In his second Bonsai blog, Bonsai specialist Richard Kernick looks at the specialist tools used for creating and maintaining bonsai - and some cheap alternatives!
The Tools of the Trade
As promised, in this blog I’ll introduce the tools I use in the creation and maintenance of the Kew bonsai collection. As with many specialist hobbies, a grower might end up with a wide and varied collection of tools, not all of which are strictly essential!
It pays to purchase good quality tools a few at a time; a high quality tool can last a lifetime. There are many cheaper tools currently available which can quickly blunt, break, or are badly designed and uncomfortable to use. In several places I have suggested where a cheaper substitution can be made, rather than purchasing purpose built Japanese tools.
I’ve divided the tools into three main groups: repotting, pruning and wiring. Some of the tools “crossover” and are used for different purposes at different times of the year.
Bonsai repotting tools, from left to right: a coir brush, a root hook, a repotting sickle, a miniature trowel, root pruning shears, two chopsticks (steel and wood) and a large pair of rootpruners.
This first group of tools are those which get used earliest in the year, for repotting, from late February through to April.
- Coir brush (left) - a coconut coir brush, usually used for cleaning off the soil surface before a tree is repotted. Far from essential(!), it can be useful for exposing surface roots for examination before they are pruned.
- Root hook (second from left) - the root hook is used for combing out the edges of a rootball before the roots are trimmed. It’s basically a strong metal hook with a comfortable handle; for quite a few years I used an old screwdriver that had been sharpened to a point and bent 90 degrees in a vice!
- Repotting sickle (third from left) - the repotting sickle is used to cut a bonsai’s rootball loose from its pot so that the roots can be pruned. Some pots have incurving sides, which can hold a bonsai tree in a pot like a cork in a bottle! A strong, short-bladed knife can make a good substitute for a repotting sickle - mind those fingers!
- Scissors (top, third right) - it’s a good policy to set aside a strong set of scissors (or shears) for rootpruning. Not many of the soil mixes that I use contain grit, but some of the trees I look after have been potted into gritty mixes in the past; this can play havoc with nicely sharpened scissors. It’s a good idea to look for repotting scissors at a DIY store; I prefer these to the traditional Japanese rootpruning scissors.
- Mini Trowel (middle) - again, not the most essential of tools (I survived for many years without one of these) but now I have one I have found it surprisingly handy. Used for smoothing over and tamping down the soil surface of a freshly repotted tree before and after a sphagnum moss mulch is applied.
- Chopstick(s) (second right) - a chopstick is most frequently used for working fresh soil back in around the roots of a tree as it is repotted. It also sometimes gets used to comb out roots; it is a less brutal alternative to the root hook.
- Rootpruners (right) -yes, I’ll admit these do look like something the Spanish Inquisition would use to get you talking. Used for removing large roots where necessary.
- Soil scoop (not shown) - soil scoops are very handy for directing soil into difficult corners of a pot, but are not the most essential tool in the world of bonsai. A cheap and serviceable soil scoop can be simply fashioned out of a small, cut-down fizzy drink bottle!
This is a Japanese sieve with three interchangeable screens. Using these I can produce the different grades (grain sizes) of soil I need to repot different species and sizes of bonsai.
Bonsai pruning tools, from left to right: A small folding pruning saw, branch pruners, spherical knob cutters, fine branch pruners, fine pruning scissors, tweezers and leaf shears.
- Folding pruning saw (left) - a small pruning saw for removing branches and large roots. Not used very often, but it is indispensible for removing thick roots and the occasional branch.
- Branch pruners (second left) - these are used for pruning off branches, and make a flat cut. I’d expect these to be able to remove branches up to 15mm thick. A good set of branch cutters are one of the most indispensible of all bonsai tools.
- Spherical knob cutters (third left) - for removing branches, and occasionally roots. These are designed to make a concave cut, or take a “bite” out of a tree. As the cut heals over the bark rolls into the concave recess and the resulting scar is less visible.
- Fine branch pruners (middle) - a daintier version of the standard branch pruners, I’d expect these to be able to cope with branches up to about the thickness of a pencil. Mostly used for thinning out twiggy growth, these are quite slender and thus easier to insert into bushy canopy areas.
- Fine pruning scissors (third right) - another one of the more indispensible tools, these long-handled scissors can be used for cutting small twigs, leaf stems, needles and buds.
- Tweezers (second right) - another indispensible tool, and one of the most commonly used. Ideal for removing dead foliage or needles, weeding, fine wiring or just poking bugs. Never more than arms reach away...
- Leaf pruning shears (right) - occasionally it is necessary to defoliate, or partially defoliate, a bonsai tree (I’ll add a note to my “blogs to do” list to mention more about this later). These little spring-loaded “snippy” shears are by far the fastest tool for the job.
A selection of bonsai wiring tools, from left to right: Wire cutting scissors, heavy duty wire pruners, strong tweezers and wiring pliers.
Wiring is most commonly done in the late autumn, with the wires being left on through the winter and removed in the early spring. Again, I’ll add a full “how to” guide in a later blog.
- Wire cutting scissors (left) - these are easier to handle than the wire cutters, and will cope with wire up to about 3mm thick. The blunt ends make it easier to remove wire from the tree without damaging the bark.
- Wire cutters (second left) - these wire cutters were manufactured by the iconic Japanese Masakuni tool companyand are probably older than I am! These are a very sturdy pair of cutters and will cope with the thickest wire that is used on bonsai trees.
- Sturdy tweezers (second right) - another appearance of tweezers, this slightly sturdier pair often get used to manipulate fine wires when I am wiring twigs right to the tip.
- Pliers (right) - another tool it should be possible to get from a DIY store, I suspect these are of Chinese manufacture and didn’t cost me a great deal. These are used to manipulate the thicker grades of wire during the initial styling of bonsai trees.
A variety of different gauges of anodised aluminium wire; these run from 0.8mm through to 6mm. I most commonly use the smaller gauges up to 3mm, with the thicker gauges only usually being used when a tree is being styled for the first time.
- Richard -
About Richard Kernick
Richard Kernick is the Bonsai specialist at Kew Gardens. He has worked at Kew since 2004, caring for and improving the bonsai collection while also working part time for the Alpine unit, helping to maintain their collection of woodland plants.
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