Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sauer & Steiner Planes

One of the best things about the WIA Marketplace is getting to talk directly with the tool makers. I asked several of them what made their product special and different from the competition. I had intended to present their answers in just one post, but their responses were so thoughtful, I've decided to spotlight each one individually.

Here is the first tool maker I spoke with at the conference: Konrad Sauer from Sauer & Steiner Toolworks.

Konrad is, in a word, adorable. And while that might not affect your buying decisions, it needed to be said.

I'll let Konrad tell you the rest of the story:

"There are quite a few really great planemakers out there - many of whom I would call friends. I am not sure how many of us would consider each other competition but rather recognize that when one of us does well - we all do. There are a few things we are all trying to do. First and foremost - make a highly functional plane (ala plane birds eye without tearout and leave a mirror finish*). After that - we get to 'play' - to impart our own personal sense of what we feel is an artistic expression. I have a foot firmly planted in the original infill design language - the planes I make clearly come from that style. But if you put an original Spiers, Norris or Mathieson beside one of my planes, the lines, shapes and forms are actually quite different.

One of the unique things I am doing is allowing the customer to contribute to the process. They choose the infill material, the sidewall material, the bed angle, the blade width etc. I even ask for a photocopy of their hand to better match their hand size. Because I work with handtools - making these types of alterations is very easy to do, does not add additional cost and results in a very personal tool for the customer.

I am also 'all about the wood'. The most enjoyable part of planemaking is finding a spectacular piece of wood and figuring out how best to use it. Metal is metal - for the most part a piece of 01 tool steel looks like the next piece. This consistency is great for planemaking - but not very exciting. Wood on the other hand is always unique - sometimes even within the same piece. I have spent the last 10 years investing in my wood collection and I think many of my customers enjoy access to some pretty spectacular material."


You can read more about Konrad's planes here.

*Konrad references a planed piece of birds-eye maple with no tearout. I saw this for myself. It was as smooth as glass with a mirror-like reflection.


naomi said...

That looks like the heaviest plane EVER! It's nice how the toolmakers don't see themselves as in competition. Love the new profile pic, Kari!

EMBO said...

Konrad *is* adorable. ;) I'm a sucker for another lefty. His planes aren't half bad, either...

Kari Hultman said...

Naomi, that plane WAS heavy, for sure.

That photo was the only one I could find on the net that didn't highlight my prodigious birthin' hips.

Emily, I hope Pete doesn't see what you wrote. hee hee

Woodbloke said...

Hi Kari - another heretical comment coming up...I should burn quite well!!

A very good pal of mine recently recieved six (that's SIX if you misread it) of Konrad's planes and they are indeed superb examples of the planemakers question.
However in a bench test, using some nice interlocked rosewood, Konrad's planes fared no better than a LV LA jack (correctly set up with a very fine mouth and razor sharp blade) which was disappointing as I was expecting the infills to completely outclass the Veritas...not so!
In addition, the front bun one of Tony's smoothers (yes, he had three!)had warped and pulled the sole in front of the mouth from flat to convex. When I sighted along the sole, the blade 'appeared' to be concave. Of course it wasn't, it was the sole that was convex! In a plane costing well in excess of $1000 I wasn't very impressed.

Can you also give me some savy guidance as why all plane makers seem demonstrate their wares using nice, clean, easy to plane maple (or similar)? What they really need to do to impress the punters at shows is a faultless (or as near decent as possible) finish on some nasty, interlocked paduk -

May take you up on that trip t WIA next year! - Rob

Kari Hultman said...

Rob, did your friend contact Konrad about the smoother? He impressed me as the type of person who would fix the situation, pronto. Unfortunately, I didn't get a shot of the birds-eye maple that was planed with one of Konrad's planes, but it was every bit as smooth and shiny as the maple photo I did take and posted.

Tom Dugan said...


Count me in as another one of Konrad's admirer's, even though I'll probably never own one of his planes.

Firstly, I hope your friend returned that defective plane for reworking. I would hope that it would get fixed no questions asked.

Secondly, Konrad had his planes tuned to a T for the show, you can be sure. I watched him sharpening the irons Saturday and Sunday morning. You can bet they were SHARP!

And that cherry that Kari has pictured up there is actually the second piece of wood we got to abuse. The first was a piece of highly quilted maple that the smoothers sang through. Came out like glass. Can't speak up for the other planemakers, though. :^)

Konrad said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the feedback on Tony‘s plane. I called him earlier to discuss the issue.

With regards to demonstrating on clean wood at shows - I think I can answer this one. Most of the other tool makers I know of have a set of “demonstrating” tools - ones that they know are going to see every kind of use, from extreme care to extreme abuse. In my case, the planes I travel with are my personal tools. At a show - there are usually quite a few people wanting to try various planes. I have taken the approach that it makes more sense to be able to let them try a plane than to watch me hone an iron and prepare it for their use on some interlocking, quarter-sawn Bloodwood. It is a matter of available time. In a typical working day, I will re-hone an iron a dozen times – sadly, I am not in a position to do that at a show when there are 8 planes on the bench. For many people – and infill plane is a bit of a mystery and there is a learning curve to holding them, setting the iron and using them. It is much easier on the blade if they are “learning” on a piece of tame cherry rather than a piece of Amboyna burl.

There have been a few occasions where I have brought along more challenging woods to plane - quarter-sawn Bloodwood, Amboyna burl, but as you know, these timbers require delicate set-up and a very sharp iron. Again – available time at a show factors in here. There was an occasion at this past show where one of the people at the SAPFM booth walked over with a birds eye veneered drawer front and asked if my planes would be able to plane it. His question suggested to me that this would be something he has struggled with in the past. I had reasonably fresh irons in a few planes and decided to go for it. In a few minutes there was a very well polished birds eye maple veneer drawer front. He was pleased and I was pleased. I considered it a good demonstration.

The booth across from me had some highly figured quilted maple and brought it over as a “challenging piece” to work with. Over the course of the first day, many people had a chance to work with it. It was rough sawn, but in fairly short order it was very well smoothed (and leveled and flattened) There were instances where blades were set too deep and made a mess of the surface - but overall - people enjoyed experiencing something they do not often get to try. I did not re hone any of the blades - I did not have time, and by the end of the day – the surface was no longer perfect.

I agree with the spirit of your comment though, and I will think about how I can provide people with an experience on some less than clean wood. It may be as simple as having a plane and a piece of wood that I keep off to the side for when someone wants to push the limits.


Woodbloke said...

Konrad - many thanks indeed for your explanation, it's very much appreciated.
I stand by my claim though, that although your creations are wonderful and highly sought after, similar results can be obtained with planes costing a fraction of the price...see the latest entry on the 'Blokeblog'
Tony in fact, bought them not only to use in his 'shop, but as heirloom tools that could be passed on to his grandson and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's a whole bunch of us from UKWorkshop going down to Weymouth on the 24th Oct, so no doubt they'll be much admired and given a good outing on the day.
Keep up the excellent work...and the 'Blog'! - Rob

Chuck Bender said...


I spoke with Konrad for quite a while at the show this past weekend. I've admired his planes for a long time. During our conversation, I brought up a statement that was made to me during the weekend. That being "what makes his plane so much better than any other premium plane in the show that you'd consider spending THAT much money". My response "Konrad does for hand planes what I try to do for furniture". His planes are truly functional art. Sure you might be able to tune up a production plane and get a "satisfactory" result but Konrad's plane touch the woodworker's soul in ways that no small run production plane can.

It's also great to hear how plane makers are much like furniture makers. I tend to feel more of a kinship with those that most folks would consider my competition. There's not many of us out here on the edge trying to earn a living while pushing our skills and talents to their limits. It was truly an honor for me to meet someone like Konrad. His planes are simply stunning.

Kari Hultman said...

My photos do not do Konrad's planes justice. They are truly functional works of art, as Chuck says.

Scott said...

I hope this doesn't start any blog wars but this needs to be said:

It is rather foolish to even ponder why or why not someone should buy one tool over another. Just as in nearly if not all other aspects in life, you have a choice to make. This choice will by nature either appease to one or offend that said other party. As much as I would love to own a Holtey, Sauer or even a D.L. Barret, my current economic status does not permit doing so.

I own old Stanleys, Lie-Nielsen, and Veritas tools. Do I feel like have to settle for any brand? No. Do I feel like I have to own any certain brand? No.

To reference a more common debate: Why buy a BMW when a Ford can get you from point a to point b? We could even go as far as: Why go out to eat at a decent restaurant and spend nearly $100 when you can buy a frozen dinner for $2.97? Personal choice would be the answer to both.

Personally speaking, I would not buy a new Stanley tool based on the fact that current manufacturing methods, and materials used to produce these planes is obviously far worse than what a man standing a manual milling machine could produce decades before a CNC machine was even thought of.

Ultimately, you obtain what you pay for. I would rather pay one man or woman for their respected work (we can go ahead and consider this person an artist) than a corporation to delve out some product by the millions. Obviously, it has been shown that with enough effort, any mediocre tool can perform side by side with a premium tool. Then again any premium tool can be honed and tuned to perform with a custom hand made creation. Thus, through reasonable logic, a mediocre tool could be modified to the extent in which it could perform as good as a custom tool.

This last statement depends solely on the person. This person has different needs, wants, skill levels, even tools to make adjustments to make other tools perform better. To question what tool is better than another is foolish. It's much more reasonable to ask: Which tool is right for the person buying it?

Though I have digressed greatly, the question you have proposed is not one that should be proposed to the masses because everyone has an opinion. The real question that you struggle with is am I or am I not willing to pay for an artists work.

Not to say Bob or Tom are not artists that have brought many the joy and pride from the use of their tools. However, just as I have shown patronage to these vendors, I would never ask someone why they would buy a Groz or WoodRiver (no disrespect to those who have these....consider them to be a reference point) when for a little more money could have an LV or LN. It's really none of my business what someone else wants to buy. To be honest, it's rude to an artist, it's rude to a vendor, it's rude to the other person.

Thankfully we live in a time where we have so many choices available at many different price points. If you don't like those choices you can always take the time to make one suitable to your own liking. This is not intended to bash anyone or cause further argument. Im hoping you will take a different viewpoint from it and enlighten yourself. Or, you can argue back, but to be honest there isn't much of one.

One last thing. Think about this.

One of Kari's most recent blogs is about her making a wooden plane. I would have as much pride from owning a plane she made as I would one from Konrad. Because II would be supporting an artist despite the cost. If artists didn't have followers we would be without at least two of the more useful blogs on the internet.

Konrad said...

Thank-you Scott - for your big picture perspective and deep understanding of why we do what we do.