Bonsai Tools: Part 1
What bonsai tool or tools will you actually use the most? What are the most important and therefore basic tools in a decent bonsai tool roll, for beginners and masters alike? If I had to pick only three tools to use forever, here’s what I would choose. You can definitely get by with these and nothing else.
The practice of bonsai is dedicated to showcasing the natural qualities of each tree in our collection. Each year we execute specific techniques at precisely the right time to help our bonsai reach their full potential. We aim to do this in a way that showcases elements of each species’ natural growth habit, foliage presentation, and even insinuations of the native environment.
From potting a bonsai from a nursery container into a bonsai pot, bending branches with wire, performing structural pruning to set the design of the bonsai composition, and seasonal pruning and pinching to retain the proportions and scale of that design, we reach for tools. In fact, to execute the most common techniques within the practice of bonsai, we use tools.
Purpose-built hand tools, like pruning shears, knob cutters, concave cutters, root cutters, de-candling shears, and trunk-splitters, along with wooden implements like specially shaped chopsticks, are used to achieve the results we are looking for. We even use power tools for deadwood carving, like a Dremel, and there are even a host of specialized carving-tip drill attachments available for use on deadwood features. A well-stocked bonsai tool roll can cost many hundreds of dollars.
There is literally a precision tool for each scope of work, available in different sizes for various sizes of bonsai trees. These tools are commonly made from stainless steel and come razor sharp from places around the world, including Japan and the United States. They can cost anywhere from $10 for plastic-handled scissors, to hundreds or even thousands of dollars for high-end or custom-made shears and cutters.
That’s all well and good, but what will you need every day? What bonsai tool or tools will you actually use the most? What are the most important and therefore basic tools in a decent bonsai tool roll, for beginners and masters alike? If I had to pick only three tools to use forever, here’s what I would choose. You can definitely get by with these and nothing else.
Scissors for pruning. You will always need at least one pair of decent bonsai shears. Good shears are razor sharp and will stay sharp for a while. They do need to be broken in a bit, so use them on soft material at first, like for post-flush pruning in late spring, before using them on thicker branches. This will give your shears’ edge time to harden with the work, which will keep them sharp longer. A sharp and clean-cut is imperative for branches and roots. Clean your scissors with WD40 or some kind of potent solvent/cleaner, then polish them with a high-quality oil like camellia oil. Doing this after every job will keep all of your tools clean and sharp, and also prevent fungus or other pathogens from hitching a ride from tree to tree and entering via a sloppy cut.
Secateurs. Secateurs are also known as garden clippers or garden shears and are available at every garden center and home improvement store. Though not specifically made for bonsai, secateurs are great for larger branches and roots if you don’t have anything else. Treat your secateurs like your bonsai shears to keep them clean and sharp after each use. Peter Chan from Heron’s Bonsai in the UK often uses secateurs just to show that you don’t always need specialized tools for making quality bonsai art.
Chopsticks. Chopsticks should maybe be number one on this list, simply because of how often you will reach for them, but you can’t cut a branch with one. They are used mainly for repotting, but they are great for checking topsoil, applying moss, peering into the foliage, checking for pests, etc, etc, etc. There seems to be no end to how often I use chopsticks in my bonsai practice. That said, chopsticks for bonsai aren’t your basic round-shaped takeout chopsticks in a paper sleeve. Bonsai chopsticks are fashioned from bamboo and are cut to different lengths and angles to fit different needs. During repotting, a round chopstick will just push soil around randomly, based on angle and amount of force applied. However, a proper bonsai chopstick with the end cut at a 45-degree bias will push the soil under the rootball and away from the edge of the pot. Using a properly shaped bonsai chopstick is faster too. It works faster because it works more efficiently, and that is gentler on our trees. Less poking and prodding of the root system will help the tree recover faster.
In conclusion: If you are just starting out, and are looking to build your tool roll, these three implements will take you a long way. If you like tools, and like collecting various items for your tool roll, there’s nothing wrong with that. It never hurts to be prepared, and bonsai is all about preparation. These tools can be collected as needed, with some planning. For example- if you want to perform a “trunk chop” on a Japanese maple, you can’t do it with bonsai shears. You would need a concave cutter of appropriate size. Obviously, you can’t cut large branches with secateurs, either, and there are simply some scopes of work that will require additional tools. But for the bonsai enthusiast looking to get the most done with the least amount of hardware, this is the place to start. You can be confident that these three tools will get most jobs done efficiently without breaking the bank or making you feel like you can’t do the work without an enormous collection of bonsai tools.