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  • Writer's pictureTom Lau

Steel Sharpens Steel with Ann Erb

Tool maintenance is a subject that is rarely covered in any bonsai club meeting. It is as essential as basic branch placement or even how to find a front of a tree, but is a subject that is never discussed. That ended this past club meeting with Ann Erb from Nipomo. Ann has been a force in the Southern California Bonsai circle and well respected by her peers. We had a full house that night and everybody was eager to learn about tool maintenance. I was hoping on some tips on Satsuki Azaleas but maybe next time!

Lets get begin with reviving rusted tools:

If your tools has been sitting outdoors in moist conditions they will rust. High carbon steel or even stainless steel tools will rust to a degree. Near the ocean or in a greenhouse even faster. In Florida your done!

Ann's solution is to dip it in water! Nope! Actually in a solution bath of Citric acid solution. Yes, basically lemon juice. She uses a citric acid powder for canning of food. See below.

This type of powder citric acid is much stronger solution than straight lemon juice. Ann uses about 1 part powder to 15 part of water. Of course the stronger the acid solution the more metal it will eat away so becareful.

So the picture above tells alot. This shear has been sitting in that citric acid solution for about 30mins of the presentation. You can tell a distinct divison between the treated and untreated selection of the tool. My verdict it works hands down.

Inital Tool Cleaning:

First step of tool cleaning is using an alcohol wipes to disinfect and clean the tool of stuff on the surface. Ann uses the alcohol wipes from the personal hygiene area of your local drug store. You can always use rubbing alcohol and towel for the house.

Step two is to use those japanese tool erasers to clean the stubborn material off the tools. The eraser really helps with the black pitch from pines and other sap from plants.

There are many vendors that sell this type of eraser in 2-3 different courseness.

Sharpening of tools: tools of sharpen

You will need different grit of grinding stones or wet stones. Ann suggested to use water over oil stones. The reason is that the oil tends to gum up when the metal filings builds up. Water will let the metal filing remove faster and easier from the stone. Ann likes the artifical stones vs the natural stones because of mostly of cost and the usage of oil vs water.

Of course a wheel grinder speeds things up if you have alot of tools to go through. Ann prefers the hand sharpening for finishing and the wheel for the rough grinding. The wheel has different grit on the pads attached to the glass wheel.

Sharpening of tools: Shears and Grafting Knife

The quality of the videos within the website is not HD but open a new tab to Youtube to view them there you get a much better quality image there.

On a grafting knife and shears there are two bevels. You must keep the angle of the grind as similar as possible to the original angle. Always sharpen toward the point of the blade. Always have one motion a single sweeping motion. Never rub back and forth. The video makes more sense than this text.

Sharpening of tools: Branch Cutter

On a branch cutter there is only one bevel on each arm of the branch cutter. The difficult part it is on the inside of the cutter. You must keep the angle of the grind as similar as possible to the original angle. Always sharpen toward the point of the blade. Always have one motion a single sweeping motion. Never rub back and forth. Just like the shears. The main difference the sharpening edge is on the inside of the tool. You will need to buff out any spurs that occur on the outside of the branch cutter. But do not grind too much away from the outside edge because it may rune the alignment of the cut.

Sharpening of tools: Spherical Branch Cutter and Knob Cutter

Spherical Branch Cutter and a Knob Cutter are very similar is sharpening. Both do not have a flat edge to grind against so the traditional flat stones and wheel grinder are out. Ann's solution to this is using the rod knife sharpening tools. See picture below for an idea what she is using.

Ann uses a rolling motion on the spherical branch cutter on the inside edge of the spherical branch cutter just like the regular branch cutters. She again is sharpening toward the point of the blade and removing any spurs that form on the outside edge of the cutter. On the knob cutter, she just uses the rolling motion in any direction because the knob cutters do not have a point. The key is to roll while honing down the cutting edge of the spherical or knob cutter.

Sharpening of tools: Rounded Chisel

A shaped chisel the cutting edge is on the outside of the tool. So a rolling motion is used on a flat grinder stone or a wheel.

Sharpening of tools: Wheel Grinder

Just like on flat stone but the wheel does most of the work. The key is to keep that angle the same during the grinding. Watch the sparks fly!

Tightening Lose Hinges:

There are two different methods to tightening a lose hinge on our bonsai tool Ann explains. It all come down to the manufacturer of the tool. If its Masakuni brand you will need to tap the hinge bolt from the side that does not move when you open or close the tool. A square tap on the bolt head will tighten the tool. Masakuni tools have a tapered hinge bolt that secures the tool together. If you tap the wrong way on a masakuni hinged tool it will loosen the tool. On all other tools but Masakuni you will need to tap around edge of the hinge bolt on the loose side of the tool. The tapping of the center or head of the hinge bolt will do nothing to the tool.

Shears that do not close or cross:

If you have shears that do not cross or close properly, its mostly due to the shear being bent. I have to admit I have a shear that this way because I used the shear on a branch way to heavy for the tool. Ann's solution is to use a hammer and anvil. Strike the shear in the open position on the bent section. Couple of strikes of the hammer and the shears should be back in business.


Beside wooden wedges that most of us have or want to make. Ann suggested a cloth bean or scoria wedge. Just like a wooden wedge but can deform to fit exactly the shape to secure the correct angle.

Alumnium Wire Caddy:

Ann also bring an example of her aluminum wire caddy when she goes traveling. At home she just has large spools of 1kg wire. But when she travels she keeps aluminum wire in kite spools for organized storage in her tool bag. It does keep the wire from tangling up. You can pick up kite spools from Amazon as little as $1.50 in bulk order.

Repotting Stand:

How many of you reading this blog had trouble repotting a tree by yourself. If you understand that problem you have repotted many trees by yourself holding your tree is the most uncomfortable position imagiable! That was me for the past three weekend trying to repot some of my trees. Ann showed us a solution to that enigma. A single person repotting stand! Sound rediculous but think about it. How easy it could be if someone held the tree for you while you had both hands on your tool or tree trying to cut that area right below the trunk of the tree.

The build starts by purchasing a portable work stand from any hardware store. Habor Frieght stores sells these for under $20 bucks when they have a sale and 20% discount coupon we all use and love!

Second cut two long wedges from 2"x4" or any scrap lumber you got hanging around. Drill a hole wide enough to tread between the stand tubing.

Third, after the assembly of the stand lay the wedge pieces against the other side of the stand.

Fourth, place a floaty noodle with a cut down the spine to cover the 2"x4" wedge.

Now image a tree hanging upside down from this stand while you work on it solo! The stand and wedge can be locked into position so that the tree hanging upside down goes no where. Such a great idea Ann! You can even use this device standing or sitting. Ann also mentioned you can make a smaller version out of a folding cloth chair for the table top.

Tada! the finished product with a locking bungle cord!

A new member Leo Mariscal was the winner of this great repotting tool! Time to start repotting Leo!

Thanks Ann Erb for the every informational club meeting on tool maintenance. I think we all from Baikoen learned alot from this meeting. Until next time all! Get those tools sharpened!

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