What a Bunch of Tools
So here we are already in the middle of January. I’m finally getting over my Christmas lurgy, my horrible knee sprain is on the mend along with my buggered up pinky and orders are flying out the door to the point we are measuring our output in weight (average 800Kg of goods daily). An almost imperceptible layer of snow is sparkling in the pristine sunlight, there’s a crackling fire in the grate and the dogs are toasting themselves right there. Life is good!
To cap it all Kevin Willson just made me the proud owner of a very special scots pine I have been developing for close on 20 years. Follow the link to his Instagram for a sneak peek. To cap it all I lost a couple of stone too though despite what every born again fatty tells me I don’t feel one iota better. So I reckon many folk are just full of crap (or I have a long way to go)! Overall 2024 has started well in the Potter household and long may it continue….. and that’s all I have to say ’bout that.
So, along with all my healing, packing, humping boxes and waxing lyrical about the good life I have also been busy listing the latest addition to the Kaizen Bonsai range of amazing products on our web site. Pleased to say we now have a very nice little selection of bonsai tools from Kaneshin Cutlery Mfg (Japan) at some pretty amazing prices all things considered. This has taken several months to put in place for reasons I no longer want to remember and the last week has been ‘kin dull as I have been sitting in front of a screen creating web site listings but it’s all done now.
See the range – Kaneshin Bonsai Tools
So if you are looking for TOP quality genuine Japanese bonsai tools please do go take a look. More will follow but for now i’m very pleased with our offering and some pretty keen prices too considering these are all largely hand made in Japan using the legendary Yasuki-Hagane (Japanese steel from Yasuki produced from local iron sand).
These days many things are far from what they seem. It appears to me a modern business can say almost anything in the pursuit of sales. Anyone seen SKY ad’s lately? Sky cinema is JUST NOT THAT GREAT. Shampoos make girls hair softer, toothpaste makes our teeth whiter and washing powder makes things so white they ought to be fecking invisible. Let’s not even get started on tech’, apps, ‘phones’ or the latest CCTV gadget that means we can all watch your house being burgled or you wheels getting lifted in what we used to call ‘glorious technicolour’ and ultra hi def’ streaming to just about and device from a watch to a flat screen the size of a duvet.
Bonsai tools are no exception in this respect. Most bonsai tools, along with almost everything else, are made in China nowadays. There is a perception that Chinese stuff is largely a bunch of crap, indeed I would concur a lot of what we do see here is indeed what the OED calls “something of extremely poor quality.” (crap:vulgar). But, much like everywhere else in life you get what you pay for. Most businesses go to China to source ‘goods‘ (not good actually) because they’re cheap, and also they (the Chinese) like to work hard, unlike us, and get things done. This ensures maximum profit margins but often saddles the customer with a crock of shit that ends up in landfill pretty quick. It’s what they call function of profitability or some such. A lot of utter crap gets made and distributed just prior to being dumped but so long as it results in a profit who cares right? Well, increasingly WE DO!
All of this is NONE of China’s fault, it’s ours. If you go to China and ask for a top quality product they can and WILL make it for you. Sadly not many folk do that, we have seen simply outstanding quality world leading products made there. These do carry a hefty price tag but quality has always cost money and top quality cost lots. Some Chinese bonsai tools are SO good in fact that many of our competitors are openly marketing them as Japanese made which is a crock of shit.
The bonsai tool market has always been a bit shifty or, should I say ‘opaque‘. These complex tools are hard to make, require quality materials and time served craftsmen (people) to build them. Bonsai tools are not made by automated machines in their millions like main stream tools. A few days ago I got an email from a Chinese producer of hammers. Apparently they make 7 million hammers annually. HOW can the world need that many hammers? I’m still using the one my dad gave me for Christmas 1976 and it’s nowhere near worn out. I doubt there have been that many bonsai tools manufactured in the last 10 years….. which is a wild guess on my part. Suffice to say small production numbers and high quality materials result in a high price. There’s an inescapable law at work in the universe much like E = mc2. This one states you get what you pay for.
In reality there are endless brands of bonsai tools. However most are no more than ‘badge engineering’. There are very few manufacturers of bonsai tools and even some of the major Japanese names are just branded packaging for standard quality tools. Not that this is a bad thing but it makes it very difficult when buying bonsai tools to figure out what’s what.
That’s why we have added Kaneshin Bonsai tools to our range, they’re kosher, the real deal, made by the same family and dedicated time served craftsmen for as long as anyone can remember. Not everyone can afford to buy the ‘best’ but it’s nice to know that good quality tools made with integrity and pride are available when we do want to treat ourselves.
As with all things ‘quality‘ is relative. There really is no limit, take Mr Yasuhiro Hirakawa as a fine example. A fifth generation blacksmith shop (Sasuke) who, among many other exquisite things happens to make the worlds most expensive bonsai scissors. These can carry a price tag right up to an eye watering $32,000 (£25,200) though his ‘standard‘ scissors go for a paltry $1100 (£866). This budget range still takes 10 hours a day for one week to turn out a single pair and in my book that’s a cheap tool.
So, having spent a week immersed in all this tool business it got me thinking about my own bonsai tools. Just for the record I love tools. As I mentioned, way back in the 1970’s my dad often gave me tools for birthday or Christmas presents. A lot of those fell off the back of his British Gas lorry but I didn’t care.
When I started doing a paper round at age 12 I had 32 houses to deliver to. At 6.30am I pedalled the 2.5 miles to the newsagent, assembled my papers myself before pedalling a mile and a half with a heavy canvas bag slung over my shoulder to the start of my round. I then pedalled/walked the 1 mile length of my round up one side of the road and back down the other side until the last paper hit the last doormat. I then had to ride back home like a demented person in order to get changed and walk the half mile to school in time for 8.45am registration. I did this round seven days a week come rain or snow. Fridays everyone got a local paper in addition to their regular title which meant a bag so heavy I could hardly heft it onto my shoulder and made for some sketchy bike riding too. To cap it all, on Saturdays I had to call at every house and collect payment for their weeks papers before accounting to the boss back at the shop. Once ALLLLLLL that was done I received the princely sum of £1.35.
When I first started that job I saved up for two weeks before taking what I thought a kings ransom to the local hardware store where I blew the whole lot on a beautiful shiny silver guess what……………… Stanley knife. Not just any Stanley knife though, this one came with 10 spare blades. I was SOOOOOO happy walking out the store I thought I was on a magic carpet.
At school I was the envy of all my mates every time I whipped out my glistening silver treasure. One time (true story) I used it to carve my name into a wooden desk top. What I actually spent the lesson doing was a beautiful intaglio carving of the phrase “Graham Potter is god” (note the small G). Funnily enough the next day I got called into the headmasters office for a bollocking. He took my treasured knife off me and I had to pick it up at the end of the day under a strict understanding that I did not bring it back to school with me ever again. I was about 13 by then, HOW much things have changed. Suffice to say I LOVE tools and in particular knives. Ohhhhh I love knives, but you get the picture right?
For my younger readers, tools are something used accomplish a task that can’t be done on a phone and is beyond the capabilities of ones own teeth or fingernails. With care good tools in skilled hands produce amazing things. Many folk like to collect high quality tools, i’ve seen a lot of folk in bonsai with “all the gear and no idea“. Tools are much like a pencil. In the right hands it can produce a work of art. In my own pubescent hands they were used to jab other kids in the forehead which if done correctly left them with a little tattoo that resembled a blackhead.
I was recently hanging around Kevin’s workshop absent-mindedly going through his ragtag assemblage of hard worked tools. Much like many skilled artisans there was not a single item there of any real significance but no artist in the UK generates more outstanding bonsai transformations than me ol’ mate from Essex. The tool is less significant than the hand that puts it to work. Left to its own devices a tool never created anything. This appears true of many skilled tradesmen and artists, their tools might be a shoddy assemblage but the skill held in the hands that wield them is often exemplary.
So, to my own tools. Whilst these may look to be that shoddy assemblage they are mostly good quality items that only became shoddy because they were good enough to survive me and have delivered a great deal of often punishing work over the decades. Like most long practicing craftsmen I have gathered up a huge selection of tools from some of the best available to others repurposed from other disciplines, some are custom made, some are bastardised bits and bobs of scrap and random busted items that at one time or another were just perfect for the task at hand.
Looking at my own dirty tray of disgrace It occurred to me I do about 95% of all my bonsai work with no more than eight items as you can see here. Were I traveling somewhere to work these are my ‘must have‘ tools that I simply cannot function without. All the other tools get used extremely infrequently but we have a lot of history together so I keep them all.
So here is my MUST HAVE tool kit which consists of two groups of four items. One group I use 100% of the time and the other not so much. Every one of us well experienced bonsaists can probably show their own unique collection and some folk have actually expressed an interest in mine so here goes……
So this first bunch is the stuff I use 100% of the time. From the top we have…….
Masakuni #8309 – This is the long handle version of the very popular #8009. This is the only wire cutter I use for wire up to about 2.5mm. It’ll cut thicker and i have bent it a few times doing just that. Nothing comes close to being this brilliant especially when removing fine wire from densely ramified bonsai.
Next is my beautiful little Yagamitsu SP1. This is a hand forged scissor made by a single blacksmith. I have had it over 20 years and even back then they were very expensive but it’s THE best scissor I have ever owned by a country mile. When pruning densely ramified bonsai the short length allows very accurate work to be carried out at super fast speed. Longer scissors may be needed for deeper access but for top work who needs all that excess length in the way. It’ll cut branches as thick as a pencil and chop 4mm aluminium wire like it’s made of cheese.
The next tool is my Masakuni #8812. I only got this because I typed the wrong number onto an order years ago but it’s the best tweezer I have ever seen. This thing has the pulling power of pliers with the accuracy of a scalpel. Technically it’s a pine tweezer made for pulling needles and thinning candles and congested buds but to me it’s an absolute must have at almost any price.
Finally in this group I have our very own Superior Long Handle Scissors. For the price these are superb and can be found doing anything from pruning bonsai, cutting roots, branches, wire, working like a chopstick, creating deadwood and they are great around my motorcycle workshop making gaskets, cutting rubber, plastic and wires. They’ll open a can of soup, cut a sandwich in half or trim up ‘ur nose hair. This pair have a few custom grinds and subtle mod’s which I like and suit me personally and the way I work.
This next group of tools are items I use every time I work on bonsai but I do put them down from time to time.
From the top we have my little Jin pliers. No idea where I got these but they have been in my pocket for over 20 years at least. From making deadwood to wire work I could barely finish any task without these. The slim straight handles double up as a pair of re-potting sticks too when i’m in a hurry. I have bent them on a few occasions but they can be straightened and a little heat restores everything back to normal.
Below that we have the fine twig cutter or NBBC (narrow blade branch cutter). I recently did a video pruning a maple where these can be seen in action. This pair have been bent and abused to a criminal extent. I cut the end off a broom handle with them one time which was stupid but thankfully I have become very good at sharpening and resetting the blades. They are only made for very light pruning of deciduous twigs and small branches which they do remarkably well as they give great access in a tight spot. I very rarely use any other type of branch cutter since I mastered these little guys.
Below that we have the mighty Masakuni #8007. From time to time I get a tree come in that’s wired and sometimes that’s done in a horrible way or with entirely inappropriate materials like galvanised steel fencing wire. Whilst mini bolt cutters can sort that out these give better access and are significantly more powerful. They’ll cut 10mm aluminium (yes it does exist) 5mm hardened copper and 3-4mm steel including most nails and screws. They also make a great hammer if I find myself short of one and can smash up the largest bonsai pots with consumate ease. Why? don’t ask 😉 Masakuni tools seem to be disappearing fast as I believe there is only one craftsman left now but I may be wrong. We certainly never get what we order anymore.
Finally in this group is the Small Bonsai Knob Cutter. Trimming up a cut to enable it to heal flat is a skill that takes a long time to master and judge correctly. When dressing cuts I like to use the small tool to nibble away at it which I find much more accurate than just blasting in with a big gun. Also knowing that the little tool is somewhat more delicate I treat it with some respect and so it lasts much longer that it’s big brother in my hands.
Some of these tools are stainless and some are black. This just happened and was in no way intentional. Stainless steel will never hold as good an edge as a high carbon steel and stainless tools are not 100% rustproof either. The correct term should be ‘stain resistant‘. A 100% stainless steel is too soft to carry an edge or retain its integrity under pressure. There are some utterly spectacular stainless hardenable steels available today and whilst these make spectacular knives they are not suited to bonsai tools.
As I said I have virtually every bonsai tool ever made somewhere in my old filing cabinets and on occasions I will dive in there for a tool to do a specific job that just can’t be accomplished any other way but this set of eight tools are what I use all the time. There are just two more items I cannot work without. First up is this…..
Bonsai tools that cut mainly work on the scissor/plier principle of two parts joined together by a pivot. This pivot is the single most important part of an opening and closing tool because it keeps the cutting edges in alignment even under pressure whilst acting as a fulcrum to magnify the amount of force one applies at the handles. Once this gets full of crap, wears and becomes loose the tool will NOT cut properly no matter how sharp.
Every day I pick up one of my bonsai tools I put a tiny drop of oil in the base of the blades just above the pivot and two more at the base of the blades/top of the handles just behind the pivot. This is quickly drawn in and not only keeps the union lubricated but prevents the ingress of dirt. Those little Yagamitsu SP1s have no wear in the pivot after 20 years and still have perfect blade geometry. Keep your tools lubricated, it’s the single most important factor in ensuring tools perform well and last a long time.
At this point someone will ask me what oil I use. Currently this is a 30 weight non detergent mineral oil that’s used in vintage motorcycle engines that do not run oil filters. This particular one is made by Millers Oils, a superb UK company, Vintage Millerol 30. The reason I use that is because the last time I filled up my little oil can it was close at hand. Honestly who gives a shit it’s oil for scissors. Don’t go and use WD40 or similar, it’ll do nowt unless your tools are rusted shut, use proper oil and use it often.
And finally we get to my most versatile, treasured and best tool that goes with me ALL the time. Honestly! If I’m dressed this tool is about my person and it is……
As I said, I have a passion for knives. There are hundreds in my house from 200 year old antiques through military weapons and farm implements. Then there are a whole bunch of artisan made and unique pieces that can only be called works of art. However a man needs a good working knife.
My grandad was never without his trusty Sheffield made pocket knife. I never saw him a day in his life without his waistcoat, tie, Zippo and pocket knife. I have no need for the former two items but the later I do.
This Benchmade knife designed by the late and great Mel Pardu is simply the best working knife I have ever owned and it’s been by my side every day for years now. I did modify the blade angle to a much shallower pitch which increases it’s sharpness and ability to cut things like cardboard and plastic. That took weeks of patient work by hand because the steel is SO darn hard. I have used this to cut everything including mild steel wire and my own flesh. It’s so sharp one does not immediately feel a cut from the edge until it touches bone, Trust me 😉
This little bit of incredible steel is one of my most treasured possessions without which I could neither do bonsai or live. A pocket knife must be strong. I have used this to split logs by hammering in into wood with a baton but it must hold a good edge without the need for continuous grinding. A good old fashioned steel brings this back to a razor edge in only a couple of swipes and about once a year I put it across a water stone just to freshen it up.
It is not legal to carry in the UK simply because it’s blade locks. So that makes me an outlaw then I guess. Never buy a pocket knife without a locking blade unless you need to loose part of a finger. I rarely carry a phone when I go out but I will never be found without this in my pocket. In fact I think I’ll have this buried with me when I go.
I love and adore tools, as I said. Tools open up a whole world of possibility and creativity and I love mine with an absolute passion. I hope this little post has passed on a little bit of my knowledge and enthusiasm. I could go on all day but there are parcels that need packing so I need to go.
If you made it this far I extend my sincere thanks and respect. If you have any sensible questions about tools of any sort do get in touch. After all a passion shared is a passion doubled right?