Unwiring Bonsai

16th September 2018 - 11 minutes read

Everywhere you look in bonsai magazines and online, there are an abundance of articles teaching people how to wire their trees. This part of the hobby is just as important to get right and in the early days I did more damage to my trees from taking the wire off than I did putting it on. So I thought I would write down a few points that I think are worth sharing.

Timing

It is of course time to remove the wire as soon as you notice that the wire has begun to bite into the bark and the wire should be removed there and then. However other than the delicate barked species such as maple, hemlock or beech, you can usually leave the wire on for one growth season without any worry. Although some species will require a second year for larger bends to set I like to remove all wire once each year and rewire again if needed. This prevents localised pinching  and allows the design to be tweaked to perfection with a new bend as desired.

So generally an annual unwiring is best as part of a well thought out calendar. There are times of the year when you will be too busy undertaking other important tasks, so I have found that the best time is autumn, after all the summer maintenance and watering has passed, but before the winter repotting fever takes hold.

Cut or unwind?

Unwiring can be a moderately rough process involving strong physical exertion, the slightest slip can see a deliacte twig knocked and snapped. Therefore if your tree is an award winning specimen that must not sustain any damage then the only answer is to assiduously cut the wire repeatedly along the length of the branch with fine nosed wire snips.

Now only a few of my private collection are of that quality, the rest are robust enough that they can survive a careful unwinding of the wire. Very few trees however are soo rough that they will tolerate a rough unwinding!! Whilst it would be nice to cut the wire off every tree I have a few thoughts that balance the decision making. Firstly bonsai can be an expensive enough hobby as it is without having to buy rolls of new wire every year. Whilst wire can be recycled it is better for the planet to reuse materials as many times as possible before sending them for recycling, so I try to reuse wire as many times as I can

Visibility

The other benefit of autumn unwiring is that the leaves will have dropped on deciduous species, or a needle plucking of older growth on evergreen species, means you will have maximum visibility into the structure of the tree. I cannot overstate just how important this is to a sucessful operation. Also improve your view more by getting some good lighting (a well positioned lamp) and by lifting the tree up so you are working at eye level.

Some trees with only a few branches will be easy to see into, however a densely foliaged tree needs very careful observation beforehand. Once the tree is in position make sure you have a thoroughly good look at all parts of the wire you are about to remove. Especially look along the length of the wired branch for:

  • any back buds or new shoots (how many times have I kicked myself for knocking off a hard won back bud on a pine),
  • areas where the bark has grown over the wire (easy to miss in the middle of summer even though you have been watching carefully
  • crossing wires – sometimes you have to cross one wire over another, if you have done this discretely it should be well hidden to the casual observer
  • The very end point of the wire – this might be obvious but a few times I have been deceived by a camoflagued wire and started pulling at

Order of Work

Just in the way the articles on wiring suggest starting on the larger lower branches and working upwards to the tips of the higher twigs, the unwiring should be the opposite. This helps avoid the areas where you have cross over wires and try to remove the wire underneath first.

Start at the outer tip of a wire, rather than unwrapping the anchor point first. This provides stability throughout the unwrapping of the branch.

If you have used one wire to place two branches and anchored around the trunk then I suggest unwrapping each one about half way. This keeps the wire anchored and provides a counter to the force of the unwinding rather than pulling on the other wired branch when you get near the anchor point, potentially damaging it.

Use of Tools

Absolutely essential for this process is a pair of Jin pliers. These are tools that grip most tightly at the very tip of the jaw, allowing you to firmly grip the end of the wire and by carefuly placement of the pliers apply a huge amount of leverage, more than enough to start bending the thickest of wires easily.

The first action should be to apply a twisting motion against the line of the wire, this lifts the end of the wire away from the branch and permits a repositioning of the pliers to ensure a full grip of the wire can now be made. The second and subsequent actions are to perform a series of small bends in the wire so that the unwound wire will effectively be almost straight. Keeping the wire straight as it is unwound is an important part of eliminating damage to the tree, a twisted wire is much more likley to get tangled in surrounding branches, causing damage as you progress the unwinding.

Of course the wire was probably straight when it was applied so to remove it in this way removes the stress within the wire. Some wires, particularly annealed wire shows stress lines on the surface so you can see how the wire has twisted.

Grown in wire

Despite your best efforts over the summer sometimes a small section of the branch can have grown over the wire. If the bark is marked but does not grip the wire, then this is a shame but does not harm the tree. However if the bark grows over the top of the wire to the extent that removing the wire will rip the bark then you are gfaced with a problem. The growth pattern of the wood (the grain) runs from trunk to tip, and the wire crosses over this, however the wood has the ability to move sap laterally so forms ways to pass the nutrients along the branch despite being strangled by the wire. If you remove the wire and damage the bark at this time it is highly likely that the branch will die – the old passageways for sap have become obsolete and the new pathway will be damaged, this has the effect of ring-barking the branch.

When you have wire grown in teh best way is to cut the wire at either end of the grown in section and allow the wire to be incorporated  into the tree. It will be ugly for a while, but on some species after a year or two can actually add increased texture to the bark, either way it will still be alive.

Old wire

Once you have unwound all the old wire, you will need to get it ready for the next use. This means getting it as straight as possible, so it is easy to apply next time. Small wires can be quickly and easily straightened by the use of a small plastic gadget which you pull the wire through. I found lots on ebay for only a few pounds each. Sadly thicker wires do not work well in this gadget,  I have found that holding one end with the jin pliers and then working out the bends by hand is the best way, this can be very  time consuming, but let’s face it people without patience will never thrive at bonsai…