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Friday, October 1, 2010

Bonsai Tool Basics

I wanted to do something about initial styling of nursery stock but the weather is not being cooperative. On this past Monday it was 118* at the nursery. It's cooled off to the high 90's and really muggy which is not something we are used to here. So I figured this would be a good time to go over what some of the tools we use are and what they are used for.
 Good bonsai tools, like any other good tools, are not cheap. However if properly cared for a good set of bonsai tools can last a lifetime. Beware of cheap imitations they will end up costing more in the long run. You don't have to go out and spend hundreds of dollars to start.  If necessary buy your tools one at a time as finances allow. When you take into consideration how long they last they really don't seem that expensive. Most all good quality bonsai tools are made in Japan. There are several brands of Japanese tools, most very comparable to each other . Yoshiaki is the brand I use and sell at the nursery. Most companies have two or three  levels of quality in their tool lines. I  suggest you buy the best quality you can afford to though. While we can and do use other tools, many found in our garages and basements I am going to concentrate on tools specifically made for bonsai.

To start with I would suggest the following basic tool kit. First of all start with several of the most versatile and inexpensive tools we'll use...chopsticks! Some of the many uses of chopsticks are, checking the moisture in a pot, removing soil from rootballs for repotting, working soil into the rootball, separating surface roots, remove weeds and countless other uses. One should always have a handful around.

The next tool would have to be a concave branch cutter. This is probably  other than chopsticks one of the most used tools you'll have. They are designed to leave a clean concave cut so that over time the wound can heal without leaving a large ugly scar.  We use these on branches that need shortening as well as for complete removal. We also  use them to cut larger roots. They are also sometimes used to help shape deadwood to make it look more natural. Branch cutters come in various sizes for working on various sized trees from small thin headed ones for shohin or smaller trees to large 12" long one for big branches. The most commonly used ones are 6-7 inches long and will handle 90% of what you need a branch cutter for.

The next most important item would be your shears. These are used for trimming smaller branches, general thinning and trimming of twigs and foliage on the top as well as on the roots. There are several shapes and sizes that are available, but basically which one's you use boil down to personal preference. I usually use the longer thinner version because I feel it allows easier access deeper into the tree interior. I do use the short squat type when working on roots though.

The next most important tool to have is one that people baulk at the most and that is a wire cutter. Everyone has a pair of dikes and wonders why they need to spend $50.00 or so on a wire cutter. The answer is simple, so you cut only the wire and not the branch. Typical dikes or other non bonsai wire cutter have an elongated pointed blade which is fine for cutting wire off a roll. But after the wire is on the branch and needs to be cut off then you find that except for the smallest wires the dikes are not strong enough on the tip to cut the wire, you have to move deeper down the blade which puts your branch right in the middle of the cutting blade. Bonsai wire cutter have a short rounded head with all the strength at the tip so you can cut the biggest wire without having to go deeper down the blade. So you cut only the wire not your branch. You may say well why not just unwind the wire? That can be very dangerous and will likely cause damage to your branches. Its much safer and less frustrating to cut it off. Why chance ruining years of work to save a few cents in wire? I never unwind wire it always gets cut off. If you work only with small wire there are less expensive smaller wire cutters you could use.

After the above tools comes a wide assortment of tools for a variety of purposes from cutting to bending.

My next suggestion would be a knob cutter. Its main use would be in cutting off branch stubs leaving a spherical , concave cut allowing for healing with minimal scarring. Its other main use is to eat away at jins and large cuts to help give them a shape and hide cut marks. It comes in very handy when making a large cut branch into a much thinner jin.

Speaking of jins, jin pliers are another useful item. Designed to crush and remove bark and peel off slivers of wood to create jins or dead branches stripped of their bark. They also come in very handy when wiring especially larger wires.

Though not pictured a rooter cutter is handy especially for those bigger roots. They also come in handy for splitting, ripping and tearing wood in the creation of jins and sharis. They look similar to knob cutters except the blades are flat and meet rather than concave and overlapping.

A trowel and hemp broom help finish off your potting chores.

There is also a variety of tools designed to help bend branches or put movement in trunks.
Some such as the jacks are put on the tree and are adjusted little by little over time to get the movement
wanted. Other such as the two pictured benders provide leverage to help bend the branch into the desired shape.

There are a variety of Japanese saws specifically made for bonsai for cutting branches too big for a branch cutter. Some fold, all cut on the pull stroke and make super clean cuts.

From here where you go with your tool collection is only limited by your checkbook and storage capacity. There are power tools for carving, at least 5 sizes of all of the above tools and a million assorted bits and pieces you can and probably will acquire. Just remember it is always better to get the best quality tool you can. No matter if its for bonsai or woodwork or plumbing quality tools last and make the job much easier.

One suggestion, if there is ever a chance of your using your tools around other bonsaists say at a class or workshop, make a distinctive marking on your tools. Just about all bonsai tools look alike and its really easy for someone to mistakenly pick up the wrong tool. All it takes is some paint or even a dot of nail polish and you'll be able to distinguish your tools from everyone else's. It also makes finding them in piles of soil or cuttings easier. You'll notice most of the tools shown above are painted green. Those are used in classes here and now you know why they are green.

I hope you all enjoyed todays post. As usual please feel free to leave any comments or questions.


  1. I really enjoyed this post about bonsai tools. Without the proper tools, we will never have a beautiful bonsai.

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