Bonsai wire…or, how to annoy your comrades.

Let me first state what this post will not be:
It won’t be a “how to”.
It won’t be an explanation of artistic techniques for bending and branch placement.
What it might be:
A debate on when and why to use copper/aluminum.
A mildly acerbic polemic about assumed characteristics and behaviors of certain sophisticates in the bonsai community.
What it will be:
What I do.
What I don’t do.
What I teach to my students.
And the whys.

Basically, of course, what bonsai artists do is wrap wire around the branches and trunks of trees in order to place them where we want them.
Why? I should explain this, at least.
The whole idea of bonsai is to take a small tree and make it appear to be a large tree (of course,in miniature.)
A large tree is subjected to natural forces (gravity,wind, sun, etc) that force the branches to grow in certain ways.
A small tree is not. We have to make it appear as though gravity is pulling down that branch etc., and we use wire for this.
Anyway, like I said, this ain’t about those techniques.
I use, almost exclusively, aluminum wire (Gasp!).
The biggest reason is…..I live in Florida and trees grow here.
Let me annoy some people by poking a stick into the proverbial ant hill.
Copper wire is overrated.
Unless you have an old juniper or pine or you’re about to show it , copper is unneeded. In fact, (and yes, I am saying this in front of everyone and God) if you use copper on any fast growing tree in a training situation, I would call you mildly arrogant, a show off (woo hoo! Copper wire, look how rich I am!) and even, dare I say it, a conspicuous consumer (I’m sorry but whoever came up with those two words as a slur must have been one of those Political Science majors in college instead of the English major- even though those are both useless majors).
If we are growing a tree like a ficus or an elm or even a maple (in Florida) we may be removing and rewiring the tree 3-4 times in as many months. Seriously. Really. Forrealiously. Some of my junipers grow like that too.
The two differences between copper wire and aluminum are:
1. Copper has a stronger holding strength than aluminum. Which means you can use a smaller gauge wire for the same effect (which, if you’re in a show, you want your wire to be inconspicuous.).
2. But, once you place copper onto a branch and bend it it will “work harden”. Which means….. again I must start at the beginning so…
Metal in general has, at the molecular level, a crystalline structure. Some metals, like lead, are easily bent and re-bent. The crystals are “smooth” and able to move around each other. Steel, when bent, is hard to reposition because the crystals are “sharp” and can’t slip around much. Kind of an oversimplification ( read this for a more scientific, but still easy to read article).
Copper, when annealed, ( a process that softens metal, read here), is able to be used in the wiring of a branch. Once you wrap it around the branch though, the copper “stiffens” up and it is difficult to reposition and remove. (So don’t make a mistake.) This stiffening is what gives the copper its holding strength.
This is called “work hardening”.
Aluminum, on the other hand, is able to be repositioned and reused. But, because it doesn’t stiffen up, it needs a larger gauge wire to hold a branch.
Which is fine when you are training a tree; and, unless you’re doing a blog and letting everyone see your work, no one will see it.
Use more wire.
Wire every branch.
Now, why do I use aluminum over copper wire? Besides the cost of copper ( 3 to 1 more expensive compared to aluminum as I write this).
The real reason is this:
If you’ve been reading my past posts you may notice that, after I’ve removed the previous wire, there is a pile of it next to the tree.

If you look closely you’ll see that the wire has not been cut off but, carefully, unwound. Standard practice is to cut it off.
Why would I do this, contrary to all the books and websites and teachers who say not to?
Let me ask you this first (and I’ve already given away the answer).
Why would you not?
The answer to the first question is simple: you can’t unwind copper wire easily. And, as I’ve noticed, it seems that every new book that comes out copies every previous book when it deals with the “basics”. The bonsai community seems so small it’s like “Hey, Joe! I’m writing a book, can I borrow you’re old wiring illustrations?”
I know you’ve noticed it too. Don’t lie.
And in the first ever book written about wiring they only had copper wire. Follow?

The first reason I unwind my wire is: I reuse it (Oh no! Blasphemer! )
My process:

Save the wire

Saved wire is crooked…duh

Find a stout round pole (don’t use grandmas antique dinner table leg. A stripper pole works well)

Grasping the wire firmly betwixt the thumb and second knuckle…..

Use a sawing motion to straighten your wire.

There you go.

The second reason:
It is my belief that, by unwinding wire you will become a more adept wirer. It is more difficult to remove wire than to place it and, as you do it, your body becomes accustomed to the motions. This principle is called “muscle memory) You’ll be more careful in the long run as well, as its easy to break a branch removing the wire.
Now, I am recommending this exercise for aluminum wire. You can do it with the smaller gauge copper but don’t push it. And you can’t reuse the copper unless you re-anneal it. Sorry.
Anyway, I expect to be vilified for this post. There will be those who believe that I am attacking the “traditions” of bonsai. But wiring has only been around for about 100 years or so and, contrary to what most Americans may think, a hundred years don’t a tradition make.
In fact, that’s just when the art begins to mature and refine itself.

I think we should question the premises we are taught and try to figure out why we do the things we do.

Finally,don’t let people bully you into using one type of wire over another.
Disregard my snide remarks concerning copper. If you want to, go ahead. Just don’t sneer at those who wish to use aluminum (I’ve heard this before ” All serious bonsai artists use copper)
One of the United States best artists uses aluminum. That would be Guy Guidry.

I dare you to say that this is not a beautiful bald cypress.

About adamaskwhy

Visual artist specializing in bonsai, mostly.
This entry was posted in tips and tricks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bonsai wire…or, how to annoy your comrades.

  1. Harinakshi Mistry says:

    does Copper wire heat up than Al wires more in tropical areas ? then wouldn’t it pass on the heat to the trunk & cause damage ? sorry I may sound silly, but just a thought.

    • adamaskwhy says:

      It is true that copper conducts heat better than aluminum but it can only get as hot as it is outside and that doesn’t hurt the tree. So I don’t think it matters much. I could be wrong though.

  2. Lorraine says:

    thank you. know I can straighten those pieces of wire I have sitting in a pot.

  3. galagali123 says:

    Annealed Wires
    Thanks for sharing informative blog.

  4. Eliz Smith says:

    Hah! Excellent! I do hate throwing away money. I did have to read up on WHY they insisted on cutting wire and which types to use. I am one of those people that are not good at following blindly. Thanks for your post! Of course, I may just use baling wire.

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