more bend, less snap

Sooner or later all bonsai growers need to bend parts of a bonsai. Whether the bend is in the trunk or just moving a branch slightly there is always some fear that the tree will break instead of bending the way you want it.

Here are some tips on how to get the bends without the trauma.

First a word of warning: Each species has different wood. Some are quite flexible and can bend easily. Others are more brittle and will break much more easily. Junipers and pines are quite flexible. Maples and quite a few of our Aussie natives have much harder wood and break easily when you try to bend them. You’ll also find that younger wood is far easier to bend than older wood even in the same plant so, wherever possible make bends when the tree is young or on newer branches.

The most common way to bend bonsai is to apply wire and then just bend the trunk into the desired position. There is a limit to how far the wood will bend before breaking. Just bend slowly, feeling and looking for signs that you’ve reached the limit.



bend wire only 1 - Copy

Small cracks have started to open up on the trunk. Time to stop bending – for now.


To make more severe bends bonsai growers wrap the part tightly before bending. The wrapping helps spread the forces and holds the wood together while it is bent. Even if the wood does split a little the wrapping holds it all in place and the tree will heal as it grows. By the time you unwrap there is usually little sign of the breakage. Traditionally bonsai growers wrap branches with wet raffia but anything strong and flexible can be used. In this example I have used PVC electrical tape but I’ve also seen strips of bicycle inner tube, twine and hessian tape used successfully.

juniper before

juniper before

Trunk wrapped with tape

Trunk wrapped with tape

After wrapping the trunk apply a wire then bend into position.

Add wire as normal

Add wire as normal

after bending

after bending


If the wood is just too thick or stiff to bend with the wire you have available or you want even more extreme bends, try splitting the trunk/branch. This allows the 2 pieces of wood to move more freely and it can be bent much easier. The best tool to do this are purpose built trunk splitters. In this example the trunk is still fairly thin so I was only able to split it once.



split the trunk

split the trunk

Thicker wood can be split into 4 or 6 pieces to make even really stiff wood quite pliable.

Bind the split part with tape, raffia, etc as in the previous example then add a wire as normal before making the bends. You should find that the split allows the wood to bend far more easily.

after bending

after bending


In most cases, using any method, you’ll find that it is easier to bend if you twist the trunk/branch as you bend it. Twisting brings new wood onto the outside of the bend, allowing the stresses to be shared more evenly.

If you still can’t get enough bend, leave the tree to rest for a week or so. After resting you’ll find that the wood has relaxed and you’ll be able to bend even further without breaking it. Here’s the first example with wire only. After a week I was able to bend the lower trunk even further.

More bend after 1 week's rest

More bend after 1 week’s rest

Sometimes a single wire is not enough to hold the desired bend. A thicker wire may do the trick but sometimes it is better to add a second wire. 2 wires, evenly spaced will help spread the stress and you can get even more bend without cracking the wood. Bonsai growers also use tie wires to help hold extreme bends until they set in place.

If the worst does happen and you hear the dreaded cracking sound or see cracks appear in the bark stop bending immediately. Hopefully the crack is small and only part way through. Just cover the broken area with sealing paste and leave it alone. Usually the tree will heal up naturally with little or no problem. If the crack is large – more than 1/2 of the wood – bend it back a little so the edges are closer together, seal the area and cross your fingers. In most cases the trees we use are quite good at healing and will survive.

If you look closely at the picture just above. You may be able to see where the juniper has split – just where each of the branches are growing. These cracks run along the grain of the wood and will heal quite easily without endangering the tree so I have not even bothered to seal them.

Something to note: Previously broken areas that have healed up are always much weaker than surrounding wood. If you try to bend that area again it is likely to break in the same spot even more easily than before. If you still really need to bend it, make the bends nearby rather than trying to bend that spot again.

Occasionally the wood will snap completely. That’s called an ‘Oh Bugger!’ moment. There’s not much you can do to rectify the problem. Walk away for a while to calm your nerves then come back and take a good look at what you have left and look for another possible style for your tree. Part of being a bonsai grower is making do with what you have.

There’s a whole host of factors that influence how long it will be before you can take the wires off – the species, how well the tree has grown, age of the wood, etc. Younger wood will often be set in place after just a few weeks but older wood may need an entire season or sometimes even longer to set. I usually leave wires on for the entire growing season but you will need to check wired trees regularly. If you can see the wood bulging around the wire it is time to take it off immediately. If the tree starts to straighten up apply fresh wire, bend it back into place and leave it for another few months.

Autumn pine work

The new shoots on Black pines have matured so it is time to thin out all the new shoots that have grown since decandling.

It is important to know that this is part of the technique used to REFINE MATURE pines. Younger, developing pines should be allowed to grow freely to gain strength and size and cut back hard every couple of years. Decandling is used to ramify the branches on trees that are closer to being mature bonsai. Continue reading

More from Pavel Slovak masterclass

As is usual at a bonsai workshop I came away with a few new ideas and techniques.

Pavel is noted for working with and, in particular, bending larger collected conifers. During the workshop he mentioned that bends are easier if you twist the branch while bending. Twisting as you bend allows the fibres in the wood to bend further without breaking.

He also mentioned that he often wraps electrical tape over the wire and raffia when making extreme bends. This serves to keep the moisture in a branch if it cracks while bending which he feels aids in healing the cracks and breaks.

Something I had not experienced before was removing ALL old needles from a pine in order to wire and shape the material. I have always attempted to retain as many old needles as possible hoping that some will produce new buds to help ramify the branching. It is certainly much easier to wire the branches without the older needles.

If anyone else has something from the recent NBPCA bonsai week feel free to let me know and I can add it here.

new catalogues

Show season is nearly over so I have managed to find some time to assemble the photos of new stock in some semblance of order for you.

I’ve changed the format a bit this year to make it a bit simpler. Hope there’s enough detail for you to make informed choices. In any case, if you need to know more about any of the trees featured just ask. I can send current photos and other views if you need to have a look from another angle or I can provide measurements if you need those.

Anyway, click on the catalogue tab and see what’s new at Shibui Bonsai.

Those who have visited will know that there is always far more than just the trees featured in the cataloges. I usually have a range of natives that are being grown on as bonsai as well as smaller numbers of garden and roadside collected specimens. If you are after something in particular it can’t hurt to ask, I may just have it here.

Wagga Wagga bonsai

The Wagga Wagga bonsai Society has contacted me to let everyone know that they are putting on a 10 day exhibition to promote bonsai in their region. The display opens on Thursday November 12 2015 at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and runs through to Sunday November 22. Free entry and, as a bonus, the Wagga Wagga Potters club is also part of the exhibition.

If you are within reach of Wagga during that week go along and have a look. 11 days is a long time for bonsai inside. I’m told that the display will be closed on Monday 16th so they can water and work on any trees that need trimming, etc so make sure you are not traveling a long way to get there on the Monday.

And that’s not all! Grant Bowie has been booked to run a workshop on Sunday November 15th followed by a demonstration in the afternoon. You can come and see some of the techniques and ideas that go into developing really great bonsai. Observers are free so you can just turn up at E33 art space on Sunday and see what its all about.