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 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

A History of Norris Plane Quality  

08/24/2010

Mention "Norris Plane" to anyone who reads about woodworking these days and you get one of two reactions. One: Mist appears in their eyes or two: you get a comment that they are no better than a good Lie-Nielsen plane.

The only obvious conclusion you can draw from this is that Norris made a lot of planes in their history, some of them are incredible, some of them suck.

Norris stopped making dovetailed planes in the mid 1940's, they sort of survived WW2 only to finally stop making planes sometime in the late 40's or 50's depending on who you ask.

For modern woodworkers starting in the 1950's a used Norris was the Rolls Royce of planes and dovetailed samples of these planes fetched more money than their main competitors, Spiers or Mathieson.

The main reason for the superiority of Norris is two fold: In 1913 Norris introduced an adjuster which moved them from a humdrum planemaker to the only infill planemaker making a fair number of planes in the 20th century. In general their planes are a generation newer than Spiers or Mathieson and have seen less wear and are simply not worn out. In addition, with the adjuster, Norris realized that there was no business trying to compete with Stanley type planes (or wooden planes) as Spiers tried too, and Norris's efforts were spent going higher and higher end.

In the 1970's a nice rosewood dovetailed Norris smooth plane went for about 200-300 dollars. Then in the 1980's Fine Woodworking magazine wrote about the "Rolls Royce" of planes and prices sky-rocked.

With the arrival of the Internet and Ebay anything with a Norris name on it sold for more money than anyone thought possible.

Here's the point. Not all Norris planes are created equal. Illustrated from left to right are four Norris smooth planes. From the left is the oldest of the lot, a no. 114 - in beat up shape. The 114 pre-dates the known Norris catalogs of the early 20th century, is from a casting, with poorly done infill, and was clearly a low end price conscious model. It is no better than a poorly made sample from any late 19th century infill maker.

Next up is a World War one vintage A51 plane from a casting. It's not really even an infill - the iron rests on a cast bed, not wood. I wrote about this plane previously. It dates from the transition time, just before Norris went up-market.

Then comes a 50G. This is a later plane. From the 1920's Norris's golden ago. It get confused with the Norris A17 which is also a cast gun-metal body - but the latter has a rosewood infill. The 50G is basically a bronze version of the
A51 except in a coffin shaped version, with the same weakness, and it works well and collectors have made the price go fairly high up. But they don't work nearly as well as a similar vintage coffin shaped dovetail smoother with a Rosewood infill.

This brings us to the last plane in this line-up. The Norris A5 in good or better condition is an awesome tool and a main source of the Norris reputation. In general their adjusters are worn and have a lot of play in them. This isn't a problem in use. According to an interview with a man who apprenticed at Norris in the 1940's, making A5's was the biggest part of the production. The most common size has a 2 1/4" iron. The infill is Brazilian Rosewood, and the plane body is dovetailed steel.

After WWII Norris stopped dovetailing the bodies, stopped using rosewood, and the post war A5 can work well, but nowhere near as well, as the pre-war version (there are exceptions, my post-war 17 1/2" panel plan is awesome in use). Postwar Norris planes are much less desired by collectors, much less in demand, and sell for far less than the prewar versions. In the 1970's they were very, very inexpensive on the used tool market.

Anyway if you are in the market for an infill plane don't just buy something because the dealer days it's a Norris. Make sure you are getting a model that is known for performance and you aren't just paying for the name.

Note: Before you email saying that your post war Norris is amazing or that your LN out performs a pre-war A5 remember I am discussing general trends and your mileage may vary. Most of my data comes from a big trial I did many many years ago where Maurice Fraser, myself, and a few other people rounded up every model of every Norris we could find, sharpened them up, and carefully compared their performance. Finally if you are just testing newly sharpened planes just about any plane will work well. The real test of infills and why they are treasured by a lot of craftsman is what happens to performance as the blade dulls (test it out and see).

For a reprint of several Norris catalogs and short history, and a gallery of color photographs of various Norris's in my collection click here.

Tags:Historical Subjects
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