Tools for The Beginning Bonsai Artist
by Julian R. Adams
BONSAI Magazine, May/June 1998, p 24 - 27
Those who are newly interested in the art
of bonsai are often unsure about what tools are necessary to
begin developing their bonsai skills. Three or four basic tools
will equip one to perform most of the tasks necessary to produce
and maintain an intermediate to advanced bonsai collection. It
is the intent of this article to discuss the useful characteristics
of basic tools and some of the more advanced, and less frequently
used, tools in order to help neophytes decide which tools are
needed right away and which can wait for later purchase.
THE CONCAVE PRUNER
The single most important bonsai tool is
the concave pruner. Its primary function is to remove branches
in a manner that promotes rapid and smooth healing of the wound.
Its name comes from the shape of the cut and wound left on the
woody trunk or branch. When properly used the concave pruner
leaves a wound on the trunk that is taller than it is wide and
slightly concave. The characteristic shape of the concave pruner
wound makes use of the fact that wounds on the trunk of trees
heal in from the sides rather than from the top and bottom. The
concave depression into the trunk allows the wound to callous
over without creating an undesirable bump on the trunk. The 8-inch
concave pruner is the most versatile size.
The geometry of the cutting edges of the
concave pruner is very precise. This allows one to use the pointed
end for pruning very tiny limbs and even individual leaves. To
preserve this precise geometry, concave pruners should never
be forced by cutting material that is too large or too hard.
A general rule is to never cut material that is larger than one
half the size of the pruner's cutting edge measured from heel
to tip. The typical 8-inch pruner is about right for cutting
branches 1 1/2 inch in diameter or smaller. When cutting near
capacity in size or extra hard wood, it is recommended to use
the portion of the blades near the heel, rather than near the
tip. This utilizes the extra thickness of the blades near the
heel as well as the better mechanical advantage resulting from
this portion of the cutting surfaces being closer to the tool's
All tools have a range of useful performance.
If the limb is too thick for a concave pruner or has potential
of splitting back into the bonsai, make the cut using a saw or
large conventional pruner. The cut should be about one inch from
the trunk. Then use a knob cutter to nibble away the stub and
to contour the final wound surface on the trunk. Use of knob
cutters is discussed later.
THE BUD SCISSORS
Bud scissors are the best tools for trimming
leaves, buds and small branches. The short blades and finger
holes give excellent control, enabling the user to reach into
interior parts of the bonsai for trimming with precision. Although
primarily used for delicate work, the mechanical advantage generated
by the short blades gives consider able cutting power when needed.
As the blades of the bud scissors are closed, the shafts of the
handles remain apart. This helps prevent inadvertent crushing
of other parts of the bonsai by the closing handle shafts.
BONSAI WIRE CUTTERS
bonsai normally involves the use of wire to position and shape
trunk and branches. Either aluminum or annealed copper wire is
used for this purpose. The wire cutter commonly available at
the local hardware store are adequate for cutting wire when applying
it to bonsai. This is not the case when cutting the wire to remove
it from the bonsai being trained. It is good practice to remove
training wire by cutting it off. The training wire is in close
contact with the trunk or limb. Therefore only the tip of the
wire cutter is used to sever the wire. Otherwise the branch may
be seriously damaged. Relatively long cutting blades on hardware
store wire cutters have very little mechanical advantage at the
tips, making wire removal a difficult chore. Those with physical
ailments such as tennis elbow or arthritis may find wire removal
quite unpleasant with standard wire cutters. Bonsai wire cutters
have very short cutting blades. This greatly increases the mechanical
advantage of the tool. For years I used a standard wire cutter
to save the cost of buying bonsai wire cutters. This was false
economy! I can't believe I tortured my elbow for so long over
the price of a relatively inexpensive tool.
THE KNOB CUTTER
This tool sometimes called the melon ball
cutter has several unique capabilities. It is a valuable addition
to the bonsai tool kit even though it is used much less frequently
than concave pruners or bud scissors. The cutting blades of the
knob cutter are shaped somewhat like two halves of a sphere coming
together. The shape allows the tool to aggressively bite into
wood. Protruding stubs are easily and quickly nibbled away by
the knob cutter in a controlled fashion. It can remove lots of
wood quickly yet is precise enough to shape the final surface
cut on the trunk or branch. An additional use of the knob cutter
is the removal of undesirable root or trunk material in the area
of a partially removed tap root. The aggressive nibbling ability
readily removes excess callous underneath the trunk where lack
of space makes it difficult to use other tools. No other tool
is as effective and clean in performing this task which is often
necessary to properly fitting the bonsai to the pot. If used
in this manner, the knob cutter should be protected by carefully
avoiding blade contact with soil or anything else that might
contain hard particles such as grit or stone. The root area is
usually quite damp so the tool, especially blades, should be
wiped clean and dry with an oily rag immediately after such use.
THE ROOT HOOK
Soil removal and untangling roots is a
regular part of the chore of repotting. A chopstick or something
similar is often used, especially with small size bonsai. When
the bonsai artist works with medium and large size material the
need for a more efficient and substantial tool arises. A variety
of root hooks with as many as three points (hooks) are available.
In this case, less is definitely better than more. The single
point tools are superior in getting the job done with minimal
damage to fine roots. Multiple point tools are slightly better
for soil removal but tend to do much fine root damage due to
the tendency of roots to get tangled in the multiple points.
THE ROOT CUTTER
When potting untrained material for the
first time, one almost always needs to remove or shorten large
roots. A number of tools can perform the needed cuts including
concave pruners. The risk of damage to the tools is high because
of the likelihood of small stones getting caught in the blades.
The root cutter has thicker, coarser blade construction that
is more resistant to damage from small stones. An additional
use of the root cutter is for rough pruning of branches that
are too thick and tough for the same size concave pruner. The
cut is made a safe distance from the trunk and then nibbled down
to the desired shape with a knob cutter. Use of this tool is
much less frequent than the use of concave pruners but it is
quite helpful when needed. Cheap imitations of the famous Felco
pruner will do most of the same things but will not be as resistant
to stone damage. I prefer the root cutter made for bonsai purposes.
Beyond the basic tools there are numerous
other tools and devices that can be useful in certain circumstances.
Among these are saws, brushes, tweezers, pliers for jin and wiring,
gouges and other carving tools, jacks and bending levers. Purchase
of these items is best reserved when it is clear that they are
needed to justify the cost.
Ideally bonsai tools should be cleaned
and oiled after each use. Turpentine is excellent for removing
sap buildup on the blades. After cleaning, the tool should be
wiped with an oily rag, giving special attention to the cutting
surfaces of the blades. Be careful - the blades are very sharp.
Most of us are not disciplined enough to clean and oil our tools
after each use. If one falls into this category, be sure to perform
this important chore after any use that subjects the tools to
amounts of sap, moisture or perspiration. Tools that are stored
where they are subjected to wide temperature and humidity variations
corrode at an accelerated rate due to moisture condensation.
WHAT TO BUY
A complete set of bonsai tools is not necessary
for the beginner. Start with a concave pruner and perhaps a pair
of bud scissors. Purchase other tools as expertise and requirements
increase. When it becomes clear that one has more than a passing
interest in bonsai, wire cutters, knob cutters, a root hook and
root pruners will soon be added to the wish list.
Quality and price
of bonsai tools vary over a wide range. What to purchase is a
personal decision but I offer my thought here for your consideration.
My experience has been that the poorest quality Japanese bonsai
tools are consistently superior to those made anywhere else.
I buy only Japanese bonsai tools. There are several grades of
tools made by several Japanese companies. The best are breathtakingly
expensive, even for those who have a serious bonsai interest.
Although I own and use some of the most expensive tools, I find
that the functionality only slightly superior to the less expensive
"entry level" Japanese tools.
The nature of the art of bonsai dictates
that the tools will invariably be used out of doors where unlike
fine woodworking tools they are subject to substantial doses
of moisture, corrosive perspiration, and the ever present threat
of being lost. Even if misplaced only a day or two, the outdoor
environment is likely to cause serious deterioration of the exposed
working surfaces of the tool. Tools are offered that are made
of stainless steel or are plated with a corrosion resistant layer.
I have found the corrosion resistance of these "silver"
tools a pleasant feature. Unfortunately I have felt that the
sharpness of the blades on the "silver" tools not as
good as tools of black steel and the "silver" tools
are two to three times more expensive.
If one uses bonsai tools properly, the
cutting surfaces will last for years without need for sharpening.
Corrosion and abuse will greatly degrade cutting performance
of a bonsai tool. Concave cutters, knob cutters and root cutters
have fairly complex blade geometry which makes proper sharpening
beyond the capability of most bonsai artists and most professional
sharpeners as well. With the possible exception of bud scissors,
sharpened bonsai tools seldom approach the performance of new
tools. With these thoughts in mind, I usually limit my investment
and use the least expensive grade of Japanese tool that I can
tolerate. It is then much easier for me to accept the replacement
made necessary by the inevitable loss, deterioration or abuse
that my best intentions are unable to avoid.
Edited for the Internet by Thomas