Carving tools and other ramblings

I’m giving a very similar PowerPoint presentation at Erik Wigert’s nursery so if it seems as though you’ve heard the jokes before you might have been there. Just sayin’.
What tools did I use to get to this?
Why, I used them all.
Or at least the ones I own.
I started out with a chainsaw.
Just a regular old chainsaw, with a regular bar and a regular sized tip.
One can get specialized carving bars and smaller tips for easier carving but I don’t have them.
And went to the angle grinder.
This tool is also called the “finger-taker-off-er”.
When I use this tool I wear a welding glove
And my stylish safety glasses (that’s what they’re called, really)
And maybe my genuine Members Only leather jacket too, to deflect errant shards of wood thrown off the tools
Ready to carve!
The angle grinder is usually used for metal work and I use it for that purpose, I am a welder as well (I’m available for work, I was just laid off).
Some of the attachments I use include wire wheels and chainsaw carvers (the Lancelot by King Arthur Tools)
I know this wheel looks really intimidating, but it is actually a little safer than the fixed tooth wheels available.
Firstly, a chainsaw tooth is a safer carving tooth because the design only allows for a limited “bite” for each pass of the tooth, minimizing kickback.
Secondly, the Lancelot is a chain sandwiched between two plates, which allows the chain to slide between the plates, further reducing kickback.
Kickback is when the cutting tooth gets caught in the material, forcing the tool up and, possibly, into your forehead.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
The angle grinder also has numerous sanding disks available, but considering the size, they’re only really good for large trees and tiki men.
The next tools are classified as mini-angle grinders.
The Merlin (another King Arthur product), the Arbortech mini grinder, and a pneumatic mini-grinder.
The secret, which I shall now divulge, is the wheels will interchange with each other.
The Merlin, being a mini tool, also has a mini chainsaw wheel available
Which is handy on smaller trees.
The big difference between the Merlin and the Arbortech is a magnitude of power. The Merlin is a mini angle grinder; the Arbortech is a full size angle grinder with mini attachments.
On the one hand you have that power, on the other, it is heavier, on the third hand it’s a bit awkward (being in the third hand and all).
The pneumatic mini grinder requires an air compressor to use so it’s a bit less convenient than the electric ones.
The next tool in my arsenal is the die grinder
Which is a class of tools categorized as a rotary grinder.
It’s much like a Dremel tool but much more powerful.
They’re actually not designed to be used on wood but steel or plastic. A die is another word for a mold that is used to cast shapes or parts.
This is the tool where the more specialized bits come into play.
The infamous samurai
My favorite, the rotosaw
And hundreds of shapes and sizes
I buy my tools from Wood Carver’s Supply. As a disclosure, I do not get any money from this company, but I would not be adverse to that (hint, hint).
The tool I use to do all my finish work is a flex shaft rotary carver called a Mastercarver (the more common brand you may have heard of is Foredom. The Mastercarver has more power).
This tool can use all of the bits used on a die grinder and, using a smaller handset, use all the bits that would be used on a Dremel tool.

A mini rotosaw
My secret tool I use, which makes all of these tools (yes, all of them) safer, more versatile, and nifty-er, is the…… DUMM DAA DUMM…
…foot pedal
Not only does it act as an on and off switch (should I accidentally drop the tool with a deadly, razor sharp carbide burr spinning at 30,000 rpm) but this model is a variable-speed foot pedal. Good for pretending to be a race car driver and incidentally, varying the effect of the bit on the wood.
Faster or slower tool speed makes the wood happier.
I highly recommend it. It’s only $50 from Wood Carver’s Supply. Cheaper than a finger reattachment.
So, to get back to that original bit of carving (which was chronicled in the blog here and accomplished at Old Florida Bonsai) I used all of those tools above.
The before:
And the after:
If you remember, at the beginning, I said that I was giving this post as a PowerPoint presentation at Erik Wigert’s nursery.
I posed a question to my students which I will now pose to you:
We have a tree that needs carving-
Is this carving treatment acceptable as bonsai?
Or is it just too Dada-ist?
Marcel Duchamp would love it, though,
I’m sure.

Refining a deadwood feature on a podocarpus

My friend Bobby asked me over to do some carving.
Me, always willing to work on a tree, of course, said yes.
All my friends live a long way away. Bobby’s about an hour away, which is not bad. My friend Erik is about 3 hours away, Allen is about 2 hours.
Bobby said he had a couple three trees for me to work on.
This was the first:
The previous artist who had carved it put the twist into the deadwood.
After talking it over with Bobby we decided to keep the twist but try to make it more natural looking.

To paint the scene. I’m in a beautifully landscaped yard with a great collection of trees.
This was the view to my right
And my left
But I was here to work.
One thing I try to do when carving is to, instead of making lines, I carve hollows, furrows and details that, when the light hits them, make lines.
This is the first pass
That’s Bobby in the background.
And this is Bobby in the foreground
More of the tree


Using my die grinder and an inch wide roto-saw bit I followed the original design but went deeper. I’m known for how deep I can plunge my tool.
Now I’m giving up a secret carving technique. Pay attention.
Using a flex-shaft grinder (like a Foredom brand) and a wire brush bit
and a little work. That’s how I put some age into the design. Allow the tool to rotate with the grain.
The effect we are trying to emulate: a trees grain is made up of alternating hard and soft layers, the soft layer will wear away with the action of the elements (wind, water, sand) and by using the wire brush I can duplicate that process.
Here is the end result


The before (just to remind you)
In the next post I’ll show you how I carve this buttonwood
Or maybe I’ll make soup

Let’s air layer everything!

It’s that time of the year, when the sap is flowing and the wood is getting hard. When the hormones are beginning to do their chemical wonders and the smell of propagation is in the air.
Cuttings, seed, and air layering!
I covered the process of air layering in this post last year.
For detailed info look there.
I’ll again be doing a Brazilian Raintree but also: podocarpus, hackberry, elm and ficus. And an experimental air layer: nea buxifolia !

I think I’ll make this a yearly post. And I’ll try different trees and we shall see what works and what doesn’t.
Lets try an easy one first.
Ulmus alatta: the winged elm.
The key to air layering success is including, underneath your moss, the presence of buds. Not that kind of bud, childish.
A bud is a place where, in bright, clean sunlight, a verdant leaf and branch will emerge. But in cold, wet, darkness pale, maggot like growth will push forth; magically, sending, searching, snaking long tendril-like fingers in reaching for purchase and sustenance.
Roots, in other words.
So it’s a good idea to pick species that have evident buds when we are air layering.
Like an elm.

All those little bumps are potentially buds.
As you can see

This tree has no taper. So it has to be chopped back. But it has that nice wiggle and that’s where I want to air layer.

First, trim the twigs and branches away

And make two cuts around the trunk about the thickness (give or take) of the trunk apart

and peel the bark away down to the wood.
I kept intact the branch collar

because that’s an awesome spot for roots to emerge.
Cover with sphagnum moss, aluminum foil and tie it with wire.


I don’t use rooting hormone. I don’t find the need.
The next subject is nea buxifolia. It’s a native Puerto Rican tree that’s considered a weed by some.

They also grow very straight and usually have no taper. This telephone pole is about 4 ft tall

This is an experiment with this nea. I’ve never heard of anyone attempting it but, since we have to cut it back to induce taper, why not try to save the top. Right? It can be grown from cuttings so it might be possible.
When you make your ring cut

You will notice that you have the bark, then the layer under that (which could be green, red, orange, yellow). Peel off all that until you get to the wood.
Grab a handful of sphagnum moss (wear gloves) and some aluminum foil


And wrap that willie.
Again, I use wire to tie the foil off. I’ll go in every week or so and re-wet the moss.

Let’s see if the tree gods smile on me and we have success.
Most of this was done at the monthly study group meeting.
And I was grilling


so the next several pics show my corillo at work.
If you remember the Rogues Gallery post (here) I promised a side by side comparison on the efficacy of a cutting compared to an air layer on a ficus.
It was these trees


We chop one

Which is a two man job

And air layer the other


On the first one we take the top

And plug it into some good soil

and keep it wet.
The bottom is repotted into bonsai soil

The wound is shaved smooth and even

The advantage to the chop method: the bottom tree will be a bonsai quicker.
This makes me want to sing. I filked a song for the occasion.
Watch it on YouTube here (Cut It Back). My apologies to the Stones.
Here’s a big raintree

We put three on this one. Which answers the question “Can I put more than one on a tree?”
Yes you can. Just make sure there is not more than one in a row on the tree.


The next two victims are a podocarpus

And a hackberry

Both of these trees are in the ground. Which answers that question.
The podo was just cut back heavily and has exploded with growth. I plan on collecting it next year. It’s about 7 feet tall at the moment and will be cut back to about 3 feet after collection. So I says to myself
“Yo, self! Since youze’r doin’ sum layerin’, why ain’t youze try a podo?”
I looked up if people had done it and, yes, they had. And had success, so….here we are.
The site

The layer

The thickness of the wood

Which is what I tell all the ladies. But I’m not fooling anyone.
And let’s pray to the Druids it works.

Now, I’ve tried to air layer the hackberry before.
It defeated me. It just healed over the cut end. Which surprised the hell outa me.
This time I will succeed. Or have some nice pics to blog about.
Ring cut, extra wide

I did two on this tree


Which I intend to collect next year as well.
Do you have your fingers crossed?
Will we do the impossible (air layer a nea) and the uncommon (a podocarpus); will the hackberry laugh at us again?
Stay tuned (or check back in a few months.)
All your questions and more will be answered.
Or I’ll make soup.

Speaking of food, the corn was so sweet it didn’t need butter and the chicken was cooked skilfully.
At least that’s what Don and Smitty say.

Podocarpus carving at Old Florida Bonsai

When they bring you your demo tree in the bucket of a tractor

You know it’s gonna be a fine show.
Mighty fine.
I was invited to participate this year at the 2nd Annual Bonsai Bash held at Old Florida Bonsai in Vero Beach Florida by JJ, one of the owners. She is the wife of Richard Turner (who won the Best Tropical award at the National Show in Rochester New York with this portulacaria afra :


Lets peruse the demo tree, shall we?


My job is to carve this deadwood and make it look natural. I chose the tree. I like a challenge.
And, yes…

…that is a ficus growing out if it.
JJ’s idea was to, instead of having a set time for a “Demo” or seminar, I had my own tented area (I chose not to use a tent. Which was a mistake. Even though it was only about 45 Fahrenheit I still got sunburned) where I could just do whatever artistic whim suited my fancy. Where the guests could walk by and ask questions or I could expound if I wanted to or not. Her idea was to show the act of creation without the added distraction of lecturing. (I can imagine this might handicap some of the professional bonsai demonstrators out there. When all you have is your work to show, with no fancy jargon to amaze and confound your audience, it’s definitely harder to give a demo)
I was game.
She wanted some tiki men carved and some carving on bonsai and a face carved into a sea grape and an ilex styled and….. and I brought my guitar along too.
She wanted to make sure I wasn’t lounging around I guess.
First, a tiki…

There’s a whole story to the palm logs she had. I won’t tell it now, it’s her story. Ask her when you go see the nursery.

A couple of cuts here and there

With my chainsaw.

Hmmmmnnnn. Termites.
Lets switch logs.

That’s better.

Not bad work for a five year tiki man carving hiatus.
That was a good warmup.
Time for the tree.

As you can see, it’s growing nicely. The tree was collected several years ago and cut to one trunk. Then half the tree died. Which is fortunate for me. It gives me more to carve.
As Dan Robertson says, more meat to cut into.

That’s Guaracha next to the tree to give you some idea of the scale. He also took most of these pictures. Thank you mi amigo.

Lets see what can be removed….

It is said that the podocarpus microphylla is a slow growing tree.

It’s major pest is the blue aphid.

It benefits from a chelated iron treatment every once in a while.
To begin carving, you have to first identify what is living and dead.

To do this, you first begin to remove the bark

On the podocarpus, the living section is the red.

The black line shows the living vein.

One last look

A couple of adjustments


So the question running through your heads is
“Is he just showing off, using a chainsaw to carve a bonsai tree?”
The principle I practice is this:
The tools are expensive. It’s best to use the more powerful tools and gradually work your way down to the smaller ones.
And a chainsaw allows me to remove big chunks and block out the basic design. The smaller tip and the power allow me to penetrate into the wood to achieve both depth and layers.

First pass.
The next tool is the angle grinder with a Lancelot chainsaw piece.

This is, in my opinion, the most dangerous tool I use.
You may notice the guard has been removed. Do not do this. I use the angle grinder in metalwork as well as wood carving. I’m very practiced at its use. And I’m willing to take the risk (As with all my tools)
This is the only tool I wear a glove with. And I use welding gloves, which are full leather and about as thick as you can use and still bend your fingers. I have nicked my thumb using this tool (I did have the gloves on but it’s still unsettling)
Alright? Back at it, then

This tool is really designed for removing material.
I use it to block out further the hollows and add some linear details

That’s about as far as I can go with that one.
The next tool is an attachment made by a company called Arbortech. It takes your full size angle grinder and converts it to a mini one


The smaller wheel gives you the ability to get into the carving a little more. And gives you finer control.
Carving is a process. If you are working on a big piece it’s a better practice to work on the whole tree at the same time. It’s the same principle when wiring; apply the wire and then arrange the branches.

Time for a fourth tool.

The die grinder.
This is like the grown up version of the dremel tool. It is basically a rotary tool that uses bits (1/4″ shafts) in various shapes and sizes. The two I use the most are a carbide burr called “rotosaw” and a flame shaped carbide burr.
There is one bit sold in the bonsai trade called “the Samurai” that is good for rough shaping. I don’t use it for a few reasons. The shaft is soft and bendable, I don’t like the line it makes when carving,and, in my opinion, if its not used by professional carvers, I won’t use it. They tend to know what is safe or not.

This is a pretty dangerous tool in itself as well. I use a variable speed pedal when I use this because, one, I can vary the speed and,two, if I drop the tool,it will shut off when I remove my foot from the pedal.
Safety first! (except when it comes to safety guards,I guess).


So now I’m just getting my tool as deep in the hole as I can…….ahem.
When you carve you’re not making lines, you are creating contours and shapes that, when the light hits it, will show lines. Darks and lights, depths and convex bulges are how this is accomplished.

Try to keep two hands on the tool at all times, the shaft is long enough.


And now for some fire.
When I use a torch,people ask me “Adam, why do you use fire? Is it to preserve it?”
And I say “no, it’s just to remove some tool marks and make the wood more weathered looking”

And it’s cool to play with a torch

At this point I move to a smaller set of tools

The flex-shaft grinder.

There is a myriad variety of bits and burrs available for the flex-shaft tool. And I have two different size hand pieces. On accepts 1/4 inch shafts (die grinder size) and the other uses 1/8 inch shafts (dremel size. There’s a dirty word for you. Dremel. I don’t use one at all. In my early days I burned up about 4 of them. Don’t waste your money).

After all my techniques and manipulation and some branch placement

The rear

The right side.




Some detail shots and now the fro……
Wait. I carved another tiki man. Wanna see it?

I felt like a dentist carving this one. Look at them chompers!

The two together, like two amigos.
And now the front of the podocarpus

And my inevitable sketch. This one came out good I think

And something new, a YouTube video showing the tree in 360 degrees (click here)
Make plans for next year around Valentines Day.
JJ is planning a 3 day event.
Old Florida Bonsai.
Vero Beach Florida!
Thank you JJ and Richard for having me and for the opportunity to work on such great material.

Holy Balls! Guy Guidry at the NoNaMe Bonsai Study Group

So, people…
I must say that, as there are more and more serious bonsai-ists out there trying their best to turn Bonsai into an industry, even into a Big Business, with supply chains and professional this and thats, we must not forget that what we are really only doing is playing with little trees.
That’s all.
And, like most ART, most people wouldn’t pay $5 for that stupid (fill in the blank) that you’re asking $2000 for.
So,take it easy.
Have fun.
Whatever dude.
That said, let the madness ensue…..
This month, the NoNaMe study group hosted Guy Guidry, cypress man extraordinaire.
The cast of rogues participating:
Nick, late of the Russian mafia

Dave. Stone cold Kitchen Designer.

Hey, look! Jerry made it! Careful, he’s known to go Postal on anyone who crosses him

Don, The Don.

Dave, mi amigo. He gets things done, he’s a Fixer.

Bobby, knows the Who, What,Where,When and How.

Steve. Or Coach C.

He’s number 1 in my book. Need to get him a new shirt.



And introducing:

Guaracha! He’s The Collector. Very familiar with The Jungle.

The tree of the day was taxodium distichum. Bald cypress (this is Guy Guidry, after all)
We did have a couple of podocarpus

And some pines, buttonwood.
But mostly cypress. Which was fine by Guy.

There was loads of carving done


And wiring




And even some burning


It was quite a day. If you can get him, I suggest booking Guy for a club event or even a private session. His nursery is in Covington Louisiana. And he just opened up a bonsai boutique in New Orleans. Check them out.
He’s been working on bonsai for close to 30 yrs and his depth of knowledge is impressive. And his knowledge is seasoned with experience. He knows his trees, his techniques and his art.
Plus he’s very personable and expressive.
Which comes out in his art.
Here’s one cypress tree, start to finish.

Guy begins with a straight, tall tree

It gets wrapped in raffia and not one, not two but three lengths of aluminum wire.

Now the bending begins:






20130220-141335.jpgthis was the “uh oh!” Branch. In case the main trunk broke.



Then Guy tied it off

Then bent some more.


Almost done. Just a quick repot and some more branch placement

And some foliage

There will be those out there who are going to say “that doesn’t look like a tree, cypress don’t grow like that in nature!”
Well, my friends, they do. Look up Joe Samuels. The logo tree for the 2007 BSF Convention was a cypress tree that existed (see here).
Most old dwarfed cypress look like the next tree though.
This one was nursery bought, believe it or not.

Here is the progression



Helluva day. See you next meeting!

Podocarpus recarve

Here is a podocarpus I had carved as a demonstration for the Brevard Bonsai Society in Melbourne Florida. Some of you may recognize it.

This was one of the first trees I ever collected. I got it when the CFBC went to a members house (Sigrid) to remove plants that were going to be bulldozed.
When I first carved it I thought it would look ok with just jins but I’ve since changed my mind.



What is surprising is this bark is all living. On a podocarpus the living bark will grow anywhere, it doesn’t need a bud to feed it. Unfortunately it is also twice as hard to carve living, wet wood than seasoned wood. Yippee…..

After days of gnawing away at the tree…….are you kidding?

We go to the big boy toys for this baby!
That’s an angle grinder fitted with a chainsaw wheel made by King Arthur Tools. When people see it they are a bit intimidated. They should be a little. An angle grinder is a heavy tool. It can wear you out quickly. I don’t recommend it for everyone. And the chainsaw wheel looks really dangerous but it’s actually safer than some of those fixed blade attachments for either an angle or die grinder.
The “chain” on this floats between 2 discs giving it the ability to “slip” when it hits a snag. This minimizes kickback and therefore unintentional face carving. Plus the teeth on the chain are the same as on a regular chainsaw. Which means that in one pass the tool can only cut a predetermined depth (due to the shape of the tooth; it has a limiter built in as a safety feature).
It is dangerous still. It just takes practice and stamina.

Anyway, 2 minutes later, we have this ruined mess. Let’s hope I can fix it.

Some blocking and shaping with the die grinder and a 3/4 inch flame shaped carbide burr.

A little shaping with a 1 inch rotosaw.

The detail is not bad but the shape is wrong. It’s still too wide and bulky.

That’s better. I ground down the left top edge and that gave it some movement. I also burned the pithy fibers off and softened the edges with a wire brush attachment. Plus some detail work.

Lime sulfured

It’s like I carved off 5 pounds. It’s funny how the lime sulfur is bright orange or yellow and it bleaches to white.

Last night.

This morning. Cool huh?

And some detail shots:




It might need more thinning on the right side but I need a little distance and time from it. To “see” it again. Right now I’m still only seeing the details.
Tell me what you think.

Sunday Study Group

Is it the grilling ?

Or the trees ?

Or the Friendship that makes an informal study group (hosted by yours truly) so fun?

It’s probably the beer.

We had sent out a last minute Facebook invite for the gathering and most of the usual suspects showed up.
We started at 9 am and ended at 8 pm. It was a hardcore group.
One tree we worked on was Jerry Santiago’s buttonwood.

That’s actually Dave Velez in this pic.

Jerry got the tree in Puerto Rico. It was a more upright tree and last year he laid it down. It literally has one live vein and, essentially, only one root. So we had to wrap it around some rocks to prop it up and tie it down.


The branch structure before pruning and wiring



And after

A lot of branches were removed and in the restyle we moved branches back and up and over.
And this (bad) pic is an example of a 2d medium trying to capture a 3d medium. You should see the tree in person.

Dave brought his willow leaf ficus clump

Which needed a haircut badly. It was a bush

A hand in the bush giving the bird. I think that’s how that the saying goes.

We all took turns cutting the tops and bottoms, removing the tridents and quad-ents. Basically we selected the strongest leaders and cut away everything else. Leaving the growing tip intact to allow that leader to thicken. (That’s a bonafide Jim Smith secret.)

It needs to be repotted but we are lacking a suitable pot. If anyone knows any pot dealers out there let me know.

I worked on this podocarpus. This was a competition tree at a BSF convention that Mike Feduccia worked on and I won in the auction.
It was (I think) originally collected by Erik Wigert and Mike competed in the BSF Scholarship contest using it. I think he came in 2nd.
I ( eep..sorry Mike ) actually turned the tree 180 degrees from his front ( which, I might add, did lose the hollow feature in the shorter trunk that Mike thought was important to the design. When we design a tree we trade off one good feature for one bad feature and hopefully come to a good composition)

This is a detail of the apical jin

And the rear of the shorter trunk.
Mike had focused on the overall design and only did a rough carving with root cutters. And it kinda looks like a beaver gnawed it. Time for some power.
This is one reason I advocate the use of power tools. Some wood (like the podocarpus ) is too hard (if we are working with larger trees) to use hand tools on. And on some trees power tools are a must because the grain is not fibrous enough to rip the wood down the grain. It just makes them look artificial (this is where that American traditionalist in the back row begins to look annoyed).
And that’s where specialists like myself come in.

Detail of the apical jin after carving.

And the shorter trunk.

There I am. What a stud!

Before wiring.

This is the “before” of a small Jin.
By carving out sections on opposite sides a straight branch can given movement.

Like so.
The process is like this.

I love my drawings.

What I do before the whole “lime sulfur” treatment is to allow the wood to dry some more and then use a smaller bit to refine the carving. Then the lime sulfur.
I liken carving to this analogy of styling a tree: first, doing the major limb cutting and heavy wiring. Waiting for what you did to fill back in and then going back to work the secondary branches. Then a third time to work the tertiary branches.
This is how I approach carving. No matter what details I add now, the wood will age and check contrary to what I have done. So I do the major wood removal and make it presentable…..mostly.
Remember,though, this is my tree and not a demo tree where the audience expects a “finished” product at the end. I see this carving on this tree taking 2-3 years. At least.
But, hey, Bonsai is not an instant art form now,is it?

Here is the tree wired.
I won’t repot until next spring.

And here is Nick Alpin’s ficus.

I don’t have a “before” wiring pic but only a “before” repot pic

There’s the after. I think it got jostled in the car ride home. Nice looking tree.

Jerry using my flex shaft carving tool.

It sounds a bit like a dentist drill. Puts me on edge listening to it. I apologize to those who must endure it during one of my demos.

Dave using my Super Duper Electric Sifting Machine.

I know. Words fail me too.

And here are some updated pics from the post on the ” old ilex “
Buds everywhere

The main work ahead will be the construction of the apical dome. ( I am trying to find a replacement for the word “apex”. Any suggestions?)


We worked on more trees but I didn’t get pics of them all ( I was working man!).
So, the next time you see an invite, come on over. You will at least eat and drink well.
BTW, thanks Juan for the yummy cookies, we wished you could have stayed!