Bonsai Tool Care




by Bill Sullivan

The following electronic reprint was posted to the Internet by the Golden State Bonsai Federation, a federation of over 60 Bonsai clubs in the state of California. It was posted by Michael Greenstein [].

Before beginning to recondition or to sharpen your tools, you should have on hand:

tool care

1. Soap and water, rubbing alcohol, Clorox, WD-40, and/or lighter fluid.
2. Rust eraser.
3. Wire brushes (hand and power).
4. Steel wool.
5. Fine emery cloth, wet/dry.

1. Water or oil stones(coarse and fine). Water stones need to be well soaked.
You will need both flat and round stones.
2. Honer (porcelain knob and tube insulators are great).
3. Power brush and grinder.
4. Hand files (coarse and fine).
5. Vise

1. Ball peen hammer and anvil (or piece of heavy metal).
2. Naval Jelly (follow instructions; use mask and safety glasses).
3. Gun Blue (Minute Man cold chemical; follow instruction).
4. Plastic Dip (PDI).
5. Light oil (Three-In-One).

If you clean your tools after each use, they should never need major work. Tools should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and water or rubbing alcohol after each use, and then dried carefully. A Clorox mix can also be used to clean and sterilize. WD 40, (a rust preventative oil) and lighter fluid are good for removing the "gook" from the cutting surfaces of the tools left by pines, ficus, and other plants which exude a sticky sap. Always dry your tools and oil lightly after each cleaning.

Sharpen and Repair

When it becomes necessary to sharpen or repair your tools due to use or misuse, then by following the instructions given, you can return the tool to a serviceable condition. There is no sense in massacring your five-hundred dollar tree with tools that are not in good condition.

The appearance of a rusty tool can be materially improved by the use of a "Rust Eraser." This product will remove rust and polish up your tools after initial heavy cleaning. This is a new, but highly effective device which may be purchased through several dealers. Naval Jelly is used for the removal of heavy rust, and will also provide an element of protection. Following the manufacturer's instruction, it is wise to use gloves, mask and safety glasses. Be sure any residue is carefully washed and rinsed away. For the removal of especially heavy rust, sandpaper or wire brushes should be used. Steel wool is effective, but hard on the hands. Power wire brushes are great for both cleaning and polishing. I cannot stress too strongly that safety glasses and masks should be worn when using caustic materials or power tools.

Study your tools carefully before doing any sharpening. There are bypass blades, anvil, beveled, and blades that meet, but are beveled inside and out. Stainless steel tools are difficult to sharpen, because they are so hard. Be sure to check the manufacturer's angle of any tool before you start. That angle is the one you want to maintain.

Sharpening stones need to be smooth and flat when used. A worn stone with curves or waves is worthless. A wooden block with raised ends will elevate your stone, hold it firmly, and save your knuckles. A "stop" should be secure to one end of the block to keep the stone from sliding off the work bench. Oil and water stones both do the same thing, remove metal in such a way as to provide a sharp cutting edge. Heavy work, such as removing a nick in the blade, should be done with coarse or medium stones, and the finishing touches can be done with the fine stone. A tungaloy carbide sharpener can be used, but this cuts away excessive amounts of the metal, and should only be used sparingly. Be sure to clean stones after each use.

In sharpening bypass blades, you are removing metal from the cutting edge, so use pressure only on the forward strike, beveled side down against the stone. Do not attempt to correct the "overbite" of concave tools! With anvil blades, sharpen only the top blade, which is beveled on both sides. Use the same procedure as: before, but remember to do both sides. Concave cutters are sharpened on the inside only. Lightly roll the outer concave surfaces against the stone, one side at a time. The interior surfaces should be sharpened with a round or half-round stone, and finished with a honer. The honer does not sharpen; it just smoothes the surfaces. Tools with blades that meet, like root pruners, may need to be adjusted for proper closure by filing the stop pin just enough to allow the blades to touch. Wire cutters need to be sharpened on both sides, but because the blade movement is so restricted, it is best to use a fine file. Use the file cautiously. If you remove too much metal, they will not close properly.

Power grinders should only be used for "heavy" removal of metal, although the experienced craftsman could use it for fine work. Be sure the tools you are sharpening do not get hot! Heat removes the temper, rendering a tool "soft" and incapable of holding an edge. A vise is essential for holding most curved-bladed bonsai tools while working on those angles. Left-handed tools are hard to find and require special care.

If you need to adjust the rivet to keep the closing tension tight, it may be tapped lightly with the "peen' side of the hammer. For best results, the tool should be held firmly against an anvil or piece of heavy metal. If the closing joint is too tight, work an abrasive material, like Liquid Wrench into the area by moving the handles back and forth.

Reconditioning the metal color

Gun Blue renews the surface look and provides rust protection. It can only be used on areas that have been completely cleaned. Not even a fingerprint can remain. I suggest that cleaning solution be used to decrease the metal before applying the bluing solution. The "blue" can be painted on with a Q-Tip swab, covering the exposed metal parts. Follow the package instructions and avoid skin contact. To give a better "feel" to the tool, the grip area of the handles can be immersed in "plastic dip." Follow the package instructions carefully. After dipping a handle, turn it rapidly up and down, up and down, to keep a glob from forming at the tip. This dip protects the metal, provides a cushioned grip, and (because it comes in at least seven colors), helps in tool identification. Probably no more than two coats of this material is necessary. Use the Gun Blue before you dip the handles.

After cleaning, sharpening and reconditioning tools, they should be oiled lightly. Excess oil should be wiped away. Regularly cleaned and oiled tools will not rust! Who can work in bonsai without getting their tools wet and dirty? Properly cared for and sharpened, your bonsai tools can remain serviceable for decades.


Edited for the Internet by Thomas L. Zane