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A Bonsai Tool Dilemma: Quality or Quantity?

January 11, 2022Beginners, Tools & Pots

Bonsai Tool

In this article, we’ll examine the pros and cons of investing in inexpensive bonsai multi-tool sets, as well as other strategies for acquiring the tools needed for the hobby.

The practice of bonsai requires some specialized tools. Beginners in the hobby often gravitate toward inexpensive multi-tool sets easily acquired from a variety of retailers. Many of these sets contain an assortment of 10-14 tools made of carbon steel and housed in a zippered case. At a price point in the neighborhood of $70, these kits seem to offer a good option for acquiring the tools needed for the hobby.

Online reviews for these sets may not help the prospective buyer. Some reviewers label the product junk, and some are happy with their purchase. Some comment that, while the quality is lacking, they are satisfied with the tools.  

I purchased one of these sets several years ago to expand my bonsai tool collection. Based on my experience, I can point to both advantages and disadvantages of acquiring tools through these types of kits.  Let’s first explore the pros, then the cons.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links”. This means if you purchase through our links, we may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Pros of Large Bonsai Tool Sets

There are several advantages to purchasing a big multi-tool kit:

  • The sets include a large variety of tools. By purchasing one of these sets you will have the specialized tool needed for most bonsai activities you might wish to try. However, in addition to the basics, you’ll have a number of tools that aren’t used very often. 
  • The sets are relatively inexpensive. At prices that average around $70, purchasing one of these sets often costs less than purchasing just two or three higher quality tools.  Acquiring a full set of tools at this price point allows beginners to feel well-outfitted while testing out the hobby. As they gain experience and commitment to the practice, beginners can invest in better quality versions of the tools.  On the other hand, if they decide bonsai is not their “thing”, the investment in gear has been minimal.   
  • A few of the tools may never need replacing.  Most sets include several tools that are just as serviceable as higher quality versions. Items such as a soil rake, root hook and branch bender should work well for many years. Considering the kit purchase from this perspective makes it seem like a better value.  I checked pricing, and found that purchasing these three items individually would cost around $38. That’s about half the cost of the set.  

Cons of Large Bonsai Tool Sets

There are also some disadvantages associated with buying many of these large multi-tool kits:

  • You get more tools than you really need.  Many of the types of tools contained in these kits are more appropriate for intermediate or advanced practitioners. In my 14-piece kit, some of the tools seemed designed for working with larger trees than I own.  Beginners to the hobby only need a few tools to start, as I outline in my “5 basic tools” article.
  • You get what you pay for.  To avoid disappointment, temper your expectations of quality if you purchase one of these sets. I did, but the coarse mechanical operation exhibited by several of the tools in my set surprised me. Although the cutting edges seemed acceptably sharp, the tools failed to open and close effortlessly as one would expect from a new implement of decent quality. Most of my tools required a bit of muscle power that could quickly tire the hand and wrist. I oiled them to try to help them work more smoothly, but the degree of success varied from tool to tool. 
  • Rust! Say what? Rust is definitely not something you expect to see on your brand-new set of tools! However, my set arrived with a light coating of rust on several pieces. A number of online reviews for these types of multi-tool sets mention this same problem. I managed to remove most of the rust, but a couple of tools still remained discolored in spots. 

The Bottom Line

Newbies need to start with smaller and simpler projects, and only need a few basic tools to accomplish those tasks. Many of the items are intended for use with larger material or with more advanced techniques. The bottom line is that beginners really don’t need all the tools contained in these kits.

My recommendation to those just starting out is to skip the inexpensive multi-tool kits. Instead, invest in fewer tools that offer reasonable quality at a decent price. Using properly sized, quality tools makes any job easier and more pleasurable. That holds true whether you are painting a wall, working on a car or creating your first – or next – bonsai masterpiece.  

If you opt to start small, see my article for which tools to purchase first .  Before you go the tool set route, my advice is to list out, in order, which tools you want to acquire, then look for a quality set that best fits your list. 

One that looks promising is this well-reviewed stainless steel, 6-piece bonsai tool set. Yes, it does cost almost twice as much as the bigger multi-piece sets. However, this set has a well-thought-out assortment of tools that should serve the beginning hobbyist well for a long time. Stainless steel is more costly, but is considered a step up from carbon steel.

Multi-tool Sets Have Their Place

I believe the large inexpensive multi-tool kits are a better fit for those past the “trying out” stage of the hobby. People who have embraced bonsai for the long term will naturally endeavor to develop their skills.  As they grow into more advanced techniques and material, a kit with a wide assortment of tools will have the right type of tool for most situations. As they discover which tools they use frequently, they can upgrade to higher quality versions. I find that I use a few of the tools in my large kit fairly often, although there are some I have never needed.

In the end, the decision to purchase or not boils down to personal preference. If it makes you feel happy to start with the bigger “bargain” kit, then go for it.  Just be aware of the tradeoffs before you spend your money.  

Tool Sets Not to Consider

Any search for “bonsai tool sets” online, is liable to turn up several options for inexpensive collections of mini-tools purported for use with bonsai. I recommend that you steer clear of any set picturing spades and rakes that look like miniature versions of normal garden tools. Bonsai hobbyists normally have no use for these types of implements. Such sets generally include small clippers, which can be useful for trimming and shaping foliage on a small plant, but I’d recommend investing in a good pair of bud shears instead.  

In this article, we explored the pros and cons of inexpensive, large multi-item bonsai tool kits. These kits offer a variety of tools, typically are priced attractively, and include some tools that may be serviceable for many years. However, some purchasers report quality issues, such as rusty finishes and mechanical problems with some tools. Beginners don’t really need many of the tools included in these sets. They might be wise to start with a few quality tools, then acquire additional tools as needed over time. They might also consider purchasing a kit with fewer tools of better quality.    

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