Here is a front shot of the first bend. This second guy wire was attached in preparation for the second bend of the trunk. We want to bend the top portion of the trunk about 45 degrees down.

Here’s a shot of a screw we put into the upper portion of the trunk for the second bend.

Since the anchor points for the second bend is about 90 degrees from each other, we had to pre bend the trunk with a bending bar. Once we get the anchor points closer, we can then attach the jack to finish the job.

When using this large bar to bend the top portion of the trunk, the base of the trunk was starting to flex instead. We had to add blocks to the bottom of the trunk to keep the base from bending. This forced the bend to be at the point we wanted. This second bend was much more difficult because of the angle and the stiffness of the trunk. The long bar I was using started to flex during the bend, but it was just enough to do the job.

Once we were done with the bending bar and got a good angle on the second bend, we installed the jack.

Here is a shot of the break on the outside of the second bend. We used putty to seal this wound as well.

Here’s me looking at the bends and wondering if we just killed the tree… ;o)

Here is what the trunk looks like with the two compression bends. Sweet!

Here is what the tree looks like now.

Here is a before and after of the tree

Aftercare and the Plan

Now that the bends are done, the tree is extremely stressed. We plan on keeping it protected inside the workshop for the rest of the Winter. I originally was going to repot this tree in the coming Spring, but that may change depending on how well the tree recovers from the bend. I have to take into account that the stress points are not only on the outside of the bends, but on the insides of the bend as well.

Dead or Alive

Many of you are probably thinking, “is this tree really going to live?” Scott asked the same question. Since one of the branches is below the first bend point, I believe that branch will make it, but branches above the bend is a “maybe.” Both Scott and Juan both laughed and here was my explanation to them.

Since I’ve started at Aichien, bending branches and testing the limits of a tree has always been a way of life. Mr. Tanaka is adamant in finding that limit where a tree can reach it’s fullest potential. Of course, finding that limit is not easy and comes at a price to the tree itself. Not pushing the tree may keep it from becoming something great, whereas pushing the tree too far can kill it. Finding that fine line only comes from practice and experience and that is why I decided to do what we did to this tree. I told Scott and Juan that if we bent the trunk only to a position that I felt was “safe” I wouldn’t have learned a thing from the work. I wanted the bend to enter the realm where I was uncertain if the tree would survive. We didn’t just do one heavy bend on this tree, but two! Also, the bends weren’t on branches or only on a section of a much larger tree, we pushed the core of the tree where the open wound was almost as large as the thickness of the trunk at the bend point (it’s all relative). Now we just have to wait and see if the tree can make it through the bend and become a better tree.

Having said all that, I didn’t just wildly find a tree and bent it to see what would happen. There are some indicators that told me how much I could do on this tree. I made sure that the tree was strong and healthy. I knew that for most of the bend, a normal healthy Black Pine would be able to survive, which is why I went a little bit further then I normally would to push the limits of the tree.

The way I see it, we learn either way

Let’s say that because of the bend, the whole top of the tree dies and I’m left with one lower branch. Firstly this would of course tell me that the bends were too much for this tree. Perhaps next time I should do one bend at a time? Secondly, this would force me to come up with a new design for the tree with only one branch, which I feel can be done, though the tree would look very much different then it does now.

Now if the top of the tree survives the two bends, that would be huge! Firstly the tree is able to survive a large amount of damage to the trunk. Secondly, we prove that our bending technique worked. Thirdly, the tree has now become much more interesting with such tight bends. Maybe next time when I’m in the same situation, I can go one step further and bend the main branches to where I want them as well (keep pushing that limit).

I’ll keep you posted!

Overall, the bends took us about an hour and a half to finish. I’ll keep you all posted on how this tree does in the coming months and into the Spring. If the tree lives or dies, I will let you all know so we can all learn something from it. I’m also not sure if I will go with the tilt of the tree because the tree actually looks pretty nice standing in it’s current soil line. That is a decision I’ll make in the future. I’m happy at how the tree turned out and the hard work of Juan and Scott. I believe they both learned a lot just by doing the bends and even more so when we find out how the tree response. Scott said he couldn’t wait to get home and try a couple of bends on his own Black Pines!

I hope you all enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Thanks for reading.

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27 thoughts on “Pushing the Limit!

  1. Jeff Lahr says:

    Peter, you comment that the tear ran along the grain rather than against it. Is there anything you did to encourage the “healthier” tear? Would it be possible to score the wood in order to facilitate the better tear?

  2. Sandy Vee says:

    Great post. I love learning about taking chances with a tree to improve the outsome.

  3. Well said Peter – what fun! That’s some real Aichi-en style learning there.

  4. Hi my firend, regards from Spain.

    I have enjoyed lots reading your blog time ago, you are a bonsai master, of course you are.
    Right now i have set up my blog, if you see it interesting you can add it to your favourite blogs. Will be a pleasure you will follow my one.

    Rgds and have a great day Sir.


  5. Irene Britton says:

    I think the student is learning the thinking of his sensei…..

  6. aaron says:

    This was a very entertaining and informative read. You’re the man Peter! Must have been a fun evening in the workshop 🙂

  7. bonsaijapan says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thats some serious bends you ended up with. I think you have a fairly good chance that the tree will make it. Black pines are tough!

    Is there any reason you didn’t wrap the bending areas in rafia to hold the cambium tight to the heart wood while bending? I understand that it is more dificult to see the tears appear but i would have thought that it might provide a little more support in the bends?

    talk soon,


    • Peter Tea says:

      The reason why I didn’t wrap the trunk is because I didn’t want to disturbe the old bark. The other reason is because I knew the raffia would only help and I really wanted to see how far I can push this tree. If the top dies, then I would try it with raffia in the future. If the top lives, I’ll know that raffia isn’t really needed and I can make the bend without messing with too much of the bark. Good comment! Thanks!

      • bonsaijapan says:

        well i am looking forward to seeing the results as much as i am sure you are. Thanks for sharing your experiments!

  8. Steve Moore says:

    Very interesting and informative. Ryan Neill quotes Masahiko Kimura as saying, “If you don’t kill the occasional tree, you’re not trying hard enough!”

    I personally would leave the tree at its present planting angle; I like the new look!

  9. Dot Henegan says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiances. We enjou it very much. This way we also learn through you. Thank you

  10. JJ says:

    Love the work Dr. Frankenstein! Looking forward to future posts on this project. I like your attitude of pushing the tree to maximize what the tree has to offer and to learn from your how far you can push the tree.

  11. Steve Cozens says:

    Another great post Peter. Thanks

  12. Larry Gockley says:

    Great post Peter. I believe a lot of us are faced with second thoughts after pushing a tree. Lots of “should-a, could-a, would-a ” thoughts come to mind. In this case, I wonder if a trunk splitter might cause less damage, but perhaps the trunk was too big. Another thought, maybe make half the bend now, and more in a month or so. What do you think ? Good luck, and thanks for all your posts. Larry

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Larry,

      I’m not sure how a trunk splitter would help with the bend. I usually see them used on Junipers separating individual life lines. Is that what you meant?

      As for the bending the trunk in stages, you are absolutely correct! If this tree was very important and I wanted 100 percent success, I would bend the trunk in stages or even use raffia. I decided to forgo that this time because I wanted to see how far I could go with this tree. If the top survies, I’ll know next time that I don’t have to do things in stages and get the job done on the spot. Or just finding out that the big tears on this tree is not as bad to the tree as we think they are. I’m excited to see the results! Good question and comment Larry. Thanks and take care

  13. Mac says:

    Peter, I have been looking for a clear explanation of large trunk bending for years. Many thanks for posting your work. Please keep us up to date on the progress of the tree and how it deals with the stress.

    Did you consider hollowing out a cavity in the trunk before the bends? If you thought about doing that, why did you reject it? Or is that just a bad technique and you would never hollow out before bending?

  14. Michael Markoff says:

    Peter, You’re inspiring me to take more ‘chances’ with otherwise mundane trees, for the sake of dramatic artistic improvement. Arigatou!
    I’d love more information re; Japanese bonsai artists’ aftercare (without divulging any proprietary secrets), eg; greenhouse/ hot-house conditions, humidity,misting, insecticides/fungicides, lime-sulfur use,etc.) to maximize the chances for success in severely stressed trees.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Michael,

      There’s no secrets here. This is what we do when here at Aichien. After heavy work on the tree, we just keep it inside and not allow the tree to freeze at night. After about a month, we move them to an area in the yard that has some overhead protection (again from the freeze). If we were doing something like this in the Summer time, we would do the same thing, or keep the tree under shade cloth for a month. If we had a heater greenhouse, that would only improve our chances of success. I’m not really sold on the idea of misting yet but if you keep the room somewhat humid, the tree should do great. I’ve heard people having good success with a heating mat for tree to keep the roots warm. This helps the tree recover too, though you have to be careful to water the trees because the heat will cause the soil to dry out faster then normal.

      Watering is also an important aftercare technique. Since the tree is stressed, it’s not going to take as much water as it did before. The common mistake is that people will overwater the tree. Water the tree only when needed and don’t let the tree completely dry out.

      Spraying pesticides and fungicides is only going to stress the tree more so I would suggest not doing that.

      I hope this helps Michael! Take care and thanks for reading!

  15. Julie says:

    I really enjoyed this post! Thank you!

  16. Gerry Fuller says:

    Peter, both the detailed explanation and excellent photographs made this a valuable teaching for me. Also your comments about “pushing the tree to the limits” was a great comment. I am a somewhat “timid” bender and these comments gives me a fresh vision of what one must do to make a truly beautiful bonsai. Thanks. Your blogs are excellent.

  17. cherylas2009 says:

    I like your analysis of learning either way. There are people who are afraid to do things because it may damage the tree. If logical changes are done with consideration for the need to protect the tree from further damage by delaying routine activities, it seems that they generally can be done. Being in the “home” of the tree also seems to allow more to be done.

    Your posts are always interesting!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Cheryl,

      I definitely agree with you there especially how the tree is at home. I’ve notices that trees can be cut much harder in Japan than in California. That’s one thing I’ll have to remember when I get back home. Perhaps the experiments here will help me define the limit and I just make sure that I don’t go past it at home. I bet having a nice greenhouse in California would help! Take care Cheryl

  18. Dennis says:

    I hope it works Peter, I’ll see you in March when your back in town.

  19. John Kirby says:

    Peter, get post. Having seen the tree in person, and taking a bit of time to look it over, I would be truly surprised if it doesn’t make it. As you point out the tree “tore” and didn’t “snap”, this suggest that the “plumbing of the tree” should continue to work, will have to wait and see. It will be a much better tree.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks John! I feel the same way as you do about the tearing. What I’m worried about is the compression on the opposite side of the tear. LOL. Mr. Tanaka says that if the top is still alive after a month, the tree will make it. I hope so!

  20. japanesepots says:

    Nice work Peter, I hope you were succesful! How much total height did you lose?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks! I’d say we shaved about 5 inches off the top. If the tree does well and I wire it in the future, the final height will probably drop another 2-3 inches.

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