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JOEL Joel's Blog

When Features Trump Function


Front: Norris A7 foreground Back: regular Norris 7
Front: Norris A7 foreground Back: regular Norris 7

If you have any interest in infill planes, you probably know that Thomas Norris and Son patented a plane adjuster in 1913 and that kept the company going for the next thirty years. Now in actual fact the Norris adjuster has real similarities to the older Victor adjuster by Stanley, but neither adjuster has the silky smooth feel of the Stanley adjuster that was invented in the 1860's (and is still used).

The Norris adjuster allowed you to precisely set the blade depth and angle in their bench planes. The adjuster certainly differentiated the company from its competitors and gave them a unique feature to market and sell. However, most people I know who use planes of any kind will say is that the Norris adjuster, while fun, doesn't really make setting the iron that much easier than using a mallet and wedge.

Be that as it may, the adjuster was perceived as an important feature for a their planes and it led to business success for years. However, while fine for bench planes, the original adjuster didn't really work for the small shoulder and other bevel-up planes. Thumb planes and chariot planes were made with lever caps or wedges but shoulder and rebate planes were not. These planes used a wedge to hold the iron in place and there just wasn't a lot of space for a mechanism. In addition part of the magic of the wedged planes certainly was the way that tapping a wedge forced a continuous clamping surface along the entire length of the blade. This is important for performance, as a long contact surface between blade, wedge, and bed removed points of vibration and reduced chatter. The major issue of adding an adjuster to a wedged plane was that when tapping on the wedge to move the iron, you could also easily bang into and damage the adjuster and shift the blade setting. So when introducing an adjustable wedge shoulder plane, Norris had to solve a bunch of problems.

The A7 Norris ("A" meaning adjustable) adjustable dovetailed steel shoulder plane is nearly identical the regular Norris 7 without an adjuster. The only difference is that the adjuster for depth and lateral movement sticks out a little in the back. The adjustment knob is much smaller so that is hides under and just clears the protruding underside of the iron, safely away from the wedge. Like the bench planes you turn it to change the depth of cut, and move it left to right to change the tilt on the iron. The wedge is still there, but now instead of being seated with the use of a mallet, it just gets clamped in place by a screw through the bridge. The hole in the bridge of the plane is protected by a threaded brass insert so that the wood doesn't wear out. The wedge on its own is a close fit, but you need to tighten the screw to make it solid.

Originally I had thought that the screw seated into the front portion of the brass pad in the wedge, driving and locking the wedge in place. But on my plane, the screw actually hits the brass pad near the back and doesn't drive anything forward. In fact, it might do the reverse. The screw clamping force will distribute along the rosewood wedge and along the blade - which is good - but not as good as locking all along the inside of the bridge. As you can see from the catalog listing (in the C. 1930 Buck & Ryan catalog), the adjustable versions of the shoulder plane cost about fifteen percent more than the regular ones. The cost, the Depression, the war, and the general contraction of traditional woodworking meant that these smaller planes with adjuster never sold well and are consequently very rare today.

Norris A7 disassembled
Norris A7 disassembled

A closeup of the Norris A7 adjuster
A closeup of the Norris A7 adjuster

I don't think that the adjuster shoulder planes offer any real advantage over a regular shoulder plane. In fact, since I keep a regular shoulder plane in my toolbox with the blade set and ready, I rarely need to adjust the iron in the first place. And it's not that hard without an adjuster anyway. So unless you are a collector of Norris planes, it's not a model I would bother getting other than as a rarity. But - and to be fair, this is my fascination with the plane - the elegance of the mechanism and how it fits into the traditional body of a shoulder plane without changing much is a mechanical beauty to behold.

Click here for a reprint of several Norris Catalogs.

 Buck and Ryan Catalog C. 1930
Buck and Ryan Catalog C. 1930

Join the conversation
05/11/2022 Dan Moerman
It is a beautiful plane. And, the number 688 goes for a thrifty $36. I plugged that into the inflation calculator and found that in today's dollars, that plane would go for $623.23. I've shopped around for planes recently, and seen some beauties for between $200 and $300. But I don't recall any for over $600!! Hang onto that beauty!!
05/11/2022 Michael O’Brien
Thanks Joel. I really enjoy your detailed antique tool blogs with the explanatory photos. Of course, your other blogs I enjoy as well. Keep them coming.
Cheers. Michael
05/11/2022 Joel
Those prices are in sterling, i don’t know exactly the exchange rate at the time but I think it was about 4:1. So not 36 bucks, but 140 bucks in 1930!
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.