Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Karl Holtey of Wooden Planemakers

Whenever I’m in the presence of a piece of furniture that is designed and built to perfection , such as a chair by Brian Boggs , it is a thoroughly humbling experience. Like I should just put my tools up for sale on eBay and take up a serious hobby of finally mastering tiddlywinks.

And after a few years of using planes from Clark & Williams, I should, by all rights, feel the same way. The planes that come from this planemaker’s workshop in Eureka Springs, Ark., are as perfect a piece of woodworking as you will ever find. Every detail, inside and out, of the planes is crisp. The surfaces of the beech tools look as good as any piece of fine furniture at Winterthur. And the overall design aesthetic of the tools connects you directly to the best 18th-century British planemakers.

But here’s the thing about these tools. When I use them I’m not humbled. I am, instead, inspired to push my furniture-making skills to their absolute limit. To make my furniture look as good as these planes look (and work).

I’m not alone. Whenever we have visitors in the shop (or whenever I teach), I put a Clark & Williams 3/16″ beading plane in their hands and show them how to use it. Within four or five strokes, they are hooked, usually forever.

I’ve owned a small coffin-shaped smoother from Clark & Williams for more than five years. But it wasn’t until almost two years ago that I became totally ensnared. I got to borrow an entire set of hollow and round moulding planes, plus, I logged some time on the company’s plow plane (for cutting grooves) and moving fillister plane.

The list of moulding planes I want has gotten to the point that I am considering teaching more woodworking classes somehow just to get the scratch up to buy them. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these tools are expensive at all. Considering the craftsmanship and handwork involved (not to mention the performance) I consider the Clark & Williams planes to be a bargain. A half-set of hollow and round planes (that’s 18 planes) is $2,455. That’s $137 per plane. Buying them one at a time is, obviously, more expensive.

Now, if you are interested in these planes but cannot afford the tools, your gut reaction might be to buy old moulding planes instead. This can be a perilous path. For every four moulding planes I buy off eBay, usually one is serviceable. The rest have warped wooden stocks, hopeless wedges or irons that verge on worthless.

So instead, I have a second option for you: Make your own. Larry Williams has a new three-hour DVD that is just out from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks that explains the process. Not just making the wooden stock, but about how to design the plane, how to sharpen and use the planemaker’s tools and how to fabricate the irons. The DVD is a time capsule of traditional methods that have all but been lost and is enjoyable to watch even if you don’t want to build a plane.

A few weeks ago a couple readers visited our shop, and one of them brought a couple of his Karl Holtey planes. Holtey makes the finest metal planes I’ve ever seen. Every construction detail is perfect, no matter how closely you look. We set up one of the Holtey planes and started making shavings on the nastiest Jatoba board we could find.

But the hero of the day was my little 3/16″ beading plane. After making their first bead, both readers were ready to order one for their shop. That beading plane is as perfect as anything I’ve seen from Holtey’s shop. And I’ve seen quite a few.

If you ever have the opportunity to get your hands one a Clark & Williams plane at a woodworking show or in a friend’s shop, do not pass up the chance. The planes were my ticket to the next stage of craftsmanship. And they might well be yours.

- Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “The Karl Holtey of Wooden Planemakers

  1. John Leko

    I cannot wait to take their class this coming year at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. I just wish that I could have enrolled in the five day version, but another course conflicted. At least there is the weekend version.

    From what I recall, they are also teaching a plane making class at Kelly Mahler’s school too.

  2. Stephen Bachner

    Hey Chris. I’ve never been close to a C&W plane, but I have no doubt about the quality…top notch! Mack Headley at Colonial Williamsburg uses them! But as you cite, they are expensive. Now, acquiring molding planes via Ebay is a big mistake. Instead, The Best Things is a great source of old molding planes that are in great shape, unless Lee says otherwise. And the prices are very reasonable. I prefer the old planes because of the patina and because of the history of the tool. That said, I’m sure one of those stray emails my wife gets this time of year will have a C&W hyperlink ;o).

    Cheers,
    SteveB.

  3. Kent Adkins

    Chris, excellent comments. I agree the hero of our visit to your shop was the 3/16 beading plane. Two are on order as is the drawer bottom plane. Looking forward to blogs on the drawer bottom plane and the plow plane. Can’t wait to receive my three Clark planes–it will be a long wait though. I am now hooked. ka

  4. Paul Kierstead

    Sheesh, I was contemplating getting one or two in the near-ish future, now the waiting list will even longer….

    Good review and I love to see the promotion of small toolmakers making superb products. I look forward to having a crack at making one too; between this video and Classic Plane Making with Tod Herrli I should have a chance..

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