Object of obsession: the infill plane

Saturday 22 December 2001

From about 1860, Thomas Norris & Son of London made the Rolls-Royce of woodworking planes, constructed with iron, steel, brass or gunmetal bottoms and sides, infilled with rosewood, ebony and other exotic timbers. High grade cabinet makers aspired to own these costly tools, known for their precision and performance. Discerning woodworkers and collectors still search for Norris planes, which have not been made since 1940.

Holtey mitre plane

Luckily, you don’t have to search for one of these rarities. You can commission English plane maker Karl Holtey to make you a new one, even better than a Norris. On his website are descriptions and flattering pictures of ten different models based on classic designs. The workmanship looks superb.

Bench plane bodies are fabricated by double dovetailing the cheeks to the sole. This method differs from the wooden dovetail joint in that it is possible when using metal, to slope the tails in both directions. The tails are peened to fill the sockets, a process akin to riveting, but stronger. Using three plates of metal to construct the body allows the cheeks to be made from bronze whilst retaining a hardwearing steel sole. Unlike the planes of old with their steel cheeks, using different metals shows the dovetailing to advantage. Steel sided planes were prone to rust, particularly when marked by perspiration from the user’s hands; bronze cheeks do not rust. The sole is lapped to obtain a long lasting flatness far superior to anything obtainable by surface grinding.

A small chariot plane costs £1,880, a 22½ inch jointer is £4,600. Karl Holtey has recently introduced an innovative design of smoothing plane that takes advantage of modern materials and production methods to bring the price down to £1,650. On the other hand he offers to make a special 36½ inch jointer, for which the price would be in the region of £10,000. (For a rough conversion to Australian dollars, multiply those numbers by three). And I used to think Lie-Nielsen planes were expensive.

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