Video Tutorials > Bonsai Tools - All You Need to Know

Bonsai Tools - All you Need to Know

Today I am going to talk about various bonsai tools and their uses. This is in response to the constructive comments that many of you have given me on the videos I have posted over the past year.
Peter with Bonsai Tools
In front of me I have a selection of tools that are used on our nursery and I will explain to you their individual uses. Before I proceed any further however, let me make it absolutely clear that pruning and cutting is at the basis of all bonsai. If you are not prepared to prune and cut, you will not make a great deal of progress in bonsai, having said that, there are all sorts of tools that can be used. Bonsai was started by the ancient Chinese about 2000 years ago and they didn’t have all the sophisticated bonsai tools that we have today. They would make do with very basic tools such as a simple knife. In one of my bonsai books ‘creating your own bonsai from everyday garden plants’ I just use a pair of ordinary garden secateurs to create the bonsai. Not a single special bonsai tool was used to create the bonsai in that book. I deliberately did that because I wanted to show you can create bonsai without using expensive and complex tools. However, while good tools are not essential, they can help to create wonderful bonsai, so let’s talk about some of the bonsai tools that are now available. Many of these tools have only been available in the last 50 or 60 years, since the post war period when manufacturing became more common in Japan and China. Before that, the tools were pretty basic, mainly confined to pruning shears or scissors.

Bonsai tools may be made of either ordinary black steel, which will rust, or stainless steel. Stainless steel tools have been introduced to the world of bonsai in the last 30 or 40 years.

This was a set of stainless steel tools presented to me when I went to the first ever world Bonsai convention in 1989. I have used these stainless steel tools for the last 30 years and they are still good as new. I use these tools virtually every day. Stainless steel tools are the best you can get, and certainly a worthwhile investment if you are interested in creating bonsai. A good set of stainless steel bonsai tools should last you a lifetime.
Stainless steel bonsai tools
Black steel tools can also be used but they do rust, so it’s important to keep sharpening them.

The most basic bonsai tools are cutting tools such as secateurs or scissors. There is quite a lot of confusion surrounding bonsai scissors, especially if you are new to bonsai. These scissors with large handles are what we call root cutting shears. You can get them in stainless steel and black steel. You can also find very cheap versions of these scissors, usually made in china.
bonsai root cutting shears
These scissors with long handles and sharp, small blades are twig pruning shears. The most commonly used twig shears are satsuki shears. If you were to ask me what I think the most useful bonsai tool was I would definitely say satsuki shears, especially if you are just starting out in bonsai. It is important not to confuse twig cutting scissors with root cutting scissors. Whilst root cutting scissors may occasionally be used to cut twigs, using twig cutting scissors to cut roots will blunt their blades very quickly.

The next, most important tool in bonsai is what we call a branch cutter. Here are two examples of branch cutters.
bonsai branch cutters
If you look at these branch cutters side by side, you will see each cutter has a distinct blade shape. This cutter is what some call a concave cutter. The edge of this cutter is straight which allows us to get really close to the base of a branch or twig and cut it off without leaving a stub behind.
concave branch cutter
close up of concave branch cutter in Peters hand
This cutter is a wen cutter or ‘knob cutter’. The blade is curved which allow us to cut right into a branch or trunk and gauge wood out of it.
close up of bonsai wen cutter in Peters hand
I would like to show you an example of how I would use these tools on a bonsai.

As you can see, ordinary secateurs are useful for simply trimming twigs and branches. However, if I was to use these secateurs to cut a branch it would leave a bit of the branch behind. Branch cutters on the other hand allow you to get really close to the base of the branch. You will see here that using branch cutters allows for a really smooth, clean cut.
cut bonsai branch and branch cutter
The wen cutter goes even further into the trunk resulting in a concave incision. Even if you use a branch cutter to make a close cut, once the branch heals you will still get a raised stub left behind. You will see here we have some stubs left over from cuts that were made years ago with the branch cutter.
Bonsai trunk
We can use the wen cutter to gauge into the wood and remove these.
Wen cutter cutting stub
wen cutter removing stub
In recent years a new type of branch cutter, ‘the hybrid cutter’ has been introduced. The hybrid cutter is a combination between the wen cutter and the concave cutter and it is designed to do the job of both. If we look at an example of the hybrid cutter next to the concave cutter you will see the difference of the shape. The hybrid cutter blade has a sort of beak shape.
hybrid cutter and concave cutter
This next branch cutter is designed for cutting branches in otherwise hard to reach places. You will see it has a very narrow blade which makes it ideal for cutting branches that are wedged between other branches. If we look at it next to a standard concave cutter you will see just how narrow the blade is.
close up of Peter holding narrow blade cutter and concave cutter
You may have seen me use this next tool in some of my other videos. This is a branch splitter. The Japanese call it a ‘branch cracker’ or a ‘nut cracker’. It is used for cutting into the bark of a bonsai to make the trunk thinner which allows it to be manipulated and bent. You can get branch splitters in a variety of sizes. This is a standard sized branch cutter at 200mm long.
Peter holding Bonsai branch splitter
This branch splitter is ideal for splitting large, thick trunks. It is a genuine Japanese tool, made in Japan and should last a lifetime.
Peter holding large bonsai branch cutter
This tool is similar to the branch splitter and can in fact be used for splitting branches as well. This is a root cutter. You will notice it has a much more rounded shape thank the trunk splitter. The blade is much broader and is designed for cutting roots at the base.
Peter holding bonsai root cutter and trunk splitter
Now let us come to another tool. These are jin pliers. The main use of jin pliers is stripping the bark of a bonsai to create a jin. The pliers will grip and crush the bark allowing it to be peeled away. Jin pliers are also useful for bending wire.
bonsai jin pliers
Peter bending bonsai wire using jin pliers
Here we look at another pair of jin pliers in a different style. This tool may look a bit odd but it is an excellent bonsai tool and one of my favourites. The tools design is based on an Indian cooking tool called a chinta. Chintas are used in Indian cooking for holding and controlling hot pans without handles. In bonsai, we use this tool to peel away bark. This tool has long handles and serrated edges which makes it perfect for creating jins.
chinta bonsai tool
These are a variation of jin pliers called ‘duck bill pliers’.
Peter holding duck bill jin pliers
Now I want to show you some examples of bonsai wire cutters. These tools come in many different designs and I can assure you they do a much better job than ordinary electrical pliers. Many people try to save money by using ordinary electrical pliers, however the action of the bonsai wire cutter is actually quite unique. A wire cutter like this will cut bonsai wire up to about 10mm in thickness like a knife through butter.
bonsai wire cutters
Moving on from the two handle bonsai tools, this next tool is a single handle tool with a lovely wooden handle. This is a Swedish hunting knife used for skinning animals, I like to use it for scraping away bark when making a jin.
Peter holding knife tool
Some other useful bonsai tools are the standard Stanley knife or ‘utility knife’ and the standard kitchen knife.

The root breaker is another very useful tool. Cutting and breaking roots is an essential technique in bonsai. The genuine Japanese rake is the most efficient tool for this process, however some people use other raking tools, such as the fork or the single claw rake, both shown here.
stainless steel japanese rake
bonsai root fork
single claw bonsai rake
These are sickles. After seeing them used a lot in Japan we begun to use them a lot on the nursery ourselves. Sickles are used for removing bonsai root balls, especially in incurved pots. When a bonsai grows in an incurve pot, the roots tend to get stuck which is where the sickle is used. You will have probably seen me use this tool when I have done videos on repotting bonsai.
bonsai sickle
These brushes are used for brushing bark, especially of junipers. They help give a nice clean appearance after carving.
bonsai bark brush
These are examples of clamps or ‘jacks’. They are used to bend and shape branches. Clamps come in all different sizes. They are sold on the market as ‘bonsai accessories’. Personally, I don’t like using branch clamps as I find using the right grade of wire does a much better job at bending branches.
bonsai branch clamps
This next tool is called a branch bender. It is designed to be used as a lever to help bend branches that may be otherwise difficult to move.
branch bending tool
All these tools can be found in bonsai kits. I will just show you some examples of the kits we sell at Herons to give you a good idea of what is available. These are Chinese stainless steel tools, all extremely good quality. In this set you will find a flat concave cutter, a wen cutter, a pair of stainless steel wire cutters, root pulling scissors, twig cutting scissors, a root rake and a brush for brushing the surface of the soil.
bonsai tool set
As with all tools, the more you use them the more they become worn and blunt. This tool for example has been left out in the wet and has become rusty. When this happens, you will need to clean the tool and there are many implements that can be used to do so. This is a special tool used for removing rust. You can see with just a little rub the rust is almost gone!
rust removal tool
You can also get various types of wet stone used for sharpening the blade. Never sharpen the inside of the blade, simply brush the stone on the outside of the blade as so.
sharpening stone
This is a very useful tool which I have always used, called a diamond cutter used for sharpening the blade.
diamond sharpening tool
These scrapers are used for scraping moss.
moss scraping tool
Another thing I would like to show you is the use of these saws. When you have a very thick branch the saw is indispensable. Most of these saws are Japanese Saws. When the saws become blunt, we use them for cutting root balls. You may have seen me do this in other videos.
large bonsai saw
This is a pair of large loppers. If you have a very thick, large branch this tool is very useful.
bonsai loppers
Finally, I want to show you these turntables. This is a traditional Japanese turntable.
japanese bonsai turntable
For years and years, I have used homemade turntables like these. I made these turntables using a standard office chair base and a piece of plywood.
bonsai turntable
If you have any more questions about bonsai tools please leave a comment on the Youtube video below.