Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vintage handsaws

As I was walking away from a garage sale recently with yet another very restorable Disston handsaw from the apple handle era that I paid $3 for, I was thinking about what the price tells me (I'm an economist).  Sadly, it's this:  from a market perspective these tools are essentially worthless.  You and I don't think they're worthless, of course, but there is sufficient supply that the market price approaches zero, at least in Oregon.  Lots of sellers, not very many buyers.  This is in marked contrast to Stanley planes and other tools from the same era. Why?

I think there are several reasons, but part of the answer may be sharpening.  The days of a good local sharpening service for handsaws are in the past for most of us.  Mine told me that handsaws don't have rake or fleam angles!  No matter what saw I sent them, it came back with zero degrees rake and zero degrees fleam.  If you are going to use western handsaws, you have to learn to sharpen them, just like chisels and planes.

To me, there is a progression of sharpening skills:

1.  Start with a ripsaw that is somewhat dull but has good teeth and sharpen it;
2.  Same with a cross-cut saw;
3.  Same with a dovetail saw;
5.  Take a garage sale saw with missing or misshaped teeth and restore it;
6.  Take a garage sale saw, file off the existing teeth and start from scratch.

To this point, I've focused on 1-3.  I have several strategies with garage sale saws that have bad teeth.  I sent the big backsaw at the top of this blog to Marv Werner for retoothing and sharpening and it came back better than new.  For most others, I've sent them to the local sharpening service and started with a saw that has well-formed teeth with no rake or fleam, since that's all they know how to do, and gone from there.  I filed off the bad toothline on one 5 1/2 ppi ripsaw and cut in new teeth with a template.  It was a good first effort.

I've decided that I want to try to become a proficient saw filer in 2013 and have been working on a strategy, which will be the subject of the next several posts.  As I've done on other subjects, I will try to create a bibliography of links to the best information on the internet and in books or DVDs.  I'll summarize the information I've gleaned from forum posts and I'll write about the equipment that I've made or purchased.  Hopefully, you will find it useful.  

Here's my pitch:  buy yourself a $3 saw and have at it.  What's the worst that can happen?  As for me, I've got to stop for now.  This is enough handsaws for one woodworker, don't you think:


  1. I was actually thinking about this the other day. I've got some saws of my great grampa's that need some love.

    Does Wenzloff do sharpening? It's not exactly local, but Forest Grove isn't too far away.

  2. If the condition is not too bad, I think you should try it yourself first and I will be suggesting resources for the next several weeks. If the teeth need reshaping and you have no experience, I would send them out. I think Wenzloff is very busy, but there's a fair chance you could find a sharpening service somewhere in the Portland metropolitan area that could do a good job. I would send an email to the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers asking for a recommendation. Failing this, there are several excellent saw restorers that would give them back to you in prime condition. I use Marv Werner. I don't have his email address, but you can find him on Woodnet. He is a pleasure to work with. Shipping is expensive, but if you were sending a number of saws to him, the cost per saw might be reasonable. You don't need to send the handle.

  3. Andy, I greatly appreciate you sharing your hand tool experience on your blog. I always learn something. Nice looking collection of hand saws. Will you be adding any back saws to the mix?

    I was surprised to read that one can find old hand saws so cheaply. I would want someone who has knowledge of old saws to help me shop for one. The only ones I see (online), that I’d be confident in purchasing, are ones that have an obvious brand and have been refurbished and sharpened. Typical are old Disston D-8’s or D whatever, and have been reconditioned and sharpened and that will be $200 please.

    I’m looking forward to your future articles on your saw sharpening journey. By the way, I live in the Portland Oregon area and I guess I don’t know where to look for such bargain used saws. It looks like I’ll have to wait for spring when the garage sales start again and try to beat out all the other hand tool hungry woodworkers (and buyers) in the Portland area.

    Thanks, Dean

    1. Dean,
      I have four backsaws, including the one pictured at the top of the blog that I use in a miter box, a Disston filed rip, a Wenzloff filed crosscut, and a Lie Nielsen dovetail saw. More about this later.

      I would not pay $200 for a restored Disston. You can definitely find and restore one for much less than that. If you are going to spend that kind of money, I'd go for a new one from one of the premium makers.

      I actually found this most recent saw at an estate sale in Portland. I don't spend a lot of time looking, simply look through Craigslist for the best candidates once in a while or stop if I drive by an interesting one.

      You don't need an expert to shop for an old Disston. Surface rust cleans off very easily so, as long as it's not pitted, it's fine. I tend to only buy ones with good handles. Sight down the tooth line to make sure it is straight. It should not have been filed so much that it is very thin at the tip. The prices are low enough that it doesn't matter if you make a mistake.

  4. HI Andy-

    are you the artist that makes spoons/spoon sets for Alder & Co?

    Thanks so much, (e-mail)

  5. Andy,

    Here's an excellent video tutorial on saw sharpening. You may need to create a FREE account on the web site in order to see it but, it'll be worth it.

    The video is about 30 minutes long. It's by Paul Sellers and, he goes into pretty good amount of detail. He's primarily focusing on the rip pattern here but, plans to do one on the fleam (cross cut) filing in the future.

    I own his book and DVD set which contains more information on the topic of sharpening our woodworking tools, as well as other stuff. I'm very happy with it.


    1. Kelly,

      I agree with you on both counts. Note that, so far at least, the video assumes that you are starting with a rip saw with well formed teeth that simply needs to be resharpened. This is the right way to start. In response to a question, he replied that he thinks beginners should avoid saws that require a lot of work on the teeth. I emailed him suggesting that he consider adding another video on this topic.