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The Finer Points of Making a Bonsai Stand

The Finer Points of Making a Bonsai Stand

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When I was growing up my dad used a belt sander for everything. Need to smooth out some rough lumber? Belt sander. Need to round off the edges? Belt sander. Ten-year-old me thought the belt sander was the most versatile tool in the shop!

In my mid-20's, I learned that jointers and planers are used for smoothing rough lumber. And routers or block planes generally work for rounding edges. My desire to design my own bonsai stands for my show trees lead me to another woodworking epiphany - if you want to create something with more nuance, even a router will sometimes have some difficulty.

I discovered hand tools as a result of my attempt to recreate a bonsai stand I saw in a Kokufu album. I went to a woodworking store looking for a router bit to put a bead detail on the stand, and I realized that such a bit didn't seem to exist.

Putting Away the Power Tools

Ever since that epiphany, once I'm past the rough lumber stage of creating a stand, I largely switch to hand tools and hand work. I first square up the wood for creating the joinery, then band saw to rough shape to create the curves. After I'm done with the band saw, my garage (aka my woodworking shop) gets a lot quieter. While many woodworkers will turn to a spindle sander, random orbit sander, or a piece of sandpaper, I've developed a preference for the texture created by a sharp piece of steel slicing through the wood fibers. Sandpaper will tear a piece of wood, creating a dull finish. To get a smooth finish you can go through many different grits of sandpaper, each one eliminating the scratches left by the previous. Or you can use a spokeshave, block plane, chisel, or card scraper and knives to cut the wood instead. Cutting leaves a sheen on the wood and a type of irregularity in the surface that dances in incidental light, beckoning for attention.

To replicate the stand I saw in the Kokufu album, I had to learn more about hand tools. I discovered the concept of a moulding plane, which is the predecessor to a profiled router bit. Tool swap meets abound with piles of moulding planes with various profiles, each designed to cut a particular shape of moulding by hand. I learned that moulding planes are great for long runs of wood. For my stand, I was working with short runs, so I settled on a similar device – a custom profile scraper. While the plane cuts with a knife edge which is wedge-shaped and pointed, the scraper cuts with a small hook of steel that is just as sharp, but bent into a curl and so small that you can’t see it. Scraping the steel along the wood cuts a small layer off; repeating this a few dozen times allows you to cut a custom profile using only a small piece of scrap steel and a piece of wood to hold it and act as a fence.

The scraper and the four legs after being scraped to create the shape.

A comparison of the unshaped leg at right and a shaped leg at left.

Once I've roughed out the shaping of the legs, the horizontal support structure, and the apron, it's time to glue the pieces together. I find gluing stressful; I can't go back or undo it, and the working time on the glue is only about 20 minutes. I've learned from experience to tune up the fit of the joinery extensively prior to gluing. I add glue to all the mating surfaces and then I clamp them all together using a strap just like one used to tie something onto a pickup truck. The strap pulls the points of the joints together nicely, and bar clamps are generally too heavy for this type of delicate piece; they can cause the legs to rack out of alignment. 

Once the rough form is glued and left to cure for 24 hours, it’s time to do the final shaping. My goal is to cut the joinery precisely so I'll have minimal mis-alignment. I use a scraper or block plane to level out any joints that are not meeting perfectly. The rest of the shaping is aesthetic rather than functional.

For this stand design, the top will float above the bottom on pegs. While I suspected that these are typically made from wood, I preferred to use reclaimed copper wire. With a couple coats of finish on the wood I carefully mark the positions of the wire and drill out holes in the base and the top to match. There are two verticals on each front and one on each side.

Making the rods that will hold up the top. I used old copper wire, pounded it straight with a hammer, then dunked it in Lime Sulfur to turn it black. The patina created is easily flaked off, so I coated it with a spray varnish. I cut the rods to length after the finish dries.

A view of the details of the finished stand. Just like bonsai, the delicacy created by the right details creates a pleasing composition.

The stand took me a few weeks to complete - time that was well spent when I used the stand to display my Blue Atlas Cedar (below, right) in the 2016 Bay Island Bonsai show!


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