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Collecting Suiseki (viewing stones)

and ROCK for plantings.

Good stones and rocks to plant on are difficult to find, but to purchase they command very high prices. They are therefore well worth looking for, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Familiarise yourself with the potential in your local area. Keep an eye open when you are on excursions or holidays.

Ordnance Survey Maps may be studied when looking for potential rock collecting sites. If you are not likely to need the map on a regular basis, many public libraries have a complete collection in their reference section. Cliffs and crags, abandoned quarries, waste tips, gorges, scree slopes, rocky shores, deep valleys and steep hillsides are all plainly marked, as are public rights of way. Learn the symbols on the key and then you may peruse the landscape, in comfort, noting potential sites and planning future excursions.

Geological maps are more expensive than ordinary Ordnance Survey maps and take a little more fathoming out. The information that they impart is invaluable in determining where desirable types of rock may outcrop.

A visit to a local museum may pay dividends. There are often geological displays, including large scale maps and cross sections, and probably a knowledgeable curator to tap for advice.

Suitable rock types

Sedimentary rocks were laid down on the beds of lakes and seas. Most are fairly soft or soluble in water. Shale, mudstone, chalk and sandstone are unlikely to provide any good suiseki. Limestone is a harder rock but is soluble in water. Its solubility leads to fantastic shapes and it can make good suiseki.

Igneous rocks (volcanics) and metamorphic rocks (changed by heat and pressure inside the earth's crust) are mostly harder and provide the best dark and irregular shapes. Gabbro, granite, rhyolite and basalt are some of the best igneous rocks. Schist, gneiss, and hornfels are among the best metamorphics.

Legalities and ethics

The environment is under increasing pressure from use by tourists and ramblers. Many areas including such places as national parks, sites of special scientific interest (SSSI's), geological reserves and nature reserves do not allow the collection of any material, including rocks. Limestone pavements, where spectacular weather worn limestone blocks are exposed on the surface are a particularly sensitive area and must on no account be collected from. The laws must be adhered to, by all responsible collectors, as the beauty of an area or a rare animal or plant habitat may easily be spoiled by indiscriminate collection.

The new trespass laws, included in the Criminal Justice Act, allow prosecution for trespass. Permission must be obtained, if you move off public rights of way, to wander on private land anywhere in the UK.

Even when collecting from the less sensitive areas be careful not to disturb habitats unduly. Be very choosy about what you keep. Don't take every stone that catches your eye, just the best example of a particular style. This will ensure that the others remain to weather further and provide good material for later collectors.

See also Collecting Code

Collecting Sites

Happily, many less sensitive alternatives exist. Some likely localities include:-

The shore-line, where a variety of material from rounded pebbles on the beach, to more massive chunks of wave battered rock can be collected. There are many sites, with a constantly changing selection, especially after winter storms. Most may be collected without the need for hammering. Pay heed to tides, especially when on beaches that can get cut off. It is easy to become engrossed in the hunt and find yourself below a sea cliff, miles from the nearest safe exit. Tide tables are usually available from harbour master's offices and good stationers at the seaside.

Dry river beds during drought, or in areas where their flow is seasonal, can provide some interesting water worn shapes. Be aware that some rivers may be low or dry, because the flow is controlled upstream for water supply or power generation purposes. These rivers are extremely dangerous and drownings have occurred in the past, as walkers became engulfed when dry river beds became instant raging torrents. I have collected some fantastic pieces of water worn limestone from safe river beds. These rocks are just as attractive as those from the environmentally sensitive limestone pavement areas.

River bed rocks would wear down to pebbles and eventually sand or, in the case of limestone, dissolve away to nothing in time. Judicious collecting should therefore have a minimal impact on the environment.

The best section of a river to collect from is where it has left its highland source and is passing rapidly through deep, steep sided valleys or gorges. The rocks here are being actively eroded, but have not yet been rounded into pebbles. Closer to the sea, the river flows slowly and the pebbles are generally more rounded.

Another source, if you are lucky enough to find a sympathetic limestone quarry manager, is the rock from the top bed, when a quarry is being extended. You may be able to persuade him to preserve pieces in an undamaged state by offering to pay over the usual tonnage rate.

Abandoned quarry workings can also provide some good opportunities for collection, but care is required. Access permission must be obtained if the land is privately owned and be aware of the possibility of rock-falls near to cliff faces or rock slides beneath waste tips. Road cuttings and other civil engineering excavations sometimes expose unusual rock, either weathered and mixed with the subsoil, or even broken up bedrock may occasionally be suitable. Again, the permission of the site foreman should be sought.

Building sites and demolition sites may be worth a look, especially if there are any dry stone walls. Ploughed fields are sometimes fruitful, if you know a farmer or are willing to seek permission.

For the less adventurous, there are possibilities of a good find in larger garden centres that have selections of different stones or an aquaria section. Some tropical fish shops also have displays of selected stone. These commercial outlets may appear expensive, but are cheaper than bought suiseki and the hard work of pre-selection of the most attractive pieces and the carrying has been done for you.

Take great care not to damage the surface of any stone. If badly knocked they may scratch or "bruise" and this type of damage can take years to diminish. Materials such as newspaper or hessian, to wrap stones, are an important part of your collecting kit.

A hammer and cold chisel may be useful, but use safety goggles to prevent injury from the inevitable flying chips.


Suiseki have long been treasured in Japan and are gaining a wider enthusiastic following in the bonsai community.

For Suiseki a pleasing shape, texture and colouration are the prime considerations. Sizes may range from that of a pea up to ones large enough for a person of average strength to carry.

The classical shapes of stones to look out for are described below, but don't limit yourself to these. Anything that pleases your eye may be used.

  • Mountain stones may suggest a single peak, group of mountains or an entire range.
  • Island stones are similar to the above but are usually placed in a suiban or water filled dish.
  • Hill stones are rounded and suggest a rolling hillside.
  • Waterfall stones are stones streaked with appropriately placed bands of white quartz or calcite.
  • Lake stones have a natural hollow or hollows on the upper surface, where water can collect. These are more desirable if mountain shapes surround the hollows.
  • Basin stones similar to the above but are smaller and usually have a rounded hollow.
  • Plateau stones have a stepped appearance resembling a plateau alongside a peak.
  • Shore stones are very rough and craggy pieces that resemble eroded sections of sea cliffs with caves, arches and stacks.
  • Likeness stone - abstract shapes suggesting a natural object or animal.
  • Hut stones resemble a thatched house or hut with a narrow base and wider, sloping top.
  • Patterned stones have natural markings on the surface, formed by different types of rock or crystals within the structure. These may be abstract or have a resemblance to a natural object such as a bird, flower, or tree etc.


Purists argue that a stone should be naturally beautiful and should not be altered in any way. This is fine, if the perfect stone can be found. Not everyone will have access to classic suiseki collecting sites and it makes sense to adapt imperfect material. My own experience is that nature often needs a helping hand to bring out the best in a potential suiseki. If you are not sure whether to alter the look of a stone, ask someone at a good bonsai nursery or your local club or society.

Cleaning of many stones can be completed with a light scrub under a running tap, with a nail brush or similar. For persistent algae, lichen or discolouration, standing the rock in household bleach, dilute acetic acid, or hydrochloric acid are often effective. The latter may be obtained from chemists. Make sure that the strength is suitable for your needs. If it requires dilution, remember to add acid to water to avoid problems with the heat generated. Obviously you must avoid splashing and work on a surface that will not be damaged.

Acid etching can be used on limestone, a rock which is primarily calcium carbonate and is soluble in acidic water (caves are formed in the same way). Hydrochloric or acetic acid are both effective. It is sensible to use rubber gloves when handling acid. The acid should be dilute, but still strong enough to produce a fizzing reaction when dripped onto the rock. The time required to alter the surface demands patience. If the rock is stood in a plastic bowl the acid may be collected and re-used until it no longer fizzes. The acid will eat the surface away wherever it remains in contact with the rock. It may suit your purpose to allow drips to run down the surface, following the natural contours of the rock and thus exaggerating any indentations. If an all over roughening of the surface is required, the whole rock will have to be submerged and left.

Once clean the stone's surface may be improved, especially if it is already polished and water worn. Ancient collected suiseki naturally develop a patina from handling as the oily secretions from hands sink in and become polished. This process may be achieved much more speedily by rubbing with baby oil, olive oil or glycerine and buffing up with a soft cloth or brush. Repeat the application after a few months and the stone will soon look as if it has been handled for centuries.

To flatten the base of an uneven stone that is to be hidden under soil or in a sand/water filled dish, araldite, isopon or similar two-part plastic, car body filler is very good. Determine the best position in the dish for the stone but try to ensure that no drainage holes will be obstructed. Place a barrier of silver foil or polythene sheet in the dish before placing a small mound of the mixed filler on it. This stops the paste from sticking to your dish. Settle the stone into position and secure it with wedges such as stone chips or slate until the filler sets. The foil should then peel off, leaving a tailored base.

To even up a rock where the base will be exposed, a stone-cutting disc saw or angle grinder, as used by builders to cut paving slabs etc, can be employed. These may be obtained on a half daily or daily rate from tool hire centres, along with the necessary safety equipment such as eye protectors and ear defenders. If they do not offer you any advice on safety precautions, ask for it. Stone-cutters can be as lethal as chain-saws, if used incorrectly. Mark the required cutting line with a felt pen. Make sure that the stone is held securely but without damaging the surface. Holding in a vice is the most secure method but the jaws must be padded with off-cuts of softwood or similar material. The stone should be held so that the cutting line is as near vertical as possible.

If this sounds a little too ambitious, or if your stone is too large or hard, contact a stonemason or a monumental mason (grave stone manufacturer). They are equipped with heavy-duty, industrial quality stone-cutters and may be willing to take on small orders.

Stones with a flattened base are best placed on display stands. One simple method of manufacturing a stand is to use a pencil to trace the outline of the base of the stone onto a piece of timber of suitable depth. Use a jig saw to carefully follow this line to produce a matching stand. Sand and then finish the wood base with a suitable stain and polish with wax. Alternatively, use a few coats of polyurethane clear wood varnish or a black laquer for a durable finish.

Further Reading:

The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation (Suiseki & Its Use With Bonsai) by VT Covello & Y Yoshimura. Publisher Charles E Tuttle Company ISBN 0 8048 2047 3

All Text & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1997 - 2008