New work and challenges in Japan

It’s been quite awhile since my last update. My typical day runs down as follows:

5:00-6:00 AM Wake up
                         Study Japanese or LINE (skype equivalent more popular in parts of                                          Asia) call to the states
8:00 AM           Begin work at Kouka-en
5-6:30 PM        Finish work and bike back
7-8:00 PM        By this time I try to finish grocery shopping, cooking, and household tasks
9:00 PM           Self study Japanese or oversea internet calls at this time
10:00 PM         Ideal sleep time

In reality my schedule varies quite a lot and recently I have not been consistent in my language studies as well as cooking. The latter I blame because of cheap half price grocery store bentos. They are a godsend. Cheap, delicious, and much healthier than the equivalent dollar menu hamburger from the states.

All in all I have been doing well though. My Japanese listening skills rapidly improved and my speaking (although still quite grammatically poor at times) has become passable for basic communication. I was quite terrified of getting haircuts here for awhile but I’m able to get the approximate cut I want only using Japanese now. It’s still quite a long road to fluency but it’s a start.

I’ve also been told many times that appearance wise I am passable for Japanese. At times I benefit from this allowing myself to blend in, living a normal life and at others I find myself in situations far beyond my language ability. I’ve gotten used to explaining that I recently came from America and I’m not of Japanese heritage to escape otherwise difficult and awkward exchanges.

My skills have been gradually improving as well. I’m used to learning by example and teaching myself. There are many excellent trees in Kouka-en and when I find myself in a rut on how to wire or style a particular branch I often walk outside and look for examples from the trees on display. Typically watering, routine, or seasonal work will take priority over styling trees. Recently I’ve been occupied with just that so I haven’t been able to share new projects. However my current project is looking promising so when it’s done I hope it can showcase my improvement.

Since my last update quite a lot has happened. 3 tyhoons, several practice trees finished, an auction, lots of maintenance/seasonal work, and recently my family paid a visit.

Typhoons are entirely new to me having lived in Southern California for most of my life. 100+ km winds seemed pretty exciting at first until I realized it meant hand carrying more than a few heavy trees inside. The shuffle was done 3 times over September and October and I’m quite happy to see typhoon season end. Autumn is here with warm days and cool nights. Expansive partly cloudy skies, whose cool tones will soon contrast with the warm colors of the leaves below. Autumn is by far my favorite season and the weather has been very enjoyable.

Anyhow enough words. Please see everything for yourself:

Before & afters, click for larger image.

 

 

Here are some photos from Mino Park and Arashiyama as well:

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Recently I was also awarded the Harry Hirao Scholarship from the Golden State Bonsai Federation. I am very honored and have Doyle Saito to thank for encouraging me to apply.

Anyhow, it’s a rather short update but that’s about it for now. I’ll look to crack out longer and better quality articles in the months ahead. I’ve been inconsistent and rather lazy about writing recently. However please do follow me on my Facebook and instagram. I share many photos and small updates that aren’t posted on the blog!

https://www.facebook.com/bontsaitree

https://www.instagram.com/bontsai_/

 

 

 

Into the Mountains

Apprenticeship life has been difficult in some aspects and a big change from what I’ve been doing, but all in all manageable. From what I understand I have it easy compared to past generations  but regardless of the past, I will develop this experience as my own and make the most out of it. Anyhow I’ll let this act as a segway to my day’s activities for friends and family who’ve asked how I’ve been doing in Japan.

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Both from the limited days I get off as well as the unpredictability as to when I get them off, I felt almost obligated to do something and explore the city that has temporarily become my home.

Setting into the metropolis seemed like a daunting adventure and I was not too keen hustling with the large crowds. So I grabbed my trusty bike that I painstakingly brought from California and set forth into the mountains.

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Cycling for me has only brought good things in my life. Better physical health and fitness, good friends, and a clarity in the mind when I feel stressed and bogged down. Or so I thought.

I quickly realized I overestimated my physical abilities as I keeled over to the side of the road, the contents of my breakfast ready for some esophageal action. I reassessed, determined that I could not complete the entire route and would instead explore the area I was already in.

Roadside overlooks laid the city before me, encompassing both my apartment and my workplace.The sounds of cicadas roared through the humid overcast air, something I’d never experience in California. Coming to Japan, which has been a very surreal experience for me, has started to feel more normal. I am here.

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I progressed further along the route I found a few shrines where I paid my respects, praying for a safe ride and energy to bike further. The roads became empty. Silent. And as the grade leveled out I was able to focus less on my tired body and more on the surrounding scenery and the cool air blowing across my damp skin. This is the feeling I wanted. Calm, relaxed, and focused.

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Soon after I turned around and began a quick descent down the mountain. The steep grade and tight turns proved to be a bit beyond my handling skills. My rims got hot from the incessant use of brakes and my rear tire slid from poor cornering and loose gravel. I made it back in one piece, heart rate slightly elevated. But filled with a sense of accomplishment having made it up the mountain and back.

 


 

For those not on Facebook or instagram here is recent work I styled. I’ve been learning a lot and have been improving with each tree:

Wiring was rough and this tree took me a really long time to complete. The apex was especially challenging. It was my very first tree styled here at Kouka-en. Oyakata’s verdict was not good, but not bad for a first time.

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Here is the second white pine I styled, I don’t have the first on my computer at the moment. I did branch selection myself, but made some mistakes. The two lowest branches were originally bar branches at the same level which is a big no no. Oyakata had me remove that branch which I then jinned.

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The last tree I worked on is a shohin white pine. This one was particularly challenging to do since I needed to think more about branch placement and design. I was allowed to do branch selection but ended up removing an important branch. The branch that I jinned in the front should not have been cut off and incorporated in the design instead. With this tree there is also another big correction Oyakata made that I can’t attribute to my work. Initially to fill in the right side of the apex I bent a long branch counter clockwise. This enabled me to get the foliage nice and tight by the crown but exposed a big outside curve in the front of the tree, another big no no. The branch had to be rebent in the reverse direction to hide the curve, which is the tree pictured here:

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I still have a lot to improve on and my wiring needs a lot of work. My pace of work is still pretty slow as well since to make up for my lack of skill and experience, I have to spend more time thinking about each tree. I will constantly aim to improve my understand of bonsai design as well as my technique. But it’s a start.

Will Baddeley Carving Workshop

Thanks to the generosity of John (known as reddog on bonsainut) and Bob out at Kimura Nursery I was able to attend Sunday of the weekend Will Baddeley carving workshop. I came out of this workshop learning a few things: 1) Ume has thick bark, 2) Don’t wear flip flops around power tools. In all seriousness it was a fun workshop and thanks to Bob for letting me possibly depreciate one of his trees 😅. I didn’t talk to everyone there but it was great to meet several new people. I’ve been putting a greater effort into remembering names so if you ever see me, you can put me to the test by saying hi.

I don’t have much time for a very detailed write up, but I do have lots of photos of everyone’s trees. This post will be more akin to a photo journal.

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Bob was a great host and Will’s a great artist who gave plenty of guidance and advice. Hope you enjoyed the photos and have a great day.

Julian

Dai Ichi Bonsai Kai 33rd Annual Show

This past weekend I was able to attend Saturday of the weekend Dai Ichi Kai show in Gardena. I saw lots of familiar faces including Jason and Doyle Saito who I met at the Bonsai-a-thon in February. I’ve been putting a lot of work in my website and pushing content on social media so it was great to be approached by people who heard by word of mouth or through my site about my apprenticeship in Japan. Even if you do not know me personally, if you ever see me in person please say hi. I’m always up for a conversation about bonsai or anything.

Vendors had a decent variety of tree and pots. Although I didn’t find anything worth picking up I did grab a Si-Diao carving tool in anticipation of the Will Baddeley workshop next week.

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A beginner’s workshop was held in the morning but I did not participate as it looked like they had plenty of instructors. The material provided was excellent though and I give props to whoever sourced it for this show.

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It was great to catch up with many familiar faces and also to talk Kaya in person, who like me is pursuing bonsai professionally. I did not photograph all the trees at the show, but did get the tokoname display as well as a few trees I found interesting.

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The demonstrator for this show was actually Kaya. He worked on a procumbens he brought through the airport from Hayward. Not without difficulties as the pot cracked post TSA inspection. Having had brought a tree through TSA before I can attest to the additional inspection and strange stares from onlookers.

Overall the demonstration was pretty successful.

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Those who watch the live streams on Facebook, give a big thanks to Jason Saito who’s doing the behind the scenes work and filming.

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Assistance from a club member

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Getting somewhere

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Unfortunately I could not stay for the dinner and Sunday I drove back to Riverside. All in all it was an enjoyable show and I was happy to meet and talk to many new people. Next week I’ll be attending the Will Baddely workshop, courtesy of John and Bob who sponsored the fee cost. Should be a good time and I intend to write a post on the event.

Many thanks to all my past and new readers. It’s been a busy month and slow in terms of updates and content. Sometimes I’ll post pictures/updates on my Facebook and Instagram when I don’t have time to write. If you’re on any of those platforms be sure to follow me there. (they’re linked on the sidebar of my homepage)

Hope you’ve enjoyed this update and have a great day!

Julian

Hackberry (celtis sinesis)

I think enough work has been done with this tree to warrant it’s own post!

I purchased this tree from Bob at Kimura Nursery in Northridge. There were 3 qualities I based this pick off of that distinguished it from other trees. First was decent nebari. Basal flare was evident and the potential for a good root base could be had without dramatic work like ground layering.  Second was the graceful trunk line. There’s very subtle movement and the framework for a feminine tree is there. Third was plenty of branch options. Although this is not as critical as we can use grafting to add or improve branch placement, it minimizes the amount of work I’d have to do to create a nice tree. With these 3 criteria strongly met and a good price to boot, it came home with me.

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The first task in order was to do a trunk chop and some branch selection. The goal is to do pruning without wasting or expending too much of the tree’s energy. With this in mind the big cuts are done in winter. At this time a lot of sugars and carbohydrates are stored in the roots, not so much in the branches. Should you remove large branches after budbreak in the spring the tree has already expended energy to produce leaves on a part you decided to cut off.

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By the same logic when you do root pruning and work, it should be done after the sugars have moved up towards the branches. Typically repotting is done when buds start swelling. But because I live in Southern California with a mild winter and long growing season and that a sizable part of the tree was chopped off (this means there are less branches and buds the roots will need to feed) I went ahead and did my rootwork the same day. Generally speaking it is more advisable to do heavy rootwork at the right time and had the tree been unhealthy, I could of killed it.

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Roots were combed out to a nice radial spread and any heavy taproots were cut. Next the base of the tree was screwed to a wooden board. This is to prevent downward root growth and encourage lateral root development. This will allow the surface roots to thick and create a nice flaring nebari you’ll see on a mature and older tree.

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The tree was potted up in a wooden grow box. About 3 weeks later (time is purely arbitrary based off my free time) I wired the tree and did thread grafts. No progress shots here unfortunately but basic wiring can be done before bud break. It’s easy to work around the branches without breaking new leaves. In thread grafting they have to be done prior to bud break. Since you are threading the branch through a hole in the tree any protrusions like new leaves would be broken off.

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The tree is growing well and will be allowed to grow freely for the next few weeks. Over the course of the growing season I will be repeatedly growing out, wiring, and cutting branches to build the structure. By the end of the growing season a basic structure with primary branches should be set. The shoot on the top will be allowed to grow as the leader which will eventually form the next segment of the trunk. The lowest shoots on the tree will be left to run freely as well. This will help thicken the base and introduce taper into the tree. All in all I am happy with the progress so far. The quality of this material is very good and it has high potential to become an excellent tree in the future.

Bonsai-a-thon XXII

I attended the Bonsai-a-thon, held annually at the Huntington Gardens, this past Saturday. Not only as an observer, but a participant this time around. I arrived at the gardens quite early, around 7:30 AM or so. It was very brisk, as evidenced by the thick layer of frost coating my car. The past week of weather has been highly unusually for Southern California. Temperatures in December were uncharacteristically warm with highs in the mid 80s in contrast to the near freezing temperatures over the past several days.

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I talked to the usual vendors there, Barry as well as Frank who always sells his cork jades at a steal of a price. Arriving at the early hours of the show, I was able to get first pick and nabbed some of the nicer ones on table.

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I also had a chance to meet up with some of the members from the bonsainut forum. Colin who has been working at and apprenticing at California Bonsai Studio has been a vendor the past few years. Christian, who is a young enthusiast like myself, was also at the show and enjoyed talking to him.

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After talking for a bit I headed out to the greenhouse where a Huntington sponsored beginners bonsai workshop was held. I’ve done quite of bit of teaching and mentoring in a diverse range of topics to different age demographics but never quite something like a bonsai workshop. I was contacted by Keith a few months back who coordinates many of the events and volunteering at the Huntington. I was a bit cautious in accepting as I wasn’t sure my current skills in bonsai were up to par, but I’m glad I did. The material provided was excellent, and the students very friendly and eager to learn.

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After I was given a student I didn’t realize that they were supposed to go pick their tree. A large group crowded around the table and I’d thought it be slim pickings when we got there. To my surprise there was an excellent procumbens left with good nebari (root flare), a trunk line, and many possible branch options. As per usual I often get carried away in the work and development that I forget to take before pictures to track my progress.

*Found a before short courtesy of Keith Martin

I discussed with my student the criteria for styling a tree and the qualities we desire. To start, a wide root base lends stability and age to the tree. Secondly we need a good trunk line with nice movement. The front of the tree that expressed these 2 attributes best would be our starting point.

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Here is a shot of the tree after the first stage of work:

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Next any downward pointing growth, weak or dead foliage, as well as any branches that were too thick or too small to be used were removed. In the above photo you can see 2 jins (branch stubs) that show where 2 large branches were removed.

The cleaning stage in my opinion is the most important. It helps reveal the tree and can bring potential design options to clarity. Conversely if you were to try to style the tree right off the bat you’re liable to remove a branch that may have been critical to the design of the tree.

A second concept I discussed was depth and illusion. Sometimes it’d may be difficult or impossible to shorten or lengthen a given branch. But by changing the angle we position the tree the branch can be visually shortened. Imagine a ladder leaning against the wall. Looking at it head on the height of the ladder extends from the upper point of contact to the ground. In reality we know it’s much longer, but in bonsai its the visual length we care about.

With this in mind I suggested that we tilt the tree significantly forward. Doing so brings the apex forward while lengthening the lowest left branch and the drop branch on the right.

From here we wired the trees and tried to from distinctive pads with negative space.

Branch placement set

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After further cleaning and potting. This tree ended up being the only tree in the entire workshop that was placed in an actual bonsai pot. Because the tree was tilted so significantly one side of the root system was considerably raised. The provided workshop pots were extremely shallow and small. Placing the root system in such a container would risk the health of the tree. I advised my student that she could leave it in there temporarily but to repot it in a deeper container of her choice as soon as possible. I mentioned that she could buy a pot at the show on the spot and she was completely on board. We picked a reasonably priced round that was met our criteria best and used it for the tree.

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To have a very clean image and well executed design detail wiring every branch makes a huge difference. Unfortunately we were tight on time and had to stop here. All in all I think it turned out well and I hope I was able to effectively pass on knowledge to a new bonsai enthusiast. Ann, the student I worked with, picked on very fast and did a good job on cleaning as well as wiring for the very first time. Many bonsai enthusiasts quit after their first tree often from it dying or from the overwhelming amount of information involving bonsai care and development. Bonsai does have a steep learning curve, but it’s a very addictive and gratifying hobby. Perhaps some of the new students today will pulled in and become patrons of the art.

 

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Lastly here are some photos of the trees on display. I missed the demos but there were many excellent trees local artists styled.

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All in all it was a great show. Great group of people and made many new friends. Teaching a bonsai class was an interesting experience that I’d be open to doing again. Till next time.

Julian

How to Sharpen Concave Cutters

*note, I’ll be editing and improving this article over time so check back or ask me any questions on anything you didn’t get*

I’m a DIYer kind of person. I hate sending things out to get fixed or spending money that I could otherwise save. Concave cutters, the quintessential bonsai tool, seldom need sharpening due to the robust design and wide edge angles but like anything else, repeated use will wear it down.

My old pair of concave cutters from Lee Valley was standing on it last legs. Wobble in the pin, chips, rolled edge, and more. As my first and only concave cutter it was abused and used to cut things I probably should have cut. I decided to purchase a new pair from Kaneshin. And of course after a few days I somehow managed to chip the edge. I have a fairly high skill with waterstones and was confident I could repair it. In doing so I understood the criteria for concave cutters to cut well but also realized that there are no comprehensive guides online on how to do so.

I decided to make a guide through the restoration of my old pair.

This guide will be organized in 4 sections:

  1. Criterion
  2. Tool Selection
  3. Technique
  4. Burrs and Finishing

PART I: Criterion 

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The first component is seems simple but there is a little more too it. I will elaborate below.

The second criterion is necessary to ensure a clean cut. If the edges do not meet you have a branch with intact wood fibers in the middle.

Lets take a look at my old Lee Valley tool:

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From both pictures its evident that the blade is chipped in the center and to lesser degree, on the top. There is another thing worth pointing out. Notice the white hair line immediately below the large chip. That’s light passing through the blades. The edges do indeed meet one another and they are offset (discussed below) BUT they are not touching as evidenced by the light coming through. I’d like to emphasize that the blades are FULLY closed. The light breaking through it not because of that.

For comparison here are my freshly sharpened Kaneshin cutters.

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Here is a diagram better explaining this concept. (the text may be hard to read in mobile)

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Essentially we want the width (traverse) and the height (longitudinal) of the blade to be maintained across the entire length. Now I’d like to say that some variance is not that big of a deal. Your concave cutter will still function properly. But we should avoid any significant deviations as gaps between the blades will prevent them from cutting cleanly.

Lastly the tips must be offset:

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That black hairline on the top is the edge of the other blade offset over the other. If the tips meet flush even every time you cut a branch they’ll snap together. This can dent, chip, and dull the tool.

At the same time keep overlap as small as possible. You want just enough to prevent the cutting edge from damaging each other. Too large of an overlap and you’ll notice you have trouble cutting branches when the cutters get close to the center.

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In short when we sharpen this tool we want to think about these 3 points and ensure we preserve them throughout the restoration process. There are some other important aspects worth consideration that will be discussed in the technique section.

PART II: Tool Selection

From my days working for a knife dealer and being a collector I amassed a decent amount of sharpening tools and water stones. Here is some of what I use:

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You do not need expensive fancy tools to sharpen concave cutters. I’ll discuss some of the options and what my preferences are and why.

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There are 3 main categories we can think about. Waterstones, diamond abrasives, and sandpaper. To start off I’d advise against using sandpaper. It’s the cheapest but also wears down fast. Arguably if you are only sharpening your tools once a year sandpaper can be a viable option. If you are insistent on using sandpaper there are some things to know.

Use the black silicon carbide sandpaper you find at auto stores. The brown aluminum oxide or red ruby sandpapers will not do a good job at removing metal.

Second, use a hard backing behind the sandpaper not a soft one. This might seem counter intuitive at first but hear me out. Because of the convex outer bevel it may seem logical to use a softer material with some “give”. Maybe a leather belt or piece of rubber. Do not do this. While that “give” allows the sandpaper to wrap around the curved outer face it also wraps around the edge. This can cause blunting or rounding of the tip. The sharper and crisper the edge the better it will cut.

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This leaves us with waterstones and diamond abrasives. Waterstones are great tools but they have a drawback–dishing. As you wear the stone abrasive media becomes loose and dishing occurs. This is especially pronounced as you have such a small contact area for a concave cutter compared to say a kitchen knife. With a kitchen knife you abrade nearly the whole surface of the stone continuously so it stays relatively flat. With the concave cutter you are only abrading a small region at a time. The medium you sharpen on is reflected on your edge, so if the stone is dished your edge will not be straight! This creates variance on traverse axis or unequal width along the edge of the blade.

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This brings me to my recommendation: diamond benchstones. Actual to be more generic any fixed abrasive media benchstone. In essence something that will not dish. Diamond abrasives are great since they cut well and would be my main recommendation especially if you are sharpening stainless tools. (The “stainless” quality in stainless steel comes from chromium, which also makes the steel more abrasion and wear resistant=harder to sharpen) 

This is what I’m using. A double sided coarse/fine DMT dia-sharp 6 inch stone. I bought mine many years ago when it was a bit cheaper but they run about $50 now.

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PART III: Technique

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You can hold the concave cutters and position the stone however you want. The 2 things you always want to keep in mind is consistency and geometry.

On the first part. Consistency means repeatability. Every stroke you do on the stone needs to be the same abrading the intended region. By many years of practice I can do this by feel but there are other ways aid less experienced hands. One method is the sharpie trick. Simply color the bevel of the concave cutter with a sharpie and begin working. After a few strokes on the stone pick up the tool and look at the bevel. The areas where the sharpie is gone are the regions you abraded. Doing this can give you a sense of what you are doing and improve your precision. There are lots of videos and guides on this so you can look up the rest yourself.

Geometry is a big key component. Good blade geometry means it will cut well. Poor geometry means a lot of rough cuts and resistance through branches. Generally speaking you want as an acute of a edge angle as you can get without compromising the integrity of the tool. Too thin and you get chips or cracks. Too thick, it’ll be tough but it won’t cut for a damn. Any half reputable manufacturer of your concave cutters probably already know ideal geometry their blades should be ground at and is likely produced within a range of it.

This means you should try to maintain the current blade geometry of your concave cutter.

Maintaining geometry:

  • You match the angles the bevel faces are ground at
    – Inner face is flat so this is easier
    – Outer face is curved, harder
  • Abrade the outer and inner bevel faces the same amount
  • Use the sharpie trick
    – Sometimes I rush through things only to finish and see I ruined an edge
    – Using a sharpie and working slow will make sizable difference
  • Even pressure
    – Although you may be holding the blade flat to the stone if you put a lot of pressure on the tip, more metal will be removed from the tip
    – Lack of even pressure is what causes varience of the blade width along the edge or “high” and “low” spots
    – Try to consciously think about holding it steady and applying force across the length of the edge

Now finally to the sharpening itself:

I’ve said before it doesn’t matter how you hold the cutters. You just want to ensure you can keep it steady and brace it against the benchstone. Here’s how I do it:

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Step 1: Working the outer curve

**As mentioned before you want to keep the overlap at the tip. It’s better to start with the undercutting blade first instead of the over cutting one. In the former at most you risk increasing the size of the overlap which can be remedied by working down the over cutting blade. In the latter you could actually could remove the overlap. You could restore it by working down the opposite blade more but is the more difficult approach. In general just work slow and be cautious of removing too much metal from a single blade**

I like to start on the outside and pull back

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As you pull back you want roll the bevel forward. Think sweeping motion.

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Continue to pull back until you reach the tip

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Once you reach the tip, STOP. Do not keep sweeping back. If you continue you’ll start changing the direction of the edge. This can give problems later with poor matching and gaps between the 2 blades when closed.

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Effects of rolling too far

After you hit the tip start sweeping forward doing the same motion in reverse

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Here is how I hold the tool when sharpen it.

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Keep on repeating this motion until you get a burr. I’ll elaborate on this in part 4. Start working on the inside face now:

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The inside bevel is flat so you can just do a back and forth motion. It’s imperative you keep it flush against the stone and match the angle. Mistakes here such as increasing the angle of the bevel face against the stone can make the edge more obtuse and greatly impact the cutting performance of your tool. I made that mistake while sharpening my Kaneshin cutters which is why I recommend going slow and checking your work. Keep on working until you’ve created a burr again. Switch to the opposite side to remove it. At this point I’d do alternating strokes between outside and inside bevel to ensure a crisp edge with no remaining burr.

After you’ve succesfully sharpened the edge or removed any chips switch to the overcutting blade. If you want to maintain the very slight overlap between the blades you’ll want to work both blades the same. Whether by number of strokes or simply by feel try not to sharpen one blade significantly more than the other.

Here is the Lee Valley cutter after finishing both blades.

Relatively clean union with little light escaping:

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Overlap preserved:

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Part IV: Burrs and Finishing

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If you did the stonework right the edge should be clean with no remaining burrs. I’ve given burrs it’s own part because it imperative that you make sure the edge is clean with no burrs.

If you cut a branch with a remaining burr your edge will roll over wasting your work. If a burr is present you can feel it. Run your finger off one side of the blade. Do so on the other. If one side is smooth and the other significantly more rough there is a burr. You can use a leather strop or even a piece of wood or plastic to remove it. Just sink the edge in something and pull across a few times.

Some last notes. I forgot to put this in but last year a gentleman from the Bonsai Society of Tasmania page brought up a good point. He said he was taught to only sharpen the flat inner face of concave cutters. This is not a bad practice and is a consideration if sharpening a concave surface is too difficult but there are a few concerns.

To understand the merits of that method I’ll discuss sharpening strictly the outer bevel and strictly the inner bevel.

Please enjoy drawings of crab claws for reference.

Case I: Sharpening only outer bevel

Of course any amount sharpening will remove metal and shorten the height of the cutting edge. The concern is how the interface between the two edges change. Repeated sharping of just the outer face “pushes” the cuttings edges in. Its hard to explain and perhaps the visuals aren’t good but the overlap between the two edges will gradually increase. This will reduce the cutting performance of the cutter and cause it to crush more

Case II: Sharpening only the inner bevel

In this situation the cutting edges are “pulled back.” Meaning that when the blades meet the overlap will be reduced. This is a good thing as your cutting performance will increase. Well why don’t we only sharpen the flat surface which is much easier to do than a convex plane?

First concern:
The area where the flat edge meets the curved inner face of the concave cutter will thin. This will create a weak spot with potential for catastrophic failure. So if you push your concave cutters a lot on thick or tough branches, the chance of the blades snapping will increase.
In reality for this to happen the tool must have been heavily sharpened repeatedly for years or perhaps you’re cutting branches you should not be cutting. So all in all I don’t consider this much of an issue, but it was important enough to warrant a mention

Second concern:
The main drawback of this technique is that after removing enough material on the inner face, the tips will begin to meet and you’ll lose the overlap. Without the overlap the edges are liable to chip as the snap together when cutting a branch.

Concluding thoughts:

If sharpening a concave surface is too difficult and your concave cutters are in absolute need of some tlc then sharpening just the flat inner plane can be a viable solution. It will take quite a substantial amount of sharpening for the drawbacks in the first and second concern to become apparent. At the same time knowing the effects of sharpening only the outer vs inner bevel can be used to our advantage. Do we need to create and offset or increase the size of it? Sharpen only the outer face. Is the offset too big and branches are not being cut cleanly? Sharpen just the inner face.

Well that it! Hope it helped. If you did everything right your old concave cutter will be good as new! Maybe. I know there’s a lot of information in this article. Feel free to comment or message me questions. Sharpening concave cutters are fairly complex and was a learning process for me. I didn’t even do that good of job on my new Kaneshin cutters but I’m confident I can do an excellent job on any cutters in the future.

One piece of advise I’d give is use the right tool for the job. I’ve consistently cut branches much bigger than the cutters and have done root pruning with chunks of lava getting crushed between the blades. These led to issues like chips and misaligned tips. If you use the tools properly they’ll function for a long time. But if you ever get to the point you need to repair it, you have a resource now 😁.

Hibari Elm

In late 2016 I purchased a large variegated elm at a steal of a price. Within the thick canopy hid a region of significant inverse taper. Perhaps problematic but I immediately recognized the potential as a layer candidate. As a weaker ulmus parvifolia cultivar you don’t too many of em that has grown this big especially with such dramatic taper.

(missing progression pictures added)

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Can you see it in there?

Here’s a closer shot:

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My best find to date

The large mid trunk bulge was likely produced through many years of pruning at the same node site. You can actually see a few old pruning scars on the trunk. At the time of acquisition it was mid summer in Southern California. Our growing season extends all the way to September giving me more than enough time to begin an air layer.

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Cambium thoroughly removed with concave cutters

A common reason why airlayers fail is due to remaining cambium on the girdle. The brown exterior is the cambium while the immediate layers of wood underneath it is the xylem. When creating a girdle you forcibly prevent sugars in the cambium from returning to the roots. At the same time the wood underneath can still supply water and nutrients to the tree. Sugars and hormones build up at the cut site which over time generate new roots. If you mistakenly leave a strip of cambium the tree will actually heal or “bridge over” preventing the formation of roots. Airlayers always should be started after the leaves flush out and harden and take anywhere from 3 weeks to a year depending on species, age of wood, as well as the size of layer.

I neglected to take full progression shots but my layer medium is chopped spagnum and fine pumice. Chopping the spagnum in very small bits is important. It makes it a lot easier to remove the old spagnum in future repottings.

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Here is the tree in fall. Another desirable feature of the hibari elm is the fall color. I’ve consistently seen the weaker variegated varieties producing nice fall color while their hearty landscape counter parts turn green to brown. It’s possibly the smaller amount of chlorophyll present in the leaves allow fall colors to emerge better.

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The winter image. At this point I have not cut anything back. The more branches and growth I leave on the tree the faster it will grow new roots at the girdle site.

The layer was severed around May if I recall right. It took around 6 months to complete this layer. Another important note is that unless you live in a mild climate like me with no freezes do not layer if it won’t be finished before winter. Freezes will kill the new fleshy roots forcing you start over in the spring.

The tree was transplanted into a pond basket and had several primary branches cut back. It grew very well and was exceeding healthy in the spring.

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Unfortunately this summer I was unable to personally care for my trees when I moved near Chicago for work. From a watering issue, disease, or pest the tree dropped all of its leaves mid summer. Fortunately it rebounded back but I did lose some low primary branches.

I repotted the tree recently and was happy to find a lot of roots. I did some minor cleaning but did minimal pruning.


I screwed the tree to a piece of plywood prior to repotting. This encourages the tree to focus on lateral root growth producing a better nebari. Ideally I would want to clean the roots completely and put them flush against the board but given its weak state I do not want to risk the tree dying. As an older piece of material with high potential to be an excellent tree in the future health is the main concern.


Decent mat of roots. Black regions are actually some dead roots which correspond to the branches that died.


Some of the main trunk has died back but there is plenty enough green for new buds to rebuild lower branches from.


Repotted and rigged to my water system. Underneath the wooden board I used almost entirely 3/8ths lava. On the sides and top I used my standard bonsai mix with a little bark added. My soil is one part lava, one part pumice, and one part diatomaceous earth. I’d like to cut back but the tree is not strong enough. I will allow it to grow relatively unrestricted to rebuild strength before significant work.

Assuming a strong growing season next year I’ll really work the roots and begin building the nebari. There are actually many usable surface roots that in time will build the base of the tree.

On a different note I still have the lower half and will be using it to grow cuttings. Later this year I’ll he selling cuttings from the hibari elm and possibly other nice hard to find varieties. Be on the lookout.

Julian

Root Over Rock Chinese Elm Update

Happy New Years folks. Here’s the last project for the year. It’s a root over rock chinese elm I grown from seed. I thought I’d share more of it’s history before I describe the work I’ve done to it.

The tree began as a doner seedling from a mature elm tree in my neighbors yard. It grew freely for 1-2 years before I decided to dig it out. I gave it an additional season to grow in a pot and doubled the size.

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mother tree

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Identically aged elm but never dug out

It spend the entire growing season in the ground with the roots firmly braced with seram wrap and external anchors. Here is the tree from roughly 1 year ago:

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Neglected to take progression shots, but here is the tree prior to wrapping the roots

I dug it out today, slightly early but mind you chinese elms in Southern California leaf out in late January to early February. For most trees it would be ill advised to do heavy root work and pruning in early winter but given the vigor of elms as well as the mild socal temps I can get away with it. Given it grew freely in the ground it has more than enough stored sugars to recover.

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Leaders cut and some roots removed

I took off all the seram wrap and checked all the roots. I did some reduction and cut off the 4 foot leaders from the trunk. Everything was reanchored with wires tying down any major root to the rock.

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The intended front of the tree. The large root in the front may be split later but for now I’m leaving it alone as it’s one of the main anchor roots

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Union is not too bad but rock can still be pulled off roots

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Grew like gangbusters on the other side. Some reduction done here to expose more of the rock

I organized the roots evening the spread and cut back to where I could get some division or ramification. The nebari will need further refinement over the years but I need to wait until it’s firmly attached to the rock before additional work.

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Repotted, with the roots slightly exposed. Every year I will plant the tree a bit higher showing more of the nebari and rock

My intention with this planting is to have exposed roots hanging off the left side of the stone. Next year this should be achievable and will make for a interesting tree with character. I’ll begin primary branch development this season as well. Hope you enjoy the update and have a great 2018!

Julian

Hinoki Cypress Progression

It’s been a bit overdue for a post so here’s an update on a project I’ve had in the works for a few years. I’ve been busy but more good stuff to come in the future!

Hinoki cypress progression

In 2014 I purchased a young clump Hinoki cypress which at the time had 4 trunks.

This is one of my first trees from my early bonsai career and I lacked a lot of horticultural knowledge to keep the tree healthy and vision to give it direction.

Here was the first, and maybe my first ever styling of a bonsai tree. Some basic branch selection was done and the trunks were spaced using a bamboo stick:

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I soon removed the 4th trunk seen in the photo. At the time due to a lot of misinformed second hand knowledge I was convinced the nursery soil it was in was the bane of the bonsai world and I needed to change it asap. Having sat in a nursery can for perhaps all it’s life the root ball was a block of cement. I opted for a slip pot where I worked the outer roots and planted it in a large container with coarse substrate.

What ensued was a sick and weak tree for the next 2 years. Water, seeking the path of least resistance, freely flowed through the outer rim of new coarse soil while no percolation occurred in the more dense center. The lack of air and fresh water resulted in a weak root system and an equally weak tree. It wasn’t until the roots colonized the outer rim of soil that it began to perk up again.

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4th trunk removed, yellowing foliage

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Health improving by late 2015

During the 2015-2016 growing season I experiment with approach grafting. Hinokis are notorious for their lack of back budding on old wood and all my lower growth was very leggy and unusable.

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Branches selected for approach grafting

I neglected to photograph the approach graft process but overall it was unsuccessful. Some graft unions did merge but I had unsightly bulging branches crossing the trunk. Overall it was poorly executed and did not improve the tree. I decided to remove all grafts and lower branches and building the tree in a new direction.

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Second styling fall 2016

The tree received a rough preliminary styling positioning the trunks and primary branches. I mistakenly cut off one too many branches in the back resulting in one bare spot that I will remedy with grafting. Fortunately it is minor and out of sight.

The tree was repotted during the spring of next year and allowed to grow freely over the next several months. At this time the original block of roots were completely replaced with a new dense root system growing in a coarse inorganic mix (lava, DE, pumice). It grew very well and gained lots of vigor. A second wiring and pruning was done later.

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Summer 2017

Foliage pads will be defined over the next several years and the aforementioned bare spot will be fixed by grafting. Surprisingly over the past 3 and a half years the trunks have began putting on some girth. Since this tree is still very young in it’s development stage I tend to let it grow freely most of the season with only doing refinement work once a year. I’d like to let the trunks thicken more before I really begin stunting the branches through more aggressive work.

Thanks for taking a look and subscribe for future updates!

Have an awesome day!

Julian