For our August program BSSF welcomed Gordon Deeg of San Mateo’s Sei Boku Bonsai Kai. Gordon is a long-time teacher of bonsai and has one of the most impressive collections in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gordon has also been a long-time volunteer at the Bonsai Garden Lake Merrit.
When we think about bonsai in modern times, perhaps it is that people expect them to be as instant and even disposable as other things in American society. They are neither instant nor disposable. Thus it is a bit on the meta of bonsai that we take an evening to discuss the maintenance of a thing that is used for the maintenance of a thing that we have an interest in. I once found myself rebuilding a vintage bandsaw so that I could make bonsai stands so that I would have stands to show my trees on. I had to resist the temptation to learn metal working to make parts to restore it. With only 15 members in attendance (yeah, if you skipped it this is looking at you) the Rec room at the Hall of Flowers was a bit sparse. The assembled red-dwarf-star of members was huddled closely around as Gordon used a conversational tone to discuss the various aspects of tool care. I did not take notes, so apologies if I get anything wrong. Here is a rundown of the basics as I recall:
Typical tools are made of carbon steel, the quality of the steel can vary greatly from cheap tools to more expensive ones. Gordon recommends Japanese tools, and only recommends stainless tools for those who are too prone to leaving them outside all the time. He cautioned against buying cheap tools online and said that local vendors were typically more trustworthy. (Note from Eric: take if from me, I’ve seen quite a few beginners come in with sets off Ebay that were so bad the pliers would bend when trying to bend a wire.)
Masakuni is among the most recognizable and expensive of tool brands, Gordon recommended sourcing them via Californiabonsai.com, run by Travis Goldstein who has fair prices. Gordon also recommended Joshua Roth tools as one of the better brands that is less expensive. (I have a pair of no-nonsense Joshua Roth pliers that have lasted 15 years so far!) Of all the tools Gordon recommends that if you’re going to splurge you should buy a Masakuni plier. That was a bit of a surprise to me as I thought he would have recommended the branch cutters. Gordon did recommend a branch cutter, specifically the spherical ones rather than the normal concave branch cutters. He mentioned that they cut more easily and accurately and that they don’t cause the brach tissue to split quite as readily.
Tool maintenance comes down to a series of techniques:
- Rust removal, management and prevention
- Solutions for faults or problems
Gordon did a demonstration of each of these items which occupied much of the groups time and discussion. ? ?Like bonsai, tool maintenance takes some skill and hands-on application of technique.
Cleaning tools can be accomplished with something like isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) or denatured alcohol. ?People also use kerosene, oil and other compounds to break down the buildup of pitch and dirt that sometimes can mar the action of scissors and cutters.
Sharpening is best accomplished using either a Japanese wet stone (Gordon had a real one, but most are manufactured) which uses water as a lubricant, or a diamond sharpening tool (using a light oil for lubrication.) Either will put a good edge on a tool if the right technique is applied. ? Start with coarse grit which removes a lot of steel quickly, then use successively finer grits to make the edge finer as you go. ? If you want the tool as sharp as a razor you can finish with stropping on a piece of leather. ? (For a full set of detailed instructions you should have attended the meeting.)
Rust removal can be effectively accomplished using a “rust eraser” although these can damage the cutting edge if used improperly. ? They contain carbide crystals embedded in an eraser-like rubber. ? Wire brushes and oil can also be used for rust removal.
Gordon brought a tiny anvil, which he mentioned was pretty inexpensive (but who wants an anvil in their apartment one person asked.) He used this to demonstrate how to adjust the tightness of the rivet at the center of most bonsai tools. ? Tapping on the rivet directly on the anvil will tighten the rivet while using a few washers to tap on it while keeping the other side from touching directly will loosen it. ? The effect can be temporary if the rivet is severely worn or damaged.
Gordon also spoke about how to make the tip of scissors meet properly by adjusting the angle of the handle on a pair of steel scissors.