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How to Use and Care for Your Bonsai Tools

Updated on September 13, 2016
Pair of butterfly sheers, foliage sheers and small hand broom.
Pair of butterfly sheers, foliage sheers and small hand broom.

Tools of the Trade

How good will the carpenter be without a hammer and saw? Like any craftsman, your tools will often define the overall outcome of the product. The better your tools or original your tools are, the better your product will be. Well, that statement is only half true... Knowledge of your tools and how to use them correctly can help achieve your intended goal.

When it comes to bonsai, this concept is key to achieving the best outcome for your trees. Unlike a technical craftsman, bonsai hobbyists are considered to be more like a fine artist and as stated before, an artist's tools makes the artist (with knowledge on tool care and usage). Like a brush of an artist, the chisel of a sculptor, the bonsai artist uses a plethora of tools to create amazing works of art out of living material.

Roll bag for bonsai tools.
Roll bag for bonsai tools. | Source
Bonsai tools sorted from cutters to sheers separated by bonsai rake.
Bonsai tools sorted from cutters to sheers separated by bonsai rake. | Source

Do you own your own a proper set of bonsai tools?

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Where do you purchase your tools?

First and foremost, one has to be able to obtain these tools and in today's standards, one doesn't have to leave the house or travel very far to buy anything. Things can be bought and shipped to your home at the reach of your fingertips. Many others still go out of their way to local garden shops to purchase the tools; however, it seems that more and more people buy their tools online.

Buying your tools online and in person has its benefits as well as its cons. More often than not, people want to see their tools and possibly touch the tools so that's one of the greatest benefits of buying them in person. The other good benefit is the ability to buy it right then and there and not have to wait for it to be shipped to it. The only downside to having to have to buy your tools in person is the possibility of a more inflated price due to the store wanting to profit due to possible loss from shipping and handling. The other downside to buying in person is not knowing what the testimonials are. You could be buying something 100 other hobbyist have bought; but, there might be flaws in the design of the tool or just not meeting their standards that many hobbyists may encounter.

The other way of getting your tools is buying them online. Personally buying your tools online typically is the preferred way because the benefits out weight all the bad. For example, one of the best things about buying online is not having to leave your home and being able to have a HUGE number of options. Some of these options can come directly from the source of the hobby like Japan where the quality of the tool is often less questioned. However, the hobby having originated from China, tools made in China may pose a different question as quality is often subject to scrutiny. But then again, it's all up the consumer and the user ultimately.

The other great pro about buying online is the ability to hear about the testimonials. You get a clear insight on the tool even before you buy it. You can get a sense of all the people with various skill levels tell you what they think of the tool.

The final pro to buying online is typically the price. It is almost always, if not most of the time, that the price of the items you want to buy are typically cheaper than the are when you buy in person.

The only downside I can only imagine about buying online would be the wait and the pricing of shipping. Depending where it's shipped from, it's very likely that the delivery can range from a week to about a month. The price for shipping from somewhere far could also affect the total price; therefore, it's worth considering when buying local or from afar.

Whatever route you choose, know what the biggest factors are and what your preference is when it comes to buying something that'll help you in the creation of living art.

How did you purchase your set of bonsai tools?

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Quality vs Quantity

When you've done your research; you'll realize what your tastes are and you'll understand what works best for you in terms of price and quality. Typically, it's important to know what your price range is and also, to note your skill level. Because you're probably fairly new to bonsai, it's important to know where you stand in terms of skill level. For example, a simple pair of bonsai shears that can be bought on an online shopping site for probably 10 dollars. It's made out of carbon steel, marketed as very durable and incredibly cost effective for the price and it's made in China. However, you also see that there is another pair of shears that you can buy a-la-carte for $38 dollars. It's made of stainless steel and is from one of the more prestigious tool vendors from Japan. The difference is a lot even for a single pair of shear; however, you have to consider the entire package of tools that can range up to hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Are you willing to spend that much on tools? How long will you be in the hobby? Is this something that's sustainable? Will you be selling your trees to make up for the cost? All these questions needs to be asked when you buy the higher end equipment as well as the lower end as well. It is true that the higher end tools will last you a lifetime if you maintain it well. So what's a thousand dollars to a life time of enjoyment with your tools? Everything is factored in when you buy the higher end tools.

Would you rather buy a set of premium set of tools? Or will you rather settle for a cheap set of tools regardless of skill level right at the get go.

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Maintenance of your tools

There are three factors of maintenance to consider when keeping your tools up to snuff. Cleaning, sharpening, and conditioning your tools on a regular basis will ensure your tools will last for a long time. Because you will be using these pretty frequently, it's important to know that it's probably best to clean your tools after every use, and with that being done on the regular, your tools should never need any major work.

Cleaning:

Cleaning your tools is as important as cleaning off your kitchen knife after every use. Some trees are capable of leaving residue like sap and other nasty stuff on your tools. If not taken care of, the tools will not be able to work as smoothly.

Here are some things to keep on hand when cleaning your tools:

- Soap and water

- Bleach

- Some sort of rust removing chemical of your choice

Soapy water will help dislodge any gunk that is left on the tool. It is possible to use a little big of elbow grease to really work out all that residue left by your trees. When rust is apparent, you can use a rust removal agent of your choice to get rid of the rust on the tool. A steel wool cloth could be used to help work some of that rust off. Once the tool is clean, it is important that the tool has to air dry and it must be dried carefully to avoid having more rust forming on the tool.

Sharpening:

After multiple uses, the tool will have sustained some ware and after one summer of intense use, the tool can sustain a decrease in sharpness. Therefore, it's very important to sharpen your tools to allow for maximum effectiveness as well as minimizing excess strenuous effort applied to your tree as well as minimizing the chances of injury to you and your tools.

Here are some things to keep on hand when sharpening your tools:

- Sharpening stones

- Hand filers

- Power grinders

- Vice to hold items down

Make sure when sharpening your tools, that you are wearing proper protective gear like gloves and eye protection. When sharpening on a sharpening stone, make sure the stone is indeed completely smooth and not have any ridges or spots that are uneven as that will result in an uneven sharpening. When sharpening with a hand file, remember to have the tool clamped down to allow for the best angles. Power grinders are more powerful and also more dangerous. Remember to have the tool secured in the vice before you start grinding and be careful.

Reconditioning:

Your tools are now clean and sharp. After some use, the rivets can be a little loose so to recondition them is a vital process in keeping them in shape.

Here are a few things to have on hand when reconditioning your tools:

- Hard surface or an anvil

- Ball Peen Hammer

- Hardware Oil Lubricant

When your tool is loose and you want to adjust the tension of the rivet. You can use the peen side of the hammer to make that adjustment to the rivet. Make sure the tool is closed when you're making the adjustment. Add some hardware oil lubricant to allow to lubricate the rivet join. Use as much as its needed and wipe away any excess.

Once cleaned, sharpened and reconditioned, your tools are now in the best of shape for the next round of use. As mentioned before, because you will be using these pretty frequently, it's important to know that it's probably best to clean your tools after every use, and with that being done on the regular, your tools should never need any major work.

List of Tools

One can generate quite a long list for bonsai tools because just about anything can be a tool. But the most generic list will be listed below with the description of the tool's name and the functionality of the tool.

Pruning Sheers

This pair of sheers is your typical go to sheer to do regular pruning. This sheer is typically most identifiable with a spring in between the short handles as it allows for quick snips. It can be used for small branch clippings, leaf pruning, or root pruning.

Pruning sheers applied to a small branch. Notice spring between handles.
Pruning sheers applied to a small branch. Notice spring between handles. | Source

Butterfly Sheers

The typical sheers most identifiable with bonsai are the short large bulky slip through loop handle sheers. These sheers are hard to work with normally due to the large grip needed to handle these sheers. The typical use for them is usually to trim medium sized branches and denser root trimmings.

Butterfly sheers, being applied to a small branch.
Butterfly sheers, being applied to a small branch. | Source
Smaller and more slender version of the butterfly sheer to allow for tighter access into smaller spaces.
Smaller and more slender version of the butterfly sheer to allow for tighter access into smaller spaces. | Source

Long Slim Twig Sheer

These sheers are much longer than all the other sheers mentioned. In bonsai you'll encounter instances where branches and leaves can grow deep inside the tree. It's very hard to clean up some of the branches within the foliage; thus, a slender and narrow pointed pair of sheers can go into those tight openings and snip away any unwanted branches or foliage.

Sharp needle nose slim sheer made to access the deepest parts of a bonsai.
Sharp needle nose slim sheer made to access the deepest parts of a bonsai. | Source
Foliage clippers made to quickly snip off foliage from branches for routine maintenance or complete defoliation of trees.
Foliage clippers made to quickly snip off foliage from branches for routine maintenance or complete defoliation of trees.

Foliage Clippers

These sheers are of a single piece of metal and designed to allow for quick foliage clipping. This is perfect for complete defoliation of trees.

Shohin Clippers

These sheers are much smaller but resemble the Long Slim sheers. They are perfect for smaller bonsai (shohin) that require a bit more delicate approach.

Similar to the long slim sheers, these are a miniaturized version of those sheers and best used on smaller shohin trees.
Similar to the long slim sheers, these are a miniaturized version of those sheers and best used on smaller shohin trees. | Source

Concave Cutters

These cutters have straight blades but are angled at a concave angle thus giving the user a better approach to branches. Typically used to trim branches at the crotch, these cutters are very helpful when trying to clip at the crotch of the branch; which is a branch between two branches nodes.

Concave cutters being applied to the crotch of a set of branches to cut out unwanted middle growth cleanly.
Concave cutters being applied to the crotch of a set of branches to cut out unwanted middle growth cleanly. | Source

Root Hook

Root hooks are used to initiate a repotting by dislodging larger roots and bonsai soil buried within the root mass. Because the hook is at a 90 degree angle, it allows for easier penetration into the root mass.

Root Rake with End Spatula

This rake is typically used to dislodge finer roots away from the root mass. The spatula end allows for scraping off moss and allows for pressing of the moss when translating moss.

Rake being applied to loosen dirt and fine roots away from root mass.
Rake being applied to loosen dirt and fine roots away from root mass. | Source
Spatula end transplanting moss.
Spatula end transplanting moss. | Source

Root Pliers

Root pliers are used to nip away at the larger roots to completely remove them from the root mass.

Root pliers removing root from root mass.
Root pliers removing root from root mass. | Source

Jin/Wire Pliers

These pliers are used more specifically for handling wires when bending wires and tying wires together. It's also used to break branches to remove bark to create jin.

Pliers being applied to wire, twisting wire to tighten or bending wire.
Pliers being applied to wire, twisting wire to tighten or bending wire. | Source
Pliers being used to create jin by sqeezing branch and removing bark to expose the fleshy part of the branch;
Pliers being used to create jin by sqeezing branch and removing bark to expose the fleshy part of the branch; | Source

Knob Cutter

These cutters have a rounded concave blade which will cut knobs of branches off. The purpose of this is to cut a knob off to promote better healing and reduce the appearance of a branch cutting.

Knob cutter being applied to unwanted growth.
Knob cutter being applied to unwanted growth. | Source
Clean concave cut into the branch to minimize unsightly cutting scars.
Clean concave cut into the branch to minimize unsightly cutting scars. | Source

Wire Cutters

Has probably the smallest cutting surface to easily cut wire.

Wire cutters cutting wire down to size when styling a tree.
Wire cutters cutting wire down to size when styling a tree. | Source

Bamboo Chopstick

The chopstick might be the most inexpensive yet probably one of the most important tools of the hobby. It's primarily used in repotting bonsai and mainly used to insert new soil medium into the newly loosened root mass. By inserting the chopstick into the root mass with new soil material, air pockets are mitigated which allows for better drainage.

Chopstick applied to soil medium to force medium into root mass and minimize air pockets.
Chopstick applied to soil medium to force medium into root mass and minimize air pockets. | Source

Bonsai Tool Quiz


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Conclusion

Your tools are what defines you as an artist, and your tree. Regardless of tool quality, proper knowledge and maintenance of your bonsai equipment will help you sculpt amazing works of art. Applying proper usage of your tools will safeguard your tree from damage and scars. Applying proper maintenance to your tools will ensure your tools will last as long as your passion for the bonsai hobby will last. Ultimately, bonsai is a living art form that can bring many hours, days, weeks, months, years, basically, a lifetime of enjoyment. All that can be achieved by having just a little gardening knowledge, just a hint of creativity, and most importantly, an endless amount of patience. With the fundamental prerequisite, anyone can enjoyably practice bonsai.

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