About Bonsai Pots and Potters

This Page Last Updated: October 26, 2017

         The bonsai pot is the home for our dwarf potted trees, the definite boundaries which restrict the food-storage roots and thus largely contribute to the small size of our trees.  These pots have been described by the late grandmaster John Y. Naka as a "nice suit of clothes" or a "beautiful frame for a picture."  They enhance the composition of the trees and other elements without overwhelming or distracting the viewer's eye from the main focus, the bonsai.

       This page is a resource for the most significant information we have come across in our researches concerning these containers and the much-too-often unsung fabricators of clay and other materials which we necessarily require for each and every one of our magical miniature compositions.

       To start at the beginning, please familiarize yourself with the origins of the pen, the Chinese term which the Japanese pronounce as "bon" in bonsai, a "shallow container planting."

       Now, please familiarize yourself with the range of some container shapes and sizes used for these plantings through the centuries in China and Japan.

       By the year 1400 in China, terra cotta containers were first crafted.  Many of these dark pots were mostly made from iron sand or rough sand and were used to hold cultivated flowers.  Plain in appearance, these pots were artistically succinct and tasteful, and are noted for their bold lines.  Seals or inscriptions on the container bottom are rare.  Containers exported to Japan during the 17th and 18th centuries would be referred to as Kowatari ("old crossing").  Extremely elegant and later harmonizing well with old dwarfed trees, these were made between 1465 and about 1800.  Many came from Yixing in Jiangsu province -- unglazed and usually purplish-brown -- and some others came from around Canton, particularly during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  Some porcelain containers were starting to be used for plants at this time in China.
       By the year 1700, containers now had a finer texture than those made during Ming times, and these featured a tremendous variety of patterns.  The practice of carving calligraphy or paintings onto container surfaces dates from this time.
       Pots exported from China to Japan between 1816 and 1911 (especially in the late 1800s) were called Nakawatari ("middle-crossing") or Chuwatari.  Unglazed shallow, rectangular or oval-shaped stoneware pots with carved feet and very large drainage holes were used at ancestral shrines and treasured by the Chinese.  These antique containers were originally incense burners for outdoor use in cemeteries.  The large single hole -- usually rectangular in shape and up to perhaps 20% or more of the bottom area -- was for water drainage.  Lattice made of split bamboo was placed over the hole, then small pebbles and another layer of even smaller pebbles.  Then ash was used to fill the incense burner so it could be put outside in the cemeteries.  Those containers were NOT made for bonsai.  (Bulb-forcing bowls with holes drilled in for water drainage AND air circulation to the roots were also occasionally used.)  True antique Chinese bonsai containers had small holes, not large holes.  After the middle of the century, certain Japanese antiquities dealers originally imported these incense burners and the instant popular approval for using this type of container for bonsai created a huge demand.  Consequently, orders came from Japan to the Yixing pottery centers specifically to make bonsai pots.  (Modern use of these large hole containers is difficult because they drain too quickly for certain species.  What is needed to be done is to put a couple of layers of drainage screen over the large holes.)
       Between 1911 and about 1940, mass-produced bonsai containers which were exported from Yixing and made to the specifications of Japanese dealers were called Shinto ("new crossing or arrival") or Shin-watare.  These were made for increasing numbers of dwarf tree enthusiasts.  Some containers, including primitive style ones, were also made in Formosa (aka Taiwan).  Chinese pots exported after WWII were called Shin-Shin-To ("new-new-crossing").
       [Hu, Yunhua  Chinese Penjing, Miniature Trees and Landscapes (Portland, OR: Timber Press; ©1987 Wan Li Books Co., Ltd., Hong Kong), pp. 167-169; Naka, John Yoshio  Bonsai Techniques II (Bonsai Institute of California; 1982), pp. 304-306, 322; Katayama, Tei'ichi  The Mini-Bonsai Hobby (Tokyo: Japan Publications, Inc.; 1974), pp. 19-20; Chinnery, John  Treasures of China, The Glories of the Kingdom of the Dragon (London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd.; 2008), pg. 186; William N. Valavanis' posting on Internet Bonsai Club Forum, 11 Feb 2012, http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t9053p15-covering-drain-holes#96143; Yoshimura and Halford's 1957 The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes shows b&w photos on pg. 86 of a side view and bottom view of a dark-grey unglazed 300+ yr old Chinese pot once used as an incense burner with a large rectangular drainage hole.]

       Here you can read an article about Choosing the Right Pot for your Bonsai from Bonsai4Me.com, and a Word.doc by Fred Aufschläger about "Bonsai Containers as Ceramic Art."  David DeGroot's out-of-print Basic Bonsai Design (American Bonsai Society, 1995) has several nice chapters on pots, pot design and matching trees to pots (per Jim Lewis in personal e-mail to RJB 4 May 2010).  Craig Coussins' Bonsai School (Sterling Publishing, 2003) has material and pictures on pp. 224-239.

       All containers used for bonsai and related arts, can be sorted into these seven categories:
1)  THE MAJORITY: (up to 60%?) Ceramic ware from clay: terra cotta (lightly fired and not very sturdy), earthenware, stoneware, porcelain (highest fired); crafted by being thrown, slab, slump, or hump; sometimes with slip, inlay or glaze; all are kiln-fired;
2)  (over 5%?)  Rock -- tufa, pumice, diabase, slate, soapstone, coral (*), fossil (*), slag (*), marble; often drilled, cut or polished; rough slab; also, epoxied-together stone pieces or mortared terrazzo;
3)  (less than 5%?)  Wood/bamboo -- ranging from hollowed-out burl, large root, stump or log to assembled lumber pieces or driftwood; with or without lacquer, varnish or other preservative;
4)  (less than 5%?)  Metal -- polished or stainless steel, iron, silver or silverplate, pewter, aluminum, brass, bronze; note: copper basins should be coated so that the plants are not poisoned by leaching copper compounds;
5)  (less than 5%?)  Concrete -- cement or other aggregate; with or without pigments or strengthening metal framework;
6)  (less than 20%?)  Plastic -- ranging from blown or formed to mica and other composites; and
7)  (less than 5%?)  Miscellaneous -- acrylic, fiberglass, glass, bone, shell, leather/hide, basketry, coconut, waxed or oiled paperboard, various non-stone epoxied-together materials, etc.

       Here are sample videos of how some pots are made in Japan: Lindsay Farr's World of Bonsai, Series I: Episode 12, Episode 13, Episode 14, and Episode 15.  Some commentary on Chinese pots using larger finished pieces as examples can be found in World of Bonsai, Series II, Episode 13, after the 5:35 mark with Hu Kang Zhong.

       A number of Japanese books on the subject are described starting here: http://www.bonsaipots.net/index.php?page=book-1.

       A number of contemporary Western artists are listed in a recent comprehensive book about pots and potters.  Daan Giphart and Lévon Arzooyan's  Bonsai potters (2006; ASIN: B000HRCUBS) included the following:
       Bryan Albright, UK; Derek Aspinall; Jack Bacus; Ian Baillie, UK; Jim Barrett, California, USA; Marc Bauwens; Dan and Cecilia Barton, UK; Richard Boggs, North Carolina, USA; Patrice Bongrand, France; Dale Cochoy, Ohio, USA; Gordon Duffett; Gilbert van der Elst; Petra Engelke; Jim Gremel, California, USA; Filip Haesen; Michael Hagedorn; Petra Hahn, Rückersdorf, Germany; Alan Harriman, Nr Doncaster, UK; Victor and Glyn Harris; Horst Heinzlreiter, Sierning, Austria; Wendy Heller, USA; Jürgen Hilken; Franz Hilliger; Roger Hnatiuk, Australia; Stan and Ilse Holroyd; Renske Jaasma; David Jones, UK; Lenie Jongerhuis; Andreas van Kerckhove, Belgium; Milan Klika and Vlada Kurátková; Ingrid Kralovec; Peter Krebs, Germany; Ron Lang, Maryland, USA; René Lecocq, Belgium; Nick Lenz, Massachusetts, USA; Dave Lowman, Iowa, USA; Elsebeth Ludvigsen, Denmark; Jacques Marty, France; Sandi McFarland, USA; Hans Meeuwsen; Andy Pearson, UK; Donnas Hermena Peterson; John Pitt, Derbyshire, UK; Morea Pubben; Sara Rayner, Minnesota, USA; Mario Remeggio, Treviso, Italy; Tony Remington, UK; Ron de Roo; Harry Smeets; Roger Snipes; Piotr Świecki; Diane Thoman, Colorado, USA; Kevin Thompson, Maine, USA; Dirk Vanspeybroeck; Dolf Verjans; William Vlaanderen; Emil Wanningen, Netherlands; and Silvia Weber, Germany.

       American Bonsai Ceramics (http://americanbonsaiceramics.com/) is a more recent source of regional information.

       Galleries of some of the other potters are here:
Rob Addonizio, Florida, USA;
Tom Benda, Czech Republic;
Mateusz Grobelny, Poland;
Erwin Grzesinski, Germany;
Kitoi, California, USA;
Klaudia and Martin, Germany;
Erik Krizovenský, Slovakia;
Mario Stefano, Croatia;
Robert Wallace, North Carolina, USA.

       A blog of an experienced potter in Australia learning about bonsai pots can be found here.

       An article by Youri van Pinxteren about some North and South American potters is here; about some European potters is here.  Morten Albek's article about Pots used for Shohin and Mame trees is here.

       Some of the Worldwide Bonsai Pot Signatures can be found here, and some Asian potter's marks are here.  Some North American potters' marks/chops are here, as well as an expandable list of these potters here.  The article "Pots and Kiln Marks" by Marc and Marian Bochers (Bonsai Magazine, BCI, Vol. XIX, No. 10, December 1980, pp. 354-355) has additional information.  See also the Japanese Pottery Information Center.

Thoughts of a potter

       "The harmony of tree and bowl is of extraordinary importance.  The bowl should by means of its simplicity underline the quality of the tree.  The Japanese word for this taste is SHIBUI.  It describes the absolute beauty.  The most important element is simplicity.  It combines excellence, grace, calmness and naturalness.
       "During the Meji epoch (1868 - 1911) there was the heyday of imports of ancient Chinese bowls.  Glazed ceramics and porcelain became very popular.  In those days it was customary to use outdoor vessels for holy water as bonsai bowls.  These vessels were simple, not glazed and deep.  It was the ideal vessel to put plants in.  But a bonsai bowl in our sense is much more than just a vessel to put plants in.  It has to fulfil a lot of criteria nowadays.  According to bonsai one could say: 'If you want to form the crone, you have to treat the roots.'
       "On a symbolic level it is the same with the art of pottery.  I have to study antique Chinese and Japanese bonsai bowls when I intend to potter a good bowl.  I must try to penetrate into almost lost techniques, to experience and to fathom the ancient bowls with all my senses.  It is understood that you cannot simply potter an antique bowl.  Hundred years of old patina are inimitable.  And that is not what I intend to do.  I just would like to find out the techniques, symbols and the mental and philosophical background the ancient masters had to create their bowls.  Today those ancient bowls are hardly attainable or available.  The last existing pieces are guarded like eyeballs by enthusiastic collectors, mostly Japanese people.  Those worthy bowls are wrapped in precious fabric and kept in wooden boxes.
       "It is my wish to copy these ancient bowls, if still attainable, with those simple means at my disposal.  Thus, I want to keep a little of that wonderful history.  I would like to help the bonsai friend to have more comprehension and joy in this hobby.
       "Bonsai and the ceramics that is part of it is and will become a mental common property and overcomes all limits.  Here again great variety is more than bareness."

-- Peter Krebs, 01/03/2013 on Facebook, reprinted by permission

       Some sources for pots (on-line, mail order, or by appointment) include:
Alibaba.com (large quantity wholesale only), China;
Dan Barton Bonsai Pots (custom-made pots), North Somerset, UK;
Bonsai Northwest, Washington, USA;
BonsaiPot.com, Washington, USA;
Bonsai Shop Australia, Australia;
Bonsai UK, Surrey, UK;
Bonsai-Wholesale.com, Florida, USA;
Brussels Bonsai Nursery, Mississippi, USA;
Dallas Bonsai Garden, Texas, USA;
Green Dragon Bonsai, Denbighshire, UK;
Handmade Bonsai-Pots (multiple potters), Cheshire, UK;
Herons Bonsai (pick-up only), Surrey, UK;
Yaeko and Bruce K. Hisayasu (by appointment), California, USA;
Iker Bonsai Pottery, Ohio, USA;
Kaizen Bonsai, UK;
Ken's World of Bonsai (large pots, pick-up only), Ohio, USA;
KoJu-En, Kyoto, Japan;
New England Bonsai Gardens, Massachusetts, USA;
Palmatum, Poland;
Pecenppot Bonsai & Garden Centering, Shanghai, China;
Pots for Bonsai.com, Jiangsu, China;
S & S Bonsai, Colorado, USA;
Sun Garden, Correggio (ER), Italy;
Sz-wholesale.com, Guangdong, China;
Tokoname Bonsai Pots, Japan;
Zhejiang Yunfeng Gardens Co., Ltd. (including antique pots), Zhejiang, China.

       Some sources for pot-making materials include:
Clay Planet, California, USA;
Continental Clay, Minnesota, USA;
Georgies Ceramic and Clay, Oregon, USA;
New Mexico Clay, New Mexico, USA;

       "Bonsai inSites, Collaborations between Tree and Container," an exhibition of pots which "break the conventional rules," is linked here, while some other unique seasonal displays can be seen here.  A few more examples are shown here.

       See also the potter discussion sections of the various forums, such as Internet Bonsai Club, Australian Bonsai, and EuropeanBonsai.  And this recent blog on Japanese Bonsai Pots (and some Chinese ones, also).

       We have tributes to some potters of the past, including Max Braverman (Sep 28 entry), Don Gould (Mar 15 entry), Heian Tofukuji (Apr 25 entry), and Miyagawa (Makuzu) Kōzan (May 20 entry).

       A training pot is a temporary vessel which holds a tree that has just been procured and is not ready for any type of formal show.  This type of container might be larger than aesthetically suggested in order to allow the plant a larger area in which to grow and establish a rootball, or the pot may simply be one that is the nearly right size for the specimen while one awaits receipt of the "exactly" right size/shape/color good-quality container.  A few suggestions for non-show training pots can be found here.

       Finally, there are a few questions we still have about the history of bonsai pots.

And found here are a vast number of discussion topics on pots and clay art and assorted topics in general.

     This page is a work in progress.  Anyone who knows of additional information regarding pots and potters is asked to please contact rjb@magiminiland.org.  Contributor acknowledgment will be posted.  Please include as many details as possible.  Thank you!

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