THE PLANE WORLD OF KONRAD SAUER
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘Those are like my Wayne Gretzky rookie cards right there,’ remarks master toolmaker Konrad Sauer with a laugh, gesturing toward six boxes filled with what appear to be neatly arranged, squared wooden sticks. At least a few hundred of them in total. Each measuring around one-by one inch and no more than a couple feet long.
‘It’s Brazilian rosewood,’ notes Konrad. ‘Offcuts from C.F. Martin & Co guitars.’ He pulls a length out of one of the boxes and carefully hands it to me. I turn the solid piece in my hand and note the date scrawled onto it in faint chalk: 1966.
‘My Porsche money,’ Konrad adds with a chuckle.
I’m standing with Konrad on the ground floor of his workshop – a glorious two-storey structure that, like so many things in Konrad’s life, he built by hand. Located just behind his redbrick home near downtown Kitchener, the space is a wonderland of custom machines and specialized power and hand tools. Punctuated by beautiful handcrafted work tables bathed in natural light. And by models and prototypes and in-process work and finished pieces. And wood. Lots of it.
African Blackwood. Kingwood. Honduran Rosewood. Desert Ironwood. Boxwood. And, of course, the aforementioned Brazilian Rosewood – almost impossible to locate in any real quantity nowadays. Stacked and bundled and parceled all about the floor. Meticulously collected over the years. Just waiting for Konrad’s deft hands to transform them into what have become some of the most sought after woodworking tools in the world: infill planes by Sauer & Steiner.
It was not always this way. ‘Two decades ago,’ notes Konrad, ‘I was an Art Director working in downtown Toronto. There was lots of work. And big clients. And yet by the end of my tenure I felt far from fulfilled.’ By now we’ve left the workshop and are standing in the Sauer kitchen. He’s enjoying a bagel. I’m delighting in a coffee. And in the incredible cabinetry that surrounds us. Local Black Walnut cupboards. With African Blackwood handles. By Konrad, of course.
‘I became especially exhausted by what I perceived to be the tired uniformity of design work coming out of agencies,’ he continues. ‘My creative work had become overwhelmingly computer-driven, supported by a limited number of design programs. The computer, which was once one of the tools in the designer’s arsenal, had become the only tool. As a result, the process of work had become lifeless. Without personality. Or soul. I prefer to work at design first; then I figure out how to make it, not the other way around. Besides,’ he remarks, ‘I wanted to work with my hands again.’ He pauses, before adding: ‘I needed to work with my hands again.’
And so that’s what Konrad did. As we wander from the kitchen toward the dining room, Konrad’s handiwork is evident almost everywhere I look. The millwork framing doors and covering walls. The herringbone parquet flooring. The dining room table. The dining rooms chairs. My god, those dining room chairs. All expressions of Konrad’s desire – need, really – to make things with his hands. And all projects that demanded good tools with tight tolerances. It wasn’t long before Konrad knew he wanted to make his tools, too. And so he began.
‘I continued working in Toronto for three years after creating my first plane,’ notes Konrad, ‘before quitting to do this full-time.’ We’re back in his workshop. Upstairs. And ‘this’ is all around us. The most exquisite infill planes – some finished, others in various states of completion – seem to fill the place. On shelves. Work tables. I am quick to note a full set of planes neatly positioned side-by- side on a shelf. ‘My personal set of ‘K’ Series planes,’ he notes. ‘The ones I use for my own work.’ I’ve heard of these before. The planes that put Sauer & Steiner on the map. Designed and executed when an early customer asked Konrad to rethink the infill plane. Absolutely gorgeous.
And yet these are not Konrad’s most prized tools. Instead, that title goes to those tools that, over the years, Konrad’s clients have gifted to him. A set of Japanese chisels by a blacksmith whose grandfather was a samurai sword maker. A series of saws and several hammers – also handcrafted in Japan. And other irreplaceable tools Konrad uses to create his own artisanal planes. As he remarks: ‘My favourite tools are those that have stories behind them. Either because of who made them for me, who sold them to me, or who gave them to me.’
Tools with stories behind them. Like Konrad’s planes. Inspired by the story that got him here, and influenced by his insatiable need to create wonderfully-alluring yet soundly functional things. By hand. I pick up one of Konrad’s planes off the nearest work table and rotate it in my hands. Its weight is substantial. As is its mesmerizing beauty. ‘I have always figured,’ Konrad notes as I place it carefully back down, ‘that if you’re going to build something, you should at least make it beautiful.’
Words to live by, no doubt.