Rehabbing Three Early British Handsaws
When you talk about restoring old handsaws, different people have varying thoughts about what that means. Some people think you should restore a saw to a shiny bright condition almost like new. Others feel that you should do the minimum necessary to make the saw functional again. There is no right answer; it’s simply a matter of personal choice. I’ve restored a lot of saws, and when I do, I usually try to return them to a condition as close to original as I can. Sometimes, though, I don’t believe that’s the best choice. This is particularly so when you are dealing with a very old saw that is clearly an antique.
I’ve owned three early British handsaws for awhile now. By early, I mean pre-1850. I’ve kept these saws in my till waiting until I decided what to do with them because, frankly, I wasn’t sure. I envisioned three possible options: 1) leave them in their present unusable condition and hang them on the wall as shop decorations; 2) perform my usual saw restoration by repairing them, shining them up and trying to return them to close to original condition; or 3) do something intermediate between the two. After thinking about it for a couple of years, I decided on option 2. My objectives included treating the rust to prevent further damage, making only necessary handle repairs, cleaning them up a little, and sharpening them. In short, I wanted to make them function while still looking old like the antiques that they are. I think of this process as more of a rehab than a restore, hence the title of this article.
Saw #1: Thomas Ibbotson & Co.
This was an 8 ppi crosscut saw with a 26” plate. Because the plate is fairly narrow from many previous sharpening, making the saw look out of proportion, I shortened the plate to 24”. As visible in the “before” picture below, both horns of the handle were slightly blunted by damage. The plate was in good condition, with only light scattered staining. The brass split nut screws were all present and in good condition. One of the more interesting features of this saw is the date 1845 carved in the English beech handle. This establishes the latest likely date for the saw’s manufacture, but how much older the saw may be is hard to determine. My “go to” sources for dating British saws are the Backsaw.net forum and Simon Barley’s excellent book British Saws And Saw Makers From 1660. Based on these sources, I estimate that this saw was made not long before 1845.
What I did: After shortening the plate, I filed on a new nib. I then cleaned the plate with Simple Green and fine steel wool. A coat of paste wax was applied before sharpening the plate to its original specifications of 8 ppi crosscut. I buffed the screws lightly with fine steel wool, retaining part of their tarnish. I cleaned the handle with Simple Green, Barkeeper’s Friend, and steel wool to remove the dirt and brighten the wood a little. After it dried I sanded with 320 grit only enough to remove the raised grain. I then applied one coat of tung oil followed by three coats of paste wax. The final result is a saw that looks nice and is fully functional, but still looks old.
Saw #2: I. Fearn
This may be the oldest saw I own, and it is my favorite of the three saws in this article. The shape of the handle, shape of the plate, and simple nature of the name stamp make me believe this saw dates to the 1830’s. The name stamp reads I. FEARN above CAST STEEL in a small font.
I’ve not consulted with anyone who has ever heard of an I. Fearn saw. Either he made few saws and this is one of the last survivors, or this is a “branded” saw made for Mr. Fearn by someone else. It was common in 19th century England for established saw makers to brand their saws with the names of retailers who then resold them, or with the names of end users of the saws. The fact that no place of manufacture, such as Sheffield, is included in the name stamp lends credence to this possibly being a branded saw.
I researched the name I. Fearn and came up blank. However, during that period it was normal practice to use an “I” in place of the letter “J”. I was able to find the names of three men in British directories who could possibly be the subject Mr. Fearn. James Fearn was listed as a saw handle maker in 1852. John Fearn (possibly more than one) was listed as a cast iron, steel, scissor and cutlery maker from 1828 to 1846. Joseph Fearn was also listed as a saw handle maker in 1852. Whether any of these men were connected to my saw is unknown, but it seems likely since two of them were involved in saw making and the third was a tool maker.
This saw has a 28” plate length that is configured at 4 ppi rip, progressing to 5.5 ppi in the last few inches near the toe. The plate was rusty throughout except where someone cleaned part of the face side to see the name stamp. An interesting feature of this saw plate is that it is somewhat convex in shape along its upper edge. I’ve not seen another one like this, and it’s another reason I think this is an early saw. Unfortunately someone drilled a small hang hole in the toe of the plate.
The brass split nut screws on this saw measure about 7/16”, and they presented a dilemma. Traditionally, after installing the screws in a saw, the sawmaker would file them off flush with the surface of the handle. In the case of this saw, they were filed enough to almost completely eliminate the slots in the nuts. This made it impossible to remove the screws from the saw without damaging them. The saw plate clearly had rust that extended under the handle. My choices were to either destroy the screws to remove the handle and clean the rust, or leave the rust, handle, and screws in place. I chose the latter option.
The English beech handle on this saw has an early appearance with its broad rounded cheeks, narrow nose, small lamb’s tongue, and classic horn profile. It was in pretty good shape, with only a slightly shortened and split upper horn.
What I did: I wire brushed the plate to remove as much rust as I could. Near the handle, I scraped the rust with a razor blade to avoid damaging the wood. I then applied a phosphoric acid rust converter to kill any remaining rust. After washing this off with clean water, I scrubbed the plate with Simple Green and fine steel wool. This left behind just enough staining to retain an old look. After applying a coat of paste wax, I sharpened the plate to its original rip configuration.
The screws and handle were cleaned together with Simple Green and Barkeeper’s Friend. Once dry, I epoxied the upper horn split and sanded the handle lightly to remove the raised grain. The handle was finished with one coat of tung oil and three coats of paste wax.
Saw #3: Beardshaw & Son
This 26” crosscut saw has a London pattern (flat bottom) handle with three brass split nut screws. The name stamp is BEARDSHAW in an arc over & SON. Beneath that in smaller letters is GERMAN STEEL. The words are encircled by three crowns. This is the most difficult of the three saws to date. The London pattern handle and three screws instead of four could be an indicator either of an early saw or a cheap later saw. German steel, which is more indicative of the type of steel making process than its location of origin, was known as a lesser quality steel when used on British saws. This could also indicate a later cheap saw.
The name of Johnathan Beardshaw & Son was used in saw making from 1823 well into the 1900s under a succession of related sawmakers. Simon Barley’s book shows several examples of name stamps used over this period. The thing that most makes me think this is an early saw is two pictures that closely resemble the name stamp on my saw. Both are dated 1840.
In the condition it was acquired, this saw was somewhat of a mess. The plate was rusty, wavy, and dented from being hammered. The nib was missing. The toothline was very concave, and the teeth were so poorly filed it was difficult to determine the exact ppi count, though I believe it was 8. The three original screws had been replaced by two rivits, which were probably cut off nails. The beech handle was split. When I removed it, it fell apart into four pieces, with a large fifth piece barely hanging on by a thread.
What I did: After removing the handle, I wire brushed the plate to remove rust and then treated it with the phosphoric acid rust converter. I lightly scrubbed it with fine steel wool afterwards. The plate cleaned up to a fairly even blued appearance, which I left without attempting to clean further. I attempted to straighten the plate and hammer out the dents. This was partially successful. The plate is straight enough to be useable now, but is far from perfect. I filed a new nib on the plate. Due to the concavity of the toothline, I had to remove at least ½” of steel at the heel end and about 1/8” at the toe. I then ran the plate through my retoother, cutting new 9 ppi teeth. The plate was then sharpened in a crosscut pattern.
I epoxied the handle back together. The upper and lower horns were shortened by breakage, and since it looked unattractive on this saw, I made repairs to both horns. I sanded the handle lightly and finished it the same as the other two, with a coat of tung oil and multiple coats of paste wax.
Since none of the original screws remained on this saw, I fitted three new 7/16” split nut screws.
The Beardshaw is my least favorite of the three saws, and I think it is because of the condition. It could be used, but why use it when I have so many better saws? It may end up as a wall hanger after all, though it certainly looks better now than it did when I got it.
There’s just something about using a tool that may be as old as 175 years. Each time I use a tool like that, I can’t help thinking about the many hands that used it before me. These tools hold many untold stories that, at some primal level, I can sense each time I look at them. These three saws do not look new, nor would I want them to. They look as though they’ve weathered the test of time and survived to serve another day. May their next 100 years be appreciated by whoever their succession of new owners may be.
Thanks for reading my blog. I hope it was enjoyable.
-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Rocky Mountain Saw Works http://www.rmsaws.com/p/about-us.html