Thoughts on Tools

Posted by on Jul 14, 2014 | No Comments
Thoughts on Tools

I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions about what tools to buy after teaching bonsai basics classes. The answer is not as simple as one might hope, so here are some recommendations based on my own experiences. Different people use tools differently so I’d recommend handling tools of people at club meetings with their permission to get a feel for what might be right for your hand shape and habits.

I think many good-quality tools will last a very long time with proper care but some tools are more important to spend money on than others. When I started 13 years ago and bought a few at a time I think the prices were slightly lower, but perhaps some of the tools were low quality. I’ve since replaced some of my original tools because of broken parts etc. I don’t have a stong opinion about stainless versus carbon steel. I have mostly carbon steel tools except for my repotting tools which are largely stainless.

Scissors – I recommend ARS straight-handled grape scissors like the ones I sold at the recent basics class. They’re cheap and good quality; I’ve been using my pair for about 10 years. I sharpen them 3-4 times per year and use them at least a couple times per week, sometimes daily. I prefer to remove the secondary bevel on the blade with a coarse sharpening stone and to make the tip more pointed so it can be used like a knife tip on some trees. But they’re fine as-is out of the box for most people.

Left: a new pair of ARS grape scissors.   Middle: my custom-sharpened pair with sharp tips get into narrower spots and can stab the tree when needed.  Right: Masakuni scissors - solid and a great feel but normally feel too large and long in my hand.    I do not use any of these scissors for root work, branches only.

Left: a new pair of ARS grape scissors. Middle: my custom-sharpened pair with sharp tips get into narrower spots and can stab the tree when needed. Right: Masakuni scissors – solid and a great feel but normally feel too large and long in my hand. I do not use any of these scissors for root work, branches only.

Closeup left to right of the unmodified cutting tip of an ARS scissor, sharpened tip of my ARS scissors in the middle and Masakuni on the right.

Closeup left to right of the unmodified cutting tip of an ARS scissor, sharpened tip of my ARS scissors in the middle, and Masakuni on the right.

If you prefer a longer-handled scissor then there are more options both from ARS and from regular bonsai tool makers. The scissor is the most frequently used tool so it’s worth it even for a beginner to possibly have more than one. I have a $200 pair of fantastic Masakuni scissors that I almost never use because I prefer the hand feel and length of the ARS grape scissors. The Masakuni are undoubtedly a superior steel and much stronger handle and construction.

Pliers – generally, they last forever, the tip should meet firmly and right at the end; It’s best if the entire plier meets firmly, not just at the tip, but the tip is the most important part. If the tip doesn’t come firmly together the plier will be useless for bonsai purposes. I don’t find “Jin Pliers” to be useful at all. They are the ones that meet only at the tip and are designed to be able to smash bark off of a larger diameter branch. It’s a specialty tool that isn’t needed for most people.

Wiring tools.   At left is a  "Flart" wire cutter, which is somewhere between a scissor-style and a plier-style cutter.

Wiring tools. At left is a “Flart” wire cutter, which is somewhere between a scissor-style and a plier-style cutter, it works only for small copper and small to medium aluminum. It cuts things off of branches okay, but the cutting action is skewed to the side so it’s not as good as a plier type for removing wire.

Closeup of a Flart, the tip of a plier that has worked will for me for 10 years and a newer 7 inch plier-style wire cutter.

Closeup of a Flart, the tip of a plier that has worked well for me for 10 years and a newer 7-inch plier-style wire cutter.

Wire cutters – there are a few different types. The type that is like scissors is good for small wire and works as a scissor so you can use the tool in different ways. The Flart is somewhere in between that and the medium-size plier-type wire cutter which is my workhorse; the plier-type is good for medium and larger wire but can take a lot of muscle to cut large copper. The large pliers (like 12-14″ long handle) are very expensive and work well only for large wire or places where you have large spaces…so not for small trees or those with a limited budget.

scissor style wire cutters:

http://www.stonelantern.com/Stainless_Scissor_Style_Bonsai_Wire_Cutter_Roshi_p/tms19.htm

Plier type wire cutters:

http://www.stonelantern.com/Bonsai_Wire_Cutter_by_Roshi_Bonsai_Tools_7_inches_p/tmc11.htm

The damaged tip of a 8" plier-type wire cutter.   This tool is useless for removing wire from the tree because it cannot fully cut the wire without damaging the branch underneath.   It can still be used for applying wire.

The damaged tip of a 8″ plier-type wire cutter. This tool is useless for removing wire from the tree because it cannot fully cut the wire without damaging the branch underneath. It can still be used for applying wire.

Branch cutters – This is the hardest thing to give advice on. A cheap one will be garbage. In my opinion it’s worth spending extra money for this tool and buying cheaper versions of other tools. I’d recommend the best first, so if you’re willing to spring for the bee’s knees of cutters look for a pair from Masakuni:

http://www.californiabonsai.com/product/masakuni-concave-branch-cutter/

Or, if you prefer to not spend that much here are two middle-of-the-road tools from stone lantern:
http://www.stonelantern.com/Bonsai_Tree_Concave_Branch_Cutters_by_Roshi_Tools_p/tmc7.htm
http://www.stonelantern.com/Bonsai_Tree_Concave_Branch_Cutters_by_Roshi_Tools_p/tmc6.htm

A Kiku branch cutter and my original one.   Neither are particularly satisfactory.   Note that the two cutting sides do not meet exactly, one overlaps the other very slightly when they are fully closed.   These two tools both have rivets that are not quite sturdy enough to make them feel good.    Still, I have made thousands of cuts with them.   The cut is relatively clean but some tissue damage can happen near the cut on larger cuts.   I recommend saws for large cuts wherever possible.

A Kiku branch cutter and my original one. Neither are particularly satisfactory. Note that the two cutting sides do not meet exactly, one overlaps the other very slightly when they are fully closed. These two tools both have rivets that are not quite sturdy enough to make them feel good. Still, I have made thousands of cuts with them. The cut is relatively clean but some tissue damage can happen near the cut on larger cuts. I recommend saws for large cuts wherever possible.

There is a second “spherical” branch cutter that has a curved cut in both the cutting direction and at 90 degrees to the cutting direction. I don’t think that these are needed, particularly since a knob cutter (see below) usually will do the same thing.

The tip of a small knob cutter.   The cutter is spherical and makes a concave spherical cut.   Best used for removing knobs from deciduous trees like trident maple or hornbeam.    Not as useful for conifers because flush cuts are not usually best practice.

The tip of a small knob cutter. The cutter is spherical and makes a concave spherical cut. Best used for removing knobs from deciduous trees like trident maple or hornbeam. Not as useful for conifers because flush cuts are not usually best practice.

Saws – A good little saw can provide a cleaner cut than branch cutters in many cases. A small saw is for small cuts, like 1″ at the most. The teeth are very fine and will clog with wet saw dust on some cuts, but the cut can be quite clean and easier, particularly on trees with very hard wood.

Two very useful folding saws.   The larger is a "Silky Pocket Boy" fine, 130mm and the smaller is a bonsai specific that is too small to use for cuts over about 1".

Two very useful folding saws. The larger is a “Silky Pocket Boy” fine, 130mm and the smaller is a bonsai specific that is too small to use for cuts over about 1″.

Comparison of size of the saws with an ARS scissor.

Comparison of size of the saws with an ARS scissor.

A good small saw:

http://www.hidatool.com/gardening/saws/yamaman-folding-saw-90mm

Medium size saw for “large” bonsai cuts, over 1″ in diameter, you will not need this unless you are working with collected stock, rough stock, large nursery stock or other things that have large branches that need to be removed:

http://www.hidatool.com/gardening/saws/silky-pocket-boy-folding-saw-130mm-fine

Repotting tools – you’ll need a few tools to repot a tree. A root scythe to remove the tree from the pot, a bent-tip tweezer for raking the top of the soil, a small rake for the bottom, a root hook for tough spots and a small broom for evening out soil or sweeping it out of the rim of the pot while you’re cutting the tree out.

Repotting tools, left to right: Root scythe for cutting the tree out of the pot, bent-tip stainless tweezers for combing roots and weeding, bent tip stainless ARS scissors (not ideal but they work), root rake for combing out the bottom of a large rootball, soil broom and a small root hook for getting between larger roots and combing out smaller ones.

Repotting tools, left to right: Root scythe for cutting the tree out of the pot, bent-tip stainless tweezers for combing roots and weeding, bent tip stainless ARS scissors (not ideal for larger rootballs but they work), root rake for combing out the bottom of a large rootball, soil broom and a small root hook for getting between larger roots and combing out smaller ones.

There are many other specialty tools to be had, but this article is a minimal set of recommendations for beginners.

Finally, after asking a few people who I respect for tool recommendations I’d also refer people to the Kaneshin website