Restoring a Norris hand plane

by Peter Berrecloth
16th June 2020

Why I love old hand planes

Hand planes are one of the greatest innovations. This simple tool has made thousands of years of shipbuilding, architecture and instrument making possible.

During lockdown,  I was looking for a project to keep me busy. I spotted a well priced Norris A5 plane on Ebay. I decided it would be fun to do it up. The problem was, this led to five more plane purchases. I developed something of a plane problem.

I have now restored 3 Norris A5 smoothers and 2 Spiers panel planes. Since restoring these infill planes, I have new found respect for the craftsmanship that has gone into them. I don’t regret spending money on these at all. 


How to restore an infill plane



About the finish

Most Norris planes made before World War 2 were made of rosewood. After World War 2 they became cheaper and were made of beech wood. The quality became progressively worse as time went on. 

Beech is durable, but it’s not very exciting to look at. My process uses a shellac glazing technique which makes it look like rosewood. The glazes gives it a shimmering quality. 

Polishing the infill body

An old metal infill will no doubt have some heavy scratches. It is important to resurface the metal first, because any abrasion later might damage your lovely shellac finish.

In my first attempts, I used coarse 80 grit paper to remove deep scratches, but soon realised my mistake. It is very hard getting 80 grit scratches out of steel. So avoid this. Instead I used a gentler 240 grit.

  1. Secure the plane using some bench dogs and soft cloth to protect it.
  2. Rub with medium wire wool and cleaning spirit. This is environmentally friendly and works wonders on rust.
  3. Sand the first side with 240 grit paper and a cork sanding block. Use long strokes, from end-to-end.
  4. Once the surface is looking decent, inspect for deeper scratches that the 240 grit didn’t remove
  5. With 180 grit or lower, smooth any deep scratches, keeping within a localised area.
  6. Smooth out again with 240, 320, 600 grit until shiny all over.
  7. Protect the polished surface with Camelia Oil.
  8. Repeat the process on the other side.

I don’t flatten the sole at this stage. I leave it until after finishing. 

Stripping the wood body

Removing the old finish

You could try to sand the varnish finish off but that is hard work. You could also blast it with a heat gun but this will drive the finish deeper into the wood grain. Paint stripper is messy and bad for the environment. I have tried stripping using white vinegar but makes my kitchen smell like a chip shop.

I have found that the best way is to use scrapers. This has the benefit of smoothing the wood too, removing any bumps or scratches.

A cabinet scraper can be used. But I prefer to use a filed down chisel end. I learnt this from Bill Carter. Clamp a flat file to the bench. Place the end of an old chisel at 90º. Pull towards you in one direction. This will create a wire edge. You now have a fine scraper tool that can be used in all sorts  of awkward recesses.

Doing the same with a small gouge is handy for curved areas like handles.

For particularly deep scratches I might use 240 grit sand paper to blend them in, then finish with a scraper.

Smoothing the wood surface

Holes can really ruin a nice finish. 

Check for damage – This can be hard to see. Rubbing a wet cloth over the wood will show up any damage such as cracks or scratches.

To remove dents and dings – Wet a cloth and place it over the affected area. Use a household iron on a medium heat. After a few passes the wood will have been re-inflated.

To fill holes cracks and chips – A wood filler can be made up using sanding dust. Mix the dust with some wood glue and paste it into the holes. If you use the same wood it should look invisible. 

Evening out colour – I rub over some household bleach mixed with water to even out the grain colour and remove stains. I don’t know if this is good for the wood. But it seems to flatten out the colour which I like.


Finishing with shellac

Varnish would give a plastic look to the wood, which doesn’t look right on old planes. I have discovered my great love of shellac

Sealer coat

This is needed to seal the wood to stop the dye leeching into the grain and looking blotchy. 

  1. Apply clear shellac on the wood
  2. Once quite dry sand it down 
  3. Apply a new coat of clear shellac
  4. Sand lightly with 320 grit leaving a visible layer of shellac


Apply the red glaze

My red glaze is made up of shellac flakes mixed with red spirit dye. Only a little meths is used because the spirit dye already contains alcohol. Finding the right mix is quite important – you don’t want it too syrupy or too runny. Woodworkers have different ‘cuts’ for different purposes but I just do it by feel.

The red coat will look quite stark but that is ok because it will be layered over with a darker stain. I used red spirit dye from Bolgers. 

  1. Apply red shellac glaze in smooth strokes
  2. Don’t overlap you strokes too much or it will leave brush marks
  3. Try not to have too much shellac on your brush to avoid drips
  4. Work quickly in localised areas
  5. Sand after your coat is done and leave to dry


Apply the dark glaze

I apply two coats of dark glaze. I mix shellac with some mid-oak dye from Chestnut, and some black spirit dye from Bolgers.

Use the same application used above, and apply two or three coats. 


Polish the surfaces

Once you are done you will need to polish everything up. I go in with my 600 grit then 1000 grit paper to polish the metal sides. Then I will strop it using some polishing compound and the underside of a leather belt.

To finish the wood, I use some fine ‘0000’ grade wire wool to remove nicks and bumps. Then I polish with homemade pasting wax. This is 4 parts beeswax melted in the microwave on a very low heat (defrost setting). Then 1 part white spirit. Don’t expose whitespirit to heat because it is flammable.


Flattening the sole

The sole is the most important part of the plane. Its flatness is the key to imposing a flat surface onto wooden stock.

To flatten my planes I use a roll of 180 or 240 grit sandpaper clamped to a glass shelf from my fridge. It works really well.

I cover the sole with marker pen. After a couple of strokes I can see where the marker remains. This is where the hollows are in the sole. These need to be removed. After 10-15 minutes on 180 grit, 240 grit and 300 grit the job is complete.

Here’s the final finish!

Really happy with it.