Bonsai to Big Guy

Dear reader,

I would like to summarize how this project went with an original haiku:

A bonsai and me,

Was not meant to be, a tree;

Saguaro cactus.

So dearest reader, if you cannot tell by my poem we had quite a metamorphosis since my last post and my bonsai has transformed into a saguaro cactus.  In case you forgot how we got to this point, let me refresh you.


We were tasked to find a way to upcycle something preexisting to be art or something useful for our first project in this class. I have a passion for indoor houseplants and wanted to make something that would fit this theme. Originally I thought of making a trellis for my plants but that wasn’t  quite enough.  I once tried to keep a bonsai tree but killed it within two or three weeks from under-misting. At the onset of the bonsai fiasco I was worried that I was too irresponsible to handle the little tree. I figured this project would be the perfect opportunity to rectify the situation by creating a tree that would be impossible to kill. I settled on making a bonsai tree out of bike chain.  I was inspired to make this out of chain after seeing the following Instagram post by @chainbreakerwelding.

My plan varies from theirs as I plan to spiral the chain around itself and tack weld each individual link in order to keep the shape of the tree rather than running all of the chains in the same direction as they do. I have already acquired my chain and cleaned it and have plans to weld it up tomorrow.

prototype of tree base


It is a couple days until this project is due and to be honest I feel slightly flustered by the conclusion of this project. I have now cleaned all of the bike and moto-chain, welded the base and one of the branches. As it happens, it is much harder to weld the bike chain in the multiple inches of snow rather than when I started and welded in beautiful Feburary 70 degree weather. I have gone about welding my project using a flux core welder so that I could complete this in my back yard. I ended up making multiple tack welds in the base ring in order to stiffen a circular shape and then as the tree started to *grow* I ended up tack welding between two layers of chain. Overall this was a decent technique, however as more and more moto-chain was added and subsequently shaped, I ended up breaking multiple tacks which was particularly frustrating. I also ended up changing my technique from trying to hide the welds by welding from inside as this ended up not being time efficient nor did it allow me the precision to place the tacks exactly where I wanted to welding on the outside about seven layers up.

I am thinking that I will sandblast the tree when I have finished the form in order to remove some of the flux core slag. I do have a little bit of apprehension about that that this might destroy the tacks. I may add more tacks to reinforce and then sandblast and then spray paint to cover more of the tack beads. I am not sure about this step however as that may take away from the somewhat industrial aesthetic.

I am struggling to figure out how to finish out the top of the tree. In real life, trees are able to bifurcate smaller and smaller until they end, but I do not have this ability as bike chain circles end up being quantized (sized) circles and each individual link is a defined size. I have also been struggling to make it lean in the direction that I wanted and therefore it does not have as much of a bonsai feel as I would like.  I currently have what I would describe as a log. I don’t think that I will be adding any sort of leaves out of smaller wire so I want to have an appealing shaped tree rather than something that looks like I truncated my tree in order to force growth out of the nodes (which is a real bonsai technique).

I will let you know later what I have figured out soon. Wish me luck!



Whoosh here we are back at today, at the conclusion of this project! Now, you have already seen the thumbnail of Sam the Saguaro so it is not a far reach to comprehend that this project was a total failure. Did I meet any of my initial design goals of having a beautiful seamless bonsai tree that swept ever so elegantly? NO. Did I make something that I like? NO. Did I make something that fits the initial aesthetic of industrial art? Not really. The form has changed from my appropriate attempt at layering (from when this was a tree) to an inappropriately lumpy cactus base. As mentioned above, the size of the diameter of the arms are quantized and therefore look relatively thick. HOWEVER, am I proud of myself for finding a way to pivot from something that I knew was not going to work to something, that while hideous, at least gives me a finished product? Yes. Do I love Sam the Saguaro for his character, absolutely! Will I keep him among my jungle? Maybe for a while.

So, this project ended up working in a very similar manner to my senior project in that both had major redesigns that failed. In the case of the senior design project, the redesigns are considered failures as we did not choose to pursue any of the 24 options we came up with. In the case of Sam, the redesign failed because he is ugly.  I have made a visual depiction of what I mean (see figure below).

Anyway, in case you were wondering about some of the finer details, Sam is about one foot tall and probably about three pounds. He was finished off in Rustoleum spray paint and is sitting in a pot full of leca balls. If I were to do this over again I would cut certain lengths of chain and weld individual rings before stacking as the most annoying part of this process was trying to keep the circular shape of the chain while managing its position in the z direction. I also would never use a flux core again if possible, I wish I was allowed to have made this in the Idea Forge shop with their nice TIG welders, but alas, bike chain is not an engineering material.

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Jamie,

    After reading all the comments I agree with the masses, you did make a cool project. I agree when it’s difficult when what you want doesn’t line up with what you made but in the end I think you should still take pride in what you made, because I really liked it. When you began working with bike chain and started to observe challenges, you adapted. The direction with a cactus was a brilliant decision if you ask me, I find the form to fit the material well. There is rough quality that comes from the structure you made that helps me connect to the form of a cactus, it’s rough and bulky. In a way I feel a sense of stubborn personality from it, almost like a “hell yeah im a cactus, what you got on me?” Honestly I think you really nailed this project and was stocked to see what you made, good job!

  • Ryan Weatherbee
    February 17, 2020 11:26 am

    The choice to paint your project green at the end really made the art come to life. Given the difficulties you had welding the chain using a flux core welder, I would definitely recommend using a TIG welder if you were to do this again. You will get much better heat control and there will not be any slag to worry about.

  • I think the project turned out great even though it wasn’t what you expected. I liked how honest you were about how to felt about your project and the struggles you faced during the fabrication.

  • Kensue Kiatoukaysy
    February 17, 2020 11:18 am

    I thought it was amazing how you were able to adapt to the new problems and settle with something more reachable but also still looked great! The cactus reminds me of something that could come alive such as Olaf from Frozen. (In a good way of course)

  • I think that the idea behind the project was really interesting. You mentioned you struggled with trying to get what you originally wanted to be the branches small enough. Perhaps using two different materials a smaller almost necklace chain to build on top of it and create smaller branches. I’m sure you ran out of time and couldn’t add onto it more. I do like it to see the rings from the chain is really interesting.

  • Jamie,

    The bonsai tree is definitely ambitious, and definitely not an easy material to manipulate how you want. I think given that, your project turned out really well! I think the welds look good, up close they are visible but looking at it in your presentation I can’t even notice them. A more tedious method could have been disassembling the chain link by link, and this would allow a little more freedom. I also like your idea to paint him and throw some googly eyes on it, the sombrero would also been great to add!

  • I know you are critical of your own work, but I think this is incredible. I think for me, a statement of meaning for this project, is actually the struggle. It’s not easy to upcycle things and use them for *not* their intended purpose. I really appreciated hearing about your struggle and all of the ways you learned from this experience. Maybe a cactus, something kind of difficult and painful to touch, is a fitting metaphor for your process. But in the same way, cacti are beautiful and resilient, and so are you and this project. Great job! Be proud of yourself!

  • Patrick Bodine-Ellison
    February 17, 2020 11:17 am

    Despite the fact that it didn’t come out looking like a bonsai tree I still really like the cactus look. I think Sam will look lovely with eyes and a sombrero next to your other plants!

  • Davis Robertson
    February 16, 2020 9:15 pm

    Regardless of the fact that you project didn’t turn out like you hoped, this report is absolute gold. The haiku was great, but the process map really got me. This was definitely an ambitious project, and I think you did pretty well considering the tools you have and the time. I wish you had posted a photo of the final product as well. How often do you water it?


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