Tool maker Konrad Sauer on figured wood, saying no to customers and his least favourite part of plane-making.
Q & A with Konrad Sauer
How long have you been building furniture? Tools?
I’ve been building furniture for 20 years, planes since 2001 (professionally).
What sort of furniture/tools do you specialize in?
If you were not a maker, what would you be?
I have no idea – I have always been a maker in that I have always used my hands to make things. Drawing as a kid, painting and sculpting in school – always working with my hands.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
I don’t actually have a shop apron, but if I did: a pencil, white pencil crayon and a black sharpie marker. I leave multiples of these three items lying around all over the shop.
What’s your favourite hand tool to use?
My hands would be the cheeky response, but an actual tool would be a plane I made, and if you want a specific plane – my K13.
Figured wood or straight grain?
I love figure. Lots of people argue that it is a crutch to distract from poor design. I have seen it used many times in this way, but I have also seen it used to great effect. A well designed piece of furniture will often look good with either figured or straight grain – that is always a good way to test the design of a piece.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Can I pick my own plane?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Flowing curves are usually more interesting, but I have seen some pretty playful takes on geometric shapes. Flowing curves are often better for interactive furniture (and planes) – we are made up of flowing curves and not geometric shapes.
This 6-1/2" long and 1-3/4" wide plane was infilled with snakewood.
Sauer made this reproduction of a Bailey rebate plane, with bird’s eye boxwood.
Quotes from Konrad Sauer
For the most part, I work a very normal work day. I spend a lot of time corresponding with people – customers, other toolmakers or furniture makers; at least two hours a day, sometimes more. I am rarely in the shop in the evenings, other than to apply an evening coat of French polish to a plane. Working in the evening takes time away from my family and I am usually tired after a day of work. Working when you are tired is just as dangerous as working while under the influence of alcohol.
My favourite tools are those that have stories behind them. Either because of who made them for me, who sold them to me, or who gave them to me. Each time I pick them up I am reminded of the circumstances of how I came to have them and I usually smile. My Japanese saws, my Japanese chisels, my band-saw and jointer are favourites … and of course the planes I have made for myself.
Inspiration comes from everywhere – the trick is to be in a constant state of being open to inspiration. We are often so busy that we miss those moments of inspiration and do not recognize them as such. I am finding myself more inspired by individuals than things or objects lately. Not sure why that is … maybe I am just getting old.
I started making planes because I could not find tools to do what I wanted them to do (and knew they could do) so I had to make my own (for my own use). I quickly realized there was a business opportunity and it went wonderfully out of control from there.
Toolmaking is 80–90 percent of my business.
The biggest misconceptions about my tools is that they are too nice to use and should sit on a shelf instead of on a workbench.
The most challenging aspect of building a plane is finding suitable wood for the infill.
Once a plane is actually developed, it can take anywhere from a long week, to a long month to make a plane – it depends on the model and the complexity of it.
My least favourite aspect of plane-making is the metal working – at least the construction side of it. Hack-sawing, filing, etc. is pretty boring and once you have done it a few times, it is fairly mind-numbing. Metal is consistent – at least compared to wood, and lacks a lot of interest for me. My favourite part is the woodworking, and within the woodworking, freehand shaping handles, or other details of planes – especially knowing that they cannot be achieved by any mechanical processes.
I love making curved sided planes. They are stronger, more elegant looking and let’s face it – curves are way nicer for our hands to interact with. They are also more challenging, which I like.
I always start the process by drawing. Nothing fancy, just little sketches really. I weed through them pretty quickly and then pick one or two that have promise and do more elaborate drawings from there. I also do a lot of mock-ups – sometimes full-scale – even for furniture. I use basswood, poplar or even spruce construction lumber. Nothing beats a full-scale model and really helps work out some of the shapes and forms when you are dealing with curves. It is sometimes easier to do a quick mock-up instead of trying to accurately draw a fully curved piece. I make a lot of templates out of Bristol board as I am making the mock-up and am careful to keep track of changes as I go, so I will have a full set of working templates in the end.
Pay attention to what was done in the past because by learning the ‘rules’, you will know best how to break them.
It’s ok to say no to a potential customer if your gut tells you they are not a good fit for the work you do.
I am tired of design being driven by design software and maker’s levels of understanding of that software. Design first, and then figure out how to make it … not the other way around.
I much prefer commission work because I really enjoy the interaction with the customer (end user). I enjoy the interaction and collaborative nature of it. I suppose this comes from my experience in the graphic design world. There was always a brief and a set of problems or parameters to work within. It is a little like a designer as opposed to an artist. An artist creates something and hopes the world likes it (and buys it). The designer is told what the world likes (to some extent) and then tries to be creative within those parameters (that is very oversimplified).
It really depends on the customer, but usually very closely with them. There have been several cases where customers have been invaluable parts of the process and have made me a better plane-maker. I also enjoy working closely with my furniture customers as well – for the same reasons. I like to involve them in as much of the process as they want. They gain an appreciation for what goes into a piece of furniture and it allows them a unique level of connection to the piece once it is in their home. Everyone wins.
My favourite Canadian furniture maker is Adrian Ferrazzutti. The first time I heard his story and saw his work I was really impressed.
My plane-making influences are Karl Holtey and Bill Carter – both from England. Bill Carter because his planes have such a unique aesthetic, and one that I cannot imagine anyone else getting just right. Karl, because I admire his pursuit of mathematical and technical perfection. I have no interest in working the way he does, but I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for him.
I’m most proud of my K13 plane. It came about when a customer asked me to rethink the panel plane (the British name for a jack-plane-sized plane). He liked the length and the width, but wanted me to rethink the entire thing. Nothing formally happened for months and months and then things seemed to come together out of thin air. It was an incredibly rewarding process working with that customer and I am very proud of the end result. This plane is the answer to the question, “If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one plane …”
I think Lee Valley and Veritas have done a tremendous job of putting Canada on the international stage of tool-making – and at the very highest level. This has had a trickle-down effect on tool-making in this country and I think more and more people are getting involved, which is great.