Bonsai Tool Basics

One of the first things people attending their first bonsai demonstration notice is that we seem to use a LOT of tools.

If you're interested in bonsai as a hobby you might might be concerned about needing to buy a lot of expensive tools - and which tools. People often start a hobby and decide after a while that it's not for them. It's natural to be concerned about getting stuck with a bunch of tools we don't need. I still have a bunch of paint brushes from an oil painting class I tool 30 years ago. I threw the paint tubes out only when I discovered they had hardened.

So, let us put your mind at ease. You don't need a lot of tools to begin in bonsai.

Getting Started Set

If you have a bonsai tree, such as one you might have bought at one of our annual shows you'll need to check that the tree is getting enough water. And later you'll need to do some basic pruning to keep the tree in good shape. You'll need:

Chopsticks are used for a lot bonsai-related tasks, but initially you'll just be using it to check the soil moisture. To do this you insert the chopstick near the edge of the pot (but in the actual soil) about 3/4" deep. Then withdraw it and look at the chopstick and feel it. If you can feel and see moisture then you don't need to water yet. If you're not certain, water. While over-watering will cause roots to rot and die, that takes a lot longer than if you forget to water! See Watering Basics for more details.

BTW, bamboo chopsticks are better than wood ones. They don't have as many splinters and they last longer. If you don't get enough thru your favorite Chinese restaurant you can buy them at Ranch 99 and similar asian restaurants. They usually come in packs of 100 pairs for a couple of dollars.

Bonsai Shears, also known as Ikebana Scissors or shears, are the second most frequently used bonsai tool. You can spend a lot of money on this tool but the cheaper ones are just fine! Look for shears that are 7-8" in length, shorter sizes don't work as well. At this price most will have hard plastic handles. These are usually very comfortable, but each maker's design is slightly different so try them out if you can.

You can find these shears at Home Depot, some local nurseries, including Home Depot, Amazon or other online stores. Stone Lantern, an online bonsai store carries good supplies at a nice price. The image below comes from their site.

Bonsai Shears (Link)

Basic Set of Tools

Once you start taking classes you'll need a few more tools. You'll begin using copper or aluminum wire to shape tree branches. This means a few more tools.

Basic Set of Tools
Basic Set of Tools (Click for Larger Image)

You're probably wondering "Why can't I use pliers and wire cutters I already have in my toolbox?" Initially you might be able to, as long as the wire you're using is small - and it will be if you are only doing trees that are say 12" or less in height. But bigger trees require heavier gauge (thicker) wire to hold a branch you want to bend. Unfortunately household wire cutters just can't cut wire that may be 3-6mm in diameter. And household pliers often slip on bare wire. A good pair of pliers and wire cutters should cost $50-$75 each.

Concave cutters are used to cut branches that are larger than scissors can handle. Cheaply made versions of this tool are awful. Rather than making a good cut they can leave a jagged edge which won't heal well. Yyou may have an ugly scar once the bark heals over. I've bought several different brands over the years and they work well. But Masakuni brand (#18) is very well made and fits my hand so well that I don't like using any other brand. California Bonsai carries this tool for about $99.

You can buy tweezers from bonsai companies but unfortunately the good ones are outrageously expensive and the cheap ones are often badly made. I've found that medical supply tweezers (called Forceps) are good quality and inexpensive because so many are produced. The trick is to find the right pair. There are a lot of specialized styles of forceps available, making it tough for a non-doctor to decipher. The key is to look for 6 to 8-inches in length and with good serrations at the tip for holding plant material. The ones shown above are 8" Surgical Dressing Forceps. These were purchased from Amazon, but this particular items isn't available now so I can't give you a link.

Good serrations mean good gripping

Tools for Repotting

When you start repotting bonsai you'll need some additional tools.

Tools for Repottin
Tools for repotting (Click for Larger Image)

Root hooks sometimes have very sharp points on the end. It's good idea to use a file and "round over" the tip so you don't stab yourself! Make sure the point isn't jagged, which can catch on the roots and tear them, instad of separating them from the soil.

The root shears can be another copy of your regular bonsai shears. When you're cutting roots you're also cutting potting soil or bonsai soil. Each contain sand, pumice, lava, etc. that can really dull the blade quickly. The shears you use to cut leaves and branches should always be very sharp, so using a separate one for roots is just good practice. The image above shows another style of bonsai shears. I don't really like this style because I always seem to get pinched by the handles, but they're great shears and so I continue using them on roots.

The edge saw isn't really needed until you start using pots that are at least a couple of inches deep. It's also useful when you have to remove roots from a pot with an edge that curves over the top of the rootball, but these aren't common.

Larger and Smaller Versions

After you've been in bonsai a few years you'll discover you really could use a larger pair of pliers, or wire cutter, or concave cutter. Or maybe you need a smaller concave cutter or scissors because you've decided you want to work on smaller bonsai, called shohin. This is why many bonsai people have a lot of tools!

Different Sizes Available
Different Sizes Available (Click for Larger Image)

As you can see in the image above there are different sizes available. The largest sizes are 10 to 11-inches in length. They're a lot heavier so usually I'll pick up the smallest, lightest version that will do the job. But having the big versions available mean I can do work on larger trees. Of course the larger sizes cost a lot more than the smaller sizes.

Buying Online

If you've gotten to the point of considering anything other than chopsticks and shears, buy some real bonsai tools. As with kitchen tools you'll discover that you can spend a lot of money for a tool, or very little. Often the cheapest versions will fail and you'll realize you wasted your money. Better made tools are more expensive and as you progress in this hobby you may find yourself wanting better tools. That doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive tools initially. There are a variety of suppliers of medium grade tools we can recommend. Joshua Roth brand is good quality and carried by many online stores. You can also find good quality tools at:

There are some good quality tools from China, but there's also poor quality "cheap" tools. If you buy buy via mail order it's impossible to tell quality from a photo. In our experience tools manufactured in Japan are rarely in the "junk" category so if the website says "Made in Japan" you can assume it's at least medium quality.

When buying tools go for the "black" versions. Stainless steel doesn't hold an edge as well as carbon steel, and they cost more - sometimes a lot more!

Buying at Mammoth Bazaar and GSBF-Bonsai Convention

There are a couple of times a year when it's easy to buy tools in person. The Mammoth Bazaar happens in February in Oakland. The GSBF-Bonsai Convention also happens once a year in the autumn. It alternates between Sacramento and somewhere in the Los Angeles area.

Don't Buy a Kit

When you look at different sites you'll often find "beginner kit of bonsai tools". Although some may be good deals, in our experience these kits often have tools you don't need. People love a bargain so a kit with five items must be better than one with only four items, right? Not usually. So, we recommend buying medium grade for the pliers and wire cutters.

For More Information

Bonsai Clubs International has a webpage with additional information on tools. You can find it here.