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Bonsai Shaping and Designing

general design guidelines - pots - pruning & pinching - wiring - jins & sharis

General Bonsai Design Guidelines

  • In the majority of Bonsai styles the apex of the tree is positioned over the base of the tree in order to provide a balanced image.
  • One of the most fundamental guidelines relates to the need to ensure a triangular appearance in the overall arrangement of the Bonsai branches and foliage.
  • In most Bonsai styles other than literati, the branches should begin at around one third of the the trunk height.
  • A wide and robust buttress with strong spreading roots adds realism to the Bonsai.
  • The appearance of moss or akadama soil can really set a Bonsai tree off and provide a seamless link from the tree to the pot.
  • A balanced branch structure (avoiding exact symmetry) and ramification are the basic requirements for an upright Bonsai.
  • Mature looking bark with a good solid girth add a feel of age and strength to a Bonsai tree.
  • The trunk should have a good taper as it narrows towards the apex.
  • In a number of Bonsai styles the apex of the tree leans forwards adding depth and perspective to the overall appearance.
  • Sounds obvious, but does the Bonsai look like a tree in nature? If this is really important to you then forget trees with large leaves like Figs, or which flower like Satsuki Azaleas.
  • The pot which holds the Bonsai needs to complement the Bonsai in terms of its size, design and colour. The Bonsai also needs to be placed appropriately within the pot.

Pots for Bonsai

  • Tokoname Bonsai PotThe basic rule is that the pot must compliment the Bonsai and not negate the aesthetic effect of the tree it is holding.
  • Cascade and semi-cascade Bonsai need taller, deeper and more rounded pots.
  • Literati Bonsai are best displayed in smaller rounded pots.
  • For Bonsai conifers the darker browns, greys and blacks usually look most sympathetic.
  • Bonsais which flower can be shown in glazed and colourful pots.
  • Classic formally shaped Bonsai trees appear most suited to rectangular pots.
  • Group plantings lend themselves to shallow pots of various designs and improvised slabs of rock or slate.
  • With deciduous trees it is best to let the trees seasonal leaf colour change dominate. Therefore pick subtle colours that don't detract from the tree and which compliments the colours of the leaves all year round.

Pruning and Pinching


Bonsai pruning should be carried out in order to maintain or enhance the growth pattern of your Bonsai. It involves removing branches or parts of branches which are either too long, too short or pointing in the wrong direction. "Directional pruning" is where you leave the end bud pointing in the right direction after pruning, thus avoiding the need to wire the branches.

With most Bonsai it is best to prune in early spring so that the Bonsai wont be exposed to to inclement weather and will heal more readily. If you do prune in winter then protect the Bonsai more carefully from the weather. Always apply wound healer no matter when you prune and ensure the final cut leaves a concave shape on the tree.

bonsai tools


Shoots lengthen during the whole growing season and in order to produce the sort of ramification of the branches we need these shoots need controlling. By removing the shoots and buds at the furthest point we direct the trees energy to buds and shoots further back on the branch. This diversion of resources and subsequent growth elsewhere and back-budding creates strong secondary growth and ramification.

On broad leaved Bonsai trees the pinching back involves simply cutting the new shoot just behind a leaf leaving 2 or 3 remaining leaves. With conifers you will need to pinch out the longest and most dominant bud to ensure appropriate secondary ramification, always remembering to keep some buds ready to grow into pines or needles. Through this process you can also assist in directing growth in a more subtle way than pruning.

Wiring Bonsai

  • Wire should never be too close together nor too wide apart. It should naturally and easily twist around a branch or trunk.
  • Wire should be angled at around 45%.
  • It goes without saying, but keep a close eye on the wire and ensure it is carefully removed if it shows any sign of biting into the tree. As a general guide wire deciduous Bonsai trees no longer than 6 months and evergreens no longer than 9 months.
  • Be slow and methodical in your application of wire as the damage to Bonsai trees mostly occurs at this stage and in the removal stage when careless and eager hands break branches.
  • Bonsai wire Bend the Bonsai tree as you wire as if you bend it after wiring then the wire will be too tight in some areas and too loose in others.
  • Don't be afraid to use a large gauge of wire as it is important that the wire is fit for purpose and easily supports a branch or trunk in its new position.
  • Wire adjacent branches at the same time with the same length of wire so they naturally support each others new placement.
  • Evergreen Bonsais can be wired at any time of the year whilst deciduous trees are best wired when the leaves are off and you can see the overall structure of the tree more clearly.
  • When choosing the length of wire to cut ready for wiring the general guideline to use is that the wire needs to be one third longer than the length of the area to be wired.
  • A good procedure to follow is the bottom up approach to wiring. That is, start wiring the lowest level of branches first before gradually moving up the tree.

Jins & Sharis

On a number of species of Bonsai tree but predominantly evergreens, the creation of a Jin (dead driftwood effect) on selected Bonsai showing Jin and Sharibranches adds a powerful visual effect to the tree. Similarly, the carving out of part of the trunk into a Shari creates a new level of realism and also in many cases a degree of artistic interpretation to your Bonsai.

A Jin can easily be created through the crushing of the branch using pliers and the ripping away of the bark. Further carving away of the cambium beneath the bark and the shaping of the remaining branch gives the impression of dead wood.

The Shari effect is harder to achieve as you need to ensure that even after you have removed the desired amount of bark and cambium you must ensure you leave sufficient strips of living tissue to provide the live branches with enough sap. Finally, the deadwood can be whitened through the application of lime sulphur. This however is best applied after 2 to 3 months of the initial carving to allow the wood to dry out.