Rehabbing a Pre-1918 Disston handsaw with a couple of unique curiosities


Recently, I scored a Disston handsaw for $2.00 at an estate sale along with some other finds. The more refined shape (yes the horns have long since broken off) of the handle told me that it was an older saw. As did the Disston medallion , marked H. Disston & Sons…Philada. (That dates the medallion to between 1896-1917)

When I got it home, I took a closer look.

It was wrapped in a Denver Post front page dated September 27 1995. From the yellowed packing tape holding the bundle together, I took it that the saw hadn’t been touched in over 16 years. Talk about farm fresh.

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When I unwrapped it this is what I found.

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A couple of cracks in the handle…a missing saw nut for a still in place saw bolt. Some rust and deep pitting in a few areas. Not perfect, but the saw could be a decent user.

It had a 7 stamped on the heel. As in 7 ppi. But the tooth line looked much courser than that and my ruler confirmed that it was filed 5 ½ ppi. Someone had obviously retoothed the saw.

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As I studied the saw, the oddities started to pile up. Take the spine for example. At the toe. Have you EVER seen such a thing?

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That couldn’t have been native to the saw. The owner had to of filed 16 ppi backsaw teeth into the top of the blade. And I’ll bet he used that to start cuts for the main saw below. I feel confident making that bet because the test cut I made doing just that performed perfectly.

Let’s move on to the handle.

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Now what on earth is up with the hand grip ovals? Hmmm. That brings to mind something I was in a Christopher Schwartz video. He sat on a saw bench to rip stock vertically. I remember it because I cringed when he faced the business end of the saw toward his…uh…groin area and started ripping a board.

Look how the handle fits two hands perfectly for just such an operation. With the teeth faced away from the sawyer.

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A little research goes a long way
Sitting down with a cup a tea, I sauntered on over to www.disstonianinstitute.com to learn more about my saw. An etching would have been nice to determine a model number. But alas, it has long since vanished from this world.

A full minute of searching revealed that the handle “modification” I spoke of above is no modification at all. It’s the stock configuration of a Disston No. 12. The Disstonian Institute, had some tool-porn pics of a No. 12 too. Her turn-ons are puppies, silk sheets and walks on the beach…

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Apparently the No. 12 was the top of the line. Moreover the “tensioning” of the blade’s steel left it with “…a characteristic ringing or singing sound when tapped.” And that is exactly, what I noticed when I accidently “strummed” the blade while rehabbing it. It has a pleasing twang sound to the steel that my other saws don’t.

There’s also an interesting mark on the sawplate at the top of the heel.

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See the “V” in the top right of the plate. Could the “V” in this case mark the saw as Disston’s top-line Victory series? Darn that missing etch!

Restoration Twists
The saw plate cleaned up nicely after rounding up the usual suspects. Evaporust + 150, 220, 320, 400, 600 grit sandings.

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That’s me with my trusty Canon PowerShot you see in the reflection.

The handle required more work. CA glue repaired the cracks. In this case the liquid version was better than the gel because the dryness of the wood drew it into the crack via capillary action.

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After sanding the glue spots smooth it was time to turn my attention to the horn tips. The broken tips were about as attractive as an IRS agent waiting outside your front door, so I used a rasp to shape it to a more pleasing rounded end. A sanding with 220, 320, 400 grits followed by some time on a clean, cloth buffing wheel brought the handle to a baby-smooth and oh-so pleasing, shine.

Awww nuts!
The saw nut slots were very shallow and had been stripped through use over the years. A Dremmel armed with a metal-cutting disk made a perfect “re-slotting” tool. This is an operation you want to do with the precision and attention your dentist uses to fill a cavity. Cut too deeply and you can kiss your nuts goodbye.

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Notice how the cutting wheel defined a square bottom to the slot so that the screwdriver fits it snuggly?

With the delicate surgery complete, it was time to polish the brass. A few minutes at the buffing wheel with some white rouge had the brass nuts gleaming like Titanic’s wheel mount, before she slipped beneath the waves 100 years ago next month.

In the past, I did the nuts and bolts separately, which made it difficult to hold the pieces against the rotating cloth wheel without snagging them to launch across the garage floor. The sound of a vintage Disston medallion hitting the concrete floor at terminal velocity makes me cringe. Just like swilling a shot of nasty tequila. Retrieving it has become a religious ceremony of sorts, complete with genuflecting and praying to God that it’s still intact.

Always one to get out of going to church, I finally figured out that it’s easier to hold the pieces when you screw the bolt into the nut and buff each end of the assembly.

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The garage is now safe from shooting brass and tearful prayers.

Getting the No. 12 ready for action
After reassembling the saw, I jointed and filed the rip teeth (bottom). Then I flipped the saw over and jointed and filed the “backsaw teeth on the top spine.

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That was a lot of work and soon a very fine saw pixie dust coated the vise.

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Post-restoration beauty shots
Here’s what the saw looked like after the restoration.

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And an AFTER panorama shot.

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And now the handle.

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A 4″ x 4″ USPS box arrived today from Mark Harrell at www.badaxetoolworks.com. It wasn’t the 14″ sash saw I’ve been coveting and squirreling away quarters for (have I mentioned that I want the thin plate model, filed crosscut with a Texas honey mesquite handle and…oh, there I go again)…but it was the next best thing.

A vintage Disston saw nut and bolt that I ordered from Mark. After putting it in, I let out a contented sigh, secure in the knowledge that my estate sale beauty was complete for the first time in at least 17 years. There, there No. 12. You can sleep easy this night.

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Testing the saw
With the filing done, it was time to put steel to wood.

I turned the saw upside down and started a rip cut with the “backsaw”. Then I flipped the saw over and finished the cut with the rip saw.

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And here’s the test cut.

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It works beautifully!

Having passed the cut test, I added my $2.00 estate sale saw to my tool kit. The No. 12 now sits among its handsaw brethren, ready to rip as it has for the resourceful craftsmen who held it long before me.

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About The Write Biz

By day, I'm a mild-mannered copywriter who harnesses frontal-lobe creativity (right brain) to help B2B marketers generate leads and sales. By night I pick up hand tools to create wooden masterpieces...and give my black lab Bella the "red dot" laser to chase after.
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4 Responses to Rehabbing a Pre-1918 Disston handsaw with a couple of unique curiosities

  1. Bill Chance says:

    Really nice work, and interesting.

  2. Matt Cianci says:

    Hey there…

    Great find and nice write up. Thought I’d shed some light on your saw. It is, as you noted, a Disston #12. The “V” you refer to stamped on the plate under the tote is in fact a partial stamp…it is actually an “X” that was mis-stamped and only shows the top half. These “X”s were stamped on all Disston plates that were given the “Extra London Spring Steel” distinction to differentiate them from the rest of the varieties of spring steel in the factory. This variety was the highest grade of saw steel and reserved for the top of the line saws including the #12, #99, #15 and others of high grade.

    Keep up the good work! :)

    Matt

  3. Matt, you are indeed a saw scholar. That’s a nice tidbit about the “V” in reality being only half of a poorly stamped “X”. The Extra London Spring Steel literally has a nice ring to it. The quality of the steel shows in the cut and the pleasing sounds it makes when rapped make it my go to rip saw of late.

  4. brian livsey says:

    An even safer way to hold the saw nuts while buffing is to chuck them in your cordless drill. Turning at a slow speed while buffing prevents any flat spots as well. Much faster and easier on both nerves and fingertips.

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