Holtey T21 Transitional Plane:
Jim Hooker puts the Holtey T21 plane to the test
Karl Holtey is famed for infill and latterly, metal planes, made to standards of precision and finish not previously seen. What he is less known for is his keen interest in plane history. His initial steps into plane making were fed by extensive research into 19th-century English and Scottish infills both theoretical and, at a practical level, by restoring these planes for collectors and dealers. There is nothing like taking planes apart if you really want to understand how they were made and if, like Karl, you are a perfectionist, how they might be made better. The shortcomings of infills and how he worked to minimise their impact in his own planes is another story, but his research introduced him to the planes of John Gage and his son John Porcius Gage (see the panel on page 47). Karl’s admiration for the ingenuity and simple unadorned lines of Gage planes created an itch that just had to be scratched and the T21 is the result.
The birth of transitional planes
Go back 200 years and all planes were almost entirely wood. While these planes had the virtues of simplicity and low friction soles, those soles wore down, opening up the mouth to the detriment of performance. Blade adjustment was a matter of trial and error and plane bodies were subject to the vagaries of natural wood movement. So, ingenious engineers set about finding a solution and the infill plane with its fabricated metal body filled with beech (Fagus sylvatica) or exotic hardwoods was the result. These planes, initially without adjusters, solved the wear problem and promised levels of consistent accuracy of blade location and dimensional stability not possible with wooden planes. But the skills and time required to make an infill plane meant that they were always expensive, causing inventive toolmakers to look for other solutions.
One result was the birth of what are now known as transitional planes – hybrids consisting of a more or less traditional wooden body, with varying amounts of metalwork to precisely locate the blade and provide some means of adjustment more progressive and predictable than the hammer used to adjust a traditional wedged blade. Easily the best known transitional planes are those made by Stanley, such as the No. 26, which has a boat-shaped cast-iron frame screwed to the wooden body and carrying the blade, its location and adjustment mechanisms and handles. But others had ideas too. In the 1880s John Gage bought the patent covering a somewhat different interpretation of the idea and developed it further. The result was the Gage Tool Co. Self-Setting Plane. Its plain unadorned design always appealed to Karl Holtey and the T21 is his interpretation of and tribute to the Gages and their products. The result is a low, foursquare form that closely resembles Gage’s larger planes, Karl’s first, and almost certainly, only plane with an all wood body.
The T21 in detail
While the T21 may bear a superficial resemblance to a Gage plane, no Gage plane was ever made like this. Instead of a lump of beech you get a two part body of rippled maple (Acer saccharum) and cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) – my wife thinks it’s flashy but I’ve shown it to a lot of woodworkers and none has thought it less than stunning. Less flamboyant wood choices are available if you are of a retiring disposition when it comes to tools. Intriguingly, the two parts of the body are jointed together with dovetails on sides and ends,
a seemingly impossible feat at first sight. If you are puzzled as to how this is done, a look into the plane’s throat provides a clue to the fact that the two parts of the body have a series of dovetail slots machined across them at 45° enabling them to be slid together at the same angle. The joint is permanently bonded with polyurethane glue.
The T21 also departs from the Gage formula in the matter of blade location and adjustment. Here it follows familiar Holtey practice rather than replicating Gage’s metal ‘self-setting’ throat box. The 60mm wide A2 steel blade is a massive 5mm thick and is bedded bevel down at an angle of 45° with no back iron. The mouth is plenty fine enough for the sort of work a plane of this size – at 505mm long it is equivalent to a conventional metal jointer – is likely to be used for. The mouth geometry ensures that it will take a great deal of wear to the sole before the mouth opens up to the point where it might be considered too wide. The blade bed has what appear to be two brass pads embedded into it to support the upper end of the blade. In fact, these pads are the visible ends of gunmetal rods with annular rings formed in them, which pass through, and are epoxy bonded into, the plane’s body, the annular rings combining with the epoxy to form a positive mechanical joint. The purpose of these rods is to minimise changes in the bed angle resulting from seasonal movement in the plane’s body.
One of the joys of Holtey’s own design planes is the lever cap. This has scroll shaped recesses in the sides in which small metal dowels in the plane sides locate, enabling the lever cap to be locked in place and clamp the blade. The advantage of this arrangement is that once the lever cap is removed, the user has almost completely unobstructed access to the blade, adjuster and blade bed where, in more traditional non-Bailey type designs, access is obstructed by a captive lever cap or a permanent bridge bar. In all metal Holtey designs the metal dowels are fixed in place by integral rivets that pass through the plane sides, but these rivets can exert considerable forces on the sides if the lever cap clamping screw is over-tightened. While metal sides are well able to cope with these forces, Karl was concerned that a single fixing through the T21’s wooden side might not cope in the long term. His elegant solution in the form of a five pronged gunmetal ‘spider’ bonded into corresponding holes in the sides is ingenious and beautifully made.
Longitudinal and lateral blade adjustment is by means of a single thread Norris type adjuster that operates to standards of accuracy and smoothness you would expect in a plane of this quality.
The Gage Tool Company
John Gage was born in 1802 into a very poor family in Litchfield, Herkiner County, New York State. He left full-time education at the age of nine to work in his father’s brickyard, attending school for three months each winter until he was 15. Apprenticed to a foundry at 18, he left home at 22 to seek his fortune. After working in various foundries, building, and later running, a steam powered flour mill in what was then the small town of Chicago, he eventually became a wealthy and highly respected farmer and property developer, settled with his family in Vineland, New Jersey.
In the early 1880s David A. Bridges, a Vineland cabinetmaker and pattern maker, had an idea for developing an earlier design of plane having a wooden body with a metal throat assembly to hold the blade and provide adjustment, but lacked the money to develop it, make it in numbers and market it. John Gage put up the finance required and with his son, John Porcius Gage, and Bridges, a new Vineland company Bridges, Gage & Co. was formed with all three as directors and three-quarters of the relevant US patent on the plane design being assigned to John Gage. Bridges’ original design seems not to have been made in significant numbers and a further development was patented in the name of John P. Gage in 1886. This was to be the design of the transitional plane, made in various sizes, with only minor changes, by the Gage Tool Co. (as it soon became) for the remainder of its existence. Gage sold the company in 1917 and it was acquired by Stanley Rule & Level Co. soon after, but Stanley continued to make Gage planes for many years.
Apart from its appearance, the Gage Self-Setting Plane was distinguished by its blade carrier and adjuster. This consisted of an iron throat box, which provided the blade bed, mouth and a screw depth of cut adjuster which operated via a series of slots in the blade rather as in many modern block planes. The position of the throat box could be adjusted to take account of wear to the wooden sole. There was no lateral adjustment because the blade location arrangement ensured that the blade was automatically held parallel to the throat and was thus ‘self-setting’. This was Gage planes’ unique selling point and featured heavily in all marketing material although, if the careless craftsman neglected to keep his blade sharpened exactly square to its length it would, of course, always self-set with the edge out of parallel with the plane’s sole.
John P. Gage was certainly a highly effective promoter of the company’s planes, devising many innovative marketing schemes. One of these took advantage of the often long distances the planes travelled to customers via tool dealers or mail order, by packing them in wooden boxes, which ingeniously contained the planes securely while allowing them and their promotional labelling to be clearly seen by everyone who handled them as they found their way to the four corners of the US and beyond. There are no known production figures for Gage planes and the company seems never to have had more than four or five employees, but the company was clearly well organised and made a lot of planes in various sizes
– certainly enough to have been a thorn in Stanley’s side.
I am indebted to Carl Bopp, a US authority on the Philadelphia, PA area plane makers. The information on and images of the Gage planes are from Bopp’s two-part article in the CHRONICLE of the Early American Industries Association, June 2014 and September 2014. Image of recreated Gage packaging kindly provided by John Speigel.
Wooden planes – the difference
Many woodworkers never get to use wooden planes and there is no doubt that they are a very different ownership proposition from modern all metal planes. In use, they glide over the wood with very little resistance in a way that is a revelation if you haven’t used one before. Obviously, the cutting effort is the same as a metal plane with the same effective cutting angle, but overall, the effort required is significantly lower. However, wooden planes do require more commitment from the owner because, as any serious woodworker knows, wood is a natural material that may move significantly in response to changes in humidity.
When the T21 arrived, I was immediately struck by the flamboyant wood combination and the stunning standard of making. But, I was keen to get it onto a reference surface to see how flat the sole was, and it turned out to be pretty close to dead flat with negligible concavity along its length of just .0002–.0003in measured with a feeler gauge. I decided to put it in my tool cupboard for a few weeks to see what would happen. On re-testing, the concavity had increased to a less desirable .0007–.0008in.
Over the next couple of months, in an attempt to establish exactly what was going on, I removed some concavity by abrading the sole on abrasive paper stuck to my flat planer bed and also gave the plane spells in both my warm handwork shop and my almost unheated machine shop, which I believed to be drier. The final step in solving the puzzle was a spell in the warm with my dehumidifier on for a week or so. During the whole period of this experiment the concavity of the sole fluctuated up to a maximum of .0020in.
What all of this established was that Karl’s workshop on the east coast of northern Scotland is drier than mine on England’s south coast and, contrary to what I thought, my machine shop is damper than my warm handwork ‘shop. When returned to a more normal non-dehumidifed atmosphere for a couple of weeks I removed the remaining concavity and it has stayed consistently flat since then. It is important to emphasise that none of this is a criticism of the Holtey T21 or its maker. It is what wooden planes do and one of the reasons why metal planes have become predominant. It is also true that these effects are likely to be more pronounced in a relatively long plane like the T21 than in, say, a smoother of only half its length. If I were the owner of the T21 I would now expect it to remain reasonably stable, albeit with some seasonal variation. As I said earlier in this review, wooden planes require more commitment and understanding from their owners than do their metal cousins. For some, this will be too much of a commitment but, if you love the way they glide smoothly across the work, their warmth to the touch on a cold day and relatively light weight, then you will love the T21.
I loved the T21. It is exquisitely made and I could not fault its performance. It has all the virtues you could hope for in a transitional plane but, of course, it cannot escape the natural properties of the material from which it is made. If you love wooden planes, perfection in making and have the money to spare you won’t be disappointed by the T21.
• Flawless standard of making
• The handling qualities that are unique to wooden planes
• As with any wooden plane, wood movement may mean you need to do some work on the sole to keep it flat
Body: rippled maple and cocabolo. Dimensions: (l,w,h) 505 x 85 x 155mm. Weight: 2478g.
Blade: 5mm thick A2 steel, 60mm wide.
Price: £4560 at time of original publication
Union Mfg. Co. transitional planes
A less well-known brand of transitional plane was made by the Union Mfg. Co. New Britain, Connecticut. The company was active in the late 1800s producing ironmongery and hardware and various machine parts. They made the transition to hand tools somewhere around the turn of the 19th century. A catalogue from 1905 shows a comprehensive list of every popular plane around at that time, both wooden bodied and metal. The wooden bodied planes could be bought with a metal sole that was screwed onto the bottom of a wooden body. Whether this was intended to counter movement in the body between seasons is doubtful and more likely to do with wear.
The adjusters and bedding on these planes is superior to a basic wooden plane but at the mercy of movement in the wooden body. Don’t let this put you off buying one as this can usually be remedied by tightening the screws that hold the cast-metal ‘infill’ in place. The company ceased manufacturing planes in 1919, making them rare when you consider the volume Stanley produced. Some say they are better made but we couldn’t possibly say for fear of starting a run on old Union Mfgs.