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Simple DIY Bonsai Displays

January 14, 2024Beginners, General, Styling

Cascade bonsai on oval display stand.

A common practice within the discipline of bonsai is to exhibit a tree by placing it upon a special slab, stand or table. This article describes how to make simple, inexpensive displays – called jitas – using just a few items you can pick up at your local hobby and hardware stores.

When it comes to your bonsai hobby, are you suffering from the mid-winter doldrums? In Ohio in January, temperate trees are dormant, the ground is frozen and the weather outdoors is less than ideal. In short, there’s not much for a bonsai enthusiast to do right now. A quick and easy DIY project to whip up some inexpensive stands for bonsai displays might be the perfect endeavor to start building excitement for the upcoming season.

Maybe you are considering entering one of your trees in a local bonsai exhibit. Or maybe you like to use your bonsai trees to decorate your patio when hosting outdoor events. Either way, this project will net you some simple displays to show off your bonsai in style.

About This Project

I’ll walk you through the steps I took to produce four simple jita-type stands. Jitas are small wood slabs used to display a bonsai or accent plant. While jitas are often thought of as free-form slabs fashioned from tree knurls, the term also encompasses slabs that have been machined.

Since the unfinished slabs used in this project are pre-cut and machined, they’re a cinch to finish with just a little sanding, staining and topcoating. Aside from the slabs and staining products, there are only a few additional low-cost items needed for the project.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links”. This means if you purchase through our links, we may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Gathering Materials to Make Displays

For the jitas in this project, we’ll start with inexpensive unfinished wooden plaques sold for use in hobbies such as woodburning and decoupage. You can find them in a variety of shapes and sizes on Amazon and in hobby stores such as Michaels, Hobby Lobby and JOANN. Currently, plaques like the ones I used retail for around $2 – $4 each. Don’t forget that the major hobby chains frequently offer coupons that can reduce the cost of the wood slabs.

When shopping for plaques, look for those that feature beveled edges similar to the ones shown in my project photos. The bevels add dimension and visual interest to the finished display.

Four wooden plaques, three wood stains, top coating, brushes and sanding block
Supplies for bonsai display stand project.

The plaques already have a smooth finish, so a sanding block of #220-grit is sufficient to properly prepare them for staining.

A little about stains

Bonsai displays are typically used for short periods of time, usually indoors, to accentuate trees and accent plantings. For this project, we’ll apply finishes designed for cabinetry, furniture and other indoor projects. To keep costs as low as possible, I recommend selecting stains that come in small, 8-oz cans.

Unfortunately, the stains that I used several years ago for my displays (Rust-oleum Ultimate Wood Stain in Cabernet, American Walnut, and Traditional Cherry) are no longer carried by the major big box hardware stores. Varathane, another Rust-oleum brand, appears to have similar characteristics to my products, and it even comes in two of the three colors I used.

Another option is Minwax Wood Finish Penetrating Stain, available at Lowes. The 8-oz cans sell for around $9 and come in several attractive shades. 

Oil-based products like the Minwax, Varathane and Rust-oleum stains I mentioned require a bit of caution and effort when it comes to disposing of the foam brushes and stain-soaked rags used in the project. If you aren’t familiar with the importance and how-tos of proper disposal of these materials, this video from This Old House can help you get up to speed. 

If you’d prefer a low-odor, water-based stain that cleans up easily, take a look at the Behr Premium Fast Drying Water-based Wood Stain from Home Depot. Many of its colors come pre-mixed in 8 oz containers priced at around $9. I haven’t tried this product, but based on reviews, it seems some folks find the water-based stains a bit more difficult to work with on large surfaces. However, any differences should be minimal for this project because the wood plaques are relatively small.

Other needed items

After staining, you’ll need to apply a clear topcoat. Topcoats generally come in matte, satin and gloss finishes. I used the water-based Rust-oleum Ultimate Polyurethane in satin. Just as with the stains, it seems that the Varathane brand has largely replaced the Rust-oleum product. Whatever brand you choose, satin’s noticeable but understated sheen offers a nice middle ground between the the dullness of a matte finish and the shininess of a gloss.

Foam flat paint brushes and chip paint brushes work fine for this job and are inexpensive enough to discard after use if you prefer not to clean them. You’ll also need clean rags for wiping off the stain and vinyl gloves to protect your hands in the process. Finally, a few small plastic bags come in handy for storing brushes between coats to prevent them from drying out.

Bonsai Displays Materials List

The project materials list below shows the items needed to replicate my four-display project. Of course, you’ll decide which stain colors to use, and you might also prefer to choose different plaque sizes and shapes. 

  • 5” x 7” unfinished wooden oval 
  • 7” x 7” unfinished wooden circle
  • 5” x 5” unfinished wooden square
  • 7” x 9” unfinished wooden cut-cornered rectangle
  • 8-oz cans of wood stain in one or more colors
  • 8-oz can of clear polyurethane topcoat 
  • #220-grit sanding block
  • 1” foam flat paint sponges – one for each stain color 
  • 1” natural bristle chip paint brush 
  • Clean rags
  • Small plastic bags

Make Your Displays

With all the materials gathered, let’s get started! If you are making multiple displays like I did, don’t do them as one-offs. You’ll save a lot of time and effort by performing each step on all plaques as a group before moving on to the next step.

Step 1:   Sand

After gathering your materials, start by giving all surfaces of your plaques a light sanding with the #220-grit sanding block. This opens up the pores of the wood and allows them to better absorb the stain. After sanding, vacuum the pieces to remove most of the fine wood dust, then wipe them with a barely damp rag to get the last traces. 

Wooden displays after sanding, along with sanding block.
Wood displays after light sanding.

Step 2: Stain

Next, read the specific directions for the stain product you are using. Open and thoroughly mix each of your stains. Starting with the bottoms of the plaques, use a sponge brush to apply the stains to the wood. With most stains, you’ll use a rag to wipe off excess product after a specified amount of time has passed. Generally, the longer the stain sits before wiping, the darker it will be.

Oval wooden plaque after staining, along with stain and applicator.
The stain helps highlight the piece’s attractive wood grain.

After wiping off the excess, allow the required time for the surface to dry. Once dry, flip the slabs and repeat the process to stain the tops. 

Applying stain to wooden displays.
Apply wood stain, let it sit, then wipe off the excess.

Step 3: Apply the topcoat

It’s now time to protect the stain with the polyurethane topcoat in your chosen sheen. Use a brush to apply a light topcoat, then back-brush for a smooth, even finish. You’ll need to apply two or more light coats according to the product directions.

Again, start with the bottoms of the plaques, apply all coats and allow the appropriate drying time before flipping them to finish the tops. Once all coats have been applied to the top and the requisite drying time has elapsed, you’re ready for the final step.

Four wooden displays after a finishing coat of polyurethane.
With the application of a polyurethane top coat, the project is complete.

Step 4: Enjoy your new displays

Bonsai enthusiasts typically use jitas for short periods of time to accentuate trees and accent plantings on exhibit. Your new displays are suitable for use with bonsai indoors, as well as outdoors in areas protected from the elements. 

An accent plant looks nice on one of the finished displays.
The finished display stand adds an attractive touch to the presentation of this accent plant.

Just make sure that any pots placed on the jitas are dry on the bottom. Be sure to move plants off the stands for watering unless you are using a tray under the plant. 

Between uses, it’s a good idea to store the display stands wrapped in an old towel or cloth to prevent scratches.

In this article, we learned an easy method for making jitas, or simple bonsai display stands. For more tips on creating attractive bonsai presentations, see our article about using accent plants in bonsai displays.

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