Simple Does Not Mean Easy (formal upright)

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

The next tree that Mr. Tanaka had me work on was a formal upright Five Needle Pine (Goyomatsu).  Now that the needles have hardened off, we can cut, wire, and style the tree.  In this post, I will talk about what I did with this tree, basic concepts of what a formal upright is, Mr. Tanaka’s adjustments and of course, what I learned from the whole experience.  There’s lots to talk about so lets get started.

Before I started, Mr. Tanaka told me to try and use as much of the branches that I can.  He said that if I cut off too many branches, the needles will grow long the following year.  I always knew that only cutting off what was necessary was the key, but I never applied it to the concept of needle length.  I thought about it for a second and it all made sense.  If the tree is feeding 100 branches and I cut off 50 branches, the tree is still going to try and feed 100 branches meaning that the left over 50 branches will get double the food now and the following year which leads to longer needles.  (Did that make sense?)

I sat there for awhile and looked at the tree trying to come up with a game plan.  This was the first time that I’ve ever worked on a formal upright Five Needle Pine so I was a bit nervous.  I thought back to all the pictures of formal uprights that I’ve seen in the past and use that as a template to what I was going to do with this tree.  I laid out the copper wire and got to work.  Mr. Tanaka then said that I needed to wire every branch.  I looked at Mr. Tanaka and said, “no problem, I’ll have this tree done in no time.”  Mr. Tanaka laughed and said, “good,” with a grin on his face.  At the time, I thought he was just laughing at my joke, but as you will see as this post continues on, it was actually me that he was laughing at because this tree did not get done as fast as I thought it would.

The nebari (root spread) is pretty incredible and the tree had a nice fat trunk to go with it.  The nebari was the same 360 of the tree. Some roots could have been cut to improve the look of the nebari but we left them alone at this point because we didn’t want to stress the tree anymore then we had to.  I was going to wire and bend every branch on the tree, so I’m sure the tree wouldn’t be too happy if I started cutting some roots off at the same time.  Mr. Tanaka then added that in the past, the trunk was much skinner.  He says that Five Needle Pines can develop thick trunks even when they’re growing in a Bonsai pot.  He says that the reason why I’m working on this tree now is because the trunk looks better and the tree will fetch a better price now.

I was 2 1/2 days into the tree and I only finished about 60 percent of it.  I couldn’t believe how long this tree was taking me.  I sat there staring at the tree at one point and Mr. Tanaka turned to me and said, “a lot of branches.”  I nodded back and laughed.  I felt kind of foolish because I thought I’d be done by now.  I then told Mr. Tanaka that in the past I wired a larger Five Needle Pine and it only took me 3 days and that I had to spend time cutting off the old needles too! This tree already had that done for me!  I couldn’t explain why this tree was taking me so long to complete.

I showed this picture to Mr. Tanaka and described the size and he explained to me why the tree I’m working on now was taking me so long to finish.  Mr. Tanaka said that first off, the Five Needle Pine I’m working on now is a more fine growing tree meaning the branches are thinner and the needles are thinner. The pine I worked on in the past has a much denser thicker foliage and the branches are thicker too which makes it easier to wire.  The other reason he gave me is that on formal upright trees, there are much more branches then an informal upright tree.  Informal upright trees tend to have spaces here and there and branches are long and short.  A formal upright has trees from top to bottom, 360 of the trunk.  Mr. Tanaka says that all of these reasons is why this tree is taking me so long to finish.  The explanation put me at ease and I continued the work.

What is formal upright?

Formal upright bonsais are one of the most difficult trees to grow and (I now know) are the most difficult to wire and style.  Reason being is the rules for making a good formal upright is so stringent that if the style deviates from the rules, the tree starts to look funny.  So what is a formal upright tree?  A formal upright tree is a tree that is when the trunk is perfectly straight from bottom to top. The trunk also needs to have consistant taper from bottom to top.  There should be branches all around the trunk and the spacing of the branches on the trunk is wide on the bottom and progressively gets closer as you move to the top of the tree.  The shape of the canopy is almost a perfect triangle.  There are other rules and acceptable deviations but those are the most basic rules.  Essentially, we  are trying to create a perfect tree.  WOW!  When was the last time anything was perfect?  Mr. Tanaka said that formal upright trees are very artificial because no tree grows that perfect.  Nevertheless, it is a style in Bonsai and that’s what I’m task to do on this tree… make it perfect or at least try to make it perfect.  Simple… just follow the rules… easy?  Not a chance….

Note on steel wire

Here at Aichien, we use both steel and stainless steel wire for guide wires.  For the light bends, we normally use copper but sometimes there are bends that are so heavy that we need to use steel.  If we don’t use steel, we would have to use a very large copper wire and there is a point where the copper is just too thick to use as a guide wire.

One thing I have noticed is that there is a big difference between the strengths of steel and stainless steel wire.  Stainless steel won’t rust and it’s more then double the strength of regular steel wire, but stainless steel cost about five times more then regular steel.  In this case, the bend wasn’t too bad but I used stainless steel anyways just because I wanted to get more practice with it.  Since stainless steel is much harder, all aspects of applying it as a guide wire are more difficult.  From looping it around a branch to twisting the two ends together, ever step is much harder to do.

If you do decided to try and use steel wire, be aware that if you apply enough pressure on the wire, the teeth on your pliers will start to flatten which will lead to premature wear of your tools.

Personally, I like stainless steel because it’s shiny… anyways…

I looked at the tree and suggested that the tree needs to be tilted to the right a little bit because the line of the trunk seems to angle to the left.  Mr. Tanaka agreed and said that because the tree is pushing itself out of the pot, the line may have shifted since.  After I set up a small block on the left side, the angle looked much better.  This is one of the rare times where you actually want the trunk to have straight lines.

Mr. Tanaka then looked at the tree and said, “balance yoku-nai.”  I blankly looked at him and figured that I had a 50/50 chance that he said the balance was either good or bad.  Since I’m an apprentice I should have known better to think that I did it perfect on the first try.  “Yoku,” means good and “nai,” means no. Put them together and it means, “no good.”  Put that together with balance and it me