Getting Ready For A Bonsai Show



American larch bonsai on cork board

Most spring bonsai shows have probably taken place by now in southern areas. However, it’s now show time in the north. Our local bonsai exhibition will take place next weekend in Rochester, New York, and I’m always trying to improve each member’s display. Last month information was presented in this blog on how to make a quick and low cost companion planting from dwarf Columbine.


Dwarf Columbine companion planting on cork board

This month I’d like to suggest a quick and low cost “wooden slab” for companion plantings as well as smaller size bonsai. Traditionally, wood is used and although inexpensive types can be found, high end quality wooden slabs can cost hundreds of dollars, even for small 10 inch sizes. The prices increase with rare wood species and hand carved edge details.


Elm burl by Michel Villeneuve, Montreal, Canada


Wood from western USA tree species


Chinese quince burl


Edge detail of Chinese quince burl

Several pieces of bamboo or reed can be tied together to make similar flat board for companion plantings and bonsai as well. However, traditionally bamboo “rafts” are only used during the summer season. Since the weather for the past few days in Rochester, New York, has been over 90F, summer has probably arrived here so bamboo “rafts” are suitable now.


Pack of 4 cork tiles, $10

Thin cork boards are readily available from craft stores or Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers. Although they come in different sizes, the 12” x 12” size is great and comes in packs of four cork boards for only $8-10 making each board about $2 each.


Round shape


Free form shape

They are easy to design by sketching an irregular round, oval or free form shape using a pencil. Then simply cut out the shape with a pair of scissors. But, if you carefully try to tear the oak with your fingers and finger nails the irregular edge will look better. The sizes can be individually made for specific containers or to fit many containers of similar sizes. That’s it, finished ready to show.


Unstained cork board


Unpainted cork board edge detail

However, the cork board color is light and if you want to present a more finished “wooden slab” they are easily to paint. Dark colors are preferred to present a quite feeling, but ideally they should be a different color from the container and display table for the featured bonsai. I tried spray paint to darken the light colored cork, but got much better results using Minwax Wood Finish Stains that come in numerous colors. A foam brush works well for applying the stain, especially for coloring the edges. Simply press the foam brush around the edges first, then paint the flat surfaces last. If both sides are painted two different shapes will be created thus providing greater diversity when selecting the perfectly matched “wooden slab” for your companion planting or bonsai. This entire process can be done in only about an hour, but it’s best not to make them the day before the show.


Minwax Wood Finish Stain and foam bruch


Unstained and stained cork boards


Chinese quince bonsai on stained cork board


Crabapple bonsai on cork board

Larger Size “Wooden Slabs”

Sometimes larger sizes are necessary since the “wooden slab” should be larger than the container. It’s difficult to find larger sizes cork boards, but easy to place two smaller sizes together to appear as one. If the container is carefully positioned it is impossible to determine if one or two or even three cork boards are placed together. Once in Japan I saw a large forest style bonsai on an artificial flat stone displayed on a wooden board. But, upon closer study I found numerous smaller wooden boards carefully placed to appear as a larger size. When cutting out the cork boards, simply shape two boards with similar shapes.


Two unstained cork boards to be displayed together


Two unstained cork boards under larger bonsai


Companion planting on two stained cork boards

Thicker Larger “Wooden Slabs”

The thin cork boards are fine for smaller size companion plantings or small bonsai. However they may appear visually too light to anchor larger size containers. Ceiling tiles come in many sizes, but the 24” x 48” size is pretty standard and cost about $5. A utility knife comes in handy cutting out the initial design of the ceiling tile, but the edges look better when shaped by hand.


Unpainted ceiling tile after shaping


Painted ceiling tile

Ceiling tiles are usually white with small holes, not the best for displaying with bonsai. After shaping I sprayed the ceiling tile with a brown spray paint, making certain the edges are completely covered with paint. I did not initially like the effect, but the spray paint did fill in many of the ugly holes. So after the spray paint dried I simply used some of the same Minwax Wood Finish Stain used on the thinner cork boards and painted again. The result came out quite well. The thicker size is well proportioned for smaller and medium size bonsai.


Unpainted ceiling tile edge detail


Painted ceiling tile edge detail


Dwarf Ezo spruce bonsai on painted ceiling tile. Note the thicker size is in proportion to the larger size bonsai.

Both of these inexpensive “wooden slabs” are ideal for flat rock planting style bonsai where larger size display tables are difficult or expensive to purchase. They can also be cut to the shape of the individual stone. Make them a couple of inches larger than the stone all around for best effect.



The 42nd Upstate New York Bonsai Exhibition & Sale will be held on May 16-17, 2015 at the Monroe Community Hospital in Rochester, New York. The show hours are 10am to 5pm daily with bonsai and ikebana demonstrations at 2pm. Approximately 100 fine quality bonsai from local members will be on display as well as Ikebana flower arrangements from the local Ikebana International society. About ten vendors will have bonsai and supplies for sale.


International Bonsai Arboretum Spring 2015 Open House & Sale 




Additionally to make a full day of your trip to Rochester, my annual Spring Open House & Sale will take place at the International Bonsai Arboretum on the same days as the bonsai exhibition from 10am to 4pm. Contact me for directions, questions or details.


The annual Lilac Festival down the street from the bonsai exhibition features over 700 lilac shrubs in over 400 cultivars. Come, visit Rochester– the snow has finally melted and warm weather has arrived (and I hope it stays), so come see, study and buy some great bonsai!