"Upon finding that I work as a professional bonsai artist, many people will remark that they once had a bonsai, but it died and with some regret, they gave up".
Based on the Bonsai Basics section of the hugely successful Bonsai4me.com website and an e-book of the same name, 'Bonsai Basics: The Foundations of Bonsai', written and developed over the past 15 years is out now!
All copies are signed by the author.
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To the beginner at bonsai there would seem to be a bewildering number of tools available. However a large number of these tools are designed to aid the bonsai enthusiast who is carrying out more advanced techniques.
For your first attempts at bonsai practise, where basic maintenance is essentially all that is being practised, it is possible to use basic tools that will do the job almost as well as specialist tools. For a very basic tool kit, the following items can be used;
A pair of sharp scissors, wire cutters, secateurs (preferably the 'by-pass' not the 'anvil' type), small nail scissors for fine work and either a pointed piece of wood (chopstick) for combing out roots.
When buying your first Japanese tools, it is possible to buy items either individually or as part of small kits. Prices can vary greatly but it is recommended that you purchase the best quality tools that you can be afford. Cheap tools tend to be of Chinese origin and are often made from mild steel which deteriorate relatively quickly and can quickly lose their edge, requiring frequent sharpening. Though Japanese-made tools are dearer, they are generally made from better quality metals and can often last a lifetime.
All tools should be kept reasonably well-maintained; not only does regular sharpening increase the life of your tools, but blunt and dirty tools will not cut through wood well and tend to 'crush' rather than cut. Plant sap collects on tool-blades easily, turning them black and this can be removed with a wire brush or abrasive paper.
After many years practising bonsai, there are 6-7 tools that I would describe as essential and I could not live without. These are the tools that I will always select from my toolbox when I conduct a workshop or to work on someone's tree.
Long Handled Bonsai Scissors
Long Handled Bonsai Scissors
This pair of long-handled scissors have lasted me 15 years of almost daily use and I find are preferable to the short-handled bonsai scissors often seen for sale. Essential for all fine and detailed shoot and leaf work. Must be kept razor sharp to ensure a fine cut and to avoid crushing new shoots.
I also carry a pair of very sharp kitchen scissors for heavier work such as cutting roots.
From left to right: Large Knob-Cutters 180mm, Small Knob-Cutter 90mm, Branch-Cutter 220mm
Side- or Branch-Cutter and Knob-Cutters
It is essential that branches are routinely removed using branch or knob-cutters. Both tools cut away the branch leaving a small indentation so that the resulting wound heals flat. Most enthusiasts use branch cutters for the majority of their branch pruning however I have always preferred to use knob-cutters partly because they are more versatile.
Of the 3 tools I have, it is the small 90mm knob-cutters I use for the majority of the time followed by the side cutters. The narrower blades of the small knob-cutters cutting through wood of any strength with ease. For branches (or trunks) thicker than 90mm, I simply make repeated cuts with the smaller blades.
Wire cutters (left) and Jin Pliers (right)
Wire cutters really are recommended as they cut cleanly through wire that is close to bark without causing any damage and the short blades make cutting the thickest bonsai wire easy. Jin pliers are designed for stripping away fibres of wood when creating a jin from a branch. However they have endless uses when working on bonsai.