Bonsai Kayak

Bonsai Kayak

Phutu show

What do bonsai and boats have in common? From my perspective, both are at their best as a mix of modernity and tradition. Bonsai as an art is a reflection of the experience and mind of the creator- I’ve spent many weeks in the mountains of California enjoying kayak paddles (normally a rental) and hiking to discover views of trees on granite islands in high mountain lakes. And as Nick Schade, founder of Guillemot Kayaks explains, the great pleasure in designing or making one's own boat, is in "converting a pile of nondescript strips of wood into a fine, fun, functional craft." 

Initially, the idea for this display came from the thought of a tree on an island, spreading toward the water. The white pine clump I have been growing for almost 15 years has finally gotten into pretty good shape thanks to a good styling by Matt Reel a few years back and my recent re-wiring. Clumps and rafts are often potted in shallow wide containers, or in round containers and displayed on slabs, to give the impression of an expanse of space around the trees.

I wanted the “stand” to reduce the visual weight of the pot (in this case an oval) so I thought of insetting the pot rather than having it rest on top. This manages to give the illusion of a very shallow pot resting on a wide and tapered stand. I also wanted the stand to evoke the tapering of a mostly flat island disappearing at the water edge, so the ends of the “stand” needed to be fairly narrow, and significantly less weighted than the center visually.

I want to work toward abandoning the idea of resting a “stand” on a table. In display setup we’re normally using folding tables, covering them with a tablecloth and draping and then resting a nice wooden stand on top of that table and the tree on that stand. But this setup is just an approximation of the setup of the traditional tatami mat tokanoma alcove from Japan. If we want to make our own displays in an original style, with our own inspiration, is there any reason to use a table other than the convenience and height?

All of these thoughts and elements brought me to the idea of exploring what is actually required for bonsai display, and what is just assumed to be a requirement. For sure, to emphasize the work and quality of a bonsai, the display environment should reflect the quality and effort that has been put into the tree, and it should be free of distractions so the viewer can appreciate the fine structure and subtle characteristics. But, that does not require it to sit on a miniature table on top of a larger table…nor does it mean that two trees have to be paired, or accent plants used.

The construction of this display was neither straight, nor straightforward, nor simple. I started with the idea of a kayak form – the boards that are used inside a kayak while the strips of wood are glued to each other to create the sinuous form that curves in the complexity required for hydrodynamics. But, the shape would not be exactly that of a kayak, so the forms were wider at the ends and flatter, more like a surfboard with a wide end. I later learned that people actually do make wooden surfboards similarly, but I used kayak strip-building techniques. The forms/frame didn’t really need to be removed so I simplified by shaping them and then attaching the bottom, which is just 1/4″ plywood bent and cut to fit the shape.

Since the bottom is more functional than visual, I felt it didn’t merit the same attention as the sides and the deck. For the deck, I began by creating a lot of strips of 3/4″ by 3/16″ wood, and then laying them out and nailing and gluing them in place one by one starting from the center line (side to side) of the “boat” and working toward each side.


There is a lot of coaxing, clamping and gluing of each piece to get them to all line up correctly, adhere to the curving shape, and come together without leaving gaps. The lower, wider ring in the center sits underneath the lip of the pot, while the second ring visible in the photo above sits outside the rim of the pot. I created the ring by laminating thin strips of plywood around the rim of the pot, but to do this I had to remove the tree so I could use the pot as a form. The tree lived happily in a wooden box nestled into some loose soil for a couple weeks before I finished and got it back in the pot (root work happened right before being put back in the pot!)

The sides and ends proved to be the most challenging parts – shaping the wood just right so that all the planes meet perfectly. Once cut, shaped and after a lot of sanding and scraping I decided to put the tree into the stand on top of my work table to get an idea of what it might look like in it’s final form. It was at this point that I was thoroughly sure I didn’t want to display this on top of a regular table. I started working double time on the alternate arrangement.


Finishing a kayak involves a lot of waterproofing – it’s not just a couple coats of varnish or oil. The structure is actually a thin piece of wood sandwiched between layers of fiberglass. Using two-part epoxy, I added some filler to the nail holes and then applied a layer of fiberglass and epoxy to the entire top and bottom. This was my first experience with large amounts of epoxy and it was an interesting one. In the end, I used three coats of epoxy, and coated the interior also.

The suspension mechanism was a last-minute affair as I tend to do these projects close to deadline – in this case the BABA show in Oakland that I participated in at the end of March. I wanted it to be simple, able to be broken down for transport, and make the tree look like it was floating, evoking perhaps an island in a lake on a foggy morning. The photo below was very inspiring when I saw it on Instagram:

The black ropes, which garnered the most attention – are similar to those used on the hull of a kayak for lashing items down. The knots used were boat knots, but they need to be cleaner as a few people pointed out, to not distract from the peaceful effects.

The frame ended up looking almost like a boat trailer.

I’ll be displaying this again at the 2019 Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan Town in San Francisco, April 20-21st, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center on Sutter Street between Buchanan and Webster.

And, to the delight of my eight year old son – we took it for a little test spin. I’m hoping to get it out on a good foggy morning, perhaps after I build a kayak for myself also!

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