Unplugged Tools by Unplugged Methods: Interview with Plane Maker Boaz Zeffertt

With a recent resurgence of hybrid and unplugged woodworking, the demand for quality tools has increased. Some love the restored antique approach in an old Stanley #5, some love the off-the-shelf Lie-Nielsen, but there’s a third option others are taking: hand-made.

 

Bespoke plane maker Boaz Zeffertt entered the scene recently and produces truly beautiful work. Even more impressively, he makes his planes with very limited power tool use.

Brass and blackwood miter

Boaz, really appreciate your time. Tell us a bit about Boaz Zeffertt Tools and what you do.

I decided to go into full-time plane making after a few years of making planes for myself, working from a family farm in South Africa. I offer small handmade planes, specifically for fine woodworking and instrument-making applications.

This first year of full-time plane making has been interesting. Financially, it has not been what most people would consider “good,” but I have been busy. I’ve been making small dovetailed infill planes for cabinet makers and luthiers in South Africa, as well as more recently having the chance to export my work to the USA. Although, I have had interest from all corners of the globe: collectors, gun stock makers, furniture restorers, even knife makers.

What is a typical day for you?

A typical work day involves so much flexibility that I don’t even know what to do with myself. It takes a lot of discipline working from home and at your own pace to actually get anything done. I don’t have any schedule and I sometimes find myself peening at the strangest of hours.

Like in any trade, I’m only at the beginning stage, which means that it will take time for me to reach a point where hopefully I can develop a better reputation and name for myself.

What got you started in woodworking at all?

I was pretty much born into a woodworking workshop. Since leaving school about 10 years ago, I have been involved in the woodworking industry in one way or another.

Out of school, I went into a ‘high-end’ cabinet shop factory where I learnt a ton of bad habits and developed a deep resentment for particle board and the ‘industry’.

I spent a considerable amount of time in a veneering department cutting, matching, and pressing high-end veneer work, and after that spent some time at some of the companies most capable cabinet makers and shop fitters as well as doing specialized work on and off in a family type custom solid fine woodworking shop.

Tell me about some early influences in the switch to plane making. Why did you pick it up?

The thing about planes, when I was young, my dad was big Krenov fan, and made some planes. I have those planes stuck in my mind. Also around the same time, his buddy who is a luthier made a plane and I asked them why and they said because you can’t buy them. At the time it was probably true.

As I started working wood I realized that it was like that, you can’t buy them, and built myself some planes. I was kitting out my toolbox with good tools.

I came across the work of Bill Carter on the internet and I decided to try and make an infill. After making a few they were shown to some friends and things just picked up.

At the time I took a job travelling overseas to fit cabinets and it was horrible to be away from my wife. After one particularly draining job in Zimbabwe, I decided, “fuck it, I’m going to give this a real shot.”

The transition was slow; no income for some time, but suddenly things just picked up, people around here showed them to each other. Also through Facebook, which I had resisted for a long time, word got out internationally.

So not only do you make tools for unplugged woodworkers, but you make them in unplugged ways. How did you come to working “unplugged” and shift away from “the norm” of power-tool use?

I was very much a power-tool user, although I always had a respect for hand tools. Working unplugged came from the financial restrictions of not being able to afford myself the good quality machines which I was accustomed to from the industry, but less-expensive hand tools were accessible.

Filing the metal.

It’s just currently what works, and it does work. I’m not approaching the making process as a purist, but it does make sense that I am making a hand tool with hand tools. I’ve also developed a lot of patience working with hand tools and discovered things to be possible that I thought were not.

A common thought is that you have to have a table saw, bandsaw, and/or router to make a living in a woodworking-related field. What do you say to that? Why on earth would someone want to do it all without power tools?

There are many businesses that have failed with a thickness planer, spindle moulder, and table saw, and there are people who get by just fine by just talking, which proves anything is possible. It’s not just the tools, it’s also the people that run the business.

Imagine someone with an idea and access to fairly cheap materials, fairly cheap hand tools, and the time, which is the situation for many people in the world. There is an ability to create something out of virtually nothing, and to a profit, whether large or small.

It’s all relative, but its cheap setup, it’s safe, it’s quiet, and often quite conservative in size.Checking the piece

One can easily create complex shapes that would otherwise take hours and hours of setup and investment. What you can imagine really is the limit, but at the end of the day it comes down to personal preference. Working so close to and directly handling a material does give a sense of feeling more at one with it.

For myself the tools themselves, many of the old and new examples, offer such an inspiration for both using and trying to reproduce or learn from them.

There seems to be a “dream” trend of people who wish they could simplify; downsize their house and move out into the country. You’re actually doing that, whether by intention, necessity, or both. What kind of lifestyle might one expect if they want to work 90% or more unplugged?

Working 90% unplugged, it simply means your hands don’t stop moving, hahaha, but it’s whatever you want to get out of it, there is no formula or answer.

For me working unplugged started as a necessity. It was possible and it made things possible, and it has its benefits. People romanticize ideas that are really not that romantic in real life, I strongly believe you need to enjoy your short time.

Boaz Zeffertt's home & shop

There are many of the same pros and cons in farm life as urban and city living but the country does offer the space and quiet, rent is cheaper, and there almost never traffic jams, but there are zero services.

Living in town has its conveniences no doubt, not to mention suppliers and being within walking distance of things…but the comforts of modern life soften many of the hassles.

Some call you an artist and call your work beautiful. What do you think?

I take it as a huge compliment, but everything with a pinch of salt. Art is such a crappy word, haha, makes me want to run. It’s pretty descriptive and at the same time so general, it depends who is talking about it and where they are coming from.

The contemporary fine art world may consider this outsider art if I spoke about it as such, or other various art forms, but it’s honestly not the audience I’m going for. I do make them to be used as tools. If they become investment pieces they may well be considered art, but the layperson calling something art is definitely giving a compliment in my opinion.

Tell me about some favorite pieces you’ve made.

I’m at a stage where every piece is exciting and I enjoy seeing new shapes emerge that I haven’t done before. Every time I make a plane there are things that I like and there are things that I don’t. I’m never not completely happy with a plane but for now there has always been an improvement in each one, one way or another.

One that stands out is my small blackwood and brass mini mitre, I use it all the time and have grown to quite like it.

Though my first ever attempt at a plane was a flop of note, I tried to destroy and discard it many times but it still lives to haunt me. Saved every time by my wife, hahaha. It’s good to see where you started.

What are some hard and important lessons you’ve learned in professional woodworking/plane making?

Understanding wood grain and movement, and that it will move, is essential to staying on its good side. I’ve been fortunate enough to personally experience felling, dragging (up and out of thick woodland), hewing, attempting to split-failing and then hand sawing, and seasoning numerous local hard-wood trees.

After the long work and wait to sometimes find blocks that appear shattered, perforated by powdery tunnels or just rot-ridden, and other times to reveal an oily crimson-colour blank.

Some trades already do this, but a lot could benefit from borrowing from one another. For instance, on my planes I use a lot of fit and finish techniques used in knife making. But most of all, the longer I do something the more I realize I have to learn: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know”.

Chaucer wrote: ”the lyfe so short the craft so long to lerne.”

Could be quite depressing but, it just always reminds me that perfection isn’t going to happen anytime soon, might as well enjoy it and keep on going.

Any advice to someone wanting to start their own planemaking business? If you did it all over again, what would you do differently?

That’s really tough because it’s still a fledgling business so it’s hard to give any credible advice. Practice goes a long way, but there is a lot more involved in owning a company beyond the product, you basically have to do everything.

How has the ubiquity of the internet affected you and your business? How does it feel to have your handiwork held by people around the globe?

Of course instant communication has made it easier, faster, and really just different, but without the internet people were still moving, sharing, sourcing things, and making tools for a living. The audiences are vast and ideas and objects are more accessible and spread more rapidly.

The internet like is a constantly updated telephone directory. People often forget how good the catalogue and postal systems were in those days, evident by the tools that did land up here in South Africa. But still, I’m personally surprised at how fast and successfully, so far, my planes have reached other people abroad. I think it’s awesome.

What’s it like being millennial-aged plane maker raised in South Africa, a place not typically associated with woodworking/plane making like the UK or New England, USA?

Although not associated internationally with woodworking, South Africa has its own woodworking history, with a large furniture- and carriage-making industry and a reputation back in the day for a very good educational system in traditional woodwork. We are definitely a bit behind on trends but these days with the internet the differences are smaller, but the competition bigger.

Boaz and some planes

As a millennial, I think I don’t see the world as separated by borders as much as some older people may do to this day. The whole global village concept seems so much more natural I guess. To be honest, I don’t really feel bound to or trapped in a generation.

Do you see a generational gap much in South Africa? What about as part of, as you aptly named it, the global village? 

I sometimes see a separation from the classically-trained crowd, but personally I’ve only been met with support from a local to international crowd. In a way, it’s funny that it seems there is a trend for older people to act like a mentor but there also seems to be a trend now where younger and older generations are taking an interest in hand tools. It’s a great meeting point, much more interesting. There is much to be learned from older folks who have a lifetime of experience.

Wood is a vast material with vast possibilities and I’m sure there will never be an end to its interest among generations.

Can you tell us some about a current or upcoming job?

I am currently working to standardize a few models of infill planes, and I have been collecting wood like a crazy person in order to let it have as much time as possible to season properly. The work on the bench right now is a series of luthier’s thumb planes.

Collecting Wood Like a Crazy Person

So I hear there’s a collaboration in the works with American plane maker & enthusiast, Adrian Britt. What can you tell us about Ashantilly Toolworks?

Through an online woodworking discussion community, I was fortunate enough to
approached by a fellow plane maker and enthusiast, Adrian Britt, who was in the process of launching a boutique online tool store, based in the Atlanta area in Georgia. After purchasing a few of my tools for personal use, he asked me if I’d be keen to supply him with some planes to list. He will have a range of small infills of mine, alongside his tools, as well as a few other small makers. Very exciting venture.

This was a great Idea as he would have (limited) stock ready to ship in the US, no production time wait, and payments would be quick and easy.
I’m really grateful to him as his business has really pushed me to keep going forward.

Any final philosophical musings?

The tool has become a symbol for me, literally and metaphorically, of the makers’ ability to overcome hardships, trying to master the art of living. TRYING is the key word here.

Working with hand tools allows me time to focus while also contemplating the materials, their relationships to one another and our connection to them, the way we do things, and the reasons we do them.

If readers want to learn more about you and your work, where can they go?

Currently you can find me on Facebook as Boaz Zeffertt Tools, where I do upload
photographs of some of my planes, process photos, and sometimes prototype models. Or you can email me at boazzeffertt at gmail dot com.

Soon you will also be able to see and order some of my planes from Ashantilly Toolworks at www.ashantillytoolworks.com. The website should be launching soon.

Author: Jordan

Jordan Quackenbush is a hobbyist tool restorer (focusing on moulding planes) and 100% unplugged woodworker. The tactility of woodworking contrasts perfectly with his mostly-digital day job, Creative Director for a Video Marketing Agency in Atlanta, GA, USA. He lives in metro Atlanta with his family. He is on the admin team at the Unplugged Woodworkers & Antique Tools Buy-Sell-Trade Facebook groups.

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