Why Bonsai are like Turkeys

When you finish carving your turkey this Thanksgiving, don’t stop in the dining room.  Get out in the bonsai garden and carve up some driftwood.  But use some woodworking tools and not your electric carving knife.  Here are some tips on the types of carving tools and how you can use them.  Note sharp tools are inherently dangerous.  Before using any woodworking tool, make sure you understand the hazards and use appropriate personal protection. At a minimum wear eye protection, earplugs and a dusk mask. Always pay attention to where a sharp edge can go if it slips, and keep flesh away from those areas.

Bonsai cutters- Bonsai cutters can do a passable job making a jin (dead branch)  or hogging out a stump.  However, they will leave telltale traces and don’t offer the most wood removal flexibility.

Carving Chisels – the old fashion chisels do wonders on making a stump look creative.  These are what Michangelo used to do his work.  Ok, if you’re not an artistic genius, then chisels will take lots of practice.  The key to using chisels is to keep them sharp.  How to sharpen tools can get complex and deserves a separate article.  Chisels also work better when hit with a mallet.  A big drawback of chisels is the cutting load can jar the roots of a tree, so make sure the tree is fully secured when pounding on it.

Scorps – that’s not a typo, a scorp is a type of chisel of particular utility to a bonsai artist.  It excels at removing bark and placing grooves in deadwood.

Die Grinders – Normally used in the metal trade, die grinders feature a fast spinning shaft  (up to 18,000 RPM) with either a sharp bladed cutter or an abrasive bit.  Used much like a dentist drill, they, unlike a dentist, create cavities and hollows in driftwood.  Again, with practice a die grinder and an assortment of bits can create intricate sculpture. The Dremel is a hobbyist tool that can get good results for small carving job.  The Foredom Rotary carver has a flexible shaft giving good access  and more torque to the bit.  A nice feature of the Foredom is the quick removal and reattachment of a cutting head making it easy to switch bits for better carving variety.

Right angle grinders – These are heavy-duty industrial tools that can remove lots of wood in a hurry.  One cutter available for an angle grinder that does a great job on bonsai is the Lancelot.  It is a circular disk surrounded by a chain saw blade.  When used properly it can create deep grooves, hollows and interesting deadwood.

Chain Saws – If a spinning chain saw blade on a grinder didn’t scare you, then a full-fledged chain saw can come in handy on some large projects.  Electric chain saws don’t have an exhaust and can be used indoors, gas models are to be used outside.

Reciprocating Saw –Normally used in home remodeling, this power tool is handy in removing large branches. But it really works well at removing roots from congested root balls.

Electric Carving Chisel – these tools use a reciprocating motion to replicate the cutting action of a hand chisel. Since they use electric power they can move quicker than a chisel powered by a cutting edge.

Butane or Propane torch – A torch comes in handy in three ways: cleaning pitch and sap off bits, burning fuzzy remains from carved areas and steaming driftwood to bend it. Some even use the torch to thoroughly burn deadwood.


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