An Unusual Retirement
Popular Woodworking|December 2020
In Conversation with Plane Maker Karl Holtey
By Kieran Binnie

In 2015, acclaimed hand plane maker Karl Holtey announced his impending retirement and was working on the 984 panel plane: what he intended to be his final production run of hand planes and the last word in a career that resulted in a reputation for an unwavering focus on perfection and the development of several technical innovations that had an impact far outside the boutique world of high-end hand planes. Karl and I spent several days that autumn in his workshop in rural Scotland talking about plane making and his journey to becoming widely recognized as one of the greatest plane makers in the world, an interview that can be found in the April 2016 issue of Popular Woodworking.

Now it is 2020, much of the world is several months into lockdown as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Karl recently announced his latest design— the 985 smoothing plane. Wait a minute: surely he retired in 2015? Apparently not, and in late December 2019, Karl quietly appeared on Instagram under the handle @karlholtey, offering an insight into his manufacturing process. Word soon slipped out that Karl Holtey was still making planes.

An Unusual Retirement

In the five years since we last spoke, Karl concluded his run of 984 panel planes, and then produced a second run of the 983 block plane. His motivation in revisiting the 983 was that he had sold the final plane from the initial run and did not have one for himself. Instead of making a one-off, he decided to do a full production run, a decision that he would not repeat. “I forgot how much work was involved in a production run,” he explains, “I prefer to do smaller batches now that I’ve retired.” Despite the birthing pains of that second batch of 983 planes, all but one plane has now sold.

The 985 is one of my best. I like it very much. Karl Holtey

The 7 7 /8 long smoothing plane features a 1 15 /16 wide blade bedded at 54Ëš, with no chip breaker or adjuster, and comes in either stainless steel sole with brass sides or stainless steel throughout.

In fact, Karl’s retirement has been marked with an enviable rate of productivity, and he shows no sign of slowing down. Instead, retirement seems to represent a change in how Karl approaches his plane making rather than in ceasing work. “It has allowed me to do things and explore designs that I didn’t have time for before,” he explains, with the focus on smaller batched work “taking some of the pressure off.”

This change in outlook has not dulled Karl’s creative drive or pursuit of the perfect hand plane. So, what keeps him in the workshop making planes during retirement? “Vanity. I’m a naturally competitive person, and I love being the best at what I do,” he says. “I can’t explain, it has always been there. If I have an idea about making something, I can be very driven to make it.” The interest in hand planes he attributes to his apprenticeship as a furniture maker when he became frustrated with the tools he was using. And at 71, he still finds himself thinking through new designs and approaches constantly: “I’m fabricating planes in my head constantly,” he tells me, “when I’m walking the dogs, driving, just living.”

Following that second batch of the 983 block plane, Karl made a run of six of the 984 smoothing plane, revising the design as he did so. Dubbed the 984s, this batch was initially to use up a collection of spare handles and components, but Karl could not help but revise the design to create a new twist on his celebrated bevel-up panel plane. Originally a 13 5 /8 long plane, the 984s features a shorter 12 1 /2 long body and omits the striking chamfering of the original. Says Holtey, “I just love it like that. I don’t want to put the original No 984 down but leaving the chamfering off makes it look very much more serious and business-like. I am changing my ideas about some of the decorative side of the work.”

In terms of new designs, he has plans to make new types of planes but nothing that he is yet ready to share with the outside world. As a plane maker that started out building replicas of celebrated Norris infill planes, much of Karl’s career has been spent trying to mitigate the effects of wood movement within metal plane bodies, a design problem he is returning to with his new planes. As he explains, “I am trying to think of new designs where I can incorporate more wood without compromising the stability. Wood sells all by itself and people don’t get excited by metal work or engineering. I have been experimenting on my Instagram postings to see where I get the most likes.”

1 Plastic prototype for the 985 smoothing plane.

985 Smoother

The 985 represents the first brand new design of Holtey’s retirement. When asked about the origin of the plane, Karl explains that it started as “a tiny little idea in the back of my mind. I borrowed the basic shape from a Spears plane. I drew it out several years ago and was blowing hot and cold about the design. I wanted the plane to be as short as possible—a smoother doesn’t need to be long. A lot of historic smoothers are 7 1 /2 long, but that was compromising too much on the handle and bun area. The whole design process was about seeing how small and short I could make the plane. I couldn’t have an adjuster and keep the length down, nor was there enough room to fit a traditional sneck to the iron.”

2 The 985 is an exercise in simplicity with no chipbreaker or adjuster. The tote is angled forward for increased comfort.

3 Depth of cut and blade orientation is adjusted by the setting post.

4 The rear tote is fixed in place through the underside of the sole.

5 The setting post allows the blade to be adjusted in any direction.

6 The disassembled ed 985.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM POPULAR WOODWORKINGView All

What You Have

While I love designing and building new things out of wood, one of the most valuable skills I’ve picked up along the way is being able to take care of and repair furniture and woodwork.

2 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Turned Canisters

Hone Your Skills Making Functional Storage

7 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Using T-Track

T-track is a versatile product that has many great uses around the shop.

3 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Wipe-On/Rub-Off Finishing

This two-step process guarantees flawless results.

5 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

The Unicorn Method

A simple sharpening technique for unbelievably sharp edges that are tough and long-lasting.

4 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Baboucarr Faal

Charity Builds for The Gambia

4 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

That One Project

I was about to make a desk for my son John’s bedroom and in my mind it was a beautiful thing: simple, sleek and with elegant proportions.

3 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Power-Carved Side Table

Turn a log into a sculptural statement piece.

10+ mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Anika Gandhi

DIY Furniture for Her Kids

2 mins read
Popular Woodworking
February 2021

Premium Impact Driver and Drill

TID 18 IMPACT DRIVER & T 18+3 DRILL COMBO PACK Festool festoolusa.comPrice: $549

1 min read
Popular Woodworking
December 2020