Test-driving Exotic Infill Handplanes
There are times when I wish I could find my first handplane. It was, by most standards, an utter piece of junk. I had bought it after college during a late-night run to Wal-Mart, and my purchase was guided by the fact that it was blue, cheap and the only block plane I could find on the shelves that evening.
So it was surprising (then and now) that the tool actually worked quite well. It didn’t have a blade adjuster, the sole was rough and the steel in the cutter was as gummy as Juicy gummy as Juicy Fruit. But when I put the tool to wood it made that sweet “sneeeeck” sound of a perfect curl of wood being sliced from its mother board.
It was the first step in my journey. In the last 13 years I’ve slowly upgraded my handplanes. After buying a Stanley jack plane, the blue plane went into my carpentry toolkit. Then it went into a box in the basement. And now I can’t find it. Occasionally I do get a pang of longing for it. But never have I wanted that block plane more than the day I pushed a $6,600 Karl Holtey A13 infill plane over a piece of curly maple.
A custom-built Holtey A13 is for many handplane enthusiasts the pinnacle of the planemaker’s art – perfect in form, function, fit and finish. And when I first used the A13 I got the same sort of heady feeling you get when you master a handplane for the fi rst time. However, like any buzz, after about 20 minutes of work with the A13, the buzz wore off and I began to think (somewhat) rationally about this beautiful piece of steel and brass under my command.
I set the A13 aside and picked up a plane made by James Krenov, the author of “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” (Linden) and planed the same piece of irascible maple. Then I tried a $2,800 Sauer & Steiner panel plane, a Bill Carter jointer plane, a $1,300 A13 from Darryl Hutchinson, a small $775 smoothing plane from Wayne Anderson and more infill planes from custom builders Robert Baker and Brian Buckner. That was a very good day.
Before you wonder if I’ve won the lottery, let me explain. Many of these planes (and a dozen more) were loaned to us by a generous and trusting man named John Edwards. Edwards, a retired automotive engineer from Detroit, amassed his collection of modern handplanes after years of saving and careful purchasing. He and I are both handplane geeks, and so we got together in February in the magazine’s shop, tuned up these planes and put them to work, deliriously making shavings on boards both mild and wild.
We also invited many of the makers of these tools to have a look at the planes on a following day. See the story “Mavericks for a New Era” below.
After three days of using these tools, I recorded my impressions in a legal pad, took some photos and now am ready to share what we found. There were a few surprises, some disappointments and a small revelation at the end. If you’ve ever gazed longingly at some of these beauties on the internet or at woodworking shows and wondered “But do they work well?” you’re about to find out.
Karl Holtey A13: Perfect to the Nth Degree
Sole length: 9″ | Weight: 6 lbs. 2 oz. | Pitch of iron: 50° | Mouth opening: About 1?64″
Iron: S53 steel, .183″ thick, 2-1/4″ w. | Contact: holteyplanes.com or (UK) 01549 402500
Karl Holtey’s A13 (in the background) and his new
11-S both proved to be formidable planes when put to work.
I actually never thought I’d get to use one of these planes. In fact, this plane almost didn’t make it here in time after getting tangled up in U.S. Customs for a breathtaking bit after its trip from Holtey’s shop in Sutherland, England.
Holtey was one of the early pioneers of the modern infill makers. And his reputation, quality of work and prices all reflect the fact that most people see him as the top of the heap.
The Holtey A13 is based on a classic pattern of English plane made by the venerable Norris company. And it’s one of Holtey’s signature planes (his other, the No. 98, will be discussed shortly). Once you hold one of the tools you understand a bit of the Holtey mystique. The man is a perfectionist. No matter how closely you examine his tools, you cannot find cosmetic flaws. They are finished both inside and out to the highest degree. Here is just one example: Where some makers (both historic and new) will leave the bed of the plane with a few file marks (which you’ll almost never see because the bed is covered by the iron), Holtey does not.
In fact, the bed of the tool is where we got our first surprise. Holtey secures his irons to the body in a way that’s unlike any other infill toolmaker I know. In other infills the iron rests directly on the wooden infill below it. Sometimes there is a steel plate down by the mouth that offers support as well, but mostly it’s the wood that’s in charge. Some enthusiasts say it’s this wooden bed that makes the tools special.
But Holtey’s A13 mocks that assertion. His irons don’t even touch the wooden infill. Instead, the iron rests on a steel plate by the mouth and two raised steel pins embedded in the tool’s bed. What’s the advantage? In my experience it made the cut much easier to adjust. Even with the tool’s lever cap cinched down super-tight, the iron could still be adjusted with little effort – or risk. Many old Norris infill planes have adjusters that were stripped out by people who tightened down the lever cap too much and then adjusted the iron.
See the two steel pins in Holtey’s
A13? The iron is bedded against
these and a steel plate at the throat
– not the wood. Most unusual and
The Holtey A13 is surprisingly comfortable to use and has a wicked-heavy presence on the wood. What I didn’t like about it was it was uncomfortable to hold the tool upside down when sighting down the sole – a common operation when trying to center the blade in the mouth of the tool. The tool’s front bun is hard to grasp in this position.
That’s a quibble, really. I think I was looking for something – anything – to disappoint me on this tool. Not much cropped up. It’s as close to perfection as you can get. If I had an extra $6,600 I’d love to own one.
Karl Holtey 11-S High-angle Smoother: A High-angle Solution
Sole length: 6-1/2″ | Weight: 2 lbs. 5 oz. | Pitch of iron: 60°
Mouth opening: About 1?32″ | Iron: S53 steel, .168″ thick, 1-1/2″ w.
This new model from Holtey isn’t based on an old plane – it’s one of his original designs. When I first saw it I thought it looked as comfortable to use as a brick. And on that point, I was mostly wrong. The 11-S is easy to cradle with your hands and to control, thanks to its diminutive size. After a lengthy planing session my right hand began to rub on the back edge of the blade, which was annoying, but not awful.
The high cutting angle (called the “pitch”) of the tool made it a remarkable smoothing plane. There was nothing in our shop that it couldn’t handle with ease – and I rooted deep into our scrap pile. Unlike Holtey’s A13, the iron is bedded directly on the wooden infill and the lever cap is removable; it hooks around a pin that passes through the sidewalls of the plane. This feature makes it easy to remove and install the iron.
The only disappointment with this tool is one shared by many of Holtey’s tools, and that’s the particular alloy of steel used in the plane’s cutter. The alloy, called S53, wears astonishingly well. But I found it difficult to sharpen. Some of my stones wouldn’t touch it, and I had to resort to diamond stones to get a keen edge. Even then, I wasn’t confident I had gotten the best edge. This is a personal opinion, but I prefer steel that is easy to sharpen, especially with smoothing planes.
Compared to other Holtey planes, the 11-S is a bargain: about $1,500 with the way the dollar is trading. This is a sweet little tool that cries out to be used. I hope it doesn’t sit on a collector’s shelf.
Karl Holtey No. 98: A Design That Changed the Rules
Sole length: 9-1/2″ | Weight: 4 lbs. 3.7 oz. | Pitch of iron: 22°
Mouth opening: About 1?64″ | Iron: S53 steel, .176″ thick, 2 1/8″ w.
The No. 98 (about $2,900) is another of Holtey’s original designs and it was a groundbreaking tool when he introduced when he introduced it. It was one of the first modern “bevel-up” smoothers, and Holtey’s trailblazing has led to a surge in the popularity of this style of tool.
That said, for a variety of reasons, the No. 98 was my least favorite of the Holtey planes I tested. The adjuster, while ingenious, is fiddly when it comes to installing the iron in the tool. The iron is bored with a series of holes. You drop the iron onto a pin that projects from the plane’s adjuster. Because the hole and the pin have a tight fit, it took me a good deal of messing about to get the iron in place on the pin.
My frustration with the No. 98 was in getting the iron to
drop onto the pin shown here on the adjuster. It took much
fiddling. Once in, however, the tool is a sweet user.
In use, the tool is remarkably balanced and has a sleek modern look that appealed even to my traditional tastes. And it performed admirably. With a steep 38° microbevel on the cutting edge, the resulting 60° pitch made it a formidable smoothing tool.
Classic Planes A13 By Darryl Hutchinson: A More Affordable Workhorse
Sole length: 9″ | Weight: 5 lbs. 15.5 oz. | Pitch of iron: 50° | Mouth opening: Less than 1?64″
Iron: A2 steel, .192″ thick, 2-1/4″ w. | Contact: classicplanes.com or (UK) +44 01647 441015
Darryl Hutchinson’s A13 (right) with a Ray Iles A5. Both are
English makers and produce tools that very much evoke the
classic infifill planes of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Like Holtey, Darryl Hutchinson of Devon, England, also makes a version of the Norris A13. Hutchinson’s plane is similar in form to the Holtey plane, but it’s different in the details. Overall, the level of fit and finish and perfection is lower. But considering that Hutchinson’s A13 costs about $1,300 – about one-fifth of the Holtey A13 – it’s a value among premium tools.
The plane works remarkably well – as anything costing more than a grand should. It has a fine mouth and high pitch to the iron, which make it ideal for fine finishing cuts. Because of the vast price difference, it’s not really fair to compare it directly to the Holtey, so here are my general impressions. The tote is pretty comfortable, though it had more flat areas than I like – I wished it were more sinuous. The front bun is sizable and I didn’t find it as comfortable as an old-fashioned Stanley-style front knob during long planing sessions.
Here you can see the differences between the front buns of the
two A13s – Holtey’s is on the left; Hutchinson’s is on the right.
The adjuster works quite well and had little slop in its mechanism. I found it remarkably easy to get the plane running smoothly and making very sweet cuts. It’s not a fussy tool.
There were some minor cosmetic things: The bed of the tool is essentially unfinished and is covered in file marks. Among its premium-priced peers this is unusual. And there were a few drips of finish in the channel for the adjuster. All in all however, the tool is quite solid, unpretentious and ready to go to work. I quite liked it.
Bill Carter A1 Jointer Plane: Beyond Massive
Sole length: 28″ | Weight: 12 lbs. 5.5 oz. | Pitch of iron: 47° | Mouth opening: less than 1?32″
Iron: High-carbon steel, .169″ thick, 2 1/2″ w. | Contact: 98 Havencrest Drive Leicester, LE5-2AH United Kingdom
The Bill Carter jointer plane dwarfs two smaller Carter miter planes. Carter
sometimes uses recycled materials – the little plane is made from a backsaw.
Bill Carter is another English tool maker, and he was probably the earliest of the modern infill makers. His hand-built infill planes have inspired toolmakers all over the world since he started building in the 1980s.
The jointer plane I used for this article is, like most Carter planes, a work of art. Carter has an excellent and eccentric eye: The dovetails in the sole are fi led in the shape of a cupid’s bow and he has a reputation for adding images of elephants to the sidewalls of his tools. Plus, though all his tools are obviously new, Carter ages the metal and builds them with a decidedly old-world charm.
This jointer plane is as interesting as the man who built it. The story goes that Carter built it first as a 36″-long tool, but when he took it to auctions and tool sales to show it was simply too long to fit into the allotted space in his car. So Carter chopped a bit off each end. He sent the “offcuts” to Edwards when he bought it and suggested Edwards use them as (wait for it …) sanding blocks.
This jointer plane has the presence of a museum piece. The metal is beautifully chamfered and the wooden infill is gracefully shaped. It is absolutely exquisite to behold. But pushing it is another matter. It is my opinion that infill jointers don’t fit the American style of work. They are too heavy to wield for any length of time by mortals. After 10 minutes of pushing this tool up and down my bench, I was ready for a nap. Also, the front infill is difficult to grip – or perhaps I never found the right grip.
I own a small Carter miter plane, and I have used several of his other planes so I know they are eminently usable tools. This jointer deserves a place above the mantle, or as part of an upper-body workout program.
Sauer & Steiner Panel Plane: New Kid on the Block
Sole length: 14-3/4″ | Weight: 7 lbs. 15 oz. | Pitch of iron: 50° | Mouth opening: Immeasurably tight
Iron: High-carbon steel, .186″ thick, 2 1/2″ w. | Contact: sauerandsteiner.com or 519-568-8159
A Sauer & Steiner jointer plane (left) with two panel planes by the
same maker. The Sauer & Steiner planes all have consistent lines.
Konrad Sauer is a graphic designer turned furniture maker turned toolmaker. And all three of those traits are evident in his world-class workhorses. Sauer, who lives and works outside Toronto, incorporates classic touches from historic infill planes such as the venerable Spiers and Norris brands. But he blends them in a way that makes his tools both classic and distinctive. All of his tools look unmistakably like they are in the same vein, even his custom work.
As far as workmanship, Sauer’s planes are at the top of the heap. I could find no flaws in the four bench planes that I inspected closely (two panel planes, one unhandled smoothing plane and a jointer plane). The metalwork was excellent. And the wood showed off Sauer’s strengths as a furniture maker. The infill material he selected was itself astonishing, and the small details – fillets, curves and chamfers – were gorgeous.
But how do his planes function? Remarkably well. Everything clicks and fits together in a workmanlike manner. There’s no fussing with this or that. The adjuster is precise yet not precious. The iron is well bedded on a massive steel throat plate and wooden bed. And the tools (all of them) are a joy to push. Naturally, the high pitch and impossibly tight mouth relegate the panel plane I tested (about $2,800) for smoothing large surfaces, which it does with great aplomb.
Sauer’s business, which has kicked into high gear in the last couple years, will surely flourish because of his energy and the exquisite finished product.
Sauer & Steiner No. 4 Smoothing Plane: Finishing Magic
Sole length: 7-1/2″ Weight: 4 lbs. 4.7 oz. Pitch of iron: 55°
Mouth opening: Immeasurably tight Iron: High-carbon steel, .186″ thick, 2″ w.
The Sauer & Steiner No. 4 smoothing plane is unexpectedly
comfortable. Note how the knuckle of my index finger rubs the
back of the iron; this can be uncomfortable after hours of planing.
I’d really like to hold up this tool for special mention. It lacks a rear tote, which will turn off some users, but I found the plane a delight to wield. The coffin shape of the body and gracefully shaped infills conspire to make this a tool that you unconsciously reach for while working. Like the other unhandled tools I tried, there is a tendency for your hand to rub on the back edge of the iron a bit during long planing sessions, but that’s a small price to pay. Because of the No. 4’s tight mouth (I tried to photograph it but failed because it was too small) and 55° pitch, it’s for finishing cuts alone. This was, to me, one of the most appealing tools of the whole bunch.
Robert Baker Box Miter: Steeped in History
Sole length: 10 1/2″ | Weight: 6 lbs. 1.5 oz. | Pitch of iron: 20° | Mouth opening: Immeasurably tight
Iron: High-carbon steel, .180″ thick, 2-3/16″ w.
(Note: Baker passed away in 2010).
Baker’s amazing and huge miter plane, with two smaller examples of his work.
Baker has been making infill planes for a long time for builders of furniture and musical instruments. But his main line of business is in restoring old tools (and sometimes furniture). He’s quite famous for his restoration work – many gorgeous and important tools have passed through his shop. I think it’s clear that his link to tools of the past has heavily influenced the tools he builds today. They have an unmistakable old-school feel.
The enormous miter plane of his that I got to use was simply an awesome piece of engineering and design. The decorative pattern worked into the sidewalls of the plane was something I’d never seen anything like before (and in fact a couple other toolmakers have wondered how he does it). The wood is finished to a high-grade furniture look. And the details are right-on. This tool was designed to be used on a shooting board and both of the sides were almost exactly perfectly 90° to the sole (the right sidewall of the tool was an airtight 90°; the left just a smidge off). As someone who has tried to “fix” a misaligned sidewall on a few tools I can tell you that this is no small achievement for a handmade tool.
The weight of the plane made it a formidable shooting board plane; your fingers fill right in next to the lever cap like they should live there. The tool was not comfortable when used upright like a bench plane – but few box-shaped miter planes are.
Brian Buckner Damascus Miter: An Amazing Amateur
Sole length: 8 1/8″ | Weight: 2 lbs. 10.1 oz. | Pitch of iron: 20° | Mouth opening: Tiny
Iron: High-carbon steel, .182″ thick, 1 5/8″ w. | Contact: sydnassloot.com/bbuckner/tools.htm
Brian Buckner’s improved miter (rear) and one of his unusual
rabbeting infill planes – both with Damascus steel sides.
Buckner isn’t a professional toolmaker – he does sell some of the planes he makes, but he also holds a high-tech day job in state government. What is particularly interesting about his tools is the level of detail he achieves because he doesn’t have to put food on the table by selling his planes. As a result, everything is over the top. The chamfers he files into the steel sides are (and there’s no other word for it) downright sexy. He used Damascus steel for the sidewalls of this plane, which gives the tool an unmistakable graphic look. The ebony front bun has the presence and precision of a well-made chess piece.
This tool is what’s called an “improved miter” pattern of plane. It’s a form that is related to the box-shaped miter shown at left. What’s improved about it? Well you can use it like a smoothing plane, which is something I’ve become comfortable doing. Buckner’s tool fit in my hands and was effortless to get it set and taking beautiful shavings.
Wayne Anderson Smoother: No Two Alike
Sole length: 5 1/2″ | Weight: 2 lbs. 1.7 oz. | Pitch of iron: 57° | Mouth opening: A sliver
Iron: A2 cryo-treated steel, .189″ thick, 1 1/2″ w. | Contact: andersonplanes.com or 763-241-0138
Three Wayne Anderson planes: A rhino-horn shoulder
plane (rear), a highangle smoothing plane and chariot plane.
First, some full disclosure: I own this particular plane and have been using it regularly for several months now. Anderson’s planes are all built with Swiss-watch mechanicals and European old-world fl air. Every one of his tools is a little bit different than the ones he made before, even if it’s the same basic form. They all have an organic and human-made quality to them that sets them apart from manufactured tools.
This tool, which was made in late 2005, has some unusual characteristics. First, there’s no chipbreaker. This makes the tool simpler to set up – an errant chipbreaker can cause serious clogs. But it also makes the shavings bunch up in the mouth. Chipbreakers have one excellent benefit in bevel-down planes: they push the shavings up and out of the tool. With this smoothing plane (and others I’ve used without a chipbreaker) the shavings will never eject entirely out of the mouth. That said, this tool has yet to clog on me. The shavings simply pile up and come out of the tool in a less dramatic fashion – it’s more like they foam up from the mouth rather than spit out.
The diminutive size of this tool would suggest it’s only for makers of tiny boxes. Don’t believe it. I’ve used this tool for smoothing large surfaces, even tabletops. And it’s excellent for sneaking into small hollows to remove tear-out. As with the other unhandled smoothing planes, you will rub your hand against the iron during extended use. I’ve taken to putting a preventive bandage there before long planing sessions.
And in the End
The final revelation came when I put Krenov’s handplane through the same paces as I did the other tools. By comparison, Krenov’s small polishing plane (7 1/2″ long) is crudely made – the wooden stock looks like it was roughed out with a band saw and knife. The chipbreaker on the iron was roughly ground with many little facets. The mouth was tight (1?32″) but not extraordinarily so. When I disassembled the plane I found that the bed down by the mouth had a layer or two of blue painter’s tape affixed there, perhaps to close up the throat.
But the plane held its own with every other plane on my bench in terms of performance. As did my “work-a-day” tools from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen. The same goes for other high-end tools I’ve already written about: the Ray Iles A5, the Clark & Williams smoothing plane and the new Bridge City variable-pitch plane, which I had only limited time with. Even my vintage Stanleys had nothing to be ashamed of.
I discussed this finding with several toolmakers, none of whom were surprised by it. Robin Lee, the president of Lee Valley Tools, summed it up this way: “The wood doesn’t care.” And he’s right. Thomas Lie-Nielsen, founder and owner of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, put it this way: “A plane is just a jig for a chisel.” And he’s right, too.
If your planes meet the minimum basic requirements of a plane: a sharp cutter that’s firmly secured at an appropriate angle for the wood you’re working, the tool will do an excellent job. So if you think that buying a very expensive plane will make all lumber bow down before you and your tool, think again.
But there are good reasons to buy custom planes – and they’re the same reasons people buy custom furniture when they could go to a discount store and buy an entire bedroom suite for $500. Some people like handmade and exquisite things. And thank goodness, because our mass-manufactured world can use a few handmade touches.
These were the thoughts that were flying around my head as I packed up all the tools used for this article to ship them back to their owner. As I taped the last box and swept up the mounds of shavings we made, I resolved to tear apart our basement looking for my little blue $15 block plane. It just might have some high-end work ahead of it – until I win the lottery, that is. PW
MAVERICKS FOR A NEW ERA
Back row (left to right): Christopher Schwarz, Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, Mark Swanson, Joel Moskowitz, Clarence Blanchard (from the Fine Tool Journal), Mike Jenkins (also from the Journal), John Economaki, Robin Lee. Middle row: Konrad Sauer, Ron Hock, Wayne Anderson, Don McConnell, Larry Williams, Terry Saunders, Robert Baker, Brian Buckner. Kneeling, front left: John Edwards.
When word leaked out that John Edwards and I were going to be setting up and using all of the planes featured in this article, toolmaker Wayne Anderson remarked: “Boy I would like to be a fly on that wall.” After some thought, we decided to open up the door for a day and invite as many modern toolmakers as we could on short notice.
Surprisingly, many of them came. And even more surprisingly, many of them were meeting one another for the first time in our shop. The toolmaking attendees included:
• Wayne Anderson (Anderson Planes)
• Robert Baker (a custom maker)
• Brian Buckner (a custom maker)
• John Economaki (Bridge City Tools)
• Ron Hock (Hock Tools)
• Joel Moskowitz (Tools for Working Wood)
• Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, Mark Swanson (Lie-Nielsen Toolworks)
• Robin Lee, Terry Saunders (Veritas/Lee Valley Tools)
• Konrad Sauer (Sauer & Steiner)
• Larry Williams, Don McConnell (Clark & Williams)
We spent the entire day in our shop swapping personal stories, using all of the tools and generally having a good time. In hindsight, I think we were lucky that a meteor didn’t hit the building that day or modern toolmaking would have been set back about 20 years. — CS
Konrad Sauer and Terry Saunders
look for tear-out on a particularly
nasty piece of wood.
Don McConnell tweaks the
setting on a Clark & Williams
Chris is a former editor of Popular Woodworking, and is now a contributing editor. He is the founder of Lost Art Press, a small company dedicated to publishing books about traditional woodworking techniques.
Read more from Chris on all things planing in “Handplane Essentials” (recently revised) – a 352 brain dump from 15 years of testing and using planes of all sorts.