Carving A Hornbeam Bonsai

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On a sunny early Spring day in late March, this large Carpinus betulus/ European Hornbeam bonsai was brought to my garden by its owner Mike for re-styling. Mike had had many problems with the tree over the 4 years since he had purchased it from a bonsai nursery, with one side of the trunk slowly dying away. This was most evident by the death of one after another of the branches on two sides of the tree, leaving a very sparse branch structure, with just a small amount of live growth left at the very top of the tree.

hornbeam bonsai

The hornbeam at the start of the re-styling session. Although the tree had an extremely impressive trunk, the majority of the branches in the upper 1/3 of the trunk had died or were very weak. The remaining branches in bottom 2/3 of the trunk however were vigorous. This suggested a problem with the roots, and/or the soil that they were trying to grow in.

Fortunately, Mike had already firmly established the cause of the dieback of the tree. Although the trunk had obviously been well-developed over many years in the ground by the bonsai nursery he purchased it from, the nursery had then unceremoniously dumped the tree into a big bonsai pot, along with a tonne of ground-soil. The result was that several newly-chopped, heavy roots had slowly died and rotted over the course of 3-4 years and the tree had then suffered dieback of all of the live growth up one side of the trunk. 

A lesson that can be learnt here is that it is always worth checking the condition, and the quality, of the soil that bonsai are supplied in. However reputable the seller might seem.

hornbeam bonsai

Although the very top of the trunk was still alive, there was a large 'blank' section before there were any other usuable live branches (note that on the above images, there are several dead or very weak branches left on the trunk). And with only small areas of live veins available, even grafting was a limited option.

After much discussion, we decided on a new front for the tree, and a radical re-design! One possibility would have been to use one of the lower branches as a new leader; wiring it upward and building new taper by allowing it to grow unchecked. However this would have required many years of free growth and development. For the owner, an additional 10+ year development time was not a course he wanted to take. My alternative was to show more honesty to the viewer, and show that as with very old wild trees, the top of the trunk of this Hornbeam had indeed died and was slowly rotting away, while the lower branches had become the new crown or apex of the tree.

hornbeam bonsai

I set to work roughing-out the top of the tree, finding a rough outline to the future deadwood piece as well as removing bark from the dead parts of the trunk so that they could be embellished. Here, the top of the trunk had been hollowed out and just an outer 'shell' of wood remains.

hornbeam bonsai

In total it took around 2 hours for me to finish roughing-out the basic deadwood design, adding uro (holes in the wood), undulations in the wood to make it more 3-dimensional as well as continued hollowing-out. Once this work was finished, the wood was gently smoothed to remove tool and machine marks as well as burrs and any remaining old bark.

hornbeam bonsai

Here, the tree's owner Mike smooths and polishes the newly carved deadwood.

hornbeam bonsai

With various bits in my Dremel, I then added grain to the wood as well as aging, or feathering, the edges of the deadwod. Here, Mike is giving his tree a final clean up prior to staining.

hornbeam bonsai

Detail of the newly carved trunk.

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