I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions about what tools to buy after teaching bonsai basics classes. The answer is not as simple as one might hope, so here are some recommendations based on my own experiences. Different people use tools differently so I’d recommend handling tools of people at club meetings with their permission to get a feel for what might be right for your hand shape and habits.
I think many good-quality tools will last a very long time with proper care but some tools are more important to spend money on than others. When I started 13 years ago and bought a few at a time I think the prices were slightly lower, but perhaps some of the tools were low quality. I’ve since replaced some of my original tools because of broken parts etc. I don’t have a stong opinion about stainless versus carbon steel. I have mostly carbon steel tools except for my repotting tools which are largely stainless.
Scissors – I recommend ARS straight-handled grape scissors like the ones I sold at the recent basics class. They’re cheap and good quality; I’ve been using my pair for about 10 years. I sharpen them 3-4 times per year and use them at least a couple times per week, sometimes daily. I prefer to remove the secondary bevel on the blade with a coarse sharpening stone and to make the tip more pointed so it can be used like a knife tip on some trees. But they’re fine as-is out of the box for most people.
If you prefer a longer-handled scissor then there are more options both from ARS and from regular bonsai tool makers. The scissor is the most frequently used tool so it’s worth it even for a beginner to possibly have more than one. I have a $200 pair of fantastic Masakuni scissors that I almost never use because I prefer the hand feel and length of the ARS grape scissors. The Masakuni are undoubtedly a superior steel and much stronger handle and construction.
Pliers – generally, they last forever, the tip should meet firmly and right at the end; It’s best if the entire plier meets firmly, not just at the tip, but the tip is the most important part. If the tip doesn’t come firmly together the plier will be useless for bonsai purposes. I don’t find “Jin Pliers” to be useful at all. They are the ones that meet only at the tip and are designed to be able to smash bark off of a larger diameter branch. It’s a specialty tool that isn’t needed for most people.
Wire cutters – there are a few different types. The type that is like scissors is good for small wire and works as a scissor so you can use the tool in different ways. The Flart is somewhere in between that and the medium-size plier-type wire cutter which is my workhorse; the plier-type is good for medium and larger wire but can take a lot of muscle to cut large copper. The large pliers (like 12-14″ long handle) are very expensive and work well only for large wire or places where you have large spaces…so not for small trees or those with a limited budget.
scissor style wire cutters:
Plier type wire cutters:
Branch cutters – This is the hardest thing to give advice on. A cheap one will be garbage. In my opinion it’s worth spending extra money for this tool and buying cheaper versions of other tools. I’d recommend the best first, so if you’re willing to spring for the bee’s knees of cutters look for a pair from Masakuni:
Or, if you prefer to not spend that much here are two middle-of-the-road tools from stone lantern:
There is a second “spherical” branch cutter that has a curved cut in both the cutting direction and at 90 degrees to the cutting direction. I don’t think that these are needed, particularly since a knob cutter (see below) usually will do the same thing.
Saws – A good little saw can provide a cleaner cut than branch cutters in many cases. A small saw is for small cuts, like 1″ at the most. The teeth are very fine and will clog with wet saw dust on some cuts, but the cut can be quite clean and easier, particularly on trees with very hard wood.
A good small saw:
Medium size saw for “large” bonsai cuts, over 1″ in diameter, you will not need this unless you are working with collected stock, rough stock, large nursery stock or other things that have large branches that need to be removed:
Repotting tools – you’ll need a few tools to repot a tree. A root scythe to remove the tree from the pot, a bent-tip tweezer for raking the top of the soil, a small rake for the bottom, a root hook for tough spots and a small broom for evening out soil or sweeping it out of the rim of the pot while you’re cutting the tree out.
There are many other specialty tools to be had, but this article is a minimal set of recommendations for beginners.
Finally, after asking a few people who I respect for tool recommendations I’d also refer people to the Kaneshin website