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.