Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Case of Karl Holtey

I wrote a short review of Karl Holtey’s No. 982 smoothing plane for the October 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine (which is mailing now to subscribers). And you don’t write a review of a tool that costs $10,500 without bracing yourself for some comments from readers.

Overall, I quite liked the tool, which was on loan to us for several months from its owner. For me, the experience was like driving the BMW 700-series sedan that belonged to a friend of my mom. At first it was terrifying, and I handled the tool like an injured wombat. After a few weeks of babying it, however, I started to explore its limits.

Over the weekend, I received the following letter from reader Dave Makarewicz, which asked a lot of good questions.

Earlier this afternoon I read your Tool Test article about the Karl Holtey 982 smoothing plane. While I’ve heard the Holtey name in the past I’ve never really investigated Karl or his work. One item that caught my attention was the price quoted in British pounds, so I did the math and realized that we’re talking about the “upper stratosphere” of hand tools. OK now you’ve really got my interest cranked up! I spent some time on Karl’s web site to see what I could learn and it’s obvious Karl is a superb craftsman, dedicated to achieving near perfection.

So now all day long I can’t get this review out of my head, and I have a few questions. Can you shed some light as to who uses a tool of this caliber? Realizing that Karl’s planes are one-off commission pieces, how much better can this tool be as compared to say a Lie-Nielsen plane? At that level I’m thinking this thing jumps out of the box and starts planing all by itself. And lastly your comment about the tote attachment coming loose really floored me, You’re telling me that my $10,000 handplane is going to have problems? That’s like the salesman at the Bentley dealership telling me that the knobs on the dashboard have a tendency to fall off!

If I’m shelling out that kind of dough Karl himself had better be coming over to tweak the tote attachment and he’s going to have to bring doughnuts too!

I think you are a truly lucky fellow to be able to get hold of stuff like this and try it out. I also think it’s important that us commoners get to see that these things really exist, and I believe that men like Karl raise the bar for everyone.

Here are some answers.

1. Who uses a Karl Holtey plane?

I know that some of Holtey’s planes never go to work in a shop, and that’s typical among the customers of all the custom toolmakers. But I do know that Garrett Hack has a Holtey No. 98 that sees a fair amount of use. I saw Hack’s Holtey at a show about five years ago and it was worn and well-patinated. And Hack had only praise for the tool. David Charlesworth also has a couple of Holtey’s planes that get put to the wood. And I know a few home woodworkers who both collect and use the planes from Holtey and other markers.

It’s my hope that every well-made tool gets to see some action.

2. How much better is a Holtey plane compared to other premium tools?

This point gets debated all the time on the woodworking forums. The argument goes something like this: People who dislike the tool say there’s no way that a $10,500 tool planes a piece of wood 26.25 times better than a $400 plane. And they’re right. People who like the tool say that’s like comparing a Honda Accord to a Ferrari Enzo. And they are right, as well.

At a certain price point, all tools do a tremendous job, just like all chairs hold you off the floor in relative comfort. But it’s up to you as to whether you want a chair from Ikea or Sam Maloof.

3. About that tote coming loose.

The tote of the plane did come loose, but I wouldn’t make too much of it. The totes on all my planes come loose from using them (even a Ferrari needs new brakes and an oil change on occasion). I asked Holtey about it via e-mail and here’s his response:

“The metal stem inside the handle is only anchored at the top end. This is to allow some movement due to shrinkage; otherwise the handle would crack. With this shrinkage you may notice the loosening on the handle screw and it just needs a little more tightening.

“Another solution to shrinkage is to use a polymer but for some reason it hasn’t caught on.”

And that’s exactly right. Tightening up the handle fixed it. I mentioned it (briefly) in the review only to point out that this is a real tool.

I’ll add one more question to this list, even though Dave didn’t ask.

4. Why review a tool that is out of reach of most subscribers?

Once a year we publish plans in our magazine for what could best be termed a “fantasy” project , a piece of work that most woodworkers would like to build but is out of their league at this point. We do this because we want to inspire our readers to become better woodworkers. And we want to show them what good design and good craftsmanship looks like.

And that’s why I chose to write about Holtey’s plane in our pages. If given the chance, wouldn’t you want to pore over a cabinet by James Krenov? Sit in a chair made by Sam Maloof? Use a plane by Karl Holtey?

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Resources on Custom Plane Makers

– Visit Karl Holtey’s web site and be sure to read his blog. His level of craftsmanship is tremendous. holteyplanes.com.

– Konrad Sauer of Sauer & Steiner also writes a blog that details the construction of his custom infill planes. sauerandsteiner.com.

– Wayne Anderson is also one of my favorite makers. I own a few of his planes. Each one is unique. andersonplanes.com.

– I discuss a lot of the custom planemakers (and compare their tools to James Krenov’s) in my book “Handplane Essentials.” This sizable book is a compilation of my best writing on handplanes during the last 10 years.

17 thoughts on “The Case of Karl Holtey

  1. Rob

    Hi Chris,

    It is nice that in nearly every field of endeavor or enjoyment, that we can buy in at the level we like or can afford. Having choices are cool. I am sure we all have a nice thing or two. It may be a tool, fine china, a home theater, or something

    Karl gets that his planes are not for everyone, and he knows he could not accomplish his goals for the tool if he was making them for everyone. He has clients, and that is an enjoyable position for any businessman. I am sure his work has and continues to raise the bar, and other toolmakers as well as culture in general recognizes this and some go back to sharpen their pencils. Overall, this is a good thing.

    Not everyone can afford a Holtley, nor can everyone afford fine art, but the world is a better place for having both. It is nice to see where the edges of the envelope are.

    Bests, Rob

  2. Mitchell

    From my perspective, reading a Popular Woodworking review of a Karl Holtey plane gives me the same kick as watching Top Gear test a Buggatti Veyron.

    The only problem I have with it is trying to figure out if "The Schwarz" is the equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson or James May.

  3. Lee Laird

    Chris-

    Great article! Closest thing I have is the blem smoother from Economaki. Even that drew visit to the CFO (read as wife)! Ha. We did get the chance to see one of Holtey’s planes up close and personal when we stopped at the administrative office of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship woodworking school, while in Maine. It was beautiful.

    Best,

  4. Greg Barringer

    I’m a dedicated Lie Nielsen fan. I can’t justify purchasing everything that Tom produces, however, I do it anyway. Just to hold the tools makes me feel better.

    I just handled the new Stanley planes over the weekend and man are they JUNK. Eighty-five bucks for a block plane that is a very disappointing chunk of metal is really expensive! Keep the reviews coming–we will make up our own minds as to what we want to purchase.

  5. Floss

    "Let me see. A 10,000 dollar tool planing a 5 dollar board of walnut."

    He’s planing against the grain.

  6. Damien

    I appreciate technical articles about woodworking tools and certainly this blog. But … the Hotley plane looks like cold metallurgy. In metallurgy the magic is in the fire. It’s similar to a top level cold kitchen where bacon and eggs are unknown. As an engineer I prefer a plane made of cast iron or even the less challenging cast bronze to an assembly of metal sheets. My pre-war German wooden planes have a laminated blade with a chrome finish, that’s challenging metallurgy. And as a woodworker I probably prefer a Krenov plane, even when the other plane cuts better, just for the magic.

  7. Dave C

    Let me see. A 10,000 dollar tool planing a 5 dollar board of walnut. Although I respect the man and his talents to produce such a product at some point one has to justify in an economic fashion the value of a tool for the business. I have seen many videos of a famous furniture making company in the US and not once did I see an expensive infill plane in their arsenal. To me, although beautiful I classify them as yuppy tools. Just my opinion-completely unnecessary to do great woodworking.

  8. John Cashman

    I will never own a $10,000 plane. I would be afraid to hold one for fear of breaking it, and handing over my first-born to the plane’s owner. But I do enjoy reading about them once in a while.

    I especially like comparing the way these top-tier craftsmen approach their work. Consider the differences, for instance, between planemakers Bill Carter and Karl Holtey. Their work processes and tools have nothing in common, but both men produce incredible planes, every one a work of art.

    Keep writing ’em Chris, and I’ll keep reading ’em.

  9. Swanz

    I love seeing and reading about Holtey, Anderson, Marcoux etc. fine planes. I’m glad there’s a market for these guys, it ups the game.
    I got my Krenov smoother so I’m happy.

  10. Adrian Baird Ba Than

    I am fortunate in a number of ways,I was born & live in Scotland 5 hours drive from Karl Holteys workshop.I’ve met the man & his lovely wife & seen his workshop in person.I also own one of Karls less expensive models,the 11-sa.
    It is a work of extreme beauty & precision & whenever I have to smooth a piece of wood this plane does the job & makes me smile whilst I’m doing it.
    I disagree with Brian,Karl isn’t dismissive of others work,he just sets himself apart by doing the very best he can to produce a tool that will do its job to the highest of standards & also be stable enough to last for not only my life but for centuries.
    The prices are high when compared to other planes,my plane is by far the most expensive thing I own & I’m not sure the jobs I perform with it couldn’t be performed with a Lie Nielsen but what I do know is it is worth every penny of the $3865 I spent to aquire it.
    Karl is a dedicated man,obsessive even & he puts more than time & money into the production of these planes,he puts his heart & soul into them.
    I asked Karl how many 11-sa planes were in existence,less than 50,he said & there isn’t likely to be anymore made either as he has other projects he wants to develop.
    I’m in an exclusive club & I would like to own more than one Holtey plane but I have too many other creative pursuits to justify spending several more thousand pounds but if I get to the point where I have all the tools I ever need (unlikely!)I will start saving up…
    Black

  11. Asher

    "At a certain price point, all tools do a tremendous job, just like all chairs hold you off the floor in relative comfort. But it’s up to you as to whether you want a chair from Ikea or Sam Maloof."

    It amazes me when woodworkers bash craftsmen who dare charge "high" prices for fine, custom work. Aren’t we all trying to make something better than the mass-produced junk that’s everywhere? I can’t justify buying a Holtey plane (since it would wipe out my tool budget for a couple of years!) but I’m envious of those who can afford such beautiful tools, and I applaud Karl for doing his part to keep fine craftsmanship alive.

  12. Paul Chapman

    I was at a woodworking show yesterday. David Charlesworth was there and had his Holtey plane with him which he let me use. It was very nice. It’s good that at least some owners use them – they work too well not to be used.

    Cheers 😉

    Paul Chapman

  13. Bill Dalton

    Did you really plane the board with the brass bench dogs in place, or was that just for the photo contrast? I’m glad they don’t make tools like this for the lathe, I would be really, really poor.

  14. Brian Ogilvie

    I thought the review in the magazine was great! Karl has a blog where he shows how the monsters are made (http://www.holteyplanes.com/blog/).

    He is a great craftsman and machinist (all of the wood surfaces are cut on a milling machine, for instance). Seeing his work-holding jigs to make the planes is definitely not to be missed! There is also a surprising amount of hand work involved.

    Reading his blog, it is clear that Karl wants to be the best in the world and he is very dismissive of other plane maker’s work. But then again, he may just be the best in the world–who is to say?

    Brian

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