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Tools For The New Bonsai Student
American Bonsai Society
Tools for the New Bonsai Student
By Randy Davis
The tools used for creating living art are many. They range from gardening hand shears to specialized bonsai tools. You will find that the longer you are involved with bonsai the more you will accumulate specialized tools. If you are like me, and sometimes don’t have the correct tool for the task at hand, a makeshift tool will often suffice until you find the correct tool for the job. The quality and cost of bonsai tools will range from very expensive, which will last a lifetime, to cheap worthless ones not worth having at all. Every person has an opinion on tool quality, cost and usefulness but, in the end, it is personal preference and the quality of performance that count. Stainless steel tools are expensive, hold a sharp edge longer, are less subject to rust buildup but are more difficult to sharpen. Good quality steel tools are less expensive, need sharpening more often, are easier to sharpen and will require oiling to keep them from rusting. In the end, it is your budget and preference that matters. Personally, I have used good quality steel tools, some of which I’ve had for 40 years, and been very satisfied with their results. Beyond the tools, you will need supplies in the form of wire, grinding stones, cut paste or other wound sealer, and a tool pouch or storage container at a minimum.
The basic tools are the ones that every enthusiast needs for working on trees in training as well as finished trees. You will find that some tools are used far more than others but all will get used. Working on trees in training can be done with a good pair of gardening shears. I have found that one good pair of garden shears, with replaceable blades, can last a lifetime if you take good care of them. When selecting shears, you should take your time and ensure a good fit to your hand and that the blade size will accommodate limbs up to 1½ inch in diameter. Hand shears will do a great job of basic pruning of trees in training. However, you will find that they are not made for the close branch cutting that will produce smooth wound healing. For that kind of work, you need tools made specifically for bonsai work.
Every person dedicated to the art has to have what I call the “essential five” tools in their kit. These tools are the foundation tools without which good pruning and root work is impossible. Some of them you will use constantly while others like the root hook will be used only seasonally. Pictured from left to right are; 1) Root hook, 2) Concave cutters, Scissors 4) wire cutter and 5) a knife (pocket or X-Acto). With these five, tools, along with a good pair of hand shears you can do 90% of the work required for most small to medium sized bonsai. I will guarantee that once you find a good tool you’ll panic like I often do when I misplace it. When I do misplace it, I usually have to stop everything and search until I find it.
Root hook – While only used during the repotting season, the root hook is one of those must have tools. Its main purpose is to untangle the root mass of trees that have been containerized for too long. A good root hook will be made of hardened steel to support the pulling action without bending or deforming which so often happens with hooks made from low quality steel. The tip should come to a sharp point and the handle should have a good grip that is comfortably cushioned so it less likely to slip from your hand.
Concave Cutters – A medium-sized concave cutter is the tool most often used for large and small branch pruning. The cutting edges are angled and beveled to allow one to cut a branch close to the adjoining branch or trunk and remove the branch collar as close as possible. This allows the healing tissue of the tree to smoothly grow over the wound. Branch cutters come in various sizes to accommodate small, medium or large jobs. The medium tool is most often used and will effectively cut branches up to one inch diameter. This is a ‘must have’ tool and will work for both branch and root pruning, although as you progress as a bonsai student, you should use one cutter for branches and a second (usually an older one) for root work. If you are constantly working on large material adding the next size up makes sense.
Scissors – Most often used during the spring and summer months for pruning the current season’s growth or small branches under ¼inch diameter, these are another one of those tools that has multiple uses and can be used on roots, branches or leaves. They come in various sizes and configurations. I like the longer necked ones for foliage and small branches. The shorter stout configuration scissors are great for stiffer root work.
Wire cutters – While only used when you’re wiring your trees, wire cutters are essential. They are a snub nosed tool with strong short jaws to get close to a branch and cut the wire once it has been applied to the tree without cutting or damaging the branch. A good wire cutter will be beefy in its construction yet slim enough to reach into the canopy of a tree. Take your time to select a good wire cutter. I still have, and often use, the wire cutter I bought 40 years ago and doubt that I will ever need another one. A good wire cutter will work with aluminum wire and annealed copper wire. Test it before you buy it, otherwise you may be disappointed.
Knife – While not specifically made for bonsai, a knife is one of those tools that I always keep in my pouch some where close at hand. I have found that I often use it instead of a pair of jin pliers.
Other tools to keep in mind are knob cutters, jin pliers and others, all of which come in various sizes.
If you are adventurous and go collecting from the wild, or even in your own back yard, you will find that you need to add to your basic list of tools. For collecting, I never go out without a good pointed shovel, large lopping shears, a pry bar, sledge hammer, a mason’s hammer, pruning saw, twine and oil-free burlap.
Manufacturers of Professional Grade Hand shears and Loppers
Felco - Avaliable at most full service Nurseries