Let me stand next to your FIRE! 

Recently, I was tasked with some juniper carving. Usually one does that with a pair of Jin pliers and maybe an exacto knife. But ain’t nobody got time for that now. And I like my power tools and playing with fire (I mean, who doesn’t, right?). Besides, once the wood on a juniper is dried out, that whole beaver carving technique doesn’t work. Not that it usually ends up well in most cases anyway. Give me a rotary tool and some carbide burrs any day. 

We have a stump. Or two actually. 

You’ve seen me bend wet, newly made deadwood with a torch before (basically, by heating up the new, still green, wet branches, you are boiling the sap and releasing the tension in the cell walls, which allows you to bend a branch. Then by cooling it quickly, you set that branch in place). But this time the branch is very much dried out. What is an itinerant, vagabond bonsai artist to do? The branches are prit’near void of interest in the ways of branching. And carving sharp-sticks-in-your-eye are not my style. I wouldn’t be writing this piece if what I did didn’t work so, get out your sketchbooks and prepare to take notes, FIRE! 
First step, using your flat cutters (variously called trunk splitters or root cutters), split the wood. Next, Jin pliers to hold the end. I’ll use these cheap old ones so as not to ruin my new pair……..
Get the torch out and let’s boil some resin. 

Split the branch:

Grasp an end with the pliers and try to bend it in the direction you want it to go. It won’t bend obviously. But then you apply the FIRE and wait, continuing the pressure from the pliers. Eventually, miraculously, the branch will bend just like as if you were heating metal, it will become pliable and bendy. 

Add water to the burnt section and the branch will harden and hold. 

On the other piece. 

You need movement in two directions. This is the first branch. Then to the carving. Remember, you need movement, taper, and depth in the details. 

First branch. 

Second branch. 

Some more details of the carving. 

Basically, a juniper had copious amounts of resin, or oils, in the red part of the wood (juniper has sap wood and heart wood. The sapwood is white, heartwood is red. It’s the red that resists decay in the wild and gives us those crazy deadwood yamadori masterpieces). By heating the resin, it’s the same principle as heating the water in a newly made Jin. 

One can do this same thing on wood that doesn’t have that resin by soaking a towel in water and wrapping the branch with it, cover the towel with aluminum foil and then heat the whole thing to boiling. The steam will loosen the cell walls and you can then bend the branch. 

But that way isn’t as fun because, well, you know….FIRE!

There’s nothing that smells as nice as  juniper fire. The Native Americans would throw a juniper bough on the fire during dream quests. 

That’s it, a quickie for some hard wood that needs some movement. Don’t burn yourselves. 

5 thoughts

  1. Adam, do you know anything about using cotton wrapped around deadwood, then wrapping aluminum foil over the cotton and them applying heat? It seems that wetting the cotton first would do the same thing as boiling the resin, the foil would “pressure cook” the wood.
    You stayed at my home in Cincinnati but now I live in Prescott Arizona.


    1. I remember you Randy, and the cannon in your basement.
      The technique you describe would work as well, and be less destructive of the wood. It would be a better technique than straight flame on smaller diameter branches.


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