What tools do I need?
Japanese Bonsai tools are well-known for their high quality (and for their high prices), while Chinese tools provide increasingly better quality for their prices. The black steel of which most tools are made, needs a bit more maintenance because it can rust. High quality stainless steel tools are even more expensive. Use your Bonsai tools only for the purpose they were made for and treat them well. Then you won't ruin them ahead of time and they will work well for many years.
There is a wide variety of tools we can add to our toolkit, including shears, cutters, pliers, saws, and special tools for repotting. Let's take a closer look at these categories of Bonsai tools.
Shears and Pliers
Shears are available in many sizes and shapes. They are meant for cutting twigs, smaller branches, leaves or roots. If most of the trees in your collection are small Bonsai, don't buy very large shears and pliers! There are shears with a wide standard shape, which are strong enough for thicker twigs, and shears with narrower and longer shapes, which make it easier to work in the middle of a dense canopy, and small shears for shohin Bonsai or for trimming azaleas and removing their wilted flowers. In this article we explain what to look for when buying trees/tools; Bonsai for sale.
Concave cutters are needed for removing branches from the trunk where we want to achieve deepened cuts which will heal without leaving a swollen scar. There are concave cutters with straight blades, those with semi-round blades and knob cutters which leave a particularly deepened cut. All these plier types are available in different sizes, of course.
The Bonsai tools, from the top middle clockwise:
- pruning shear
- standard shear
- long slim twig shear
- leaf cutter
- shohin and azalea shear
- large concave cutter with straight blades
- small concave cutter with straight blades
- knob cutter
- tweezer spatula
- large foldable saw
- medium sized foldable saw
- thin pruning saw
- grafting knife with wooden sheath
- root hook
- small root rake
- larger root rake
- sickle saw
- sickle knife
- root plier
- strong standard shear for root pruning
- jin / wire bending plier
- large wire cutter
- small wire cutter
- small angled jin / wire bending plier
- (middle) set of soil scoops
Saws and Knifes
When you have to cut branches, trunks or roots which are too thick or too hard for using a plier, you should use an appropriate saw. Keep in mind that Japanese pruning saws cut when you pull them back towards yourself. Don't push them strongly because then the saw blade will bend or break. For smoothing the cuts and wounds left by pliers and saws, grafting knifes are most suitable, like those used by professional gardeners.
Bonsai tools for Working on Roots and Repotting
For removing the rootball from the pot there are special sickle knifes and sickle saws which are used to cut along the inside of the pot. Solid angular plastic bowls in which you can work on the roots or mix new soil make work more comfortable and cleaner. Root hooks and root rakes, which are available in different sizes and variants, with one, two or three teeth, are used for opening the rootball, carefully combing the roots and removing old soil between the roots.
Root-pruning is done with a strong standard shear with big strong blades and solid handles. If you find strong, hard roots, use a root plier or a saw.
If you use granular soil components like Akadama, Kanuma, pumice etc. you should sieve them before use, to separate different grain sizes and remove the smallest, dusty particles. There are sieve sets made of stainless steel with various mesh sizes for this purpose. For filling the soil into the Bonsai pot there are scoops in different sizes which are specially shaped for pouring soil under overhanging low branches. To push the soil into cavities between the roots of the Bonsai, chopsticks or bamboo sticks are helpful. But you should take care not to damage the roots by poking too hard. For applying moss or removing weeds etc. you will use a tweezer spatula, which is also useful for pressing wet moss to the soil or for excavating persistent weeds.
Tools for Wiring and Bonsai Wire
For wiring a Bonsai tree you obviously need wire in various diameters, a wire cutter and a plier for bending the wire which is also used for deadwood (jin). Those tools are available in different shapes and sizes. Buy small ones if you have many shohin Bonsai. Wire for Bonsai purposes is either made from annealed aluminum or copper. Beginners should use aluminum as it is easier to apply.
Bonsai tools for Bending and protective Material
If you want to bend branches or trunks very heavily, protective measures are advisable to prevent the wood from breaking and the bark from tearing and to help minor cracks and fissures heal without risking the branch or trunk to die. The traditional method is to wrap wet raffia tightly around the part to be bent before the wire is applied. Fusing rubber tape (wrapped on top of a layer of gauze) or bicycle tube is also suited for this purpose.
Thin, transparent rubber tubes (fish tank or infusion hoses) are helpful for protecting trunks, branches and roots where fixation or guy wires are attached. For heavy bending there are tools like ergonomically designed massive steel levers padded with rubber. Special screw clamps, available in various shapes and sizes, can be useful for some purposes. Turnbuckles can help to tighten strong guy wires more and more in intervals. Iron rebars can be used as a lever for bending strong trunks if you use wooden wedges as a counterpart and guy wires for fixation.
Tools and Carving Knifes for Deadwood
The main objective of working on deadwood is that it should look naturally and that no traces of human work should be perceptible. It seems paradoxical that this is why a huge variety of tools are available for this purpose.
The branch splitter is a sharp plier for multiple splitting of dead branches and stumps. For pulling fibers (on conifers with fibrous wood) or breaking of little wood particles (on deciduous trees with less fibrous wood) the jin plier is used.
A slim chisel which should not be too sharp is well suited for lifting wood fibers. Various loop knifes and carving hooks are used for peeling off bark and for carving slight furrows, which should follow the course of the fibers.
There are lots of differently shaped carving tools, often sold in sets, in different qualities and sizes, which work well for shaping, smoothing, contouring, narrowing or hollowing out deadwood.
In order to erase the last traces of your work and remove wood fibers sticking out it is best to use a gas torch which is fueled with lighter gas for example. After scorching, the charred wood layer is brushed off with steel, brass or nylon brushes.
For preserving decayed deadwood you can use wood hardener, which consists of liquid plastics diluted in acetone. The well-known Japanese jin liquid consists of lime sulphur which is mostly used for whitening the deadwood but also has some preserving effect.
Miscellaneous Bonsai tools
Tools for repotting, wiring, bending and carving Bonsai. From the top middle clockwise:
- fusing rubber tape and gauze
- infusion hose
- branch / trunk bending lever
- screw clamp
- rust eraser (dark grey) and grindstone
- gun oil
- camellia oil
- nylon brush
- brass brush
- steel brush
- tooth brush
- coco brush
- bicycle tube
Electric Bonsai Tools
When you use powertools extreme caution is necessary because bad injuries can happen very easily. Always wear protective glasses to avoid wood splinters or metal bristles getting hurled into your eyes! An overall, gloves, dust mask and even a helmet can be a good idea for extensive deadwood work with powerful electric Bonsai tools. Work with full concentration and very thoughtful, hold the machine firmly in your hands and be careful with the speed control dial and the power button.
The „Dremel“ is a small machine for which a large assortment of bits with a 1/8" (3mm) shank is available. There are similar machines by other manufacturers for which the same bits can be used: rotating brushes made of nylon, brass or steel for removing bark and smoothing deadwood, various cutters, grinders, abrasive wheels and much more.
The „Makita“ is one of the most popular large machines among Bonsai enthusiasts, for bits with a 1/4" (6mm) shank. Other manufacturers offer similar die grinders. It is important that you choose a machine with a speed control dial because the various bits must be used with different speed. For these large powertools there is also a wide variety of powerful bits like rotating brushes made of different materials, cutting wheels, circular saws, grinding bits and abrasive wheels in many different shapes. Due to the enormous power and heaviness of the large die grinder machines, which often make their use difficult and dangerous, they are not recommended for beginners and inexpert handymen.
Some Bonsai professionals use sandblasting machines for deadwood work. Those are big, expensive devices for which a special work environment, protective gear and special knowhow is required. The results of this deadwood work method are often very convincing.
Electric Bonsai tools, carving and deadwood work accessories. From top right clockwise:
- "Dremel 300" machine
- wood hardener
- a selection of useful Dremel bits (grinders, circular brushes, abrasive wheels, drill-bits, screw wrench)
- a set of 5 different carving tools
- a set of 4 flex cut carving tools
- round carving hook with thin, sharp tip
- angled carving hook
- small, angled jin plier
- large jin plier
- branch splitter
- spear plough
- small loop knife
- strong, straight scalpel
- curved scalpel
- set of 10 small carving tools
- a selection of grinders, circular brushes and screw wrenches for large die grinders
- jin liquid
- "Makita GD 800C" die grinder
- gas torch
- (middle) protective glasses
Tools and Materials for Maintenance
For removing rust and dirt on the tools' blades there are rust erasers (like „Clean Mate“) and for sharpening the blades various types of grindstones are available. Sharpening needs a bit exercise and it is a good idea to practice on old, worthless shears first. Bonsai tools should be disinfected now and then, in order to prevent taking fungi, bacteria or virus infections from one tree to the next. For the maintenance of hinges and blades gun oil or camellia oil are suitable. Coco brushes are used for sweeping trunks, Nebaris, soil surfaces, shelves, tables, tools etc.
Watering Tools, Watering Systems, Collecting Rain Water
For watering a small collection of Bonsai trees a ball-shower or a watering can is fine. There are different shapes and sizes of watering cans, but it should have a fine nozzle and a long neck to produce enough pressure to get the water out of the tiny holes of the nozzle. If you have a large Bonsai collection, a garden hose with a sprinkler stick is convenient. Click here for an image.
For misting the Bonsai trees with water or spraying plant protection products or leaf fertilizer solution you need spray cans, either those you pump up before use or those you must pump with your fingers for each spray puff.
If you have nobody who can water your trees properly at any time of the day when you are at work or traveling, an Automated Bonsai Watering system can be a good idea. The most simple thing to help out for a few days would be to place a lawn sprinkler in front of your trees with a timer.
Of course there are more complex, reliable and comfortable watering systems (like Gardena MDS, Tropf-Blumat, misting systems and flooding systems) you should retrieve detailed information about if you are interested. Those systems can be quite expensive for a larger collection but they are worth the expense.
In many areas the tap water contains a lot of limescale and sometimes even chlorine which makes the water inapplicable for Bonsai trees. Especially maples and azaleas need soft water. Well water is also often calciferous and additionally ferrous. It is therefore useful to collect rainwater. A rain barrel which is filled by a down pipe or a larger water tank will do a good job. Ideal is a large underground water tank or cistern from which you can tap the water with a hand operated or electrical pump.
When you work on a Bonsai, you turn it around many times and you will scratch the table the Bonsai is standing on. It is hard work to lift and turn heavy trees all the time. Bonsai tree care can be easier; there are a number of excellent work tables, like simple flat rotary discs, massive turntables which can be tilted in different directions or vertically adjustable turntables on three legs.
Bonsai turntables, from the left clockwise:
- tall, three-legged turntable with adjustable height and break
- wooden turntable which can be tilted in two directions
- simple flat wooden rotary disc