One of the more commonly heard refrains from bonsai professionals and serious enthusiasts is that beginners in bonsai shouldn’t spend their money on cheap tool sets. They argue that cheap tool sets are worthless and instead the serious beginner should invest in just two or three better quality tools.
The trouble I have with this recommendation is the ambiguity of exactly which make and model would constitute as “better quality” bonsai tools. There are quite a few tool brands, most of which claim to make good quality tools, and many of whom claim to make some sort of beginner tool set and other nicer lines. My guess is that the question of which tools are “better” would get you quite a few different answers.
Maybe beginner sets in general are what causes contempt? Perhaps they’d advocate skipping beginner sets and going directly to intermediate?
To be frank, I suspect that one particular bonsai tool manufacturer’s company’s “basic” line is the source of the cheap tools on Amazon. But I also suspect the same company’s higher quality lines of goods are being sold under several other names from other sellers, who are reputed to be fine. This all means it’s hard to then give a recommendation on what tools the beginner should use because some of that amounts to personal preference, and some of it is combatting what a faceless “people” might say.
Why Get a Big Cheap Set:
- They’re pretty cheap: Bonsai is a practice that requires a lot of stuff. The costs for these purchases add up, especially at the beginning when a hobbyist is just starting. Even with their flaws, one of these basic sets comes with most everything an entry-level hobbyist would need. At under $100, you’re probably spending less on a whole tool set than what one professional or fine grade tool will cost you.
- They give you full functionality without investing too much. If someone buys a set and decides in six months or a year that bonsai isn’t for them, its not that big aa loss. In the meantime they have all the tools that would cost them hundreds of dollars to collect for “higher quality” pieces.
- Bonsai beginners can become familiar with different tools, and decide which ones they want to invest more in, at their own pace. Though there is a purpose for all bonsai tools, some hobbyists gravitate to using the same tools again and again. I had an expert tell me once that much of the time he used only a concave cutter for everything. If you are close to someone who does bonsai and has a tool set where you can try pieces, then that’s great. If not, a set like this works.
- It gives you time to upgrade, and you might choose to upgrade only some items. You might become an expert and upgrade all your tools, but over a ten-year span. Or, you may decide to upgrade your shears and cutters, but be happy with this root hook just as it is. In that way you haven’t wasted a dime, you’ll probably save money.
Points to Consider
If you don’t give a fig what people say about getting a “cheap set” I’d go with the one of the basic sets from Amazon. I did. Then and now I thought they were worth every dime. A few points:
- These tools are made in China out of basic carbon steel.
- They are prone to rust, care must be taken to remove any and protect them.
- They are certainly stiff; some pieces are stiff enough to need two-handed action.
- Some users may want to sharpen their tools before use.
- The packaging they arrive in is ugly, looks cheap, and generally doesn’t inspire much confidence in its contents.
- The manufacturer addresses rusting and stiffness by recommending cleaning, drying, and lightly oiling the tools after each use. They also arrive to you lightly oiled, which makes them look terribly dirty on arrival including soiled packaging.
- These products received inconsistent reviews, which may hint to inconsistent supply quality. Though I recommend these sets, I assume the quality is as above. Having to clean and oil your tools is reasonable. Keeping tools that obviously and clearly misalign is not. Buy your tools from a Prime seller, so that defective merchandise can be returned.
These tools have their flaws. But with some TLC they’ll work just fine. Here they are:
I hesitate to put this out there, but for someone on the strictest of budgets this is an option. I wouldn’t recommend it though. In my opinion a big part of the point of getting a large tool set is trying out lots of tools, having some of the ones that I see as less important (like the rake or broom) that you won’t buy from someone else. But if in a pinch, here’s an option. The following pieces are included.
- wire cutters
- concave cutter
- medium cutting scissors
- knob cutter
The wording here is confusing. The 10-piece set comes with a zippered nylon case and a few short lengths of aluminum wire. (No “tool roll”) If you ask me there isn’t enough wire to mention. The only bonus to the wires would be to see and get a feel for what size wires these are before purchasing your own. The kit includes everything in the four piece set plus the following pieces are included:
- trimming scissors
- large cutting scissors
- leaf cutter
- rake with spatula
- root hook
As you can tell the names of the manufacturer are different, but the product looks pretty much the same, but with more pieces. This might be why these sets are simply referred to as types of sets: because the brand name associated with them is loose at best. This set is the same as the other basic set, but with a few more pieces. The following pieces are included: Everything in the 10 piece set plus the following:
- Branch bender
- root cutter
- Jin splitter
- trunk splitter
The question of which tools you’d like to purchase has several factors, but if you think you might be in this hobby for a while I’d go for the 14-piece set.
I bought a 10 piece basic set of these exact same pieces in 2012. In my experience it was a solid purchase. They’ve been durable. I’ve had a rust spot or two but was able to quickly remove with a bit of white vinegar. I oiled them once, and it’s time to do it again. It’s true I have a couple that are quite tough to open, but I concede that not falling so behind on oiling them would likely help.
Unlike some other kits or sets I’ve also used every piece in the mix (except the little broom). Purchasing philosophy wise I’m the opposite of the “buy one quality item at a time” camp. I bought my original base set for $50, but now want to try a trunk splitter, which will cost me at least $22 by itself for the cheapest one out there. I wish I had shelled out the extra for a bigger set in the beginning instead of having to spend more than I’d like just to try one piece now.
If you don’t think a basic entry level quality tool set is for you, try my “better” tool article.