Home Grown Or Imported?
It is not necessary to own a spiffy assortment of Japanese tools in order to create bonsai…. but it certainly does make the work easier and even a bit more fun. Most bonsai tools are imported from Asia… usually Japan. Despite their exotic appearance, they are simple cutting instruments designed to severe leaves, branches, limbs and trunks. In most cases, suitable substitutes for imported bonsai tools can be found at the local cutlery store or garden center.
My first branch cutter was scissor type toenail cutter and my first defoliation tool /bud shear was a small thread scissor stolen from my wife’s sewing basket. I have made a workable bonsai wire cutter by grinding the tip of an ordinary electrician’s wire cutter until it was half an inch long and have constructed root hooks by bending landscaping nails in a vice. Necessity is the mother of invention. When I began my bonsai adventure many years ago, there were almost no bonsai tools available in the western marketplace.
Thankfully, all that has changed. Today, I boast an impressive collection of bonsai tools that would put even an experienced Japanese bonsai master to shame. My rational for amassing such a plentiful array of Japanese cutting and potting instruments was that they would increase my perceived talents as a bonsai artist. Obviously a man trimming a bonsai with two dollar toenail clipper will tend to lack credibility. However, a man using $75 pair of imported bonsai shears MUST know what he is doing. It logically follows that the more bonsai tools a person owns, the more that individual must know about bonsai. Right?
If you find that logic a little faulty, you are not alone. Consider, however, that whether you are baking a cake, building a bridge or creating a bonsai… having the right tools to do the job will make the task infinitely easier. Japanese bonsai tools are designed to do a wide variety of specialized jobs particular to the art and do them very well. They can be grouped into two general classifications based on usage: Cutting and Styling Instruments or Transplant Tools.
Cutting instruments are usually available in three different sizes based on the size of the bonsai they are intended to cut on.
Shohin Tools: Such tools measure anywhere from 6 to 7 inches overall length and are designed for working on the very small classification of bonsai known as shohin or mame. Such plants are 6 inches in height or less.
Standard Tools: These tools are designed for general bonsai cutting and cultivation. There overall length is about 8 inches. They are perhaps the best size for beginners to initially acquire because of their versatility.
Imperial Size Tools: Most of these cutting instrument measure 11 inches in length or better and are designed to make working on very large bonsai a more efficient task.
All bonsai tools are manufactured in stainless steel as well as a variety of carbon steels in varying hardness grades. The stainless advantage is that they will resist rust and corrosion more easily and are almost always made of harder steel. The disadvantage is that they cost an average of 30 per cent more than their carbon steel (black) counterparts. If a student keeps his tools clean and well oiled, standard carbon steel is probably a better investment. If you do choose stainless, examine them carefully. Some are stainless steel throughout and others have only a coating of stainless on the outside of a standard black tool. Such coated tools will wear through more quickly.
How Much Should You Spend?
Two factors effect the price of any bonsai tool… quality of workmanship and hardness of the carbon or stainless steel used in its construction. Quality should always be a consideration when making any purchase. However, when buying bonsai tools, the second factor is worth closer examination. It actually may not always be desirable to purchase a tool made from the hardest grade of steel. Here’s why. Harder steel means the tool will hold its cutting edge longer. Eventually it will need to be resharpened. At that time, it will become apparent that tools which have flat edges (shears for instance) are a great deal easier to resharpen than tools with curved edges (knob cutters for instance). If money is a factor (and it usually is) then it might be a good idea to purchase inexpensive flat bladed shears (which are easier to resharpen) and spend the dollars saved on the curved bladed tools (which are made from harder steel and will hold their edge longer).
Basic Cutting & Shaping Instruments.
Shears – Regardless of their design, all bonsai shears perform the same function. They prune green foliage and cut small to medium sized branches. Shears with straight shafts allow you to penetrate into narrower parts of the tree. Shears with bowed handles allow you to apply more force when cutting. Since they all perform the same job, the shear you select should be based on your personal preference. Purchase the tool which feels most comfortable in your hand and will perform the job you had in mind. Choices are considerable. Shears for right and left handed people are available as are different weights, finishes, blade sizes and handle shapes, all designed to provide consumers with a wide variety of choices. The standard 8 to 9 inch general pruning shear with bowed handles is the most common choice for first time students. In addition a beginner would be well advised to purchase an inexpensive shear intended to be used in the pruning of roots. A finer bladed “detail” shear for use in delicate tasks such as cutting pine candles or removing azaleas buds would also a good addition to a basic tool kit.
Branch Cutters – The purpose of this tool is to sever branches flush with the trunk of the tree. That is considerably more difficult than it sounds without this tool. Unfortunately it is the only imported bonsai tool for which there is no real substitute in the west. Branch cutters come in a variety of sizes and with cutting heads that are either flat or concave. Those with concave heads make a slightly indented cut mark on the tree. Bonsai wisdom says that a concave cut will heal more quickly and be visually less noticeable when it heals. This is true, particularly with fast growing plant materials. Flat head branch cutters make a flush (or flat) cut mark on the trunk. This becomes an advantage when working with material that grows slowly or has exception-ally thin or delicate bark like azaleas and crepe myrtle. The best choice for beginners is a standard 8 inch flat head cutter. Later, a knob cutter (see description below) can be added to handle situations where a concave cut is called for.
Wire Cutters – A wire cutter is an indispensable item for any bonsai tool kit. Unlike regular electrical wire cutters, bonsai wire cutters are specifically designed to cut copper and aluminum wire which has been coiled around the trunk of the tree, without damaging the tree. For this reason they all have a very short cutting head, (usually less than half an inch) coupled with handles which are somewhat longer than conventional wire cutters. The two design elements allow users to apply enough torque to cut wire tight against tree’s bark. There are also some smaller “scissor” type wire cutters available with looped handles. These are useful with smaller gauges, but don’t have the strength to deal with larger thicknesses of wire.
Jin & Wire Pliers – Another tool which every kit should contain is the jin pliers. This tool actually comes in two variations… a combination jin/wire plier and as a dedicated jin plier. The latter has a parrot like beak that allows the artist to break and tear areas of dead wood (jin) in a very controlled manner. It does not work exceptionally well at manipulating wire. On the other hand, the combination jin/wire plier has a flat bit with a serrated surface which can be used to grip wire ends so they may be manipulated in tight places on the tree. As a jinning tool it proves to be adequate, but not exceptional. A pair of needle nose electricians pliers can serve as a economical replacement for either tool.
Knob Cutters – The first four cutting/styling instruments should be considered mandatory for inclusion in any bonsai tool kit. In fact, it will bedifficult to do bonsai without them. The knob cutter will be number five on the list. Like branch cutters with a concave head, this tool is designed to make a concave cut into the trunk. It has an advantage over the branch cutter, however, because its cutting edges are mounted directly on the end of the tool. This configuration allows the user to bring a considerable amount of force to bear when cutting, which also makes it particularly useful when large amounts of wood need to be removed. The tool’s versatility also makes it indispensable for creating jin and shari on a bonsai.
OTHER USEFUL BONSAI TOOLS
Trunk Splitters – This tool has limited usage but when needed, has no substitute. On occasion bonsaists will wish to weaken a trunk or branch by splitting the heart wood while doing a minimal amount of damage to the bark and cambium. This tool was specifically designed for that purpose. Like a knob cutter, the cutting blades are located on the end of the tool. However, the trunk splitter blades are flat and in direct opposition to each other. The tools resembles a similar one used by farriers to extract horseshoe nails. Its overall design allows considerable control for the placement of exact cuts on the tree. Some people also like to use it to prune heavier roots and it is occasionally useful in the creation of jin and shari.
Defoliation Tool – Another tool which, when needed, is indispensable. Certain varieties of trees allow
you to remove all their leaves in order to produce a new set of smaller ones. Defoliation tools facilitate this task. They have two small flat blades (similar to a shear) which are located at the ends of a U shaped piece of steel. They are designed to cut the petiole of the leaf and then automatically spring back open. When there are hundreds, if not thousands of leaves to be removed, this can be a considerable savings in effort. The tool is available in an 8 inch long version and in several smaller configurations. The one which feels most comfortable in your hand is the one to choose. Since beginners will probably not initially become involved in defoliation, this tool is a handy addition to the tool box, but certainly not mandatory.
Tweezers – A good set of tweezers are a useful addition to any bonsai tool kit. They excel at removing unwanted multi-legged creatures, pulling weeds and arranging moss. Several versions are available including those with straight tips and those with bent tips. Some even have small rakes, spatulas and spades on the opposite end. Straight or angled, spade or spatula, its all largely a matter of personal preference. We do however, recommend a type generally referred to as “pine tweezers.” These are constructed of much harder steel and are intended to be used in the removal of pine buds and needles. They are also handy for deadheading azaleas. Pine tweezers are more expensive than the standard variety, but have considerably more gripping power and serve a variety of functions.
Bonsai Brush – At first this small hemp brush will seem superfluous but after one use it will become indispensable. These small hand brushes are used to finish off the surface soil on a freshly potted bonsai or to groom the surface of an established plant. The opposite end of the brush can even be used as a delicate scouring instrument for removing unwanted moss, lichen on the tree’s trunk. Its clever construction makes it an exceptionally useful tool for working in and around trunks and branches. Several sizes with both soft and stiff bristles are available. We have found the stiff bristles brushes to be the most useful. In addition to hemp brushes, there are a variety of small wire brushes which also prove a useful addition to the tool kit. Some are cone shaped and some resemble a toothbrush. Most are made with soft brass or plastic bristles and are handy for removing moss growing on the trunk and roots; water stains from the edge of a pot or simply to brush the daily dust and grime which settles out of the air and onto the trunk and branches of your bonsai each day.
Grafting Knife – A grafting knife is exactly what the name implies. It is an extremely sharp cutting instrument with a flat edge on one side and a beveled edge on the other. The extreme sharpness and shape of the blade allows it to cut into grafting scion material while doing a minimal amount of damage to the plants cellular tissue. A pocket knife is a welcome addition to any basic took kit, but the same cannot be said for a grafting knife. This tool is a specialized instrument and using it for anything other than its intended purpose will destroy its edge and value for grafting..
Carving Tools – Areas of dead wood (jin, shari and sabamiki) are often created on bonsai to enhance the trees feeling of old age. A wide variety of imported graving and carving tools are available which allow artists to carve and shape the wood into the desired vision. Small motorized hobby drills fitted with wood cutting bits are also popular for this task. While handy, they are not mandatory. Beginners will fare reasonably well creating deadwood by using only branch cutters, jin pliers, a pocket knife and a little elbow grease.
TRANSPLANT AND POTTING INSTRUMENTS
Root Hooks/Sickle – Root hooks come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some have one prong others, two or three. Some resemble a small rake and have a small scraping instrument at the opposite end. Others are massive and are mounted on wooden handles. All are designed to assist you in removing soil from root masses and for combing out and organizing tangled roots. Since root balls come in all degrees of tangle, you will probably find it useful to have a variety of shapes and sizes on hand ranging from the delicate to the heavy handed..
Also of use will be a potting sickle. This is a curved knife like instrument with a wooden handle. Sometimes it has a sharpened edge like a knife and sometimes it has a serrated saw like edge. It is used at repotting time and is inserted between the inner edge of the pot and the root ball. As it is moved around the edge of the container it separates roots from the side and facilitates removal from the pot. Sickles with serrated edges are also useful for cutting and pruning heavier roots.
Potting Stick – The only bonsai tool which is free and available in any Chinese restaurant. Basically, it is a piece of wood or bamboo sharpened to a point on one end. Potting sticks are used for working soil around and between roots during the transplanting process or for removal of old soil in places where root hooks and fingers simply cannot reach. It digs out weeds, drills holes for fertilizer, squishes unwanted critters, flicks off bird droppings and generally proves to have a thousand and one uses. No tool kit should be without at least one.
Soil Sieve – Even if you purchase your soil ready made from a dealer, it is a good idea to sieve it to obtain a uniform particle size and eliminate dust from the final mixture. You may make your own sieves by purchasing several sizes of hardware cloth in different grades of mesh or you may purchase one of the many fairly inexpensive sieve sets available from most bonsai supply vendors. These work well as long as you don’t have huge amounts of material that needs sifting. If you plan to recycle your bonsai soil, a set of sieves will be handy for removing old roots, weeds and other debris.
Soil Scoops – Soil scoops are used to transfer soil from the bag into the bonsai container. A wide variety are available in the market place. Most useful ones have a fairly narrow chute for delivering the potting mixture in and around roots in the tight confines of a bonsai container. The commercial scoops are fine, but an effective scoop can also be made at home by simply making a diagonal cut across a small plastic can or jar.
Turntables – Turntables are one of the little luxuries of bonsai which make the whole process more fun. During the styling process it is often necessary to turn the tree frequently in order to view the effect of styling decisions from the tree’s front back or sides. Turntables make this process a whole lot quicker and easier. Most commercial models offer a cast iron base with circular wooden tops that measure 12 to 18 inches in diameter. Some of the higher end products are available in free standing floor models and offer rack and pinion ratchets which allow for precise adjustment of the platforms height. Whatever type is decided on, it is important they include some sort of “set” screw or other device which will immobilize the table rotation as required. The inclusion of eyelets on the tables rotating edge is also useful. Taller, more top heavy plants can then be wired or bunji corded into place while being worked on. A rubber mat glued to the surface of the table will also help to prevent trees from slipping off the turntable while being worked on.
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