Ice-age suiseki

The stone hunter of Britain. Here Alan Harriman reveals the various aspects of suiseki in a way that will encourage you to regard it as a hobby. Hunting for stones yourself will provide you with quality stones, while testing your patience, imagination, practical skills and stamina. Are you up for it?

A rocky stream ideal to look for stones

There was a time in Japan, about 600 years ago, when it became fashionable to shape garden trees into smaller stylized versions adding interesting rocks alongside and creating mini landscapes in the garden. Over time, some of these trees were grown in pots and taken into the houses, along with their corresponding rocks — bonsai and suiseki united.
But how does a suiseki differ from a pebble, or any lump of rock? The answer to this can be found by
applying a few simple criteria and the more stones you look at using the criteria, the easier it becomes.

Granite is hard. Good. Most lime stone is soft. Poor. It is not necessary to know the geological name and origin of the stone. Judging the hardness is not difficult.
Smooth is good. Rough, poor. For example sandstone is always rough in texture and will never develop a patina. A patina is smooth to the touch with a slight gloss.
Water aging:
Corners rounded. Sides smooth. Sharp corners are usually a sign of recent breakage.
While hunting for your fantastic suiseki, you will pick up dozens of stones in an hour. Hopefully you will know by the location that they will be hard, so you are now looking for irregular shapes among the unsuitable rocks and pebbles. Be patient. You will find it there somewhere.

Is it a suiseki?

A pebble can tick most of the above criteria, but is it a suiseki? It may be a very pretty pebble, but it has no character because it has been shaped by rolling up and down a beach. Collect and display pebbles by all means, but please don’t call them suiseki.


Even at this early stage, while holding a stone on the beach, or by the stream, you will be looking at how this potential suiseki could be presented. A mountain stone will need to have a flattish base for showing the mountain to best effect, whereas most other styles will have the daiza fitted around the bottom of the shape. If a stone has an interesting shape, take your time before discarding it. A good stone is easily missed.

To cut, or not?

The cutting of a stone’s base to make it flat and subsequently easier to make the daiza, should not be an option. A suiseki should be 100% natural in shape. Cutting or shaping a stone will devalue it and it will not be suiseki. But note, this is my opinion and is not shared by all enthusiasts.

Hunting sites

I’m sure that you will agree with me when I say that the UK is a beautiful and diverse island, surrounded by beaches, harbours, cliffs, criss crossed by rivers and a multitude of streams, but we have had three ice-ages, that we know about, where ice more than a mile deep has enveloped everything as it marched across the country. When, eventually, the ice melted, its contents were deposited in that spot. Hence large rocks can be found in the middle of an otherwise rock less field, in addition to the multitude of smaller stones that we assume have always lived in that place. I mention this since, throughout the country, you can find different types of rock together at one site.
I find it interesting that the red sandstone of Yorkshire was formed initially from a desert, when the position of the UK was south of the Equator. Get your head around that one!

Typical rocky river banks, were one might find the perfect stone

Making the daiza

This is the stumbling block for lots of budding suiseki collectors. This isn’t the time and place to explain the process in detail, but I can give you a rough idea of how I get started. For stones with flat bases, draw around the stone. For stones with irregular base, it’s not so easy. I start off by making a Plasticine daiza, pressed on to the stone, standing it in the correct position. Make this replica, exactly as you want it to look: depth and profile of sides, position of feet, and so on. When finished, allow the Plasticine get cold. Carefully remove the stone, and cut a piece of card to the exact shape of the inside rim of the daiza. Take care with this and it will save time later. Draw around this card on to a piece of wood that is slightly thicker than the depth of the recess to be cut out. Use a hardwood with a fine grain. Mahogany is good. You’re now ready to make your daiza. Alternatively, you can ask someone to make it for you.

The irregular based stone used with the Plasticine
Card template, made from the top of the Plasticine impression, is used to draw around on the wood
With the outline drawn on to the wood and with the impression by the side of the vice, the initial wood removal becomes easier. The serious fitting is done with chalk on the stone
A rocky beach is a very good source for finding stones

I hope these few notes have whetted your appetite for the art of stones. So do you have patience to search for a few hours? The imagination to spot suiseki among the rocks? Stamina for the long walk to your chosen site? Practical skills to make your Daiza? The Northern Suiseki Group was formed 5 years ago. It’s always good to contact other groups or people, so find us at:

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