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The Norris story

A joiner tells the story of one of Britain's most famous woodworking names

In 1946 at the age of fourteen I started an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner and my journey to work took me past an ironmongers shop that sold tools. One morning the shop window had been rearranged and in pride of place was a new display of metal woodworking planes quite unlike any I had ever seen. I was full of admiration for the graceful yet workmanlike designs. This was my introduction to Norris planes.

The price of the smoothing plane was £3.17.6 and at that time a Record or Stanley smoother could be purchased for 18/6d. My wages of £1.16.0 a week ruled out any possibility of owning a Norris plane but 50 years later at the age of 65 my wife presented me with a Norris smoothing plane for my birthday, having heard the story of my youth many times. This rekindled my interest in these beautiful planes, especially the smoothing and panel planes with the famous adjuster.

Study reveals that Norris planes are of two distinct generations, that of T. Norris & Son of London, and Norris Planes & Tools Ltd, a subsidiary of Aeronautical and General Instruments Ltd of Croydon.

T. Norris & Son of London

T. Norris & Son was established in 1860 and is recorded as having a factory in Lambeth until around 1919, then moving to New Malden in Surrey, where it continued to trade until 1944. The firm produced a number of planes including smoothing, panel, bullnose, jointing, shoulder, rebate and mitre, although by 1943 the range had been reduced, the most common plane made being the dovetailed coffin sided smoother. The metal planes manufactured by them were of two methods of construction, casting in iron, malleable iron and gunmetal, and dovetailed steel, infilled or wedged with rosewood, ebony or walnut depending on the model. Detailed pictures of these various planes with their specifications can be seen in Norris re-print catalogues, one for 1914 and another for around 1922. Advertisements for Norris planes can also be found in other catalogues as far back as 1912 and possibly beyond. Buck and Ryan catalogues circa 1938 also have Norris planes listed with pictures and prices.

The steel planes were dovetailed together side plates to sole by what appears to be the impossible joint, being splayed both ways. This was achieved by cutting the dovetail joints long and subsequently riveting or peining back and later grinding flush. These joints were cut and filed by hand in the Norris factory, this fact being confirmed by a gentleman who was an apprentice in the New Malden works.

However it should be mentioned here that T Norris & Son were not the first to use dovetailing as a method of joining steel planes together. This must be credited to Stewart Spiers of Ayr, Scotland who having been apprenticed to the cabinet making trade started manufacturing planes shortly after completing his apprenticeship in 1840. Other well known plane manufacturers also used this method of jointing, companies such as Edward Preston and Sons Ltd, Alex Mathieson and Sons to name but two. Histories of these Companies together with reprints of their catalogues are available and make fascinating reading for collectors and users alike.

Around 1913 Norris invented and patented an adjuster for lateral and vertical movements to the cutter controlled by a single shaft. The Patent No. 11526-13 was applied for on 17 May 1913 and accepted on 24 July 1913. A second patent for an improvement to the adjuster was applied for on 19 April 1922 and accepted on 21 June 1923, No. 199198-22. These numbers can be found on the face of the adjustment knobs on planes made by T Norris & Son. In many ways the adjustment mechanism sealed the fate of other plane makers of the time, although many craftsmen stuck to the conventional method of tapping the irons to adjust both depth and lateral setting, even claiming that it was just as quick and accurate. The argument continues to this day, and some craftsmen claim that the adjusters are too fast in the depth setting.

In the early 1940’s the staff of T Norris & Son were reduced to three men and an apprentice. The Company was now owned and run by a Mrs H S Norris believed to be in her eighties, and another Director named E E Perkings. The apprentice who worked at the factory at that time appears to be the last surviving member of this famous firm. Little did he know that he was to take his place in the history books of famous plane makers. Many years later following a career in toolmaking and now retired, he decided to make in the traditional manner a 1920 A4 model dovetailed Norris round sided smoother. I have met this gentleman and photographed his plane which is of the same Norris high quality of finish.

The precise dates for the closing of the Norris factory remain unclear, however it would seem likely that it closed around 1944. Records show that a firm of electrical engineers Wayne Kerr & Co Ltd occupied the old premises from 1948 to 1971, but as no records were kept by the Local Authority during the War, it is possible that Wayne Kerr took over the premises prior to this. The buildings were demolished in 1971 and replaced by a block of flats that were completed in the Autumn of 1972.

Norris Planes & Tools Ltd of Croydon

The name Norris was carried on as Norris Planes Ltd from 1944 until 1946 when it was changed to Norris Planes & Tools Ltd, a subsidiary of Aeronautical and General Instruments Ltd based at Croydon. The company traded up until at least August 1958, but by that time was only selling off stock, a 141/2 inch panel plane at £6.10s. This Company made two models of plane, the A1 panel plane in various lengths and the A5 round sided smoother, but used a different method of construction.

The A1 models, whilst based on the original Norris A1 design, were not dovetailed but constructed from parallel steel channel infilled in the main with beech or sometimes other hardwoods such as mahogany but all finished with a very dark black/brown varnish or lacquer. The A5 round sided models were also based on the original Norris design but of one width only having a 21/8th inch iron and, in my opinion, made in three pieces, the round sides presumably welded in some form. Study of the inside of the mouth reveals two things, one the thickness of the sole can be seen and two the sides have the round raised buttons on which the iron rides to facilitate smooth lateral adjustment. On some models these buttons are not present but further inspection on these will reveal a nib on the sides higher up beneath the lever cap serving the same purpose.

Although commonly known as “late Norris planes” there is a distinct difference in the construction of both. One model is constructed with the wooden infill fixed with transverse pins passing through the sides and riveted over as the early T Norris planes were, other models have a screw passing vertically through the front bun and another which is hidden beneath the adjuster base plate. I believe this to be the later model although I have no proof other than my recollection of their later appearance in the shops, and the illustration from the later advertisements.

Two further differences come to light in the design of the adjusters. In the main the early types have an adjuster similar to that fitted to the T Norris & Son planes which consists of a rotating hub mounted on a base plate through which passes a shaft of 5/16th inch diameter and threaded with a right hand thread of 32 threads per inch. The lower end of the shaft is threaded internally with a 7/32th inch left hand thread of 40 TPI to accommodate the stem of a banjo shaped ring having an internal diameter of 9/16th inch. This ring then accommodates the flat head of the back iron screw and facilitates both depth and lateral adjustment. The combined action of the right and left hand threads results in a 32 + 40 speed of adjustment considered by some to be “far too fast” although I personally find no problem when used to it. The later types that I have studied, those having the screws through the front bun, have the same rotating hub mounted on a similar base plate with a main shaft of 5/16th inch again threaded with a right hand thread of 32 threads per inch. But with a floating ring with an internal diameter of 9/16th inch to accommodate the back iron screw head, the single action of the right hand thread results in a slower adjustment and is considered by some to be superior and depending on the tolerance of the floating ring bearing results in less backlash in the mechanism. One further difference to the shaft is that the knurled adjuster knob is fixed with a shear pin as opposed to the shaft passing through the knob and keyed as in the earlier models.

A further observation which applies to both types of adjuster is that some have a split rotating hub fitted with a small grub screw located to one side of the main shaft thus facilitating the taking up of any slackness in the thread due to wear and tear. This added feature is not confined to any one type of adjuster or plane as it has been observed in both.

The Adjuster Shortcomings

Although the Norris adjuster is without doubt an ingenious invention it is not without its problems and is considered by its critics to be not as positive or robust at the Leonard Bailey type adjuster in use as early as 1867 and still used on many makes of plane to this day. Apart from the “far too fast” observations the mechanism is easily damaged over time by rough handling with the lever cap set too tight whilst adjustments are made. On the double screw type this results in accelerated thread wear and bellmouthing to the internal threading on the main shaft.

Various modifications have been tried, based on the Norris design all having advantages and disadvantages. Some adjusters have been made having a double screw but having two right hand threads or differing threads per inch. This results in a plus and minus combination known as differential threading and can be calculated to give a very fine adjustment indeed. However the combination of the two threads still result in backlash and the same bellmouth problems. Perhaps the best solution is a single thread of 40 threads per inch on the main shaft coupled with a superior bearing on the sleeve of the floating ring, together with the grub screw in the rotating hub which is mounted in the base plate with a shouldered bearing and a back nut to adjust the lateral friction. I am lucky enough to have a brother-in-law who made such an adjuster and the result is microptic with a minimum amount of backlash. However one minor problem remains when ultra fine adjustment is required. The problem is brought about by the need to slacken off the lever cap in order to set both depth and lateral adjustments allowing the cutting edge of the iron to lift slightly off its bed adjacent to the mouth. Setting the plane in this mode the subsequent tightening of the lever cap results in the iron bedding back down giving a slightly coarser set. This is unnoticed by most users but has been observed by those preferring to use the time honoured tapping method on planes without adjusters. It would seem appropriate to mention here that I have fitted these adjusters when re-building other makes of planes broken beyond normal restoration. This has produced two superb user planes that would otherwise have been scrapped.

Restoring Norris Planes

Restoration is an emotive subject among collectors and users who in many cases have opposing views. The collectors wish to preserve these fine tools as found with a minimum of cleaning to prevent further deterioration and the users wish to use as well as preserve the tools without causing further deterioration, often preserving the original iron and using a modified iron made to fit of which plenty still exist. A tool restored for use in this way is much more pleasant to use than one left in a neglected state.

Personally I would not choose to remove the patina of use coupled with the tender love and care bestowed on the tool by its previous owners especially in the case of the older models. However I am in favour of restoring those tools which have been neglected, often with handles and front buns damaged and broken, and have taken great pleasure in restoring them to their former glory by making new parts and re-polishing woodwork, and see little difference in such action to that of antique repair and restoration in general, providing the action is coupled with honesty as to what work has been done. Not being a dealer in tools such work has been carried out to bring the tools back into use for my own pleasure as opposed to selling on to some unsuspecting collector as a mint original. Some late models were filled with wood other than beech, and if most of the dark lacquer is gone, I prefer polishing the wood in its natural state.

Sadly one often finds a quality tool which is sound in all aspects apart from serious wear and/or damage to the adjuster rendering the plane unpleasant if not nearly impossible to use. In these cases restoration of the adjuster is warranted. When finding such a plane do not despair. With the help of a good engineer effective repairs are possible without losing very much of the original and if carried out with care are not even visible without very close inspection.

Adjuster problems

The main problem with Norris adjusters is wear to the threads, generally to the internal threads of the main shaft in that they become worn and bellmouthed. The threads on the stem of the banjo ring often survive with a minimum of damage. One method of restoring this damage is as follows:

Firstly remove the adjuster from the plane - note: some think it is not possible to remove the adjuster on its base plate without removing the lever cap by drilling or knocking out the cross pin. However it is possible to remove the upper screw with a screwdriver through the banjo ring and with the banjo wound back the lower screw with a cranked turnscrew. Patience is required but in my opinion worth it to avoid unnecessary damage.

Remove the banjo; place the main shaft in a collet chuck on a metal turning lathe and part off at the end of the external 32 TPI section. Reverse the main shaft holding it in the collet chuck and bore out to a suitable size, say 7/32th inch to a depth of approx. 7/8th inch. Remove from the lathe. From a suitable piece of steel that will thread easily, turn down to the main shaft diameter. Holding this rod in the collet chuck, turn on a spigot to fit the hole previously drilled in the main shaft and glue the two parts together with engineers special adhesive. Remove from the lathe and reverse, holding the main shaft in the collet chuck. Bore the hole to receive the internal left hand thread up the centre of the new part and tap to receive the thread on the banjo stem (this involves the use of a left hand tap of the same thread as the existing banjo ring, usually 7/32 inch 40 TPI - note these taps are rare but some engineers make their own). Alternatively, if one was to replace the banjo stem using an alternative left hand thread; a tap to match could be used. Holding the main shaft in the same position in the collet chuck, turn the right hand thread on the outside of the replacement section of the main shaft to the original length of the thread thus ensuring perfect alignment. This thread can be run in stages and checked at intervals with the thread in the existing base plate boss until a perfect fit is achieved. Then screw the shaft through the base plate boss in its original position. Screw the banjo ring into the new extension on the main shaft and the result is a restored adjuster with an invisible joint. Using this method the maximum amount of the original adjuster is retained.

The above may seem a long complicated task but carried out by a competent engineer it is possible.

Final Thoughts

Norris planes are now much sought after, and I have noticed that there are less for sale as time goes on, many going out of the country to collectors overseas, the rarer models fetching very high prices. A number of people have reproduced these planes or variations of them, many of equal quality. I feel sure that as the demand by cabinetmakers for fine tools increases, some manufacturer somewhere will produce new models based on the Norris design in sufficient quantities to bring the price within the reach of such craftsmen.

Appeared March 2000 issue of The Woodworker
Reproduced with permission of the author

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