Creating an ancient look on a nursery tree that is only 15 years old

In the search to create bonsai that are mature and aged in appearance I am a prepared to go to extraordinary lengths. In this article I am concentrating on the creation of natural looking, aged deadwood.

Bleached deadwood is a natural phenomena on ancient mountain trees, the bristlecone pines  in The White Mountains of eastern California are thousands of years old and display copious amounts of deadwood, old yew trees in exposed locations exhibit wonderful white deadwood. Unless you are lucky enough to have access to old yamadori creating that authentic ‘ancient’ deadwood look is difficult and requires specialist tools.

Over the last few years many bonsai artists have been creating deadwood using electric carving tools, chisels even fire! And some of the results appear very convincing, however great skill is used in all aspects of styling and horticulture but the effort is wasted if the viewer is aware that the bonsai has been ‘carved’.

In 1992 I started my search for the creation of ‘perfect’ authentic deadwood, how is deadwood created? What happens to the live that is left? I went back to nature and found the answer… weather, sandstorms, high winds, rock falls… all I had to do was recreate these conditions and my search would be over!

The answer was Sand blasting… it had high winds… sand! And perhaps more than anything else it was controllable so long as you took precautions to protect the parts of the tree that where to unaffected.

The material used is a San José Juniper. The original tree was field grown by Dan Barton and the original creation of the Shari was created in a one to one with Dan ten years prior to the final styling and blasting work on the deadwood.

This bonsai has been created over a period of twelve years, (seven in the ground) over that period the thickening of the life lines creating robust ‘tubes’ of deep red bark.

The foliage had been let to grow long every three years then cut back hard. All the time the emphasis on a compact crown and good branch structure, San José Juniper is notorious for only having foliage at the ends of branches because no light has penetrated the tree close to the trunk. The tree was also lifted from the field and the Nebari checked and adjusted if required

After a period of Ten years I chose to style the tree at the Belgium Bonsai Association Annual show near Antwerp with the deadwood being further extended. The style displayed being considered many years prior to the demonstration.

The original creation of the Shari with Dan Barton, this work was done over the winter months so the tree was tightly wrapped with nylon wadding to protect from frost and to callus well. The nylon wadding was removed after a full growing season. Here is Dan initially positioning branches to create movement close to the trunk.

After seven years growing in my field the tree was transferred to this plastic pot. The soil mix was very open and the tree was heavily fertilised.

The life lines are very pronounced, this adds a great deal to the aged look. It is important to start with good material if you wish to create a dynamic end product. Ten years of cutting and growing and cutting hard back every three years have created a dense crown and excellent movement and natural taper.

The tree at the end of the Belgium Bonsai Associations demonstration. Hans van Meer helped with the wiring and repotting into an Ian Baillie pot. The Audience were quite surprised that I worked on the top of the tree and the roots at the same time. The tree was very healthy and having worked it for so long I knew the exact condition of the roots and just how much I could remove.

When the tree was back home in my garden Burlap was used to cover the exposed root at the back of the tree; because the planting angle was changed the root ball was left exposed. Sphagnum moss was used to ensure that it stayed moist.

The life lines are very powerful; this gives a great feeling of age. Getting the deadwood to be ‘ancient’ alongside these lifelines is the objective. All areas of the tree that are to be ‘aged’ are left exposed. All other areas must be protected as the process is very aggressive. Here I use a brass wire brush to removed flaky bark so that I can ‘paint’ a rubberised solution to protect the live from damage.

Painting on the rubberised solution.  The important part is to protect all areas, this is the best technique. You can also use Plastacine but ensure that it is warm when to apply because it will ‘stick’ better.

 Using this technique enables fine detail to be ‘aged’


Plaster of Paris is used to protect the soil and pot.

Carpet tape created a seal between the plaster and protects the edge of the pot.

The foliage is wrapped in tough plastic bags and the edges seal with tape

The deadwood is all hand tooled and stripped. The rougher the better! I only use power tools to remove ‘bulk’ the final working is hand done.

Inside the blasting unit. Very fine sand is used at a pressure of 110 psi this gives the best balance between removing the softer wood and keeping the detail. A tree of this size usually takes about an hour to complete in the Blast box.

A transformation in the finish of the deadwood. Replicating nature by shortening the weathering process.

Removing the rubberised solution, it simply peels off. Although it does take a long time to get all the bits off the tree and back to a nice ‘clean’ trunk

The live part of the tree has not been touched by the blasting. The rubberised solution gets into every area and the blaster can get in as close to the live without damage.

When you look closely at the detail, it is hard to imagine that this deadwood is ‘man made’

The nebari is finally checked and improved by removing small roots that cross the major roots. The surface of the soil is dressed with a mixture of ‘Fujigrit’ and Acadama. Moss is placed to add colour and interest.

The top of the tree is created, all the main branch placement has been created over the last six years so in the final styling of the tree no think wire has been used.

The wiring and removal of unnecessary foliage is to encourage growth by allowing light to the inner branches

The tree has now had its final styling. The day that this photograph was made is the first day this tree can be called a bonsai. It has many years in development before it is in ‘show’ condition. It needs to mature in foliage, and the deadwood must develop a patina that only age will give.

All the work done over the last twelve years is to prematurely ‘age’ the tree in the eye of the viewer, the creation and placement of branches the early establishment of the shari and the constant improvement of the nebari complete the picture. This tree in years is only 15 but hopefully it looks much older, and with time will soon look ancient.

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