The Holtey No. 984 Panel Plane:
Jim Hooker reviews Karl Holtey’s plane.
It’s the end of an era in more ways than one. Most importantly because, after 25 years of plane making, this is the last series production plane from Karl Holtey.
It’s also the end of an era for me; I first reviewed a Holtey plane for F&C in 2007, since when I have looked at all his major introductions, but of course this will be the last. I don’t expect this to be cause for sadness to anyone but me, but I do think the end of Holtey plane making is a cause for sadness for all woodworkers who value the finest of tools and the depth of knowledge and effort that goes into designing and making them. I am conscious that one of the things that has marked my Holtey plane reviews over the years is the absence of serious criticism of the product. This is not for want of trying; it’s just that the application of that depth of knowledge and effort makes life so difficult for the humble plane reviewer who wants to be seen to be doing a proper job. So I’ll give it my best shot but I’m not making any promises I can’t keep.
The end of an era is a good time to take a look at what really marks it out. In the case of Holtey Planes, a revolution occurred in 1998 when Karl designed his No. 98 smoother. Until then all his planes had been based on infill planes by British makers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly, but not exclusively, by Norris. These weren’t copies – Karl is as critical of the work of these early makers as he is of his own – extensive experience of restoring period infills made him very aware of ways they could be improved, both technically and aesthetically, so all Holtey infills include improvements, many hidden. While continuing to make infills after 1998, Karl always regarded non-infills as the real path of progress for a brand which has from the beginning been characterised by an obsessive search for plane making perfection and the 98 series shows a clear and progressive direction in that search. Has the series produced a quantum leap forward in plane design and making? Of course not, after 2000 years in the development of a tool intended to do something so fundamentally uncomplicated, there are no great leaps forward to be made.
Planes are like bicycles – their underlying principles were settled long ago, but in the case of planes this started about 1800 years earlier. As with modern racing bikes, advances take the form of marginal gains based on careful analysis of existing conventions and Holtey has introduced a string of innovations. Some have become commonplace, such as bevel up blades in bench planes, stainless steel construction, A2 tool steel blades and kickers near the blade edge against which the blade can pivot to facilitate lateral adjustment. Others, like integral rivet body construction and the brilliant evolution of the Norris adjuster in the 982, have not caught on because they are either best suited to small scale production or simply too complex and expensive to make.
So, the 984 represents the end of the Holtey line. The final step in that obsessive search for perfection, so we’ll see whether the No. 984 has more of those prized marginal gains which, when aggregated represent a real step forward. But first, the basics. The 984 is, blade and handles apart, made entirely from stainless steel and its body uses Karl’s familiar integral rivet construction method. The A2 steel blade is bevel up and bedded at 17° so a 30° bevel angle gives an effective cutting angle of 47°, which is close to standard pitch. The whole ensemble weighs in at a pretty substantial 2630g, so there’s plenty of heft to help you do the work. Innovations include a new rear handle design and further development in adjuster friction reduction. The overall shape is clearly based on the 983 block plane and, to my eyes, is an aesthetic success.
While there have been panel plane (equivalent to a jack plane or No. 5) versions of the 98 and 982 smoothers, made in very tiny numbers in response to demand and never advertised, the 984 is the first in the series to be designed from the outset as a panel plane.
Given that a plane’s handle or tote is the user’s most direct connection with it, that seems a good place to start the review. So far as shape is concerned the rear handle is, on the face of it, pretty conventional, but the 984’s handle bucks the trend in a number of manufacturers’ recent designs towards angles closer to vertical than has historically been the norm. The 984’s handle is canted forward at an angle of 52°, which is rather more than the historical norm.
Another area where the 984 departs from convention is in the fixing of the rear handle. Take apart most rear handles and what is revealed is a pretty big hole down the centre only partly occupied by a long spindly screw clamping handle to body. The 984’s handle has a much more substantial shaft, 10mm thick over its lower section and incorporating a hexagonal section allowing it to be spannered tightly into a substantial plinth which is integrally riveted to the sole. The threaded 8mm top section of the shaft allows final fixing of the handle via a tubular nut incorporating an external coin slot. This means of tightening is used so that the top fixing will never be tighter than the one at the bottom – if unscrewing the top nut were to result in the bottom shaft fixing unscrewing it would not be possible to withdraw the shaft from the handle. Coin slotted nut apart, all this beautifully made complexity is entirely hidden because it slots very snugly into an accurately machined recess within the handle.
The handle and front knob on the plane tested here are made from acrylic and will not be to everyone’s taste. For my part, I love the subtle shades of grey in the basic black with limited red highlights complementing the otherwise all stainless construction.
If you have prejudices about the use of plastics in tools borne of poorly formed moulded handles of old, forget them. These handles are machined and hand shaped from a solid block using exactly the same methods as for the alternative wooden handles and they feel every bit as good in the hand. They are also more dimensionally stable than wood so less likely to be loosened by seasonal movement. However, if you like the sound and look of them and fancy ordering a 984 so equipped, I’m afraid you’re out of luck because all of the acrylic handled examples are already sold, so it will have to be some beautiful rosewood or nothing!
Plane makers have long grappled with the balance between the friction needed to provide effective blade clamping, the need for the blade to slide when adjusted fore and aft and laterally and the effect that fore and aft adjustment can have on the lateral setting. On the 984 the latter problem is addressed by a somewhat larger version of the ball and socket blade clamping shoe attached to the clamping wheel, as first seen on the 983 block plane. On many planes the friction problem is mitigated by flexibility in the lever cap itself but the solid milled stainless steel cap on the 984 is immensely rigid. This wouldn’t be a problem if users didn’t tighten blade clamps more than is necessary but the reality is that most do. In an attempt to alleviate this, Karl has experimented on the 984 with hexagonal boron nitride, a dry, fine particulate ceramic, consisting of 0.5 to 14 micron sized particles which is burnished into a metal’s surface in a tumbling machine and acts as a dry lubricant. Widely used in industry, on the 984 the clamping shoe is treated with it.
The adjuster is of the Norris type with a single fine thread rather than the dual left- and right-handed thread type favoured by Norris in which the opposing threads act additively to give rather coarse adjustment. The adjuster is non-captive, sitting in a recess in the plane’s sole. Although unconventional, there is no necessity for the adjuster to be captive; it avoids the need for a mounting plinth which would have forced the blade higher and resulted in a steeper blade angle. Being able to simply lift the adjuster out of its recess also makes it much easier to clear it and the surrounding area of shavings and dust.
At the bench
As ever with a Holtey plane, first impressions are of beauty of line, attention to detail and, above all, the perfection of making that one would expect of a plane at this price.
Unscrewing the lovely-to-the-touch clamping wheel lowers the lever cap so it can be slid under the bridge and removed, allowing the blade to be lifted out for sharpening. At this point, the minor downside of the non-captive adjuster becomes apparent because the adjuster wants to come away with the blade and there isn’t enough space for this to happen. However, a wiggle of the blade quickly causes the adjuster to drop away allowing both to be removed separately and is a small price to pay for the ease of cleaning.
The blade is finely surface ground on every face – edges included – so polishing the back is straightforward and the edge ground at 25° facilitates the quick formation of a 30° secondary bevel with a very fine edge.
Now to that forward-canted rear handle. Upright handles always look ugly to me, which wouldn’t matter in the slightest if they were ergonomically correct. I’m no expert in ergonomics but I don’t believe they are.
I suspect that those who have adopted them have used as their starting point the notion that a handle should be upright because most of the effort expended when planing is employed to drive it forward. However, this ignores two facts. First, when a gripping fist is formed the knuckles are not aligned vertically but extend further forward at the top. More importantly, when a natural planing stance and height is adopted, the most comfortable and efficient alignment of wrist and forearm is a straight line and this straight line is not parallel with the surface being planed. A forward-sloping handle facilitates this alignment and the combination of forward force combined with modest downward pressure that is required. Whatever the merits of this argument, in use the handle immediately feels entirely natural and comfortable.
The second question to answer is whether all the effort and complexity that went into the handle fixing has really made a difference. A widely unappreciated disadvantage of the conventional open handle and its spindly fixing is that it has notably more flex than the closed handle typical of infill planes. As with a bike frame, flex is the enemy of efficient energy transfer but, perhaps more importantly for a plane, it dulls feedback about what is happening at the cutting edge. I have to admit that before using the 984 I had not been conscious of the flex in conventional open rear handles and the difference a really rigid handle makes, but the 984 really does feel noticeably more solid and all of a piece than other open-handled planes and the equal of a closed handle.
Last and most important, what about planing performance? Well, first of all, that high-tech treatment to the lever cap clamping shoe does seem to help blade adjustment which is smooth and easy as long as the screw is not tightened excessively – something that should be avoided with any screw adjuster because it can cause rapid thread wear.
I used the 984 on a variety of different types of wood at varying shaving thickness, including some with recalcitrant grain, and achieved a smooth silky finish very satisfyingly. It won’t cope with extremely
curly grain without tear-out, but then, neither will any other plane with its blade bedded at or near common pitch.
As expected, the 984 doesn’t represent a great leap forward in plane making but it does prove that those marginal gains so prized by the Team GB cycle racing team are there to be had in the world of hand planes. Is it worth the price? In purely objective utilitarian terms it is hard to argue that it is, but as in many other fields, not least bikes, decisions are rarely made on purely utilitarian grounds. Aesthetically, technically and functionally the 984 is such a beautifully honed tool made in a way and to a standard that requires real depth of design and engineering skill, expensive workshop resources, plus an obsessive devotion to perfection on the part of the maker, that the chances of its like being seen again seem improbable. And, of course, it’s the last in the line. On that basis, I would be surprised if there are not enough people out there who will appreciate its qualities and be able to afford it, for the remainder of the production run to be snapped up. I wouldn’t blame them for doing so; they certainly won’t be disappointed. So again, I have no significant criticisms to make, but I’m neither surprised nor disappointed.