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Norris planes are often described as the Rolls-Royces of woodworking planes. They have achieved almost mythical status when it comes to fine performance working with difficult timbers, as well as being most attractive tools. Patterned after the iconic infills of the 19th century produced by Spiers and other early makers, Norris planes went a step further. By 1913, the maker had patented a mechanism to advance the blade and also give lateral adjustment. He coupled this with dovetailed sides attached to a thick, rigid sole and stuffed (filled) with exotic material such as rosewood or ebony. This combination was more expensive, but also was a marked improvement over the American-based Stanley product. Not only was it an elegant tool, when fettled properly it outperformed any of its competitors.
With British patent #11,526, dated July 24, 1913, Thomas James Norris of Surrey sought to improve the adjustability of a plane blade while in a plane body. This was achieved by using a differential thread assembly (a threaded section within a larger threaded main unit) in a rod fixed to a pivot giving a method to advance the cutter and also by using the pivot to adjust lateral movement. In 1923, Norris revisited his claims and applied for a new patent (#199,198 dated June 21, 1923). The differential mechanism is found on the plane shown here. It enabled the user to establish minute advancements to the cutting blade, resulting in wispy thin shavings.
Designated as a round-sided A5 model, this plane is extremely difficult to date. The original Norris company operated from 1861 – 1941, but this model is definitely post-war and was probably manufactured sometime during the 1946 – 1952 period. Given this fact, it is possible that it was manufactured by the company’s successor, Aeronautical and General Instruments Ltd., which purchased the Norris company in 1941 during the Second World War. The style shown here and the square-sided A6 were possibly the most popular bench planes produced in the smaller sizes; they were offered in 2-1/8” and 2-1/4” blade widths. The body is stuffed with beech that has been ebonized and, as with all of the last models, has vertical screws to remove the infill. The metal body is of a welded construction emulating the earlier dovetailed assembly method. The adjuster is as the patent shows. There can be discs on either side of the mouth that help pivot the blade. This plane has engine-turned sides, a decoration that has been observed in other A5 models.
The cachet of owning a hand-dovetailed plane and the associated bragging rights must be noted. The performance of this model is equal to that of earlier models, but what sets the Norris experience apart is the rigidity and mass, along with the fine mouth opening of the plane. When adjusted correctly, these planes glide over the workpiece. Modern manufacturers, be they bespoke or large companies, have replicated the performance features of these early planes. Today’s owner has many choices when it comes to selecting a pleasing aesthetic, a comfortable fit to the hand and whether to use new technology or search for an antique Norris plane.
D.S. Orr has been a collector, user and student of woodworking and metalworking tools and practices for more than 40 years.