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Pots and Tools
Pots History    |    Chinese Pots    |    Japanese Pots    |    Pot Classifications    |    Researching a Proper Pot    |    Pot Selection     |   Pot Color    |   Color Wheel   |   Pot Preparation    |    Potting

Tools      |      Tool Care      |      Sharpening


Pots History
 by Nanci Strickland, Former Club President

Most bonsai pots first originated  in China and Japan. A few were from Korea, Taiwan and Southern Asia. Some were made in Holland and Portugal and imported to Japan. Soon after World War II, Japan monopolized the production of bonsai pots. China and Korea were producing some but in very small quantities. Since bonsai has become so popular all over the world, some of the other countries have begun to make their own pots including the United States.  

Sources of Information:
John Naka, Bonsai Techniques I and
Bonsai Techniques II
Yuji Yoshimura, The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes
David De Groot, Basic Bonsai Design
Colin Lewis & Neil Sutherland, Growing & Displaying Bonsai – Step-by-Step
Ken Norman, Create Your Own Bonsai – 50 Step-By-Step Projects
Hu Yunhua, Penjing, The Chinese Art of Miniature Gardens
Peter Chan, The Complete Book of Bonsai Principles and Practice
Deborah R. Koreshoff, Bonsai Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy

Chinese Pots History

The Chinese started making porcelain containers in the Sung Dynasty (420– 479 A.D.),  Yuan dynasty (1260 – 1368 A.D.), and the Ming dynasty (1369– 1644 A.D.).  These were magnificent pieces and treasured as an antique collection, but were not used for plants.  It was in the late Ming dynasty to the Ching dynasty (1645-1912 A.D.),  when they first started using them for plants.

The city of Yixing, China is located on the west bank of Lake Tai Hu.  The area has a special clay for pottery called purple sand. There are several kilns in this area and all of them combined are known as the Yixing kilns.  Most of the pots fired in this area wre unglazed earthenware. These were made in the period of Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735), and Qianlong (1736-1795) and produced some of the most popular and known unglazed containers.  During the period of Jiaqing (1796-1820) through Xuantong (1909-1911), which is equivalent to the Meiji period (1869-1911) in Japan, the Japanese imported their pottery from the Yixing kilns, and continued to do so until the outbreak of World War II.

Japanese Pots History

According to Japanese history, during the Yamato era (538 A.D.), Buddhism was brought into Japan from China and with it the existing primitive potter. Later many Japanese priests and scholars visited China and brought back this ceramic culture too. During the Kamakura period (1192-1319), several Buddhist priests were founding the different sects of Buddhism. Among their works is a scroll showing a group planting, arranged with trees and grass in a shallow pot. This is considered the evidence of the beginning of bonsai in Japan.
In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), there was a famous NOH play called HACHI-NO-KI that means “The potted tree”.  Caring for potted plants became a hobby for the noblemen and Buddhist priests. Toward the end of the Kamakura period and extending into the Muromachi period (1400-1600), there were kilns operating in Tokoname, Shigaraki, Tanba, Bizen, Echizen and Seto. These were known as the six ancient kilns of Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1867), trade was restricted by Tokugawa Shogunate, so many kilns were established throughout Japan. These kilns were identified by the name of the area or the location of the kilns. After the Edo period, Tokugawa Shogunate returned the government to Emperor Meiji in 1868. Japan’s trade with foreign countries became wide open again. This Meiji era (1868-1911) was the climax of importing the old Chinese pots. The glazed earthenware and porcelain became very popular, and it was at this time that the Japanese discovered the outdoor incense burner that the Chinese were making.  It was very simple, unglazed and deep which made it ideal for plants, so the Japanese ordered some for this purpose. The Chinese people with their tremendous patience took several months firing these pots at very low temperatures, using only rice straw for fuel. This is the secret behind the quality of the Chinese antique pots.

In the meantime, demand was greater than the supply, so the Japanese potters started making some of their own. Tokoname is still making bonsai pots.  The Chinese pots imported into Japan were given specific identification to indicate the time or period of arrival. The pots that arrived approximately 200 to 300 years ago were identified as KOWATARI, meaning old-crossing and are valued today as antique bonsai containers. Pots imported 60 to 100 years ago during the Meiji era (1869-1911) were called NAKAWATARI or middle-crossing. There was more variety by then and the quality was just as good as the KOWATARI and although these are not “antique”, they are still regarded as being old. Pots arriving prior to World War II in the Taisho era (1912-1926) were identified as SHINWATARE or SHINTO, meaning new-crossing. These were mass produced in large quantities from 1911 to 1940 due to the increase in numbers of bonsai enthusiasts in Japan. Pots imported after WWII and up to today are called SHIN-SHIN-TO, or new-new-crossing. Within the last few years, the Japanese bonsai people took some of the KOWATARI, old original pots, back to China (Yixing kilns) to have them duplicated, and these are also called SHIN-SHIN-TO, the new Chinese pot. Some of these have been appearing in the different bonsai nurseries in the United States.

An excellent source for additional information on how to identify Chinese and Japanese pots, marks and seals is John Naka’s book Bonsai Techniques II.

Pot Classifications

Pottery can be divided into three classes – terracotta, stoneware and porcelain. The difference lies in the ability of different clays to withstand temperature. Terracotta is fired from 950 to 1100 degrees C, stoneware from 1100 to 1350 degrees C, porcelain from 1350 to 1400 degrees C and occasionally above that. Clay has to melt a little to become strong and coherent. Terracotta has a very short range and usually is not brought to vitrification point. Stoneware is brought to the vitrification point and water absorption is almost nil. Porcelain is fully vitrified and is a form of glass.

A terracotta pot is ideal from the horticulturalist’s point of view. It is porous, lets in air to permeate the soil more easily, thus supplying roots through the porous walls of the pot with needed oxygen. It dries out quickly giving a headache to the gardener, bu  health to the plant. Its drawback is its fragility and garishness of the glazes.

Stoneware is stone hard pottery. The glazes are beautiful. The gardener has to be careful when watering plants as the evaporation is proceeding from the soil surface therefore the soil itself should have as near perfect draining properties as possible. The stoneware glazed pot is usually accepted as standard for bonsai hobby. Some are unglazed, made smooth by polishing very refined clay when in “leather-hard” state before firing. This type of pot is usually good looking provided there are no painted designs drawn in a contrasting color.

Porcelain pots are seldom used for bonsai because most of them have overglaze enamel decoration. Usually expensive antiques as collectors’ items, occasionally porcelain pots are used for flowering plants if it is an older near perfect bonsai worthy of such a pot.

Pots and trays chiseled from stone are usually used for miniature landscapes.

Western style pots are now being created by potters in unique and unusual designs, colors, and of numerous materials. Fiberglass is sometimes used for making very large pots where lightness and strength are important factors. For the do-it-yourself enthusiast, concrete pots can be an alternative to proper ceramic ones.

Pots come in all different shapes and sizes ranging from thimble size to some made for trees over six feet tall. Pots with no holes are called waterbasins which are used almost exclusively for displaying rock landscapes or sui-seki, water stones. Collecting pots can also become a hobby with many collectors only purchasing the small miniature pots.

Researching a Proper Pot

Photographs in books and on computer websites are wonderful tools for researching the type of container to choose for bonsai. Viewing photos of the specific tree type to be potted, in the various pots others have selected, helps to narrow the selection and make a proper or suitable decision.

Pot Selection

David Vanbuskirk, owner of  D&L Nursery reminds us of the following basics to keep in mind for pot selection:
2/3rds tree height = pot length
1/3rd tree height = pot width (turn pot up on its edge)

Once the length is selected, the width is already determined by the potter
Trunk diameter = pot depth
Masculine (evergreens & deciduous) vs. feminine (flowering bonsai) 
Unglazed vs. glazed

The above basics, branch spread, tree placement in the pot as well as others are explained very well in "Basic Bonsai Design" by David De Groot.  Selection of pots goes hand in hand with upkeep and improvement of bonsai. A bonsai pot is an integral part of the composition and must complement the tree to form a harmonious unit. The art of bonsai is not just the styling of a tree, it is the comparison picture of a tree in a pot just as a painting in its frame. It is necessary to know the relationship between tree and pot. One must compliment the other; the pot should be chosen to show off the bonsai to the greatest advantage. It is better to err on the side of a more subdued pot than to overpower the tree. Never transplant first; then shape the tree. After shaping the tree, it can be planted directly in a bonsai pot or a temporary growing pot. Always remember that a pot should be selected for the trained tree. It helps to have an artistic, scientific and philosophic point of view to obtain the best overall effect. Apart from such artistic considerations, one should also think about the horticultural side of bonsai, for instance, will the size or depth of the container be adequate to keep the tree in a healthy and vigorous state. Many trees use up the moisture in the soil at a far greater rate, therefore, needing a deeper container (e.g. willows, crepe myrtles, alders, wisterias, swamp cypress). Others need a deeper pot in order to produce good flowers and fruit (e.g. cherries, pomegranates, wisterias, gardenias, camellias).  

Every bonsai contains four visual elements – line, form, texture and color – by which we define its style and character. Those same elements similarly define a container, the line being either horizontal or vertical, depending on whether the container is shallow or deep; the form being its overall shape (round, square, oval, etc.); the texture being the presence or absence of lines, panels, or other surface decoration, the treatment of the foot and grain of the finish; and color being the color of the fired clay or glaze.

Harmony between tree and pot is very important and cannot be over emphasized. The pot should enhance the quality of the tree by being simple and refined. It must provide a base solid enough to satisfy the eye, yet must not dwarf the tree itself. The four main parts to a bonsai pot are the lip or rim, body, corner and foot. Shape of the pot should relate to the style, shape or character of the tree. Straight trunk style will balance better in a rectangular pot. Curved or soft-lined trunk will look better in an oval, round, round corner, or rectangular pot. Trees trained in slanting styles, such as the cascade and the wind-swept, look best in a round or equilateral pot, the trunk planted in the center and the branches sweeping down over the side. Upright trees show to advantage in oval or rectangular pots and are placed slightly off-center. A tall tree with a slim trunk and delicate foliage should never be planted in a deep, heavy pot, but such a pot is excellent for a tree with a thick trunk and dense foliage. Literati trees are traditionally planted in round in curve pots, but look great in modern pots.

The shapes of the pots themselves are really a matter of taste. Although they are determined to a large extent by convention and fashion, your personal opinion – what looks right to your eye – is what matters in the end.  Remember the Chinese proverb: “rules are for the observance of fools,but provide guidance for the wise”. So do not follow the rules and conventions of bonsai too slavishly. There is scope for improvisation in bonsai, and it is in fact by occasionally breaking these rules and conventions that true creativity results, to give a new and refreshing insight into the art.

Care must be taken to plant the bonsai with its best side to the front and in such a way that the branches harmonize with the shape of the pot. If the branches are longer at one side than the other, the trunk is placed off center, giving the longer branches the greater area of earth to spread over.  Following the same principle, the high point in a group planting should be about one-third from one edge of the pot. If the pot has three feet, the bonsai is placed so that one foot is in the middle of the front of the pot, giving symmetry to the whole; in a cascade style, however, one foot must be directly under the cascading trunk in order to steady the pot.

Below is a summarized chart showing the types of trees and the suitable pot. A few exceptions can be made because of individual taste and availability, but as a whole they have been tried and tested by the masters. The shape, (whether round, oval or rectangle), depends on the tree and the style.


Type of Tree                                            Type of Container
Dainty tree with small trunk Light, thin, shallow
Powerful tree with large trunk Heavy, deep, sturdy
Straight upright, smooth trunk Straight lines, simple, shallow
Rough gnarled trunk Deep, heavy, voluminous
Sparse looking tree Simple, shallow, various shapes
Very dense tree Heavy, voluminous
Young tree Pastels or bright colors, but not gaudy
Old tree Traditional subdued colors, sturdy
Tree with small leaves Simple soft lines
Tree with large leaves Heavy, deep, sturdy
Cascading tree Medium depth to deep

Deborah Koreshoff’s book “Bonsai – Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy" has additional helpful charts for shapes and colors of containers for various types of trees.

It is not wrong to use wooden boxes, fiberglass, cement, plastic or flagstone for temporary pots, but not permanently. These pots are only temporary because eventually they will deteriorate, whereas ceramic or earthenware will acquire a beautiful quality with age. There are some stones or slabs that have the naturalness that can be used in place of pots.

Group plantings, forests and landscapes look best in shallow natural or brown trays (oval or rectangular), slabs, or stone. For the clustered group style where the trees are closely grouped, as though gathered up in the fist and thrust into the dirt, a circular clump looks well in a rather ornate hexagonal or petal-shaped dish, which emphasizes the artificial quality of the tree arrangement, it can also be planted at the highest point of a gentle slope in an oval dish. A long, narrow clump of trees in a narrow, rectangular pot should be so arranged that the tallest tree comes at the focal point.

Pot Color Selection

Bonsai is an art form dealing with living trees. The tree is the primary object and the pot secondary, but the pot must also be complimentary to the tree. The color of the pot must suit the type of tree and ought to contrast with the tree. Glazed and unglazed containers are equally suitable for growing bonsai – just make sure the glaze is not continued on the inside. Pots glazed on the inside should only be used for water plants or to keep a tree’s roots from attaching to the pot but it is not recommended. A heavy tree with dark green leaves requires a dark, rich colored pot, but a delicate, silvery trunk with light green leaves requires a light, delicately colored pot. Pines and deciduous trees require less showy pots, those which will not distract the eye from the beauty of the tree itself. The dull, unglazed pots in the subdued neutral colors of reddish, grey or brown are best for most evergreens. Glazed pots are used mostly for the deciduous trees. It is always permissible to use unglazed pots for deciduous bonsai. Some deciduous bonsai should be planted in a larger and deeper pot because it will require extra consideration due to root conditions.

Green pots are only used for trees with brightly colored flowers, foliage, or fruits. The flowers, fruits, berries and different shades of foliage need to be emphasized and considered along with  the shape and style of the tree. The pots of flowering or fruit trees are chosen to display the blossoms rather
than the leaves, since it is then that the bonsai is enjoyed; consequently, colored pots and pots with a high glaze are often used. A pastel colored pot is best for bonsai with spring flowers; a dark colored pot for bonsai with beautiful autumn foliage. For red flowers, use a green pot. For orange berries, the pot can be blue. Subtle colors of unglazed earthenware have become popular. Not only do they harmonize with most plants but the colors bring a philosophical enjoyment and satisfaction of being close to the earth. Most conifers, deciduous, flowering or fruit trees will accept the natural colors of theunglazed pots. A white pot (not chalky white), but an off-white, such as ivory, beige, or light gray can be used for non-conifers. A famous saying in Japan is “Green pine growing in the white sand.” Occasionally pines are planted in white pots for this reason but normally the unglazed pots are preferred.  

When purchasing pots, the following points should be remembered:

Ensure the pot is stoneware, which is front-proof, as opposed to earthenware, which is not.  Earthenware pots will rapidly disintegrate with the first hard frost. A simple test is to wet the unglazed surface of the pot to see if it absorbs the water. If    it does it is earthenware, if the water wipes off cleanly the pot is stoneware.

There must be excellent drainage. The holes should be at least three times greater in number and size than in a conventional flower pot.

The floor of the pot must be level, so that no pockets of water can accumulate in the base. Check that there are no indentations in the corners where the feet are fixed.

All pots must have feet in order to leave space for the drained water to flow away.

Avoid pots which are glazed on the inside. This provides an inhospitable surface for the roots to adhere to for stability of the tree and will cause the soil to dry out too quickly around the perimeter of the pot.

Color Wheel

To assist in determining what pot color to use keep in mind the color wheel

Colors that are contiguous go best for bonsai.

Complimentary colors can be used if appropriate.
That is a Red/Maroon/Brown pot with a tree with green foliage.
A rust or light orange pot could be used with a tree with a blueish foliage.
An orchid colored pot could be used with a tree with yellowish foliage or yellow flowers.

Pot Preparation

The New Pot

When using a new pot, there are a few points that should be checked. Firstly, while not essential, it is a good idea to soak a new earthenware (terracotta) pot or one that has been sitting in a dry storage area for awhile, for about 30 minutes in water. The reason for this is that a very dry or new earthenware pot is likely to draw too much water into itself before roots can take in the moisture for the newly planted tree.  Secondly, check that the drainage holes in the pot allow the water to drain out completely – if there is a raised ridge around the holes, this should be ground down so that water may escape easily. Finally, when choosing the front of the pot, check which side has the better color and shape.  Choose the side that has no warp or scratch marks and make sure that all the legs of the pot touché the table or floor. If they don’t, one leg may be supported with some material like plastic cement and this leg placed at the back.

The Old Pot

Always thoroughly clean your pot inside and out then let it dry to kill any unwanted bugs, fungi and diseases prior to potting the tree – even new pots might be considered for this cleaning procedure.  Cover the holes with a porous material; plastic mesh is good to stop the soil falling through. This also prevents certain types of unwanted pests from entering the soil through the holes. Insert wires prior to potting if you think they might be needed to hold the tree upright in the pot. Wires can always be removed if not used or not needed. An alternate to wiring the tree/trees in place is placing stones on top of the root system, filling dirt underneath the stones; leaving the stones in place (sometimes several months) until the dirt has settled in around the roots stabilizing the tree.


Before putting the plant into the pot, the root system should be examined and the older roots removed. When the plant is ready for the pot, it must be studied to determine which side is best to face the spectator. If a rectangular or elliptical container is used, the tree should be planted toward one end, the right or left according to the shape of the tree; in either case it should be placed at a point seven-tenths of the distance from one end just back of the middle. That is the best spot, not only from an aesthetic point of view, but for trimming, training and developing the tree.  

A layer of small stones or coarse grit should be spread over the bottom of the pot to allow free drainage of excess water. Depending on the type of tree, this is not always done. When placing the tree in the pot, it is a good idea to make a mound of soil under the root ball, so that when you settle the tree down you know the roots will be in good contact with the soil. Remember to twist the tree round clockwise and anticlockwise (carefully) when you are potting, because this also helps to ensure a good contact between roots and soil. When adding the final amount of soil, work it in carefully around all the roots with a chopstick to make sure that the soil is in contact around all of the roots. The tree should be firm in its place, if not, continue to add soil into “cones” made with the chopstick until the tree is firmed up.

The plant should be watered as soon as it is potted. For a week or more the pot should be kept in half-shade and foliage sprayed freely; and it should be placed in the sun half-a-day for four or five days, and after that exposed to the sun all day.


From left to right……..
Leaf cutter
Medium scissors
Concave cutter *
Trimming scissors *
Wire cutters*
Rake with spatula*
Paste to seal any ‘cuts’ made on bonsai trunks/branches 

There are special tools used in bonsai. Basic work can be done without purchasing all the tools initially. However, the starred (*) tools above should be in your tool box.

Basic Bonsai Tools
 by David Van Buskirk, Owner of D&L Nursery

The first tool you will need for bonsai is a good pair of shears. I use a Garden Cut Shear for most small branch pruning and a Satsuki Hasami Shear for leaf removal, and up to small branch pruning. There are many types of shears in various sizes, as you get more experienced you will be able to tailor your needs to specific shears. You must keep your shears clean and sharp. I wipe and oil mine every time I finish the day. It is easier and better to keep your tools sharp then to let them dull and have to bring them back to sharpness. A sharp pair of shears will make a cleaner cut. I do keep an older, duller pair of shears for when I work on Ficus, it seems they bleed less then when using a sharp pair.

The next tool you will need to add to your tool roll, is next to your shears the most important, a concave cutter. They come in several sizes, the most useful size to start with is 8" overall length. These tools are designed for cutting branches flush to the trunk, they will bite into a branch completely from its base and cut the branch base flatly, which will promote faster healing with less scarring.

Now that you have your shears and concave cutters your next tool to add to your tool roll, oh yeah, you have to get a tool roll to keep them all in, will be a wire cutter. Bonsai wire cutters have a rounded head so you can cut right up next to the branch without harming it, also long handles to easily reach into branches. Wire cutters come in various sizes, the thickness of the wire dictating the size of cutters. A good basic size has 3/8"-½" head and is about 8" in overall length. It is always best to cut the wire off a branch than to try to unwind it, you don’t want to take the chance of damaging the cambium, new buds or even worse breaking the branch.

You are starting to get a collection of tools you will need to learn how to care for them. Ever heard the saying, take care of your tools and your tools will take care of you? The best care for your tools is never allow them to rust, I clean and oil mine after each use. Keep them sharp, it is easier and better to keep a sharp edge then to allow the tool to dull and then try to re-sharpen it. I use a Joshua Roth tungsten carbide sharpener on my tools, the knives in the kitchen and every thing that needs an edge. I could probably sharpen my lawnmower blades with it, it is the best sharpener I have ever used, Oh, and by the way we sell them. Don’t use the wrong tool for the job, especially one that is too small, a sure way to chip the cutting edge. When cutting a large branch, cut in increments, not all at one time.

Now you have your pruning shears, concave cutters, tool sharpener and tool roll, the next tool or tools you might want to add is a fork, they are good for removing soil from the root ball. A root pick for getting in closer around base and roots you want to keep. Tweezers are another handy tool, great for pulling weeds, I use them a lot for pinching off growth tips.

By know, you are getting pretty serious and will need to start wiring your trees, removing the wire will require wire cutters. Bonsai wire cutters, unlike the wire cutters found in most home tool boxes are designed specifically for bonsai wire, with a rounded head to prevent damage to the bark with jaws that cut the wire symmetrically and cleanly. This allows you to get close to the trunk or branch as you cut the wire. Wire cutters are available in different sizes and grades. A good basic cutter is intermediate grade and 8" overall length.

Seeingas the last tool was a wire cutter now I guess you might need some wire. Bonsai wire is either copper colored aluminum wire which is the most commonly used wire or anodized copper wire. Copper wire is mainly used on Pines and where you need more holding strength. Aluminum wire is easier to work with and is reusable. Although in most instances it is advisable to remove the wire from your tree by cutting it off rather than unwinding it, which could result in bud damage or branch breakage.

A root cutter should be next on your tool list. They are specifically designed for pruning roots during transplanting and re-potting. They generally come in two sizes around 8"and 11". The straight cutting blades are much stronger then your concave cutters. This makes it easier to cut larger roots and branches. You can use the straight cutting head to push the smaller roots to the side while getting up into the root ball to remove the larger roots.

I also use them for cutting larger branches and removing a larger amount of wood when carving a trunk down. They will make a flush cut to the trunk or branch, unlike the concave which gives you a concave cut. A concave cut will generally heal completely over and eventually disappear. I will use the root cutter when I want a flush or slightly raised cut, this will leave a scar showing a branch was there, adds a little character.

How to Care for Bonsai Tools
 by Nanci Strickland, Former Club President

Caring for bonsai tools is far easier than trying to work with dull or rusted ones, and it is cheaper than buying new ones every few years. You've made a significant investment purchasing bonsai tools for cultivating and training bonsai. You owe it to yourself to honor your investment and clean your bonsai tools properly after each use.


Always inspect your bonsai tools after each use to be sure they are clean and in good working order. For the most part,  these are sharp instruments and deserve respect.

Clean each bonsai tool of debris and dirt with a cloth. Be gentle and be careful - the blades are very sharp.

Remove any sap. If the blade on your bonsai shears has sap on it, use a little soapy water to remove it. Neglecting to remove the sap will likely cause your bonsai tools to rust.

Remove all difficult stains with a piece of bamboo or a wooden spatula. Specially made cleaning oils such as 'TriFlow' will help loosen stains and add lubrication to help the blades resist rust between gardening jobs.

Oil bonsai tools. Wipe your bonsai tools dry with a clean rag, and then spray a lubricant on them to protect the metal from corrosion, especially if you store your bonsai tools in a damp garage or basement. Tools subjected to constant humidity fluctuations will corrode at an accelerated rate due to moisture condensation.

Use a rust eraser like Sand Flex to remove light coatings of rust, as they can affect both the appearance and utility of your bonsai tools. Be sure any residue is carefully washed and rinsed away.

Apply rust prevention oil. Once the rust is removed, apply a coat of oil to the newly exposed steel to stop the oxidation process in its tracks.


* The Bonsai Outlet recommends using TriFlow as it does not attract dust like other lubricants, however, lubricants such as '3 in 1' oil or choji oil will work fine.


* Bonsai tools can and should be quite sharp. Handle with care, supervise children, and instruct them in proper use.


Tool Sharpening