Seventy five years ago if you had suggested to a cabinetmaker that today it would be impossible to buy a quality shoulder plane the cabinetmaker would have chuckled. In 1921 the economy was good and cabinetmakers in England and America were producing some of the finest work ever made in the craft. These were men schooled by a long apprenticeship, understanding hand craftsmanship because it was part of their very soul. Men who were part of a continuing tradition of woodwork that stretched from teacher to pupil, from master to a apprentice, from the times of ancient Egypt to this century. In 1921 you could have walked into any of the better tool shops and bought a Norris shoulder plane. However, the horizon was grim. A slow transition to machine production of furniture, beginning around 1855, effectively ended small workshop made basic furniture. The rich Victorian and Edwardian architectural woodworking that had kept so many high end firms afloat was about to be battered by a change in taste to Art Deco and the Bauhaus. With less demand for skilled cabinet work there was less demand for good tools. In 1921 the Spiers company was just about to go out of business, Preston was soon to be absorbed into Record Tools and the great firm of Alex. Mathieson & Sons, Ltd. of Glasgow was in the process of disappearing. Only Thomas Norris & Son was going strong, making the best hand planes that had ever been made. But during World War II, as the company concentrated on wartime production, Norris stopped making planes and the last maker of English infill planes, faded into history .

Today, as more and more of us are relearning the lost arts of the cabinetmaker, we speak about infill shoulder planes in hushed tones and bated breath. These were the ultimate tools for trimming a joint to a perfect fit. At best all that one can buy are reasonable copies of Preston's iron adjustable shoulder planes now made by Record and Clifton. None are as easy to use and wonderful in the hand as is a traditional infill tool.

This exhibit was mounted to give you a chance to see what the fuss was all about and what makes an infill tool as fine as it is.

More information on shoulder planes is available.


About the Exhibit

This exhibit includes some fine examples of the basic different type of Norris infill shoulder planes. In addition we have included a roundup of several examples of the Preston cast iron shoulder plane. The prices given are from contemporary catalogs that closely approximate the date of the tool. The dates given are the approximate date of manufacture of the tool exhibited.

The tools included in this exhibit are from a private collection in the United States. We would like to thank the collector, who wishes to remain anonymous, for his cooperation and assistance.

We would also like to thank Maurice Fraser for additional information on the technology of shoulder planes. For those wishing to learn more about the use of the tool, his article "Shoulder Plane" in Volume 76 of Fine Woodworking magazine (May-June 1989, Taunton Press) is the definitive reference on the subject. (The article was reprinted in "The Best of Fine Woodworking - Bench Tools" (1990, Taunton Press).

Suggested further reading:

Next: T.  Norris Sons

Copyright 1999 01 Inc., NYC