By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
Konrad Sauer, a Kitchener woodworker and toolmaker, had never done a show before, or even made a chair, when he won a people’s choice award for his walnut dining chair at the 2012 Made of Wood Show in Alton.
“Chairs have always sort of terrified me because there’s no right angles,” said Sauer.
“This is the first chair I’ve ever made, and frankly, it was my first show. I’ve always just relied on word of mouth. So it was a pretty unique experience for me.”
Originally a graphic designer, Sauer became interested in woodworking nearly 20 years ago, unwilling to buy poor-quality furniture.
“Really well-made furniture is actually fairly expensive. And so you’ve got two choices: either make it yourself or cough up the bones for it. So I opted to make it,” he said in his two-storey home studio in downtown Kitchener.
So, with no training in woodworking, Sauer jumped in. The challenges he encountered were not in learning a new trade, but finding proper equipment. Ever the problem solver, Sauer turned the barrier into a new opportunity.
“[I] was kind of hitting a wall. I couldn’t find good tools. So I’ve actually been making tools full time for the last 10 years,” he said.
After testing out different models, Sauer purchased an infill plane from an antique dealer. The old British model is capable of shaving off paper-thin pieces of wood, effectively smoothing the surface without having to sand.
“I bought that and it just blew away everything else, and that’s what sort of got me derailed,” Sauer said. “I thought, well, this thing was handmade by a couple of guys 150 years ago, what’s stopping me from trying to make them?”
For the next 10 years, woodworking fell to the wayside as he began building custom-made hand planes.
“Woodworking is a pretty small group of people, relative to the population,” Sauer said. “Within that group of woodworking people, there’s an even smaller group that is working with hand tools. And within that group there’s an even smaller group that works really extensively with hand tools. And then on top of that there’s another group that are obsessive about the tools they work with, and that’s the group of people I play with.”
The hand planes range in cost, with the cheapest model selling for $1,600, but more commonly coming in around $4,000 or $5,000.
The most expensive model Sauer has made so far is a record-breaker. It’s a hand plane that looks more like a ski, and is the longest ever made. The commissioned piece will cost just under $20,000.
“There’s a point at which function has long since left the conversation and it’s just somebody who is interested in . . . a beautiful object and just the whole process,” he said.
“There is an element of patron in all of this, which is interesting because that’s usually associated with the art world or the music world . . . I certainly do have a number of clients who, over a number of years I’ve realized a big portion of their motivation is just that they enjoy the fact that there is somebody doing this.”
Almost all of the work to make a hand plane is done right in Sauer’s studio. Only the screws and blades are purchased elsewhere, and cutting the metal dovetail joint is done with a water jet off site.
“I used to do this with a hacksaw,” he said, noting that making the cuts by hand doesn’t add anything to the quality of the piece, so using the water jet system was a logical step.
Still, each tool is custom made, with patrons able to pick a specific wood and metal, as well as make specifications such as weight and size.
Due to the level of customization, Sauer makes only 35 to 40 hand planes per year.
These days, the tool-making community is rather small, and Sauer has formed relationships with toolmakers around the world. As a result, he has also managed to collect some of the finest woodworking tools available, which has benefitted his first interest.
“I get really great relationships and friendships with other toolmakers, so there’s a spill over then to the woodworking side,” he said. “I’m inadvertently outfitting myself with some of the best furniture making tools out there.”
Sauer has renovated much of his family home to include fine wood floors, cabinetry and furniture that he made himself.
Since winning the people’s choice award for his walnut chair at the 2012 Made of Wood Show, he has built several more to create a set, and plans to add a table from the same tree.
Moving forward, Sauer hopes to spend more time woodworking, eventually bringing his schedule to a balance, with half his time spent on tools and half on furniture, cabinets and the like.
“The irony is that chair is all curves, so I didn’t even use a hand plane,” he said.
For more information on Sauer’s woodworking or toolmaking, visit sauerandsteiner.blogspot.ca.