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This article is from Issue 11 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Small display stands for bonsai trees are hard to find. Our plan for building your own is as simple and elegant as the art of bonsai itself.
Tools: Table saw, planer, disk sander, mortiser or drill press, ¼"chisel
TIME: A few hours
Materials: Scrap wood for jigs, any species for stand (mahogany and teak recommended), wood glue, stain, polyurethane, sandpaper
Every time someone plants a tree in a shallow pot and begins the delicate process of training its branches to enhance its natural form, bonsai begins again. No one knows who first trained a tree in a pot or when he or she did it. We do know that on the walls of 4,000-year-old tombs in Egypt are wonderfully preserved paintings of potted plants; and that 3,000 years ago, physicians in ancient India kept potted trees as at-hand sources of herbs and extracts. And 1,800 years ago, the Chinese codified styles of dwarf trees throughout every region and province of China, thus giving structure and qualification to what had been mere haphazard plantings. The Chinese word for artistic potted plant is p’en tsai, meaning “pot planting.” Some evidence suggests the art was well developed before 2000 B.C.
But it is the Japanese who have elevated the art of miniaturizing trees in pots to the highest level. Bonsai, the Japanese translation of the Chinese p’en tsai, didn’t appear in Japan until about 1300 A.D., but the art has flourished there and the Japanese remain the undisputed masters of the art. Bonsai masters carefully study a tree to find the essence of the tree’s form and, through time-honored techniques, simplify that form to enhance its best features and reduce its unappealing characteristics. Bonsai artists almost never add anything to a tree. To do so would violate its simplicity and humility and mask its natural beauty.
Commitment, not magic
In 1889, bonsai appeared in Europe at the Paris World’s Fair Exposition. In 1909 a large bonsai collection went on display in London. But neither Europeans nor the British could maintain thriving bonsai gardens. Rumors circulated that “Japanese magic” and “Oriental secrets” made bonsai flourish in Japan. Well, this may be at least partially true. But the magic is not sorcery, and the secrets are not secret. They are merely a commitment to the simplicity of form, a discipline to diligently tend the planting, and a dedication to a style uncluttered by applied ornamentation.
Bonsai appealed to me from the first time I saw one at a friend’s home. At the time I couldn’t have identified why I liked it; I just did. Over several years, as my experience as a woodworker advanced, I discovered I had a taste for the work of Arts and Crafts designers. The designs of Gustav Stickley, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Charles and Henry Greene influenced my designs and formed a woodworking philosophy that has led to this project. Two tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement match perfectly with the art of bonsai – the simplicity of natural forms and the abandonment of applied ornamentation. As I began to grow my own bonsai, I began to understand why I liked bonsai when I first saw it. Bonsai is in every sense the ancient root, as it were, of Arts and Crafts.
To display a carefully trained bonsai on a garish stand with applied scrollwork would be as unfaithful to the art as adorning the tree with silk flowers or tinsel. Bonsai cries out for an Arts-and-Crafts-style stand. Indeed, much of the Arts and Crafts style originates with Asian design. When the Greene brothers designed houses in Southern California 100 years ago, they did so with an obvious Asian theme.
1. When you mark the legs for mortising, make sure to account for the ¼" taper on two sides.
2. Make a simple L-shaped jig to keep your mortises consistent.
3. Cut the tapers on each leg by hand or on a bandsaw, or sand away the excess as shown here.
Making a small stand
As my bonsai collection grew, I discovered that large-scale display stands could be easily found but smaller ones could not. I believe that even bonsai in the initial stages of training and development deserve to be displayed. So I designed and built several of these stands in mahogany and teak. The design is simple, the parts list short, the assembly uncomplicated. I built mine from scraps. The design lends itself to easy modification. You can make it larger or smaller. I recommend sticking with a 2:3 width to length ratio (thus it could be 4" x 6", 5" x 7½" or whatever). Whatever size you ultimately make, keep the legs about 1¼" long and the overhang at least 1". The style requires a long and low look.
You will need:
1. A ½" x 6" x 9" top of mahogany or teak. Any species will work, but since bonsai are typically kept outdoors, a weather-resistant wood will endure longer.
2. Four legs, ¾" x ¾" x 1½".
3. Two long stretchers and two short stretchers, both of ¼" x ¼" material.
To make the top, mill a piece of stock in your planer to ½" thick (or buy a piece if you don’t have a planer.) Trim it to finished dimensions. Set your table saw to a 45° bevel and the blade height to just clear the bevel. Most saws have right-tilting arbors so you’ll need to move the fence to the left side of the blade or use the miter gauge. Hold the top stock perpendicular to the fence and cut the bevels. Using the miter gauge for the rip cuts can be tricky because it can be difficult to hold the work straight. I don’t like to use the rip fence for the crosscut bevels for the same reason – it’s nearly impossible to hold the piece true to the fence. Mill the edges of the cross-grain ends first, in case there is some tearout; then bevel the sides.
While you’re at the saw, mill the stock for the legs and the stretchers. Cut some stock ¾" x ¾". You will need at least 7" for four legs, but prudence dictates that you make at least one more than the plans call for, just in case. Then rip some stock to ¼" x ¼". You will need at least 18" for the stretchers and another inch or so for floating tenons. If you have a thickness planer you can rip slightly oversize and plane out the saw marks. If you don’t, just sand them away by hand.
The pieces are held together with mortises and floating tenons. I used a benchtop mortising machine to cut the mortises into the legs. If you don’t have one, you can cut the mortises by hand using a drill press and a ¼" chisel. Lay out the mortises by scribing in 13/8" from each corner. These marks form the inside corner of the mortise. I made a jig and clamped it to the mortise machine table so each mortise went exactly in the same place. I cut them to ¼" deep, plenty of depth for a project like this.
Cut the mortises in the legs before shaping the legs to a taper. Lay out the locations on the ends of the legs, remembering that the mortises cannot be in the exact center. You are going to mill away two sides to a taper, removing approximately ¼" from two adjoining sides, leaving a surface ½" x ½". Plot the ¼" mortise in the center of that area. To help keep things straight, I marked the adjoining sides I was going to mill away, then marked off the finished edges (Fig. 1). Reposition your jig on the mortiser and cut the mortises.
Don’t taper the legs just yet. Mark and cut the mortises in the legs to receive the stretchers. Make a mark 3/16" in from the back or straight side of the leg and 5/16" up from the bottom. This forms the corner of the mortise. Now cut the mortises (Fig. 2) and clean up all of them with a chisel.
To taper the legs, I made a jig to hold them in place while I sanded away the tapers on a disc sander (Fig. 3). Once they’re cut, hand sand everything to at least 220-grit.
Cut four 3/8"-long tenons from some of the ¼" x ¼" stock you milled up earlier. Next, cut the stretchers to length. If you are making the base to my dimensions, cut two of them to 67/8" and two more to 3". Dry-fit everything. Depending upon how accurately you located the mortises, you may have to adjust the length of the stretchers.
Stain before the glue
When everything fits, set it aside — don’t glue it up just yet. These stands are small and the clearances shallow, making it difficult to get a smooth stain coat after it is assembled. I stained everything first, then glued it up. I live on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands where dark woods are preferred, so I used Behlen’s Van Dyke Brown water-based stain. If you use a water-based stain you’ll have to move quickly to avoid lap marks and splotches. Once everything is stained, follow the stain’s instructions for allowing it to dry completely. If you are not going to stain the piece, move on to the glue-up stage.
Since the stretchers don’t actually serve any purpose other than decoration, I glued only the floating tenons in the legs and the legs to the top. Don’t leave out the stretchers; you won’t be able to put them in after the glue cures. If you have used a water-based stain, don’t use a wet cloth to remove glue squeeze-out. It will also remove some of the color. Leave the squeeze-out and carefully chisel it away in about 20 minutes. Flip the stand over on its feet and set a weight on top to serve as a clamp. In an hour you can remove the weight. The glue will fully cure in about 24 hours. Follow the instructions for top-coating and the project is complete. I used marine-grade polyurethane, available in spray cans, sanding lightly between coats.
This stand uses a paltry amount of material and once the jigs are made, it’s just as easy to make several as it is to make one. If you’re not yet a bonsai collector, you might find it to be a most relaxing and enjoyable hobby, especially if you already like to keep plants.
Jack Dunigan is a professional woodworker who has been building furniture for more than 30 years.
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