Who makes the best bonsai tools? The answer used to be Masakuni, but is it anymore?
Good bonsai tools are a bit like good knives. They aren’t necessary to do the job, but they make tasks easier and more pleasant. One could argue the cheapest $50 bonsai tool set will work just fine if you keep it clean and sharp. But there comes a time when you might want to invest a bit more.
Most lines of tools generally have the same pieces and those pieces generally look roughly the same. The basic tools you see are: concave cutter, various scissors or shears, a wire cutter, and jin pliers. Others include a root rake, root hook, little brooms, and tweezers. Then you have, say, a branch or trunk splitter that may be sold a la carte, or larger sizes of tools for work on larger bonsai.
CARBON OR STAINLESS STEEL
Basic material options are stainless steel or carbon steel. Stainless steel is better for rust resistance. Carbon steel is better for keeping a sharp edge. Stainless steel tools tend to cost more, and be labeled as “expert / master / advanced / fine” tools. Carbon steel can also be plated; so you’ll occasionally find tools that are carbon steel plated to look like stainless steel.
There’s no right answer on this one, it’s a point of preference as to which a user likes to use. But regardless of your choice you’ll probably hear about it from other bonsai lovers. (My stainless has lasted forever and I’ve never had to sharpen them. Well I’d choose carbon any day – more expensive doesn’t mean better quality, and on and on…)
JAPANESE OR NOT?
With Masakuni inventing bonsai tools, and the art of bonsai originating in the East it’s no surprise that Japanese tools have long held the reputation for being far superior to other makes. It seems the question of “is it made in Japan?” was synonymous with quality, in the same way today as asking if a watch has Swiss movement is a hallmark of quality. This is partially because not long ago manufacturers in China were producing shoddy bonsai tools. A blanket statement “don’t buy tools from China, buy tools from Japan” would have been reasonable advice.
Today, this firmly entrenched reputation has loosened as Chinese manufacturers have increased the quality of their steel and of their workmanship, creating tools overall that at least rival their Japanese counterparts.
Perhaps another reason this distinction is getting fuzzy is that there have been suggestions that some of these tool manufacturers are using the same factories for their material. That is, it’s possible that two brands are actually producing the exact same product because the same workers make them in the same factory. There hasn’t been any clear resolution on this because few of the manufacturers are transparent about where and how their tools are made. Not that they’re being shady, just that an in depth discussion of the cities your factory is in and a discussion of the processes you use and who you have on staff is something not every brand would necessarily do.
Interestingly enough, the discussion only seems to involve Japanese vs. Chinese tools. There is no mention of American made tools. However, at least one if not two companies are making the tools in the U.S. Though this point isn’t inherently positive or negative in and of itself, this may simply have contributed to muddying of waters of a global move to raise the bar on bonsai tool production standards.
Several brands produce something akin to basic, intermediate, and advanced quality levels. Some do not, but it can be a useful system for knowing where you’d like to make your purchases. For example, Joshua Roth does a Novice, Intermediate, Professional, and Master level.
Before you get into wanting the best, keep in mind that in my opinion the level considered “beginner” isn’t referring to people who got a $30 bonsai tree from the florist. It’s the beginning of someone who is serious at the art. Remember too that there are people who do bonsai for a living. It’s their job to make bonsai, or they get significant income from doing it. I’m saying a weekend warrior doing this for 20 years might still be in the “beginner” or the “intermediate” bucket. No offense intended here, I’m just trying to keep the proper perspective before you rush out and spend $500 on one pair of shears.
POPULAR BONSAI TOOL BRANDS
The question of who makes the best tools is subjective. It’s more of a matter of opinion than ever before. Below I’ve listed information about various popular bonsai tool brands. Where possible, I’ve attempted to take words directly from their websites. I can’t validate their claims on production methods or material composition, but I have tried to gather any statements they made on those topics. What’s listed below is some information that may be helpful to compare brands and understand different product lines.
A NOTE ON COST
Price is the obvious piece missing from this discussion. A few times I tried to pull prices to present a ballpark cost table, even just to give a generic high / medium / low price bracket. Prices or price brackets are missing for a reason. Manufacturers sell different quality or size lines, so first I might have, say, a beginner, intermediate, and advanced price for a concave cutter from each manufacturer. Next there were a couple manufacturers who sell only in sets while others sell individual pieces. Comparing sets is also difficult as a “set” can widely range in the number of pieces, which pieces are featured, and the quality of the set in question.
Perhaps that could still be taken into account, but then I found some tools that weren’t available from the manufacturer, only through retailers, and those retailers charged different prices. Which gets into price comparison-shopping for bonsai retail outlets. Which is not what I set out to do. That was where I threw in the towel and took out the price points. Know that below I’m presenting information on the general background of manufacturers to be helpful in conducting your own assessment, and don’t say I didn’t warn you before you set out to price shop yourself.
A NOTE ON BIAS
The companies listed below are in alphabetical order. Some manufacturers listed would be considered heavy weights, more popular with enthusiasts than others. Some companies I had more to say about. These things are not necessarily correlational. Companies I spoke more about were largely because there was simply more information online about them. I’d guess the primary reason for that is a language barrier. I only read English. There’s probably considerably more information online about Japanese or Chinese company manufacturing processes or material composition for some companies in the corresponding language.
Like the above mention on cost, I’d like to completely abstain from discussion on resellers, and only discuss manufacturers. This proved difficult though when I found one or two bonsai tool lines that seem to only be sold through one reseller.
There are other bonsai tool manufacturers or brands I’ve casually heard about, but I couldn’t find much if any information about them or where to buy them online. If I couldn’t find information on the company AND I could find how to buy a tool brand, it wasn’t included on the list. All the major heavy weights I heard mentioned in bonsai hobbyist circles are included below though.
Bonsai tools seem to be one of those things that people still frequently buy locally. This could be because many bonsai hobbyists get their connections established and buy their soil mixes and other products from, say, their local bonsai shop. When they’re not using their local bonsai shop or for those who don’t have one, they might use one of two or three major online bonsai shops. The below list is different because in any bonsai shop, online or in-person you’re likely to find only one or two options that your shop or reseller has decided to stock.
For those of us who tend to buy almost everything from a few larger shops, it leaves us a bit in the lurch. With the lack of a centralized place to buy there’s also a lack of reviews or comparison-shopping information. When we don’t have the time to ask around and get a bunch of people’s opinions we’re left high and dry for information. For my kindred busy web based people left to ask “what’s up with that?” here’s the skinny on the bonsai tool universe, in alphabetical order.
American Bonsai is the new kid on the block. Formed in 2002, they’ve entered the high-end bonsai tool market “committed to a high quality, refined product line for bonsai artists across the globe.”
They currently offer a five year warranty on their tools, and have started doing something I haven’t seen anyone but Masakuni claim to do: focus on innovation and engineering new products. American Bonsai sells tools as well as wire (black and brown aluminum and annealed copper), hand made pottery, stands, and supplies. They’ve created a wire recycling program, and have a program where they plant a tree for each tool sold. Their tools are sold by size rather than by expertise level with a series 5, 7, 11, 16 and standard issue. Standard issue is, as you’d guess, the standard size usually used. American Bonsai boldly states that their tools are designed in-house, 100% made in the USA, and covered by a lifetime warranty.
Koyo Industries Co. is a line of tools made in Japan. Their tag line is “Koyo Policy is better quality at lower price.” They carry shears in burnished steel, “black finish” and stainless steel, presumably at corresponding quality levels. They seem to sell their core tools only in a set, but sell secondary tools and accessories separately. The core sets are in the $100-$150 range. Koyo tools are sold on StoneLantern.com and they also sell bonsai pots on Amazon.
Fujiyama is the largest brand sold by Dallas Bonsai. At one point Sears and Amazon sold this brand as well, but both companies noted that their products were produced in Japan (by Dallas Bonsai) and had a 3-year warranty. Amazon only currently sells a knob cutter and heavy pruning shears in this line.
Founded in 1919, Kaneshin Cutlery Mfg. Co. Ltd. of Sekishi City in the Gifu Prefecture of Japan can be found on eBay. They are selling to the high quality bonsai tool market noting that “our products are made by craftsmen who have made our scissors and other tools for decades.” They then say with time and effort those craftsmen learn the difficult skill of grinding edges. Kaneshin references an apprenticeship system where older craftsmen teach younger ones, which implies that their tools are handmade to some extent. Unlike some of their competitors, this company seems to focus on producing bonsai tools alone and they do appear to rest on the higher end of the quality spectrum.
Established in 1980, Joshua Roth is a North American Company that makes an excellent array of high quality bonsai tools in four levels or tiers. Those levels are: Student / Novice, intermediate (carbon steel), professional, and master (stainless steel). The master level tools are labeled “The very best quality available at any price.”
They also directly refer others interested in a lower price point on each of their tiers to Ryuga brand tools, which they also offer a catalog of. Joshua Roth’s words are “We take pride in offering a wide range of superior Japanese Bonsai Tools at competitive prices – worldwide.”
Kiku is another Japanese bonsai tool manufacturing company. They appear to have partnered with a Chinese company to offer a more basic line of tools. They produce their “Kiku Traditional” line in Japan, and their “Kiku Classic” line in China.
Masakuni actually invented bonsai tools. They’re great to work with and have great reviews. They also are generally quite pricy. They’ve been the gold standard for a long time. Masakuni even has a blog exclusively for Masakuni users. It’s hard to find a clear “Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced” hierarchy today from the published information out there, but it’s clear they have different quality tiers. I can find one pair of shears listed for $640, but another for $126; both for sale from Masakuni themselves. Granted, Masakuni does have a wide range of shear styles and types but this is still quite a range for one pair of shears.
I’ll paraphrase a few points on their history: The first bonsai shears were developed over 70 years ago by the first Masakuni (named Shichinosuke Kawasumi). He was a lover of bonsai, and a maker of flower arranging scissors and medical tools. These shears were the original shears specifically designed for Bonsai training. Development of these shears was followed by research and development by Masakuni of other tools. Since then Masakuni has been making fine bonsai tools to this day.
Roshi is another line sold by Stone Lantern. They seem to sell their core tools only in a set, but sell secondary tools and accessories separately. The core sets are in the $125-$225 range.
Ryuga is a Chinese bonsai tool producing company. They produce both stainless steel and carbon steel. Ryuga tools come from a factory in China, but they are clear to put emphasis on the outstanding quality of their materials and their process.
Ryuga claims every production batch is quality control tested and marked with a small “QC” mark for quality control. They also give a two-year free replacement guarantee. They claim their tools are made to “Japanese standards, but with the benefit of Chinese cost.”
TianBonsai Co. Ltd. produces tools in China focusing on high-grade bonsai tool production. Their tools are sold on Amazon and ebay, and they have their own website. They note the quality of the tools they produce and interestingly, report that they are the “original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for many famous brand bonsai tools companies.” Their products may be listed as TianBonsai, Mu-Tian, and Beginner Series. The quality levels are: Master Craftsman Series, Master’s Grade (Tian Bonsai tools), Professional Grade (Mu Tian Bonsai tools), and Standard grade (Beginner Bonsai Tools.) Their website even claims that their beginner tools are handmade by skilled workers from TianBonsai, complete with posted information about their steel composition for Tian’s basic line of tools.
Tian notes they bring you the most reliable, durable, and finest products achievable and puts a heavy emphasis on their excellent customer service.
Tinyroots is sold on Amazon and Bonsai Outlet. They sell “performance-based, luxury brand bonsai tools with a limited lifetime-guarantee.” They claim to “combine old-world Japanese craftsmanship with cutting edge technology, resulting in the highest-quality precision instruments available.” They’ve worked on branding themselves differently with each product delivered in a hand-rubbed bamboo presentation case, which can also be used for storing the tools.
Tinyroots claims to hand-forge their tools from refined stainless or solid carbon steel, subject their tools to Japanese quality control standards, and to have gotten some of their metal composition and production methods from respected Japanese families. They also claim their Tinyroots Master Level tools are made with a metal formula which has the rust-resistant qualities that “far surpass” those of typical good quality Japanese carbon steel.
Their production processes including metal processing are clearly detailed on their website. They note the pincers on concave cutters hold their edge for years (or decades) and shear blades have reinforced tips to resist bending. Larger oversize tools are made with larger screws and though they claim their tools will last a lifetime with good care, Tinyroots gives a 5-year warranty. There is no note on where their products are produced, but the address listed for Tinyroots LLC is in Massachusetts, USA.
Yagimitsu makes top of the range Japanese stainless stools. One reseller calls Yagimitsu tools the default choice of bonsai enthusiasts around the world for many years. Another reseller notes precision grinding is used and a brushed fulcrum, which makes them extremely strong and will hold their edge and alignment even under extreme pressure.
Though this brand seems well supported by several retailers, I couldn’t find a Yoshiaki web presence of their own. Instead, half a dozen larger bonsai material resellers sell Yoshiaki tools. One retailer claims that Yoshiaki tools are manufactured by a combination machine and handmade process. The machine makes the shears, which are sharpened and assembled by hand. More than one manufacturer claimed that “Masahiko Kimura, the world’s most famous bonsai master is a fan of Yoshiaki high quality tools.”
TOOL CARE NOTE
My mother liked to sew. She had a sewing cabinet and two pairs of sewing scissors hung in prime placement in the center of her tool board. As a kid I never understood why her eyes bulged and lips tightened when she saw me cutting paper with her sewing scissors (or worse. Heaven forbid I do something like… pry open a can with them). My siblings and I were banned from using them countless times.
As an adult I’ve learned why she freaked out. Cutting fabric with scissors is like cutting tomatoes with knives. It’s hard to do and you need top quality equipment to not make the task a drag. Using them for other means dulls the tools and makes them worth squat.
So remember, if you treat yourself to some good quality tools, be sure to only use them on bonsai and use them properly. No two handed cuts. No rocking them back and forth. Clean them and oil them when you’re done with them. Put them somewhere they won’t rust. Check out my post on tool care.
After doing hours of research on the subject you may wonder what my choice is. I admit to being fully biased. I like the American Bonsai items. The products are sexy. I like American Bonsai the same way I like bourbon and Harley Davidsons. It’s just… good. I’ve also seen a couple bonsai artists I respect whip out an American Bonsai so I know I’m not alone here. Whereas Joshua Roth is an American who repeatedly states he makes Japanese tools, American Bonsai calls themselves, their engineering, and their craftsmanship American. They take out their American-ness, and roll in it. I respect that and I admire having the bold impudence in this intimidating niche of a hobby to defy tradition in that way, and do it so stylishly.
That said, I liked the look of most of the bonsai tools out there. Remember at the end of the day, though Masakuni invented bonsai tools, they only invented them a little more than 70 years ago. Bonsai has been practiced for much longer than that. Before Masakuni made their first pair of special shears, there were still bonsai hobbyists making do with other tools and there are plenty of hobbyists today that will vouch that doing the same works just fine for them.