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Understanding & Restoring Antique Hand Saws
By Joshua Farnsworth
In my above video, expert hand saw maker Tom Calisto goes into detail on refurbishing an antique Simonds back saw that I bought several years back. Tom teaches classes at Roy Underhill’s The Woodwright’s School, and he is a contributing writer for both Fine Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking Magazine.
Before he refurbished the hand saw, I asked Tom to take some time to talk about hand saw types, hand saw teeth, parts of hand saws, and what to look for and avoid when buying antique hand saws.
This is valuable (and rarely covered) information that I also wrote about in great detail in my hand saw buying guide (HERE) but I’m including some very important points from it below, that more-or-less follow what Tom talks about in the video. Tom and I filmed this free tutorial video after we finished filming an upcoming DVD on building an 18th century style panel saw, that is based on the John Kenyon hand saws that were found in Benjamin Seaton’s famous tool chest. Click here if you want me to email you when the DVD/Digital Download is released later this year.
Finding and restoring antique hand saws can be extremely enjoyable, affordable, and fairly simple when compared to other woodworking hand tools (like hand planes). I love the satisfaction I get from restoring neglected antique saws. In this wood hand saw article I show the steps to restore an antique hand saw. But first I’ll talk about different hand saw types and the five specific hand saws that you’ll need to buy to get started in traditional woodworking: dovetail saw, carcass saw, tenon saw, rip hand saw, and cross-cut hand saw. There are 3 hand saw characteristics that are important for woodworkers to understand: (1) Hand Saw Type, (2) Saw Tooth Shape, and (3) Saw Tooth Count. I’ll briefly summarize these hand saw characteristics below, and also share (4) Parts of a Hand Saw :
1. HAND SAW TYPES
In my mind I divide most traditional woodworking hand saws into three general categories: “Hand Saws”, “Back Saws”, and “Frame Saws”. Below I summarise each of these three hand saw types:
Sometimes called “Panel Saws”, these hand saws have a handle and thin flexible metal saw plate with no rigid back or frame. Hand saws have larger teeth and are generally used for quickly rough-cutting boards to length or width. These hand saws were manufactured in very large quantities and are easy to find and usually inexpensive. The specific name of this saw type also happens to be the general name of all non-power saws: “hand saw”.
Back saws have fine teeth and thin metal saw plates, and are used for making precision wood cuts. They have rigid brass or steel backs to keep the saw plate from bending, which provides rigidity for accurate cuts of wood joints. The smaller the saw teeth, the finer the cut. Historically, back saws were used primarily by joiners and cabinetmakers, and are typically more expensive than normal hand saws.
Frame saws (or “bow saws” or “turning saws”) use tension to tighten a blade between two saw arms. When used with a narrow blade, a frame saw works great for cutting curves (similar to a power bandsaw) and can also be used for rough cutting boards when a larger blade is added. Frame saws come in all sorts of sizes, with small teeth for fine work to large teeth for rough-cutting.
2. HAND SAW TOOTH SHAPE
Hand saw blades are usually sharpened to two different tooth configurations, “Rip” and “Cross Cut”. You can change any saw’s tooth shape with saw sharpening tools. There is also a hybrid hand saw tooth configuration that is in between a Rip and Cross-cut shape, called a “Sash” tooth configuration, which is useful if you can only afford one hand saw…but it’s not as proficient at either ripping or cross-cutting. Here are some tooth shape diagrams:
RIP SAW TEETH
CROSS-CUT SAW TEETH
Hand saws with “Rip” teeth will cut along the length of the board’s grain (“ripping”). The tooth is shaped like a woodworking chisel, and pushes through the wood like a chisel. This is illustrated in the above-video.
Hand saws with “Cross Cut” teeth cut across the grain (“cross cutting”). The tooth is shaped like a knife blade. It cleanly severs the wood grain, just as if you used a knife. This is also illustrated in the above-video.
3. HAND SAW TOOTH COUNT
The number of saw teeth per inch (or points per inch) is another important factor in selecting a hand saw for a particular purpose. Large hand saw teeth will cut quickly through the wood, but will leave a rough surface. Small hand saw teeth will cut finely and accurately, but are not practical for cutting long lengths or widths. When dealing with normal hand saws or frame saws, “Rip” teeth are typically larger than “Cross Cut” teeth. In back saws, rip and cross-cut teeth can vary in size. The number of teeth per inch are usually expressed as “points per inch” (ppi) or “teeth per inch” (tpi) and the number is usually stamped into the saw plate. However, you can change the tooth count during your sharpening. Here are examples of large (rough) and small (fine) hand saw teeth:
This photo shows a dovetail back saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 15 ppi.
This photo shows a hand saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 5 ppi.
4. PARTS OF A HAND SAW
In the above diagram you will see the different parts of a traditional hand saw. Below you will see the parts of a traditional back saw. The obvious main difference between the two saw types is the back saw’s stiff metal back:
RESTORING ANTIQUE HAND SAWS
After you’ve purchased your antique hand saw or back saw, it’s time to start breaking down the saw. But first, you’ll need to make sure you have a few simple tools and supplies:
MATERIALS & TOOLS NEEDED FOR HAND SAW RESTORATION
Roll of Plastic sheet or garbage bag (to cover your workbench or table)
Flat head screwdriver (find a snug fitting size for your saw nuts to prevent stripping). If you have an old split nut style, you can file a notch in a screw driver to fit into the split screw nut.
I’ll include saw sharpening supplies in the following article on hand saw sharpening.
STEP 1: DISASSEMBLE THE HAND SAW
Start disassembling the hand saw by removing the hand saw nuts and medallion. These are usually made with soft brass metal, so be careful when removing the hand saw nuts and medallion from the hand saw because you can easily strip the nut’s slot. Use a flat head screwdriver that is not too big or too small. Carefully unscrew the nuts, and then use a pencil or some sort of rod to push the other half of the nut out the back. From personal experience with rehabbing a lot of hand saws, it’s a good idea to keep track of which nuts belong to which holes. Over the decades, the handle holes came to be custom shaped around the square part of each particular saw nuts. Next pull the handle off of the saw plate. If you are restoring a back saw, make sure that you do not remove the saw plate from the saw back, as the saw plate will kink, and you will likely never be able to get it straight again.
STEP 2: CLEAN & SAND THE HAND SAW PLATE
Using 400 grit wet & dry sandpaper as an abrasive and mineral spirits as a lubricant, sand the rusted saw plate and brass or steel saw back lengthwise. Don’t worry about sanding until you get a shiny surface, as this will just likely remove the beautiful saw etching. After wiping the rust slurry off with a towel, check for remaining rust, and continue until it’s gone.
STEP 3: CLEAN THE SAW HANDLE
Next move onto cleaning the saw handle. Unless your hand saw handle is quite damaged, I would strongly encourage you to not sand it as it would remove the lovely and comfortable patina finish that has built up over 100+ years. If you want a new-looking saw, then buy a new saw. I love using antique hand saws that show a lot of use. These antique hand saws were used by amazing craftsmen to build incredible furniture. These saws may just contain mystical powers that help you become a better woodworker! Use #0000 steel wool and mineral spirits to lightly clean the wooden saw handle. If you rub too hard, the patina will come off, so be careful. Repairing or replacing broken handles is beyond the scope of this tutorial, but Tom teaches how to make a hand saw handle in the above-mentioned DVD that I’ll be releasing soon. That would be a great solution for a hand saw that has a broken handle.
STEP 4: CLEAN & POLISH THE HAND SAW NUTS AND MEDALLION
The most rewarding step, in my opinion, is to clean and polish the hand saw medallion and saw nuts. I personally prefer using a brass polish (like Brasso) and #0000 steel wool. I’d recommend wearing rubber gloves to do this. Within seconds lovely gold-colored brass shines through the dark hand saw medallion’s surface. After the hand saw medallion and hand saw nuts reach your prefered level of shininess, wipe them off with a clean towel and set them aside.
STEP 5: WAX EVERYTHING
To prevent future rust and to improve the performance of the newly refurbished hand saw, apply a coating of some mild wax or paste wax of some kind to the handle and saw plate. The saw hand saw nuts and medallion are usually brass, so they won’t rust.
STEP 6: REASSEMBLE THE HAND SAW
Once all the rust & grime is removed and the hand saw medallion and saw nuts are polished, it’s time to reassemble the hand saw. At this stage you could also choose to sharpen the hand saw. But for simplicity’s sake I’m saving that for the future tutorial. Reassembling the hand saw is essentially repeating step one in reverse. As I mentioned above, try to put the hand saw nuts and medallions back in their handle holes just as they came out. It’ll make for a tighter fit. Make sure you don’t hammer the saw nuts or medallion back in their hole, or you’ll strip the hole and screw threads. Don’t under tighten or over tighten the screw nuts while attempting to “clock” (align) the screw side of the nuts.
After we turned off the lights and cameras, Tom ran my back saw’s plate through his Foley Automatic Retoother (find them on ebay here) and gave me a fresh set of teeth in preparation for sharpening. This was really exciting for me!
In the near future I’ll release the next video of Tom Calisto teaching how to sharpen hand saws. That topic has so much information that it would be difficult to include it in one tutorial alongside restoring hand saws. Make sure to subscribe below to be notified when it’s released, and also share your comments below!
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Joshua loves mixing his passion for traditional hand tool woodworking with his ability to teach in a simple manner. He lives on a small farm in Earlysville, Virginia with his wife and four children, and builds furniture in his workshop / woodworking school.