Legend vs. Fact: The British Infill Plane
It is hard to image a woodworking subject more surrounded by misconceptions and outright falsehoods than that of the infill plane. Yet, there is no shortage of material written on these planes. Unfortunately, most of it serves only to perpetuate the misinformation. At The Best Things we are serious users, collectors, and students of these planes. With this background, we feel an obligation to share with our customers our hard earned knowledge. To that end, we will attempt here to address some of the basics of infill planes, and in particular Norris planes, and in so doing hopefully dispel much of the faulty information that has been published in the last 25 years.
When the word infill plane is mentioned to a woodworker, more often than not, the immediate response is to mention Norris planes, as if this was the only manufacturer. In fact, Norris was a rather late entry into the business, though indeed Norris became a major manufacturer, and one of the last survivors, so it is not surprising that their name would be better remembered than most. In the heyday of the infill plane, from the last quarter of the 19th Century up until World War I, there were many manufacturers of infill planes, ranging in quality from exquisite to excellent. In addition, many more planes were assembled by craftsmen for their own use than were made by factories, usually starting with a factory made casting. These planes range in quality from better than the best factory plane, to outright junk, reflecting the broad range of skills and motivation of the craftsmen attempting this job.
Many people, even when they are familiar with the numerous manufacturers, assume that Norris was the best. Others often ask the question, "Is a Norris or a Spiers better?" Both the assumption and the question suffer from the same basic flaw. Norris was in business for over 50 years, and Spiers for much longer. Would you assess the quality of a new car based on what that manufacturer produced in the 50s? To compare a 1900 Norris with a 1938 Norris, or an 1875 Spiers with a 1925 Spiers, is equally absurd. At their best, both Norris and Spiers made planes of uncompromising quality. At its worst, Norris still made great planes, but not as good as the best efforts of their own or other earlier makers. Spiers did not fare so well. In its dying years it made some Stanley type copies that were truly abominable.
The quality of other makers that were in business only during the golden age of the infill plane, can be described in more general terms. John Holland for example, worked for a much shorter period than Norris, from 1861 to 1892, during the Golden age of infill planes. The planes of John Holland are regarded by many collectors as the best infill planes ever made, and certainly are of a more consistent quality than either Norris or Spiers. This assessment reflects Holland's combination of aesthetic values and production quality.
From a users perspective, the quality argument is really not that important, since the primary impact of quality deviations was on finish. In the declining years of the industry, after the Great War, rising labor costs were making the planes too expensive for most workers, while at the same time competition from Stanley planes at a fraction of the cost was reducing demand for the finer infill planes. The result was that corners were cut in an effort to survive. Spiers succumbed around 1930 to economic pressures. Planes made in their last years are ugly, poorly finished planes. Norris was able to survive longer, in large part as a result of the patented adjustment mechanism. However, planes made after the late 1920s are decidedly less "finished" than the earlier planes. By the end of the 1930s, Norris planes were being made in a shed behind the house of Thomas Norris's daughter. After the war, the Norris name and designs were sold to an aeronautical instrument manufacturer looking to diversify away from military production. These planes are the so called "late model "Norris." Some time in the early 1950s, these planes were also discontinued.
Craftsman assembled planes are more numerous than factory pieces, and also far more diverse in both style and quality. At their best, some of these planes display aesthetics and craftsmanship that exceeds the best of the factory pieces. More commonly these planes are naive interpretations of factory products, that lack the sophistication of style and finish of a factory product. From a user perspective they are often just as good as the factory product, but just as often they are not. Finally, there is the class of craftsman planes that are so poorly constructed or styled that the term "craftsman made" seems a misnomer.
Frequently Asked QuestionsWhat does matching numbers mean? Some manufacturers actually numbered the blade, chip breaker, body, and wedge of the plane. This had a practical advantage of keeping parts straight during fitting, and is a practice that actually began with wooden molding planes. It also had a marketing appeal, since it clearly implies "hand fitted quality." Some of the best makers, such as Holland, did not number parts. Today, a plane that originally had numbered parts is worth less if any of the numbers no longer match. From a users perspective, it does not matter if the replaced parts fit, but matching numbers are a guarantee that everything fits.
When was Norris started? Thomas Norris advertised a founding date of 1860. Evidence suggest that this may have been an exaggeration. Existing documentary evidence and surviving planes would tend to support a date closer to 1880, a relatively late starting date for this business. In fact, Norris appears to have been a relatively small player until the introduction of the patent adjust feature in 1913, and its subsequent improvement in 1920. The adjustment mechanism, while it adds nothing to the performance of the plane, does add some convenience, and proved to be a powerful marketing tool, as it still is today. Sophisticated collectors look at subtle features of the plane to guess at age, but in fact only vague estimates of age can be made. One feature that does provide a relatively precise dividing line, is the decorative finial turning on the top surface of the Norris hold-down screw. Through catalog evidence it can be asserted that this feature was dropped between 1928 and 1930. The feature, while subtle, added a lot to the appearance of the plane. It also marked a regrettable turning point in the future importance of aesthetics and finish to Norris.
Does the Norris adjustment mechanism really make a difference? This question is constantly being debated. In practice, the Norris adjustment is very convenient, but offers no performance advantage over a conventional infill plane of equal quality.
How tight is the throat (mouth)? This question seems to come up immediately whenever a particular plane is being discussed. In fact, if an extremely tight mouth was always a good thing, then all of these planes would have one. After all, these planes were hand fitted, and any throat size desired could be achieved. For the finest work, a gunmetal plane with a super tight throat can't be beat. However, this comes with a price. The plane must be set to take a super fine shaving, and the work can be very time consuming. That is why a Norris A5, the most common infill smoother, does not have a particularly tight mouth. The A5 is designed to be practical over a broader range of work, and in all but the most unusual cases, will do work equal to a plane with a tighter mouth, such as an A17. Conversely, the A17, Norris's top-of-the-line smoother, is useless for most work. Other factors that are critical are the weight of the plane, the pitch of the blade, the quality of the cutter, and the how well it is sharpened and adjusted. Compared to a Stanley type plane, all infill plane will be heavier, have thicker, better quality cutters , set at a steeper angle. How well the iron is sharpened and the plane adjusted depends on you. What is clear is that in equally competent hands, the Stanley plane is at a marked disadvantage on cabinet-grade hardwoods.