Monday, February 1, 2010

Tools and Bonsai -- Do we need them?

This topic of discussion at times has turned as nasty as debating soil recipes, but it need not be. Do we need special tools in order to pursue Bonsai? To many, bonsai tools are a mere extravagance, to others a necessity in pursuing the craft. I guess it boils down to personal opinion, taste and budget.

I am what we could categorize as a frugal bonsaiist. If there is a way to save a penny here or there I use every opportunity. Our parents used to say "a penny saved is a penny earned". Well in this day's economy, the advice spurred by the great depression still applies today. After all each dollar we save can be put to good use, acquiring more trees perhaps.

So what are necessary tools that
a starting enthusiast needs, if any?

In all honesty, in the beginning the newly introduced enthusiast needs very little in matter of tools. A good set of pointed shears (below) and a chopstick is all that is really required. As your interests grow and advances in the art, you may find the need for certain tools in order to facilitate the work being conducted at current levels.

These are available nearly everywhere. They are made by "Fiskars" and are relatively inexpensive, sturdy and can get in to some pretty tight places. Used properly they last a very long time. My set is going on ten years now. They are still as good today as the day I bought them.

A simple device that many skimp on, and I was guilty as well. Watering, not only watering, but watering properly is probably the most important task in Bonsai. There is something to say about a good Japanese watering wand. This one produces a fine rain shower, it comes with an adjustable valve. The stream is so gentle it doesn't disturb even the finest of soils. I have tried many different wands/imitations, nothing beats the real thing.

Feeling the need...
OK, so you have been able to keep your Bonsai alive and have gathered a longing interest in the art of Bonsai and feel now is the time to acquire some much needed tools. Three or four basic tools will equip you to perform most of all the tasks necessary to produce and maintain Bonsai. That being said...

The quality and price of Bonsai tools varies considerably. There is an old saying "you get what you pay for" -- and this is true when it comes to Bonsai tools. The poorest quality Japanese tools are consistently superior to those made anywhere else, especially those from China. It is worth your while to save and buy a decent Japanese tool, than buying a couple of inferior Chinese tools only to purchase the Japanese one in the end. You do not need to purchase the expensive line of Japanese tools like Masakuni, an intermediate line from Joshua Roth is probably the best bang for your buck out there.

Stainless or carbon steel? This comes down to personal preference and budget in my opinion. If one takes good care of their high quality carbon steel tools, they will perform just as well as stainless. It has been said that some stainless tools seem to dull quicker than their carbon counterparts. My personal taste, I prefer carbon steel any day of the week and three times on Sunday. I never liked how stainless held an edge, not to mention the difficulty in replacing that edge. I have owned several stainless knives in the past that I gave away. Give me Solligen steel any day. Furthermore, the way the Japanese forge their steel, it is technically far superior than many out there.

The basic tool set

The Concave Cutter is a razor sharp tool designed for cutting branches flush to the trunk, leaving an elongated depression. The resulting wound can then heal over quickly with little scarring. The Concave Cutter is the single most important tool for Bonsai use and for which there is no substitute. Some say a normal set of pruning shears will do the same job, they simply don't. The angle of attack is totally different.

These wire cutters are designed specifically for Bonsai wire. Although enthusiasts new to Bonsai sometimes substitute standard wire cutters for economy, the Japanese have designed these with a rounded head to prevent damaging the branch when cutting, and with jaws that cut the wire symmetrically and cleanly. Highly recommended for serious enthusiasts.

The Knob Cutter is a valuable addition to the Bonsai tool kit even though it is used much less frequently than Concave Cutters. This cutter is designed for removing trunk knobs and roots. The head is shaped like a ball, hence the name "Spherical". They produce a hollow, circular cut that heals quickly and with minimum of scarring.

An additional use for the Knob Cutter is the removal of undesirable root or trunk material in the area beneath the trunk. The aggressive nibbling ability readily removes excess callous material quickly and cleanly. The lack of space and angle of attack to perform this task, makes it difficult to use any other tools. Depending on the amount of root work one performs with this tool, it may be advisable to buy two, or...

- purchase a Spherical Concave Cutter. Similar to the Concave Cutter but, if we compare the cutting heads, the "Spherical" Cutter is a combination of both Concave and Knob Cutter. This would be a good choice for the frugal bonsaiist, using this tool in place of the Concave Cutter when the Knob Cutter is used for root work.

Although these shears may not be necessary in the immediate beginning, they prove invaluable for pruning fine roots versus the set of kitchen scissors. These are Chinese made, come as a set of 4, and are relatively cheap and hence disposable. But these will last for many years nonetheless --3 years later I am still using mine. It will save you from using your good shears where they do not belong.

That is all that is needed for the time being. As one advances the need for more specialized tools may manifest itself and one may chose to increase their tool arsenal. Let the task dictate your next purchase, if required.

Intermediate tool set

Th Root Cutter is specifically designed for pruning roots during transplanting and re-potting. Unlike Knob Cutters, which have spherically-contoured heads, the cutting blades of Root Cutters are straight. The blades are much stronger for cutting the denser wood fibers usually found in roots. The head is contoured to provide added clearance.

Soil removal and untangling roots is a regular the chore when re-potting. A chopstick or something similar is often used, especially with small size Bonsai. Working with larger trees or difficult root pads, a more substantial tool is needed. A variety of root hooks with as many as three prongs are available. Single point tools are superior in getting the job done with minimal damage to fine roots.

An another indispensable item during re-potting. This root knife slices through a root pad with ease and will even tackle larger roots and small trunks.

Small Japanese carvers saw which works on the pull stroke, excellent for notching branches. The narrow rake of this saw makes a smooth clean cut. A lot of success in bonsai is determined by clean wood cuts, whether is be grafting or branch removal or notching.

The Ashinaga Basami shear is a basic tool for thinning and defoliating Bonsai. The Standard Concave Branch Cutter and the Ashinaga shear are generally considered the two most basic Bonsai tools. This tool balances well and is extremely comfortable to use.

Even if the enthusiast purchases Bonsai soil, he will still need to remove the "fines" (small dust particles). This set consists of a 12" diameter by 3" high stainless steel frame with three interchangeable screens of 4, 5, and 10 meshes per inch. Use to grade soils for layering and to remove fine compacting dust that inhibits proper drainage.

Soil Scoops are handy for mixing Bonsai soil and for scooping soil into Bonsai pots. These scoops have fine built-in screens (17 meshes per inch) that sift out dust as you scoop. These come in real handy for folks that make large quantities of soil (good winter chore) which are subsequently stored in large pails, which require minor sifting during potting.

Bent Nose Tweezers--an indispensable tool as one advances. Use to remove unwanted buds, pulling pine needles or general Bonsai cleanliness such as: removing dead leaves; insects; needles; weeds and other fine debris around the base of Bonsai. As with the Bonsai Rakes the symmetrically- shaped spatulas are well suited for tamping soil and the semi-sharp edges of the half-moon spatula work well for scraping soil and loosening soil around the edges of containers.

The 3-prong rake is convenient for working the soil during transplanting, as well as for general care. The rake is used to gently remove soil around the roots and to stir up the soil. The symmetrical spatula is well suited for tamping soil around the base of Bonsai.

Hemp Broom--To some this would be an extravagant expense. It has a multitude of uses around a Bonsai pot: tamping down soil; brushing down trunks; to cleaning the pot after a re-pot. As it was part of my tool kit, it cost nothing.

The frugal bonsaist may wish to take the plunge in one step so to speak. The purchase of tools as a kit proves to be cost effective in the long run. This is the Joshua Roth (Japanese) Intermediate Tool Kit - complete with suede roll (to protect your tools). I have used them all with the exception of their leaf trimmer. The kit came with a Root Rake that I do not use on roots but use to scar the soil surface as required.

Specialty tools for the more advanced

The Trunk Splitter is designed to split trunks with minimum residual damage. The shape of the head and the symmetrical cutting blades provide the clearance and cutting actions necessary to achieve clean splits.

The tiny head of the Professional grade Me-Tsumi, the smallest Standard Concave Cutter, permits incredibly fine, close cuts on very small foliage. Its main applications are with early Bonsai and new growth on larger trees. This cutter is indispensable to anyone that grows Shohin and Mame size Bonsai.

This was the second tool I purchase after my set. A most efficient tool for general bonsai shaping and trimming. This tool features straight handles which allows the cutting blades of the tool to penetrate deep into tight areas unlike the Ashinaga style shears. Both shears are a pleasure to use.

As you start working with larger trees, you need bigger tools. This is the Professional size which comes in at 12 inches. The Intermediate one just couldn't handle some of the bigger branches. When this one doesn't get the job done, well there is always this...

... these are loppers with mechanical advantage. No need to buy an expensive Japanese set. The frugal bonsaiist uses garden implements where suitable.

Sooner or later when dealing with larger trees, a Branch Jack will be required. A Chinese one proves adequate for the chore.

Branch Bender--this has proven to be an invaluable tool when extra hands are not available.

Branch Jacks, come in small, medium and large. These little joys are useful for bending or straightening difficult branches. If these are improperly used they can damage the tree. Their design permits "adding pressure" every couple of weeks or so until the desired results are achieved. Many inexperienced enthusiast use them to position the branch in place in "one go" so to speak. This is not the way to proceed and if one looks carefully, it is easy to see that one might cut off circulation to the branch if used to aggressively. It is meant as a time tool.

These Burins have a nice set of balance and work on the pull stroke for carving deadwood on Bonsais.

The frugal bonsaiist
This makes people laugh. How can you be practice Bonsai (a relatively expensive obsession) and be frugal? Well that is quite simple, choose to spend your money wisely and efficiently. In other words, get the best bang for your buck. Remember I said frugal, I didn't say cheap. There are many ways one can save and still get the job done, let' read on...

Anything that has "Bonsai" in it's name is going to be pricey, it's the nature of the beast. Someone has caught on to this many years ago and is still milking this cow today. But there are ways to stretch the scarcity of the mighty dollar:

This is the first tool I made (for Bonsai), it's a root hook made from scraps lying around the work shop. It is custom made to fit my hand. The hook was made out of a piece of "drill rod" and the handle from a scrap of Mahogany. 3 coats of Danish Oil later and this beauty works like a charm. Not too many of these around with a Mahogany handle;

  • Bonsai screening mesh cost $5 for 3 sheets of 4 x 12 inches, or you can purchase an $0.99 sheet of plastic meshing at any craft store. Want to get fancy? They come in a variety of colours;

  • Bonsai Fertilizer--give me a break! Fertilizer is fertilizer, there is no such thing as fertilizer "specifically" designed for Bonsai. Their marketing should read specifically designed for your deep wallet. Any balanced fertilizer at recommended manufacturer's dosage will do just fine at a fraction of the cost;

  • Transplanting Fertilizer--Look at the make up of "transplant fertilizer" it has an NPK of 10-52-10, sells for an arm and a leg or you can buy (10-52-10) by the tub for a fraction of the cost;

  • In Canada there has been a real strong push not to mention legislation banning the use of herbicides and pesticides. One way around it is a product called "Leaf shine" at $17.00 per litre. It's active ingredient is Neem oil in disguise (mind you diluted) or you can acquire a bottle of Neem oil (not on the ban list) for half the cost and manufacture 100 litres of insecticide;

  • Soil--If a good brand of Bonsai Soil is available in your locale (no shipping) and you don't mind paying a little extra for it, it could prove a large investment. However, if you are using gallons and gallons, or need to have it shipped to you, you are better off mixing your own, once again with components available in your area;

  • Bud Scissors--I bought a set of "nose hair" scissors at the local drug store for pruning Hinoki fan whorls. They work great at a fraction of the coast;

  • Root Rakes--a old kitchen fork can substitute quite nicely;

  • Rafia--a necessity for wrapping larger branches prior to serious bending. Once again available at most craft stores at a fraction of the cost;

  • Bonsai pots--are you planning to display your trees? If not, then why do you need a Tokoname pot? Any good quality Chinese pot in the proper shape, colour and size to complement the tree will do nicely. If you live in colder climates, the pot needs to be vitrified (frost proof) to withstand the harshness of your winter freeze/thaw cycles; and

  • Display tables--if you are a woodworker, make your own.
Why do I use Bonsai Tools? Because they were designed for use on Bonsai. I like the angle of attack of the tool on any given task related to but not limited to Bonsai. I use my Concave Cutters in pruning landscape trees in the yard. As stated I buy tools with multiple uses in mind. Take the Knob or Root Cutter as an example, not other tool can get the job done in that area, at least not with the ease of using the proper tool for the proper job.

  • Let the task dictate what you need vice going out and buying everything you think you might need

  • Buy a good quality tool (Japanese) at reasonable cost and substitute where applicable with knock offs (root work) or use tools already at your disposal

  • Shy away from anything that states "for bonsai use", don't be afraid to look at alternate sourcing e.g "garden centres"

  • If you are a woodworker (which I am) many tools used in the workshop can find a use in Bonsai e.g "die grinder", "dremel", carving chisels etc... to name a few
If this seems like extravagance let me assure you it is not, just reality. Remember I stated the art of Bonsai was an expensive endeavour. Spending wisely and effectively is key. I am quite frugal but--if the proper tool, for the proper job is used, regardless of the application, included but not limited to Bonsai, work becomes effortless, and lastly...

The Itchiban Tool
seven tools in one!

The latest tool to hit the market is the Itchiban (I know there is no "T" in Ichiban, but if you got an itch to scratch...) designed and created in consultation with Masakuni of Japan by a professional. This tool was specifically designed for an individual. This tool is endorsed by several professionals around the World. Many of these professionals are sponsored to endorse the product. To the average individual you will need to dish out $350 US for this marvelous invention. The average individual and the frugal minded enthusiast, merely passes. A wise decision, as in my humble opinion this is indeed pure extravagance! This tool caused as much controversy when it hit the market, that one would think we were debating soil recipes.

Photos Courtesy of:
Natural Bonsai, Joshua Roth, Lee Valley Tools, Fiskars and Bonsai Discoveries.