Early 1840’s Disston Backsaw Restoration

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Blog entry by summerfi posted 01-04-2015 12:34 AM 4400 reads 4 times favorited 32 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Authors: This blog was co-written by Lumberjocks summerfi (Bob Summerfield, saw restorer) and putty (Alan Brough, saw owner).

Not long ago, putty posted pictures of an old Disston backsaw on the saw thread (post #8575), asking for advice on whether it could be fixed up, or should he rather buy a new saw. The saw had a crude owner-made handle, but otherwise appeared original. He tentatively dated the saw to the 1840’s based on information he found on the Internet. Further, the saw has been in his family for a long time.

Among others, I (summerfi) responded with my opinions and advice. Based on information at the Disstonian Institute and WK Fine Tools, I dated the saw to 1842 – 1844. Since Disston only began making saws with his own stamp in 1840, this made the saw very early and potentially historically significant. I encouraged putty to restore the saw to as near original condition as possible. In the event he didn’t feel up to the task himself, I suggested there were a few people on Lumberjocks who could do it for him. Little did I know at the time that, after due consideration, he would ask me to do the restoration. I wasn’t looking for more projects, but because I felt so strongly that this saw should be preserved, I consented under one condition: that he allow me to return it as close to original condition as I could. He readily agreed to that, and thus the restoration began.

The Saw’s History
Written by putty (Alan Brough)

This saw belonged to my great great grandfather, Michael Roether, and I believe that Michael bought the saw new. Michael was born in 1824 in Germany. His father was a cabinet maker and he taught his trade to his son. Michael became dissatisfied with his home country, and like many others, he came to the “New World” in the early 1840’s.

It appears that he first settled in Philadelphia, and I would assume that is when he bought his new sash saw. There is a good possibility that he bought the saw from Henry Disston himself. (Note: to read Henry Disston’s biography, including several personal and professional tragedies he suffered near the time he was making this saw, see this link.)

Michael then went on to work in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore before moving to Perrysburg, OH in the late 1840’s. At the time, that low-lying and sparsely populated part of Ohio was called the black swamp. Michael built a lot of the early houses and buildings in Perrysburg. This picture is from the Historic Perrysburg website.

This building was built around 1875 for a local lawyer. One of Michael’s sons later bought it when he became a Doctor. Michael and his wife had 11 children. He taught all the boys his cabinet making skills, although none followed him in his carpentry business. Upon Michael’s death in 1901 all his properties and possessions were divided equally among his children.

My great grandfather, George Roether, was a weigh master and superintendent at a large grain elevator along the Maumee River that shipped grain through the Great Lakes. He used his cabinet making skills that he learned from his father as a hobbyist, and he taught them to my father. George gave a lot of old tools to my father; the sash saw was one of them. My dad used the saw in a homemade wooden mitre box, and I can remember him calling it “the old saw.” I also used the mitre box with this saw when I was young. Sometime after I last used it, Dad must have broken the homemade handle. He repaired it with plastic wood (he loved the stuff) and painted it with latex paint.

I now have the saw, and after restoration it looks just like it must have looked the day Michael Roether purchased it new 170+ years ago. I am going to put it back to work and hopefully it has 170+ more years in it. I’m sure my dad, great granddad, great great granddad and Henry Disston would be proud of this restoration.

The Restroration

The first step in the restoration was to evaluate the saw and then disassemble it. Here are pictures of the front, back, and maker’s stamp before disassembly.

The presence of the two stamped eagles, as well as the size and specific location of the eagles, was instrumental in dating the saw.

The saw came apart with no problems or issues.

The split-nut screws appear to be original, but one of the nuts was smaller than the others and was an obvious replacement.

The plate was completely out of the spine at the heel, but was seated as far in as it could go at the toe, making the plate appear to be canted on the saw.


The Spine
I brushed the spine on a wire wheel to remove dirt and loose rust and then soaked it in Evapo-Rust. After washing, I sanded it with fine sandpaper to remove stains, lessen some of the old nicks, and prepare a clean surface for the next step. When they were new, the steel spines on many old backsaws were blued. When I removed the handle from this saw, I saw evidence that its spine had at one time been blued. I cleaned the spine with acetone and then applied a commercial cold gun bluing solution to restore the blued color.

The Plate
The plate was stained, had some pitting, and had been narrowed more than an inch by many sharpenings. Since we preferred to keep the saw as original as possible, those things alone may have been acceptable. However, the plate was also crooked. This made the saw unusable, and putty wanted to be able to use the saw after restoration. A backsaw plate often develops wavy crooks due to being improperly seated in the spine, and we know that this plate was not properly seated. I was hopeful that when I removed the plate from the spine, the waves would straighten out, and then I could re-seat it. However, once out of the spine, it was just as crooked as before. After consulting with putty, we decided to install a new plate rather than trying to straighten the old one.

The old plate was around 22 or 23 thousandths of an inch thick. I made a new 4” x 14” plate out of 0.025” #1095 spring steel and installed it in the spine. I cut 12 ppi teeth in the plate by hand and sharpened it to a standard crosscut configuration. Here are the plate and spine ready to receive the handle.


The Handle
We used a picture of a similar aged Disston backsaw as a template for the handle. Disston backsaws of this vintage had applewood handles. In order to make the restoration as true to the original as possible, we wanted to make the replacement handle from apple. The only problem was, we didn’t have a suitable piece of apple. I considered making the handle from cherry, which is a pretty good substitute for apple and was sometimes used for vintage saw handles. Then I thought I would try posting a message on Lumberjocks saying that I was looking for a piece of applewood. That was a good move because Lumberjocks came through again. LJ zwwizard (Richard Rombold) of Springfield, OR answered the call by saying he would donate a piece of apple meeting my specifications to the project. When the apple arrived, I must have had a big smile on my face. It was plenty big enough, was perfectly quarter sawn, and it even had some color streaks and a slight figure. What’s more, Richard said the apple was cut in the 1930’s! This 80+ year old wood was cut on the approximate centennial of when the applewood would have been cut and then seasoned to make the original handle for this saw. This seemed like a message from above that this restoration was going to turn out to be something special.

In another interesting twist, as I was running the apple through my planer, I found a lead bullet lodged in the wood. No harm was done to the planer, and I dug the bullet out in pieces with an awl. The bullet, which looked like maybe 25 or 30 caliber, was well interior to the board and must have been there over 80 years. It was just another tidbit to add to the history of this saw. Here’s what the bullet and hole looked like after removal.

Here is a picture of the handle cut to profile (before shaping). I put mineral spirits on the wood to give an idea of the color after finishing.

This is the handle after drilling the screw holes and shaping.


The Screws
This saw is so early that it was made before Disston started using medallions. Instead, the saw came with three brass split-nut screws. Since the home-made handle was thinner than the original, however, the screws had been shortened at some time in the past. Unfortunately they had to be replaced. For new screws, we turned to LJ ErikF (Erik Florip), who makes beautiful saws and excellent saw parts. Erik’s saw screws are even better than the originals.


Finishing the Handle
I finish my saw handles with several coats of satin wipe-on polyurethane. For the first coat on this handle, I tried something new though. I’ve read that an initial spray coat of clear acrylic finish helps to bring out the grain in wood. I don’t know if it helped, but I do think the grain in this piece of apple is beautiful. After completing the polyurethane finish, I buffed lightly with 0000 steel wool and added a coat of paste wax. The resulting handle is silky smooth without having a plastic look that can result from a too shiny polyurethane finish.

The Assembly and Project Completion
After finishing the handle, it was time to put all the pieces together. Here is the completed saw. With the owner, restorer, provider of the handle wood, and provider of the split-nut screws all being Lumberjocks members, this saw is truly a collaborative LJ effort.

We were trying to replicate the look of an early 1840’s Disston similar to this one at Disstonian Institute. Obviously our saw looks newer, but in overall form I think we came pretty close. Hopefully Henry Disston would be proud of the restoration work we performed on his saw. You might say it looks about the same as it did the day it left his shop.

The saw has now been returned to putty, where he plans to put it to work in his shop. Due to the family sentimental value of the saw, I also returned the left over parts (original plate, screws, and home-made handle), which will be kept with the saw in the future.

We’ll end this blog with several pictures of the completed saw. The man in the picture frame in the first two photos is none other than Henry Disston himself. Thanks for reading our restoration story.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

32 comments so far

View chrisstef's profile


15453 posts in 2423 days

#1 posted 01-04-2015 12:44 AM


-- "there aren’t many hand tools as awe-inspiring as the #8 jointer. I mean, it just reeks of cast iron heft and hubris" - Smitty

View bound's profile


12 posts in 2107 days

#2 posted 01-04-2015 12:47 AM

That is a great story, and the saw turned out beautifully.
It is nice to hear of the collaboration and how all the pieces came together to make this happen.

Very cool, excellent work. Thank you for sharing this.

View theoldfart's profile (online now)


7932 posts in 1868 days

#3 posted 01-04-2015 12:53 AM

Huba-Huba, wish I had one of those! Fantastic work Bob, that tote is the finest I’ve ever seen. Putty, your gonna have a good time with that one as will your heirs and their heirs. You know that’s going to be calendar material, right?

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Tim's profile


3029 posts in 1378 days

#4 posted 01-04-2015 12:56 AM

Great story and that handle is fantastic. Great job.

View Lynn Bradford.'s profile

Lynn Bradford.

68 posts in 1279 days

#5 posted 01-04-2015 01:02 AM

Awesome saw! Where did you buy the plate, if I may ask? I’ve been tossing around the idea to build a back saw.

Great job, great group effort.


-- Lynn Bradford | Indiana | A poor excuse is better than none.

View summerfi's profile


3258 posts in 1104 days

#6 posted 01-04-2015 01:09 AM

Thanks fellas. I also want to thank Alan (putty) for allowing me to work on this very cool saw that means a lot to his family.

Lynn, I made the plate out of 1095 spring steel stock. I buy it from Amazon, but it is available from any number of places. You can also buy pre-made plates from a few sources. PM me if you would like more info on that.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

View Handtooler's profile


1353 posts in 1549 days

#7 posted 01-04-2015 01:14 AM

Many Thanks for this historical information and the wonderful craftsmanship and collaboration to return this antique to its nearly original condition. I’m quite sure Henry is proud of the results. My, my what a truly wonderful tool. LJ’s really came through..

-- Russell Pitner Hixson, TN 37343

View putty's profile


969 posts in 1023 days

#8 posted 01-04-2015 01:15 AM

Kevin, the Heir to the saw is my 13 year old daughter…today is her birthday!! Any suitor to her will be intensely studied for tool worthiness.

I thank Bob for taking this on, and appreciate his historical knowledge of old saws. He did a wonderful job.

-- Putty

View Waterlog's profile


105 posts in 1349 days

#9 posted 01-04-2015 01:20 AM

Wonderful work and presentation. This is exactly the kind of content I appreciate from LJs and it’s members. Top shelf gentlemen, top shelf.

-- LWB Waterlog

View lateralus819's profile


2236 posts in 1306 days

#10 posted 01-04-2015 01:51 AM

Beautiful work Bob! How difficult is it to hand file the teeth? I assume you use a template?

View summerfi's profile


3258 posts in 1104 days

#11 posted 01-04-2015 01:59 AM

Thanks all.

Lat – there’s a learning curve to becoming proficient at sharpening a saw, but once you’ve accomplished that, cutting the teeth by hand is not much harder. I use paper templates that I download off the internet. I have a retoother, but it doesn’t have the guide for cutting 12 ppi, and that’s what I wanted this saw to be. Cutting the teeth on a small saw like this goes pretty quickly.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

View TheFridge's profile


5670 posts in 903 days

#12 posted 01-04-2015 02:04 AM

Nicely done sirs

-- Shooting down the walls of heartache. Bang bang. I am. The warrior.

View FirehouseWoodworking's profile


684 posts in 2690 days

#13 posted 01-04-2015 04:42 AM

Exquisite restoration and wonderful background story!


-- Dave; Lansing, Kansas

View luckysawdust's profile


31 posts in 1861 days

#14 posted 01-04-2015 05:08 AM

That just warms the cockles cockles of the heart!

How did you learn to make handles like that, Bob?

- Alan T.

-- “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

View summerfi's profile


3258 posts in 1104 days

#15 posted 01-04-2015 05:58 AM

Alan, I started making stuff when I was 5 years old, so I’ve had 60 years to practice. ;-) I’ve had some incredible craftsmen in my lineage, so a lot of it has been passed down. I became intensely interested in saws about a year and a half ago and I’ve done a lot of studying. Thanks for the positive comments.

-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works

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