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Konrad Sauer

Maker and craftsman of woodworking hand planes

Konrad Sauer has been crafting handmade woodworking planes for the last 11 years. When we were first introduced to him we were immediately curious how such a niche craft could become a full-time endeavour. As we talked with Konrad and learned that before plane making, he was working in graphic design and advertising . He shares how he got started working with wood, why he left the advertising industry and the importance of not letting fear stop you from just doing something. It's clear Konrad is passionate about his craft and it shows in the beautiful pieces he produces.

You’re in a pretty unique line of work. Can you tell us a summary of what you do?

For the last 11 years now, I've been a full-time plane maker, so making woodworking hand planes. I've also made furniture the whole time, and done some of my own home renovations. Really, if I had a business card, it would be: “Konrad Sauer: I just make shit.” I’ve made furniture, electric guitars, done some teaching and speaking, but mainly plane making.

What was your path to designing and making woodworking hand planes?

Growing up I would draw all of the time. My initial contact was drawing and making things, but more from a traditional art perspective, so drawing, painting, sculpting, that kind of stuff, I did all that as a kid.

I grew up in an old house, and so my parents-partly for financial reasons-but also because they were interested in it, we just always renovated our houses. There was a really fundamental lesson for me early on of not being afraid to just try something. When I was in high school, I'd wanted to move up into the attic of our house, because I needed more space for a studio or something. I came home and my dad had ripped the roof off. We renovated. All of a sudden we put a huge dormer on. We just did stuff like that. You get over the hurdle of trying something that you don't know how to do. You just say, “Screw it, I'm going to do it anyway.”

After high school I went to the design program at Conestoga College. What was really amazing about that program was that for the first year and a half there were no computers. We did everything by hand. I learned analog and digital. When the computers showed up, the computer was just viewed as a tool. Now I think most people view it as the only tool. I was really lucky that I caught that bridge, that magic window of learning both.

“That's been one of the incredible things for me, is that the line between customer and friendship has gotten really, really blurry in an awesome way. That's probably one of the more rewarding parts to it, actually. I make 35 planes in a year. This is not a volume business. I enjoy that personal relationship with the end user.”

After school you ended up working in advertising right? Tell us what the transition from that to making planes was like.

I worked at an advertising agency called Tenzing and worked there for almost ten years. It was very small. We got to do some great stuff, but I found that I was spending more time on the computer than I would have liked. That was kind of the nature of the job.

I started making furniture on the side because I didn't want to have shitty furniture, so I learned how to make it myself. I loved it, because it was this tactile experience and became a creative outlet for me.

I did a couple of commissioned pieces for people. It was great. Then I started out growing my tools. The tools that I was using weren't doing what I thought they ought to be able to do. I was continually upgrading them, and then I hit a wall when it came to hand planes.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an original infill plane, which is what I make. An infill plane is a metal shell that is filled in, or in-filled with wood in a very generic sense. It just blew away anything I'd ever used ever. It was unreal.

I started looking for more original infill planes and couldn't find them. There weren't very many around. They were commanding serious, serious money. I decided I was going to have to make them if I wanted to use them.

Did it become a business for you at that point? You were still in advertising full-time right?

Yeah I was still working in advertising then. My friend Joe Steiner and I started by just making tools for our own personal use and we were invited to demonstrate these tools at a woodworking show. At a demonstration we were doing, there was a woman named Karen McBride who really took an interest and we started chatting. She asked us if we could make a plane for her. It hadn't really occurred to us that there was a business in this, but once she asked, I said to Joe, “if we're going to do this, let's just pretend that we're actually a business.” We sat in a Tim Horton's and had an 8.5" by 11" sheet of paper and wrote the business plan.

The first thing we wrote was, “if this is not fun, this is not worth doing.” We were both working full time. I had a busy job, and Joe, he ran a dental lab in Woodstock. We figured out what we needed to make per hour, we guessed the material costs, added it all up, and I think it was 1600 bucks or something for that one plane. Joe said, “There's just no way.” I said, “We just figured this out. I'm sure we missed stuff. We're probably light on the price.” He said, “Fine, you call her.” I called her and was just nervous as anything and was beating around the bush. She said, “Okay, have you figured out what it's going to cost?” I said, “Well, yeah. It'll be about 1600 bucks.” She said, “Great, when will it be done?” I was like, “Oh my god.” I hadn't even thought that far.

Karen and I are still really good friends. That's been one of the incredible things for me, is that the line between customer and friendship has gotten really, really blurry in an awesome way. That's probably one of the more rewarding parts to it, actually. I make 35 planes in a year. This is not a volume business. I enjoy that personal relationship with the end user.

“I've got these two parallel worlds that are running. One sucks, and the other one I realize I need a whole lot more of. It was that sort of interaction that I realized, you know what, I've got to get out of this advertising world because it's going to kill me...”

What was it that made you decide to take the leap and do the plane making full-time?

So, we started the business but we weren't sure what was going to happen. We figured, you know what, if we make two planes in a year, great. We'll use the money to pay for materials so we can keep making our own planes. The really significant turning point for us was when I got an email from a guy in California, and up until this point, everybody that commissioned a plane we had met in person.

We had taken out a little ad in the back of Fine Woodworking Magazine that was two inches by one inch, like a tiny little black and white postage stamp. From that we got an email from this guy in California who was very specific about what he was interested in. We emailed back and forth. It was a plane that we'd never made yet. He didn't care. He was willing to wait. We specced it out and gave him a quote. It was close to two grand. He said, “Fine, that's great.”

Two weeks later I get a letter from him, and in it is five post-dated checks and a little handwritten note, and it said, “I'm so excited about this, this is great, looking forward to working with you guys. I've taken the liberty of sending five post-dated checks, because I know that you're really new to this business and I figure this might help your cash flow.

I'm thinking to myself, “Good lord. Here's a guy we've never met who's spending over two grand on these two guys that he doesn't know, in another country, and he has the care to think about our business.” So I've got that world running through my head. Then I've got my clients in the art direction/design side who, you get the phone call at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and they say, “You know that thing we've been sitting on for three weeks? We need it for Monday. You've got to work on the weekend and get it done.”

I've got these two parallel worlds that are running. One sucks, and the other one I realize I need a whole lot more of. It was that sort of interaction that I realized, you know what, I've got to get out of this advertising world because it's going to kill me, for a variety of reasons, but also because it was in such stark contrast to ... that client from California, that's incredible for somebody to think that way.

“I break stuff down into steps. Then I get the immense satisfaction of taking my pencil and scratching it off. You play all these funny little mind games when you're self-employed.”

You've been doing it, like you said, for almost 11 years. What would you say are the main challenges that you face in your work now?

One of the biggest challenges is actually finding appropriate wood, which seems kind of dumb. Wood moves. As it takes on moisture, it loses moisture, it moves. In a plane, you are confining wood on three sides. You don't want it to move, because if it moves it distorts the body of the plane and it doesn't work properly, which is why most planes are specific to only a few species of wood-true rosewood being one of them-because they are incredibly stable. You can really only work with very old wood. The general rule with domestic woods, is that it needs to dry for one year per inch of thickness. For rosewoods, it's ten years per inch of thickness.

Where do you find 30-year-old wood? The only real option is to find either those one or two wood distributors that have a pile of wood they've forgotten about for 30 years or you buy it from retired furniture makers or people who have had pieces sitting around for that long and just didn't use it for whatever reason. That was a huge challenge, I got really lucky though, I befriended a number of retired cabinet makers and furniture makers who have given me access to their old inventory.

Then the other challenge too is that I couldn't afford to be my own customer. They're expensive. People's value equations have really changed a lot over the last 50 years. People used to buy something where the selling feature was that they never broke down. People don't do that anymore. We're such a disposable ... Here I am sounding like the old guy belly aching. People think of everything as disposable now, so for some people the idea of spending several thousand dollars on something like a hand-crafted wood making plane is a difficult one.

What is the structure of a typical day like for you?

Get up in the morning ... The alarm goes off at quarter to 7:00. Not for me, for Jill (my wife), because she's got to get to work. I usually get up when everybody else gets up. I'm the first one downstairs, getting the coffee going, and cleaning up the kitchen so it's remotely presentable, and help everybody get off to school and get out the door.

Then I usually take a deep breath because I've got the house to myself again. Grab a cup of coffee, check my email. Again, having clients from all over the place, I get emails in the middle of the night.

I usually wander out here between maybe 8:00am and 9:00am. If I've got a blog entry to write, or other stuff that I'm doing, or some design work to do, I'll stay in the office in the house and work on that. I'm usually out here safely by 10:00 every morning.

I keep an old school day timer, and I write out my list of all the crap that I've got to get done on a particular plane. There's kind of the day to day stuff, and there's the big picture... over the course of a week I've got to get this done, or whatever. I've found that actually writing a list is really important for me because it helps me not get overwhelmed. I break stuff down into steps. Then I get the immense satisfaction of taking my pencil and scratching it off. You play all these funny little mind games when you're self-employed.

I inevitably get a couple of phone calls from clients or colleagues or whatever else. Going for lunch and hang out. In the summer I'll often have a 20-minute nap on a hammock on the balcony, because I can.

So you mentioned you blog, and then email is obviously a big tool for you, going back and forth with clients. Your work is so hands on; you're not in front of the computer all day, how do you manage email and other communications into your workflow?

I check my email in the morning before I come out here, and if there's anything that I need to deal with right away I'll deal with it. I'll check it usually at lunch time again, and then in the evening. Probably the evening is when I spend most of my time doing more of the dense work in front of a computer. If I'm designing a new plane or something like that. The office is in the attic of the house, so I'm getting a lot of exercise running back and forth: drawing in here, running in there, scanning it, printing it out, coming out here.

I thought about building a studio in the house as well. There's something that I get out of the walk. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I've found there's value in it for me. It's a head clearing minute and a half or however long it takes to walk out here.

“If you want to do it, you've got to jump in with both feet up to your eyeballs. I was lucky. It happened very fast for me, relative to doing something this screwed up and obscure. Who the hell thinks that you can make a living making custom hand planes?”

We’ve talked to a few people who’ve made significant career changes. What sort of advice would you give to someone who's maybe looking to do the same thing?

That's a good question. My first thought is, don't be afraid to go for it. Life really is too damn short. When I was probably in my late 20s, somebody said to me... I was already probably grumbling a little bit about the advertising world. I joked and I'd say it was a soul destroying industry. It kind of is a soul destroying industry.

Somebody said to me, “If you want to make a career change, you'd better start planning it right now, because you're going to blink and you're going to be 40.” For whatever reason, I really heard that. I took it to heart. I left the ad world when I was 29. Yeah, I blinked and I'm 44. If you want to do it, you've got to jump in with both feet up to your eyeballs. I was lucky. It happened very fast for me, relative to doing something this screwed up and obscure. Who the hell thinks that you can make a living making custom hand planes?

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Internationally there's a guy in South Africa named Ford Hallam, who makes tsubas. Again, in the world of people who do weird and wonderful things, his world is probably more obscure than mine. On a samurai sword there's the hilt. That's called a tsuba. That's what he makes. He does it at a level where a tsuba is 15,000 dollars. He smelts his own metal. I love listening to people who are passionate about whatever it is that they're making.