Selecting the correct tool for the technique you need to apply or action you need to take is important as the incorrect tool can:
cause damage to the tree
damage the tool used when the correct tool is substituted with something else
not having a specialist tool needed for a particular technique may prevent you from accomplishing the task required altogether.
From my experience running workshops it's quite clear to me that many bonsai practitioners, even those who have been involved in the artform for some time, are not aware of all the tools available to them, nor how to use these tools. Many use DIY tools commonly sold in hardware stores instead, often as a way in which to save money. Although expensive tools do not necessarily make good bonsai, tools designed and made specifically for bonsai artists do have many benefits for the user. In my experience buying the best tools you can afford is the best approach, as good tools will outlast and outperform cheap alternatives every time.
Expensive vs Cheap
When bonsai enthusiasts first start out in this art form many are not certain of their long term interest and as such limit their budget for tools. This is practical and probably wise as a full set of quality tools can be costly. However once the enthusiast graduates to more serious aspirations as an artist; better quality and more specialized tools become necessities rather than niceties.
Purchasing the complete range of tools in one transaction carries considerable financial implications so it might be more practical to break up tool purchases into more manageable lots; selecting the most frequently used tools to purchase first and then incur further purchases as the need arises.
You may also find that by buying cheaper tools you think you are saving money but as these tools need to be replaced more frequently than more expensive, better quality versions you end up spending more money. I often tell customers that good quality tools is actually bad business for bonsai related businesses as we will often never again see that customer.
Differences in quality
Cheaper tools typically tend to:
be heavier which makes working on a lot of trees tiresome
be of inferior grade material which rusts quickly, bends easily or even breaks
lose their edge requiring more frequent sharpening which in the case of branch cutters increases the risk of the cutting edges not aligning.
have poorly designed cutting actions ie scissors which don't close correctly resulting in ripped branches or branch cutters which meet edge to edge crushing wood fibers.
Better quality tools are typically:
fairly light which makes repeated cutting effortless
superior materials which are rust free (stainless steel), and are durable even when dropped multiple times.
better quality metals used in fabrication result in edges which remain sharp even after much use.
Cutting faces or edges overlap which sever wood fibers cleanly resulting in faster healing cuts.
Purchasing the best you can afford is particularly the case when it comes to branch cutters as cheaper alternatives squash and rip rather than sever wood fibres cleanly.
Most articles I have read on the subject of bonsai tool selection are all written in the same basic structure ie. the name of the tool is mentioned and then the use of the tool is discussed. I would prefer to write this guide listing different techniques and actions; and what tools are useful or recommended.
This is a procedure or task which is probably most frequently practiced in bonsai as it is performed on bushes or pre-bonsai material just purchased from a retail nursery all the way to trees which have been cultivated as bonsai for many years. This is as there are always going to be branches which cannot be used and need to be removed, or branches which have become too long and need to be shortened. There may also be young shoots which emerge from branches at the incorrect angle and should be removed.
As such it is important to select the shears or scissors which best suits the task which needs to be performed. Some of the factors which need to be taken into account include the thickness of the branch or twig which is being cut. Using a pair of heavier duty scissors such as the general bonsai scissors to remove heavier branching is appropriate but the same pair of scissors is not necessarily the best choice when needing to cut twigs.
Sometimes it is best to simply use conventional garden shears to shorten a thick branch rather than risk your more costly bonsai scissors. Other tools can then be used to finish such cuts.
General purpose bonsai scissors are durable by design and thus sacrifice delicacy in favor of strength and are therefore useful for a wide variety of cuts both of branches and roots.
Trimming scissors are thinner at the cutting end and have a more delicate shank which allows the tool to be used in tighter confines.
Although such a pair of scissors is certainly up to the task, it might not be delicate enough to access the foliage zone or area where these twigs are commonly found and as such could actually damage the surrounding growth. For this reason trimming scissors which are shaped with much narrower ends and thinner cutting blades are the better choice when performing detail work.
Trimming scissors are ideal for bud trimming also, as detailed below:
Generally branches are allowed to extend to a certain length and then trimmed back to two leaves, or in other words 2 sets of dormant buds which when stimulated by trimming will begin to grow and in so doing increase ramification. Trimming scissors are ideal for this detail work, fitting between leaves and or simply to be maneuverable in these often very tight confines.
Shoots of junipers which extend beyond the outline of the tree are cut back by removing some of this foliage where the woodier growth begins. In order to make these very fine cuts without nipping the surrounding foliage (which would then in turn brown), trimming scissors are the most suitable tool.
Ideal trimming scissors for working in very tight areas including white pines where the needle clusters are extremely compact
In order to decandle pines such as the 2 needle black and red Japanese pines, one needs a sharp, thin trimming scissors in order to cut these candles cleanly at their base and at an angle perpendicular to the growth.
The pointed, narrow cutting blades of the trimming scissors makes them ideal for the task.
When removing branches at the point where they emerge from the trunk is not the task of a pair of scissors however as you cannot cut all the way to the trunk surface, and a raised area will remain which will become even more pronounced after healing especially on fast healing species. This task is much more suited to the branch cutter.
Always use the rear of the branch cutter when removing branches as this is the strongest part of the tool.
As a general rule, the branch cutter used should have a blade of which the branch being cut is only a 1/3rd of its length. Cutting larger branches with the same cutter risks breaking the cutting jaws of the tool. It is also best to use the rear ends of the blades to cut and not the tip. This is as the tip of the tool is the portion of the tool most at risk of breaking, a risk which is increased if there is any twisting movement when the branch is cut.
Branch cutters are available in a variety of sizes and it is important that you use the correct size for the size branch you need to cut or you risk damaging the tool.
Once the cut is made a chisel should be used to slightly hollow out the cut so that when the cambium heals over the wound an unsightly bump will not remain, or a pair of knob cutters can be used.
The large cut depicted above on a Trident Maple has completely healed over.
Some branch cutters are designed for more specialized tasks such as removing the stubs of branches within a fork. These cutters are much thinner than their conventional counterparts to permit the tool to be used in these confined spaced. However the trade-off is that in some extreme cases they cannot be used to cut branches as they are simply not strong enough for these more demanding of cuts.
Narrow branch cutters such as the above example are ideal for more confined areas such as in branch forks and for thin branches only.
As suggested by the name, the knob or knuckle cutter as it is sometimes called, is used to hollow out the cut after a branch cutter is used. The spherically shaped cutting blades are each shaped like a gouge chisel, when the tool is closed the blades gouge out material.
One needs to practice caution when using knob cutters however as they can easily remove more material than you bargained on.
The specialist knob cutter is essentially 2 gouges which when closed easily removes material from the trunk or branch which results in smooth healing.
The knob cutter is what I would consider a specialist tool as it essentially has a single use and that is to gouge out material on cut branches and sometimes in fresh deadwood work. However no other tool can be used to substitute this tool, that is of course aside from a gouge chisel.
A fairly recent development is the concave cutter. This tool essentially combines the cutting actions of the standard branch cutter and the knob cutter into one tool.
The crafts persons skill to produce these tools usually takes a minimum or 10 years to hone. This is as it is a very complex set of cutting blades which make up this tool, and a lot of skill is required in order to ensure they meet correctly.
The concave branch cutter combines two tools into one.
If you were to restrict yourself to a single cutter I would suggest that you consider the concave branch cutter as it combines the functions of two individual tools and can perform these combined cutting actions in a single action rather than several. (However I might suggest that you first cut larger branches with a fine toothed saw before reducing the remaining stub with the concave branch cutter)
Aside from using sharp tools which make clean cuts it is important to always seal all cuts. All wounds, no matter small or large take time to heal. While healing there is a risk of infection, excessive die-back and in particularly large cuts the exposed wood will crack.
There are many sealers available for treating cuts, some are marketed specifically to bonsai artists and some are more DIY in nature. Whatever you use the sealer should:
stick to the cut or wound easily and not run all over the place
it should adhere properly forming an airtight seal as it is air which causing the drying effect, which you want to avoid
peel off easily once the wound has closed entirely
be of an acceptable colour, unless you don't mind looking at bright pink, black or other 'loud' colour for up to several seasons.
Some sealers and pastes contain hormones which assist the plant in healing the wound. This is of particular interest for conifers as they are much slower to heal than deciduous trees, which do not require any healing hormones at all.
This pruning scar has healed over entirely and the remaining marks are almost invisible now. Visible pruning scars greatly reduce the overall image of a bonsai tree, and its value.
Re-potting is another procedure which is practiced on a bonsai tree every few years. As the seasons pass and the bonsai tree continues to grow the roots of the tree must grow along with the tree. Eventually they fill the pot and if left too long the tree actually seems to push itself from its pot. At this stage the roots have penetrated every available space in the pot leaving very little to no room for water or air to penetrate. The health of the tree at this point begins to deteriorate from dehydration and it essentially suffocates. At the very least some branches will die off but in a worst case scenario the entire tree might die. It is for this reason that every few years we need to repot a bonsai tree.
Several tools have been developed for bonsai artists to minimize the stress the tree is subjected to when this procedure is applied, and also to reduce the amount of effort and time it takes to complete the task.
The re-potting sickle is a tool which can make an enormous difference to the effort required for a repot. When a tree has been in a pot for some time and the roots have filled all the available spaces, they expand up to the very face of the container. This makes it very difficult if not impossible to lift the tree from the container.
A sharp and durable re-potting sickle can make the impossible task of removing a pot bound tree from a shaped bonsai pot easy.
The re-potting sickle is designed to be inserted between the compacted root-ball and inner surface or face of the bonsai pot, and then after several circling the container several times while creating a thin gap between roots and pot, the tree can easily be lifted from the pot. In the case of pots with an undercut type of lip or perhaps a convex side wall, removing the tree from the pot would be impossible without a sickle.
Sickles with teeth on are also very useful for rapidly cutting away the mat of roots which often form in the container particularly in the case of Chinese maples, Hackberry and other prolific rooting trees.
After removing the tree from the pot the roots must then be loosened and raked out. There are many tools produced to assist in doing just that.
Some rakes have 2 prongs, some have 3 and some only have 1. Some are plain metal and some have rubber coatings which make for an easier grip when the tool is wet or dirty, which is common during repotting.
Although your most frequently used rake may come down to personal preference it is my opinion that the more prongs you have the finer the roots should be which that rake is used on. In other words coarse, thick roots should be dealt with using a single pronged rake or root hook as these tend to be constructed from rather thick metal. Rakes which have multiple prongs are more delicate by design and are better suited to the final finishing touches of raking out roots or for roots which are very thin, like those of azalea for instance.
You will very often find that rakes are sold as combination tools where on one end you will find a rake and on the other a spatula, tamping flat, trowel, a pair of tweezers and more.
Roots which have been gently combed or raked from the root-ball must be shortened.
To do this you may use a pair of trimming scissors or general bonsai scissors for the thinner roots and a root cutter for the thicker roots. At this time you are ready to proceed to the next step of placing the tree back into the same pot or a newly chosen one for the purpose.
Other tools which you may consider adding to your box for use when re-potting might include:
Trowels; for tamping down growing medium.
Bonsai sword; which performs a similar function as the re-potting sickle but can also be used to reduce the size of the rootball before beginning to rake it out.
Ice pick; a blunted screwdriver or other tool makes the ideal probe stick to penetrate a compacted root-ball.
Brooms; for brushing away stray growing medium and for leveling the medium.
Chopsticks or other similar blunt implements; for eliminating air pockets in the medium after re-potting.
Root cutters are a must for repotting trees, and have many other uses including reducing large branch stubs.
I have used the word "soil" above but it should really be growing medium as there is little place for soil in the modern bonsai growing medium. Although there will be very many different opinions on what constitutes the best growing medium everyone would agree that:
the growing medium should not contain a lot of powder or fines in it. This would block the small gaps between other particles which should be made available for oxygen exchange.
the particle sizes used in the mix will lead to similar growth above ground as it does below. In other words if you use very coarse particles in your mix growth with also be coarse and roots will be thicker and longer, not fine and hairlike. Generally particles from around 2mm to 4 or 6mm are common.
A good set of soil sieves will make it possible for you to make your own soil mixes or growing mediums tailored to suit the trees you are growing and the stage of development they are at. For instance a newly collected olive will benefit greatly from being potted in a very coarse, fast draining mix as it will result in strong root development. In contrast a developed and mature maple will benefit from a more water retentive, finer particle mix.
Possessing a set of soil sieves with interchangeable meshes will enable you to remove or retain the size particles you want and discard those which are not.
To deliver the prepared growing medium it is useful to also have a set of soil scoops. These are shaped to allow you to get quite close to the bonsai tree and deposit some medium into the pot, around the roots of the bonsai tree. Some of these soil scoops are designed with integrated mesh, which performs an additional powder or removed step on the medium just before it is used. Soil scoops are available in plastic and metal and you can purchase them here.
Soil scoops make it easy to place growing medium in the pot and around the root ball of your bonsai
Another of the tools which are very useful when re-potting is the general pliers. After re-potting it is very good practice to wire your trees into the container. This prevents them from falling out easily should wind blow, and it prevents movement of the tree in the container while the new roots develop. In order to secure the wire the pliers can be used to perform the necessary pull and twist action.
Use a general purpose bonsai pliers to wire the tree into the pot.
If you have pines in your collection you will have to purchase a pair of good tweezers specifically designed for pine needles. In order to balance the energy of the pine you accomplish this by removing a certain number of needles from the tree; more in some areas and less in others. In these blog posts I have dealt with the subject of needle plucking pines if you wish to read more on the subject.
The difference between a normal pair of tweezers and those designed for pines is primarily the teeth at the tip of the tweezers.
When plucking pine needles the teeth on the pair of tweezers become packed with resin and when you pull at a needle it can often simply slide off the needle rather than pull it out. So you need to clean these teeth before you can continue. In tweezers for needle plucking the teeth are much coarser than normal and so you can pluck needles for much longer, and with much less effort ie force applied to close the tweezer on the needle.
Grafting is a technique which is not unique to bonsai artists of course but is a very useful skill to have as it allows you to:
propagate trees with the exact same characteristics as another tree.
to completely change the character of a tree by grafting on a more desirable foliage. For instance a maple with large leaves can slowly be changed by grafting on branches from another tree with smaller leaves.
place young branches closer to the trunk of species which don't back bud easily such as pines.
it also allows you to use branches of the same tree to be brought around and fused onto the trunk to fill in gaps within the foliage.
improve the nebari of a tree by grafting seedlings or rooted cuttings onto the tree in the rootzone.
Read more about grafting in these many blog posts I have written on the subject.
One tool which is absolutely indispensable for not only grafting but also for cleaning cuts to promote healing is the grafting knife. You cannot substitute the proper grafting knife with a typical paper or cardboard blade as the blade is more rigid and will not flex as normal blades do. The shape of the blade is also such that there is a very long, exposed cutting edge which helps in the preparation of the scion.
In almost all bonsai collections there are bound to be some trees which have nice shape but have poor nebari emerging at different levels or have other defects; have trunks which are too long or perhaps have reverse taper or some other visual defect. These problems can be remedied through layering and I have written a couple blogs showing you how.
Of course, layering is not only used to deal with the above, but it can be used to increase the number of trees in your collection; this is called air layering.
A grafting knife is most useful to making the cuts in order to remove the bark and once sufficient roots are issued the tree must be separated. When making the saw cut, you want to perform this action with as few a strokes as possible and with as much ease as possible to reduce the risk of breaking the tender new roots. A sharp saw is very useful for this.
From top left, clockwise: marking where to make the cut with the grafting knife, making the cut, adding v-shaped cuts with a sharp chisel to increase the surface area of the edge of the cambium, dusting the cambium with rooting hormone, creating a mesh retainer to hold your bonsai growing medium, filling the mesh retainer.
Training and Shaping
Wire is used to quickly alter the shape of a branch, the direction of a twig or even to place some curves in a trunkline. After being applied, wire will remain on the tree until the wired section will remain in that position should the wire be removed. Sometimes due to the speed at which the tree is growing, and when the wire is applied, wire bite will occur. This is where wire begins to be enveloped by the surrounding tissue of the tree. It is important to prevent this from becoming too severe.
In order to remove wire the safest way to do so with thin wire is simply to unwind it. However with thicker wire there is a real risk of breaking the wired portion as the wire is unwound. For this reason it is best to cut the wire into short sections and in so doing eventually remove the full length of wire.
Cutting thicker wire from bonsai trees is safer than trying to unwind it
It is important that you use the appropriately sized wire cutter for the wire being cut or you will damage the tool. A general purpose wire cutter which can handle thicker wire will have a longish shank and a rounded head. This rounded head is what differentiates it from the DIY wire cutter which so many people mistakenly attempt to substitute it with. The rounded head allows to you get extremely close to the bark of the tree in order to cut wire cleanly and without risking damage to the branch or trunk.
There are nowadays scissors type wire cutters which are very easy to use and comfortable in the hand. Combination wire and pruning scissors are also available and essentially combine two tools; a pair of scissors to cut foliage and a wire cutter. However with such tools it is always important to use the correctly sized cutter as cutting thicker wire will damage it. So if you are only going to purchase one wire cutter my recommendation would be the general purpose type.
Sometimes it is impossible to avoid having to unwind the wire a little if it has severely bitten into the wood. The best way in which to do this is to use the general bonsai pliers.
Bending Thick Branches and Trunks
Bending Thick Branches
Sometimes it is necessary to change the shape of thick branches. Wiring makes this possible but in order to make the bends one is required to make the bends by hand. With thicker branches it is not possible to do this in a controlled fashion.
The branch bender makes it possible to place controlled and tight bends into wired branches as the jaws of the tool can be opened and closed to suit the size bend and branch thickness.
You might ask what are pliers doing in the section on bending large branches. Well what you may not know is that the pliers can actually be extremely helpful when trying to bend thick branches which have been wired. This is especially so if the branches are short and thick and where the branch bender cannot fit.
So instead of holding the wired branch and bending it with two hands you will hold the tree or branch to keep it steady and with the other hand holding the pliers you will use the pliers to grip the wire and bend the wire and the branch will follow. In fact I will often use two pliers, each one holding a different section of the wire. This allows me to put pretty controlled bends into short stocky branches without damage to the branch as the bend can be done quite slowly.
Bonsai pliers are not shaped like your usual DIY pliers. The head is dramatically different and it is so for a reason. This might be to gain access to tight spots, or it might be for leverage. The DIY pliers has a bulky head with bulky handles making it rather clunky to with on a bonsai tree.
Sometimes it is not possible to use wire coiled around a trunk alone to create the necessary curves you need. In such cases the only tool which can be used is the branch jack and wire stays.
The branch jack makes contact onto the tree at strategic points, depending on where you need to make the necessary bend. If necessary the position of the hook of the branch jack can be swivelled to make better contact with the tree. The threaded rod is tightened or loosened, depending on the curve you require. Wire stays are then used to hold everything in position so that the branch jack can be removed.
When especially thick branches or trunks need to be bent then a specialist tool, the trunk or branch splitter is needed. Branch splitters are available in several different sizes and have a tapering blade in a kind of wedge shape. To use these tools simply close the jaws on the section of the tree which needs to be bent and once they have bitten into the woodier internals, wiggle or twist the tool slightly until the area is split. Repeat this along a straight line for as long as needed. You can also make an additional split, so you essentially have 4 quadrants. This will enable you to make compound bends or simply bend an especially thick trunk or branch.
Splitters are not the same as root cutters, despite the fact that at a quick glance they appear to look very much the same. The root cutter has a much thicker blades, required for the purpose they are designed. Trunk and branch splitters have much thinner blades and thus are not suitable for cutting thick roots and branches as they are likely to break. In contrast the root cutter blades are too thick to be used to split material.
When trees are exposed to the elements in nature there are sometimes casualties; lost branches, sections of a tree which die from a lightning strike or even attacks from animals. What often results are parts of the tree which wither and die and thereby add character to the tree. This same effect can be utilized in bonsai.
To artificially create jin, or deadwood branches, and shari, or deadwood sections on a trunk can require immense skill and patience. However there is a fairly wide variety of tools which can help you along the way. These would include a good set of graving chisels which are sold with and without handles. The business end of the tool is shaped in different ways so that when used in typical Japanese pulling fashion, they remove wood from the area being carved in different patterns. A set of western type chisels such as gouges and more are also very useful for removing wood.
Very detailed work can be done quite rapidly using a Dremel which has a very wide variety of bits available to it. In contrast, a power tool such as the die grinder can be used to rapidly remove large amounts of material before detailed work is begun.
The amazing jin tool from Kikuwa
A tool which I recently discovered and which I am amazed at the versatility is the small Jin tool from Kikuwa. It does not look like much but this combination tool allows you to remove bark from live veins on junipers when preparing them for a show with the slightly blunt tip on the one side of the tool, but with the other end you have a graving tool which can be used to carve deadwood. The same end can also be used to remove old wood from cuts which have not yet healed over, in preparation for resealing them.
Another hand tool which can be most useful to quickly create interesting and natural jin is the jin pliers. Unlike the typical bonsai pliers, the head of the jin pliers is shaped at an angle and has teeth which make it effective at grasping wood fibres and then allowing you to pull these fibres away creating a more natural deadwood feature than one often finds as the result of power tools. With such a hand tool there is no risk associated with high speed cutting bits or with chisels which cut through fibres leaving a less natural finish.
The jin pliers allows you to pull wood fibres when creating deadwood features leaving a very natural looking effect.