Tools for Growing and Maintaining Bonsai

The Japanese produce many tools especially for bonsai work, and these can be easily purchased in most parts of the world. You can buy domestic equivalents for some of these specialized tools. Remember that you will get what you pay for: cheaper, poor-quality tools are a false economy.

The enormous selection of tools available may overwhelm a beginner. Many are designed for specific functions, so you may not need them all, but it is useful to know their names and uses.

What tools you need will depend on what sort of bonsai work you plan to do. You will need far fewer tools to groom and repot an existing tree than, say, to saw and sculpt a large bonsai from a trunk lifted from the ground. Tools are usually sold separately, but you can sometimes buy a starter set. A first tool set might include a wire cutter, trimming shears, and concave branch cutter. You can buy a more extensive set for advanced bonsai, but many growers prefer to fill an empty tool case with their preferred items.

Occasionally, you might need heavy-duty power tools, such as a die grinder for carving, a reciprocating saw for cutting through tough roots and branches, or a rotary tool with flexible drive for refining the carving or for working on small trees.

Tools for Pruning and Cutting

Here are some tools for cutting and pruning. Before you buy any of them, consider the kind of bonsai you intend to create. If it is to be a large tree, you will need heavy-duty tools; more delicate tools are required for precision work on an extra-small bonsai.

Tools and Equipment for Potting

You will need these tools when you first pot a tree as a bonsai, and then for the regular repotting you will have to do as an essential part of routine maintenance.

Tools for Wiring

These tools are for wiring. The pliers can be used to twist anchorage wires and also to work on bark to create a jin. You will not need the heavy-duty wire cutters for small or extra-small bonsai, but they are essential for large trees.

Using Bonsai Equipment

When you begin to work in bonsai, you will find the six tools shown here the most useful. They are trimming shears, a concave branch cutter, a spherical knob cutter or nippers, bud-trimming shears, wire cutters, and a root hook. Between them, you can prune branches and roots, and wire the bonsai if you feel it necessary. As with any craft, you should start quite simply and inexpensively with the most essential items, only buying others as you increase in skill and experience.

The most important of the six bonsai tools, and the first that you should purchase, are the trimming shears and the concave branch cutter. With these two tools alone, you will be able to create and maintain a bonsai. You can add wire cutters if you want to use wiring as part of the bonsai training.

Trimming Shears

For trimming roots, twigs, and branches easily and precisely, this is the essential cutting tool. The handles are big enough to accommodate all your fingers, and also to allow you to pick off prunings without putting the shears down.

The rivet should be loose enough for the handles to fall open easily, and not have to be pulled apart. The blades should be sharpened to a fine knife-edge, rather than a scissor-edge, so that you can cut a stem cleanly without crushing it. Use the blade tips for trimming delicate twigs. Cut heavier branches, up to 1/4 inch (6mm) in diameter, closer to the rivet. When you trim roots, make sure that potting soil grit does not chip the blades.

Concave Branch Cutter

Use this cutter to remove a whole branch at the trunk, leaving a concave cut. As the wound heals, the edges will roll over to fill the hollow and heal flush with the trunk. Shears would cut the branch flush with the trunk, but leave an unsightly bump as the wound heals.

Try to make the cut run vertically up the trunk: rising sap will heal such a cut more quickly than a transverse cut. You may need to cut heavy branches in two stages to control the angle better.

Whichever size of cutter you buy, do not use it on branches with a diameter greater than half the width of the blades.

Spherical Knob Cutter

This is a newer tool than the concave cutter, and leaves a circular cut that will heal flush. Surrounding branches, however, sometimes stop you holding this tool at the necessary right angle to the trunk. Also called nippers or a wen cutter, it can also be used for initial rough carving of dead wood and jins, and whittling away at stubs too large for one cut.

Bud-Trimming Shears

The long reach on these shears makes them ideal for trimming buds on needle junipers and pines, and also for lightly training trees with delicate twigs. They are the best shears for small bonsai sizes. You will spoil the blades if you use them on branches or twigs that are too thick for them. The golden rule is: if the tool will not cut the item easily, do not use it.

Wire Cutters

The Japanese make wire cutters especially for bonsai work. Always check the maximum diameter of wire a tool can cut, however good its quality: it may cut aluminum wire 5mm in diameter, but only 3mm copper wire. Wire cutters from a hardware shop can cut bonsai wires to length, but are seldom strong or accurate enough for cutting wire from the tree without spoiling the bark.

Root Hook

Before root pruning, use the rounded end of this tool, in a radial movement from the trunk, to disentangle the roots of a larger bonsai without damage. You can buy a metal root 100k like this one, or make one for yourself, “or smaller bonsai, use a chopstick, a small-thronged rake, or a piece of wooden dowel ith a rounded end.

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