Saw Talk #2: Disston No.5 Identification & Restoration

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Blog entry by Brit posted 01-18-2012 09:16 PM 6465 reads 2 times favorited 30 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: And then there were two. Part 2 of Saw Talk series Part 3: Spear & Jackson 8" Dovetail Saw Restoration »

After spending quite a bit of time researching the history of my W. Tyzack, Sons & Turner saws, I was looking forward to finding out about this Disston backsaw from across the pond. After all, we have the wonderfully detailed Disstonian Institute web site at our disposal. Yep, finding out about this backsaw was going to be easy, or so I thought.

When I started my research, I obviously knew it was a Disston backsaw, but I had no idea what model. This is how the saw looked when it came into my possession. The saw plate is 12” long, straight and filed 16 TPI Rip with just a couple of patches of minor pitting. The depth of cut is 3”.

The apple handle was also in pretty good condition with the usual dents, one small crack and the odd paint splash. This is the first saw I’ve purchased that didn’t have a plethora of owner’s names stamped all over the handle which was a welcome bonus. However I was amazed to see that at some point in this saw’s life, a previous owner had wiped the handle with a dark stain without removing it first. They wiped straight over the bolts, the medallion, the brass back and they even got it on the saw plate. Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to have nice tools.

This saw handle also features a double nib in front of the top horn and two hound’s teeth in front of the bottom horn. Now I’ve got nothing against double nibs, but in my opinion they are just too small on this handle. If you hold the saw at arm’s length, they become very difficult to make out. To my eyes, they would be more in proportion if they’d been filed a little taller, but what do I know?

So I headed on over to the Disstonian Institute’s web site to find out what I could about my saw. My first stop was to the section where they show all the different medallions that Disston used over the years. This is what mine looks like and according to the site, Disston used this 13/16” diameter medallion on their backsaws from 1896-1917.

My next port of call was to the Backsaws section, where I felt sure I’d see my saw. Not so. I found out that not counting their three dovetail saws (Nos.68, 70 & 71) or their miterbox saws, Disston made three general purpose backsaws from the early days of the company right up until 1928. The common No.4 had a blued steel back, the No.5 had a brass back and the No.7 had a bright steel back. Great I thought, it’s a No.5 then. However none of the handles on the page had double nibs. I couldn’t even find any mention of them in the backsaw section. Also interesting to note is that at that time, it was a ‘special order’ to have the teeth cut for rip sawing. The standard configuration was for crosscutting.

Apparently Disston ditched the traditional V-groove in their handles in 1918 in favour of a more rounded shape. This provided me with additional evidence that my saw was pre-1918.

I found some pictures of the different stamps that Disston put on their spines and it seems that they started using the stamp on my saw at the beginning of the 20th century. That enabled me to narrow the date down a bit more to 1900-1917.

For anyone interested in researching their own Disston backsaw, there is also a nice back and handle study by Philip W. Baker on Although his study does show some older examples of handles with double nibs, there are none shown for the time period from which my saw dates.

So frustrated at not finding a backsaw handle with two nibs, I turned to Google to try and find a photo on the web of a No.5 that looked like mine. After a couple of hours, I eventually found a saw that was sold on It was a 14” No.5 with a double nib. Here it is.

See what I mean about the two nibs being indistinct? When viewed from the side they are almost invisible on this saw, but they are there.

Proof at last that I was the proud owner of a No.5. However, I still wanted to find out if the double nib was standard on these saws, or whether they were a special order. Luckily, another search took me to, where I found a 12” No.7 with a bright steel back filed 11 TPI that had previously been sold on the site. It has a 3” depth of cut the same as mine. It is much older than mine though with the medallion dating it to around 1865.

The text said “The 4 and 7 were similar except for the finish on the back and a slightly more ornate handle on the 7. The 7’s handle had the double nib on top of the apple handle and double hound’s tooth on the bottom.

When my saw was made (1900-1917), per dozen a 12” No.4 cost $16.00, a No.7 cost $17.00 and the No.5 cost $21.00. Since the No.7 was given a double nib handle, I think it is safe to assume that the more expensive No.5 would also have it, so that answered that question to my satisfaction.

Now that I knew what I had, I took it apart and started restoring it. The restoration followed the same process as before, however I did have some extra steps that are worth mentioning. When I examined the handle, I noticed that the side of the grip on the medallion side was darker than the rest of the handle as you can see here.

Once I had sanded and filed it back to bare wood, I found that there was indeed an ugly black stain which looked a lot like ink. Unfortunately, it was too deep for me to sand it out. Since the rest of the saw was coming up a treat, I was pretty hacked off that the handle would let this saw down. It was then that I did something stupid. I knew it was stupid, but I did it anyway. Tell me I’m not alone! I wiped on a coat of boiled linseed oil (BLO) to see what it would look like. Well it looked like this. Yuk! Now you could clearly see the stain and I was having one of those I wish I hadn’t done that moments.

It was even more annoying because the other side looked great.

At this point I figured I had three options.

  1. Carry on with my finishing regime and just live with it
  2. Make a new handle
  3. Ebonise it so that the whole handle was black.

I didn’t relish going with any of these options, so I asked for advice on the ‘Saws, using, collecting, cleaning and buying thread. Need2boat suggested that I try Oxalic acid, so I rushed out to pick up a bottle of Liberon Wood Bleacher.

Wearing long sleeves, rubber gloves and eye protection, I grabbed a cheap artist’s brush and applied the acid to the stained area. It soaked straight into the wood. I stood and stared, but the stain remained. Crap, that’s more money wasted I thought. Throwing caution to the wind, I hit it a couple more times. I had nothing to lose now and was already resigned to the fact that I’d have to make a new handle. At this point the phone rang and I went inside to answer it. When I returned after about 30 minutes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The acid was working its magic and the stain was disappearing. The following photo is a progress shot. Bear in mind that the handle is wet here.

Filled with a heady cocktail of excitement and relief (or maybe just the fumes from the acid), I slapped on even more. After about an hour the stain had diminished further. I let it dry then washed off the acid residue under the tap. Once the handle had dried out, I applied the acid for a second time to see if I could get rid of any remaining traces of the stain. I’m pleased to say that it worked remarkably well. The following photo shows the final result of using the acid. At this point, I hadn’t sanded it at all.

Yes folks, proof that Liberon Wood Bleacher really does work. But alas, the drama wasn’t over yet my friends. Having been bleached, dried, washed, dried, bleached, dried, washed and dried again, the wood was now VERY dry. You remember that little crack that I pointed out in one of the previous photos? Well it had now opened up to a gap of about 1mm and the whole handle felt very fragile. So I grabbed a thin artist’s palette knife and some Titebond 3 and carefully pushed the glue down into the crack as far as I could. Then with my heart in my mouth, I gradually closed the gap with a clamp. Luckily, I didn’t hear a crack and when I removed the clamp a few hours later, the glue held. Anxious to relieve any internal stresses in the wood, I liberally coated the handle with BLO.

After a second coat of BLO had dried, I slid the handle onto the saw plate to see how it looked. I love BLO, but on some woods it can look a bit too red and I felt this was one of those times. Against the brass back, it just didn’t look right to my eyes. It needed to be more of a golden colour. So I wiped on a coat of Liberon Finishing Oil which is amber in colour. It is also less viscous than BLO and therefore seeps deeper into the wood. This gave me the effect I was after and toned down the reddishness somewhat. This was followed by three thin coats of satin varnish mixed 3:1 with pure turpentine to make it easy to wipe on. Finally I rubbed it out with 0000 steel wool and clear paste wax.

And so we come to the end of another saw restoration and it’s time for the reveal.

Here’s the saw before I started…

…and here it is now.

I gave this saw my ‘A’ game and it was A LOT of hard work. Looking at it now though, it was definitely worth all the drama. I LOVE this saw. So, just in case there is anyone out there who is contemplating paying me a visit in the dead of night to……er……borrow it, I’d like to make it clear that the Rottweiler’s teeth have been sharpened to a point and……well…..he ain’t happy about it!

Until next time.

-- Andy -- I don't mind going to work. It's the 8 hour wait to go home that I don't much care for.

30 comments so far

View Brandon's profile


4145 posts in 1735 days

#1 posted 01-18-2012 09:30 PM

LOL, loved that last line, Andy.

That saw really made a dramatic transformation! You have a precious tool that I’m sure will serve you for many more years to come. When are you going to start fixing up saws for other people—I know you can make good money doing it since you’re so good. My saw clean ups don’t turn out nearly as well.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View StumpyNubs's profile


6314 posts in 1584 days

#2 posted 01-18-2012 09:49 PM

WOW… You’ve inspired me to restore a couple of antique Disston backsaws I have!

Thanks for posting!

-Jim; aka “Stumpy Nubs”
(The greatest woodworking show since the invention of wood is now online!)

-- It's the best woodworking show since the invention of wood... New episodes at:

View ShaneA's profile


5512 posts in 1382 days

#3 posted 01-18-2012 09:50 PM

Looks great Andy. The bleach did a great job. That saw looks too pretty to use now…better find a place on the wall for it. Really well done. Thanks for sharing.

View Brit's profile


5397 posts in 1626 days

#4 posted 01-18-2012 10:33 PM

Thanks for the encouragement guys. There is still a big pile of saws to restore, so I hope I can keep it up and get it all done by the Spring.

Brandon – Doing it for other people has crossed my mind, but I’ll wait to see how my sharpening skills develop. If they come out well, I might do it for other people too.

-- Andy -- I don't mind going to work. It's the 8 hour wait to go home that I don't much care for.

View Arminius's profile


304 posts in 2587 days

#5 posted 01-18-2012 11:16 PM

As a point of information, depending on where you got the saw, there is a very good chance it was made in Toronto. Many of the brassbacks were, and may or may not have the Disston Canada etching. They were made in Canada to get around a Commonwealth tariff wall. Much like Stanley planes, the ‘type study’ logic breaks down somewhat in branch plant manufacture, and you would often see non-standard or outdated options. So the fact that a nominal ‘No.7’ handle or an 1885 pattern would be available on a No. 5 might not have been listed in the US catalogue, but yet be standard for the Commonwealth version. I would bet that is the case for the one you found listed in Australia.

Very nice work.

View Brit's profile


5397 posts in 1626 days

#6 posted 01-18-2012 11:41 PM

Arminius – That’s a very good point. I did read that most of the brass backs were exported to the UK amongst other places and were not commonly found in the US. However, I wasn’t aware that they originated from Canada. I bought it off so I have no idea as to where it has been before then. As you say, the double-nib might have been for the export market, which is why I haven’t seen any on US sites. Thanks for the info.

-- Andy -- I don't mind going to work. It's the 8 hour wait to go home that I don't much care for.

View RGtools's profile


3314 posts in 1438 days

#7 posted 01-18-2012 11:56 PM

Andy. Your blogs should come with napkins, there is drool all over my desk.

The work really shows on the last photographs. Thanks for sharing. One day I think I need to go the extra mile and make a saw truly shiny.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View Brit's profile


5397 posts in 1626 days

#8 posted 01-19-2012 12:22 AM

Thanks Ryan – Regarding ’truly shiny’. As you know I like to be able to see the reflection of my work in my backsaws, but this time I stopped at P600. Still enough to see a reflection, but now that I’ve done a few restorations, I’m starting to form the opinion that a saw needs to look good as a whole. In this case, since I opted to polish the brass, I purposely toned down the shine on the saw plate otherwise it would have been too much. The handle is waxed to a soft sheen and feels smooth and silky. If I’d gone for a brushed brass look on the back, I might have taken the shine on the plate up to P800 or P1000. It’s all a learning experience :-)

-- Andy -- I don't mind going to work. It's the 8 hour wait to go home that I don't much care for.

View StumpyNubs's profile


6314 posts in 1584 days

#9 posted 01-19-2012 12:23 AM

Hey Brit… Do you have a video camera? How about doing a short video (2-3 minutes) of yourself talking about your saw restoration techniques and submitting it to be part of a future episode of Blue Collar Woodworking?

PM me…

-Jim; aka “Stumpy Nubs”
(The greatest woodworking show since the invention of wood is now online!)

-- It's the best woodworking show since the invention of wood... New episodes at:

View Don W's profile

Don W

15757 posts in 1351 days

#10 posted 01-19-2012 02:17 AM

I think I like this one the best. Its amazing how well these come out for you.

-- Master hand plane hoarder. -

View Brad's profile


948 posts in 1524 days

#11 posted 01-19-2012 06:26 AM

What a beauty Andy. I love reading about your restoration adventures. I’m finding that rehabbing/restoring is like rock climbing. At some point, there’s always a “crux” to the climb/restore. That one part of the process where you have to figure out the right “move” to advance.

For this tool your tenacity plus the Liberon Wood Bleach saved the day. I’m glad you stuck with it. The original handle is a looker and the history of it is very rich. You’re going to be proud to reach for this saw in you project work.


-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."

View NateX's profile


95 posts in 1780 days

#12 posted 01-19-2012 08:50 AM

Wow, I saw some rather rough old saws at our local antique flea market and decided that I would be way out of my depth restoring them, but now, I want one!

That looks amazing! Nicely done, another piece of American history saved!

View Brit's profile


5397 posts in 1626 days

#13 posted 01-19-2012 02:45 PM

Don – Yeah it is my favourite so far too in terms of the quality of the restoration. The handle isn’t as comfortable as the Tyzacks which is due to two things. Firstly, the handle is about 1/16” thinner stock and secondly, the inside of the grip is more rounded which pinches the flesh on my ring finger a bit. However, I’m being pedantic. It is still nice, I’m just trying to understand what makes a handle comfortable because one day I’m sure to make one.

Brad – Thanks buddy. As an ex-climber myself, I can tell you that your climbing analogy is very apt. Like the Chaffinch at my window who keeps trying to see off his own reflection, sometimes you’ve just got to exhibit a dogged determination to succeed (suck seed get it? Oh never mind). Two days and one blunt beak later, he’s still going strong :-) He keeps on knocking, but he can’t come in.

I bet he doesn’t clean up the crap he’s left on my window ledge though. Grrrrrrrr!!!

Looking forward to your next brace blog. Hope it’s going Ok.

NateX – Go for it!

-- Andy -- I don't mind going to work. It's the 8 hour wait to go home that I don't much care for.

View RGtools's profile


3314 posts in 1438 days

#14 posted 01-19-2012 04:07 PM

Stopping at 600 is a good way to go from a long term perspective…less likely to show fingerprints that way.

Any time I try to male a plane body shiny that is where I stop…after that pits and prints start to look quite conspicuous.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View Arminius's profile


304 posts in 2587 days

#15 posted 01-19-2012 06:15 PM


To be clear, not all brass backs were made in Toronto, the Philadelphia plant certainly made them as well. But as you note, the brass backs were more popular in the export markets, and if it was exported to a Commonwealth market, it was probably made in Toronto in the WWI era your saw appears to be from – Disston started manufacturing in Sydney in the mid-20’s, for the same purpose.

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