Restoring a Remarkable Old Hand Saw
One of my hobbies is buying, selling, restoring, and collecting hand saws. I have a particular fondness for vintage British saws due to their classic styling and the fact that some of my ancestors came from Sheffield. I acquired and restored this late 19th century J. Taylor & Son crosscut saw some months ago, and it has since become one of my favorites.
When I saw this J. Taylor & Son rip saw on eBay recently, I thought it would make a nice companion for my crosscut, so I bought it too.
It is a massive saw with a 28 ½” plate. The plate is also wide, measuring 7 7/8” at the heel and 2 ¾” at the toe. When the saw arrived and I opened the package, I was amazed by the saw’s mass. Likely dating to the late 1800’s, it appeared to have had little use and few, if any, sharpenings during its roughly 125 year life. Though it appeared to be little used, it was dirty, a little rusty, and would take some work to get back into top shape. Someone had replaced the original split-nut saw screws with modern ones. The upper horn had been broken off and glued back on, and there were a few other nicks and dents in the handle. So, let the restoration begin. I didn’t think about turning this restoration into a blog entry initially, and now I wish I had taken more pictures. So we’ll pick this story up after the restoration is well under way.
This is the handle after cleaning and sanding. It is now ready for the finish. I’ve also made replacement split-nut screws. Since the medallion was also missing, I’ve made a blank medallion to go in its place. It was not finished when this picture was taken.
The ingredients for home-made split-nut screws are simple: a ½” brass rod, and an 8-32 brass threaded rod. The rest is all hand work.
Cleaning the saw plate is a lot of hand work as well, starting with a dip in Evaporust and followed by hand sanding. On this saw I started with 220 grit sandpaper and continued through a series of grits ending with 400. Then, the plate was polished with a fine scotch brite pad, and finally, paste wax was applied. Wherever this saw has been stored for the past 100+ years, it has been exposed to moisture. There is some staining on the plate, and a little pitting. The worst patch of pitting is just below the maker’s stamp and measures about 3/4” wide and 2” long.
With the saw plate cleaned, it was time for sharpening. This is a big saw with big teeth. It requires a big file to sharpen it. The proper size is a “regular taper” triangular file. The teeth on this saw have a progressive pitch. Starting at the heel, the first 20 ¼” of teeth are at 4 points per inch (ppi). The next 5 inches are at 4 ½ ppi, and the final 3 ¼” are at 5 ppi. Having slightly finer teeth near the toe makes it easier to get the saw started in a cut. At least that’s the theory.
Now we come to the part of this story where I tell you why I think this saw is remarkable. It’s not due to its age – I have much older saws. Nor is it due to the makers – the Taylors were among the more productive of British saw makers. The sole reason why this saw is remarkable is that, during the cleaning process, I realized that the saw has never been sharpened even once in its 125 year history. Not at the factory where it was made, and not by a likely succession of owners who have possessed it over the decades. How do I know this? There are several bits of evidence.
1. The wide plate is a sign that little sharpening has taken place.
2. The teeth are perfectly formed as if made by a machine. I’ve never seen such uniformly perfect teeth on a saw this old.
3. Examined under magnification, there are no file marks on the teeth.
4. However, under magnification one can see the sort of marks along the edge of each tooth that are made when thin metal is stamped in a press.
5. All the teeth are slightly bent in the same direction as if punched out on a press.
I think it is typical, rather than unusual, that a saw of this age was not sharpened in the factory. The knowledge of saw sharpening was pretty common in those days, and most users either sharpened their own saw, or lived near someone who could sharpen it to their liking. It would have made no sense to sharpen saws made in England for export to America, because they would have needed sharpening again after being knocked about on the long voyage anyway.
How this saw managed to kick around in America for over 100 years without being sharpened, though, is a mystery. Who owned it, and did they know enough to even realize it hadn’t been sharpened? Did they try to use it with the stamped teeth which, admittedly, were pretty sharp as they were? Or did the owner hang this saw in some basement or shed and just never get around to using it? We’ll never know the answers to those questions. All I know is that this saw was in Illinois when I found it. The seller told me he picked it up at a flea market outside of Chicago.
As I stood with the saw mounted in my sharpening vise, file in hand, the thought entered my mind that perhaps I should not sharpen the saw. It is a genuine antique after all. It has gone this long without sharpening, so why should I change that now? Would I somehow detract from its history, its integrity, and its value if I sharpened it? Then I thought, no, this saw has been waiting 100 years just for me. It is a privilege and an honor to sharpen an antique saw that is still the same, a few knocks and dings excepted, as the day it left the factory on another continent over 100 years ago. Very few people have the privilege of such an experience, and this would likely be a once in a lifetime experience for me. I decided there must be a reason this saw’s destiny and mine met, and so I proceeded to sharpen the saw.
Two strokes over the perfectly formed teeth with a jointing file and the crowned toothline was jointed. I picked up the saw set, placed it on the first tooth, pressed the handles together, and SNAP! Wouldn’t know you it, I had broken the very first tooth I tried to set. I was both horrified and humbled. I had done nothing wrong, of course. Old saws often have thick plates and brittle teeth. This wasn’t the first time I’d broken a tooth. Still, I felt awful for having made such an insult on this grand old saw. There was nothing else to do but carefully proceed, and fortunately I broke no more teeth.
I know many of us who love old tools have an emotional, and perhaps even a spiritual, connection to these vintage objects. As I picked up the triangular file and began sharpening each tooth in succession, I felt such a connection. The saw wasn’t speaking to me, but I wished it could. I wanted to know its past, its trials and its triumphs. Who created it in that factory long ago, and who has owned it since. Did they have the same connection with this tool that I felt? They were a part of its history, and now, by the very act of sharpening it, I had become a part of its history too. Yes, this is a remarkable saw indeed.
The rest of the sharpening went well, and now the plate is ready for sawing. On to finishing the handle. I applied a light oil stain to the handle for two reasons. First, I wanted it to match the handle on my Taylor crosscut saw as closely as possible, and second, as with many old saw handles, there is a degree of blotchiness once they are cleaned up. I used oxalic acid to try to remove some of the blotchiness, but there was still a little left.
After the stain was dry, I applied four coats of clear satin wipe-on poly. I know this is controversial among tool aficionados. Many people prefer oil finishes on their tool handles; I do not. I believe oil finishes turn the wood dark over time, and I believe the oil is a magnet for dirt and grime. I hear people say, “The wood was dried out and starving for moisture.” I disagree with that too. The only time wood has a moisture content higher than the ambient relative humidity is when the tree is alive. We dry the wood to reduce its moisture content, so why would we put moisture back in it again? When you see wood that is weathered, dry looking, and cracked, it is due to exposure to repeated wetting and drying cycles from being left in the weather. Sealing the wood properly helps prevent that, without a need to introduce artificial oils into the wood. Though, admittedly, 19th century saw makers didn’t use polyurethane to finish their handles, it is an excellent sealer, and I believe they would have used it if they had it. A thick, glossy coating can be unattractive on a tool handle, but this can be avoided by using a satin wipe-on poly, then buffing it with steel wool when dry, and applying a coat of paste wax. That’s how I finish my saw handles, and I’m quite happy with the results.
With the handle finished, all that’s left is the assembly. Since my home-made split nut screws are not exactly the same as the screws originally on the saw, they require a degree of fitting to seat properly in the wood. That accomplished, the saw restoration is complete.
Here are a few photos of this remarkable saw after it is finished and ready to use.
And here are a few pictures of the saw with it’s companion crosscut. The tooth size difference between the 4 ppi rip saw and the 11 ppi crosscut is amazing.
If you’ve made it to the end of this long post, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed seeing this remarkable saw.
-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- "Of all the tools I own, my favorite is a good sharp pocket knife." - My Dad