Disston Backsaw Rehab-1 Cleaning, repairing and rehabbing

Disston Backsaw Rehab-1 Cleaning, repairing and rehabbing

I was in Salt Lake City recently on business. After dinner I slipped into my pajamas to watch tv and do one of my favorite on-the-road activities—look for tools on Ebay. Now that my hand plane inventory has reached 7, it’s time to focus on some other tools. Apparently, if you want to build things out of wood, saws can be pretty helpful.

It’s not that I don’t have any. I have a modern (read crappy) handsaw along with a 14″ Stanley miter box backsaw hanging from my pegboard.

The backsaw has an aluminum back and what’s astonishing is how well it’s performed for me over the last two years. In the course of my box projects, I reach for it frequently. I use it to crosscut pieces to length, to tweak fits, and even to rip small pieces. I think my saw skills have improved though. I feel that I’ve pushed the full envelope of what I can do with it and the plastic miter box that came with it.

So on to Ebay I went, a-lookin for a crosscut backsaw. On page 1 of my backsaw search, I came across this picture.

“Yikes. What a beater,” I thought. The description said it had “some rust, but the blade was straight.” I took exception to the use of the word “some” but the blade did look straight enough from the pics.

The handle looked like a frat-party disaster. Someone had clearly used it to break up ice for a kegger. The tip of the upper horn had a chip and there was a crack in the lower portion—just as the seller had described.


This is exactly what I was looking for. It was just the opportunity to learn to rehab and sharpen a handsaw. I would learn to remove rust, repair handle breaks, refinish a handle and, most importantly, how to sharpen a saw.

My lone competitive bidder’s heart wasn’t in it and he walked away when the bidding reached a blistering $11.77. Tack on $10.66 for postage (ouch!) and $22.43 later, I was the proud owner of my next woodworking “course” in tool rehabilitation.

Now before you east coasters email me to say how you routinely pick up such treasures for $5.00 at a flea market or garage sale keep in mind that I live in Colorado. While you were all turning Colonial woodworking into a fine art in the 18th century, my state had trappers, outlaws and native Indians traipsing around the Rockies on horseback.

Not wanting to waste any time after my successful bid, I wrote out a saw rehab plan. Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Toolworks has a nice article on cleaning a sawplate here. Bob Sturgeon has a good article on the subject here. And Frank Brickhouse wrote a good plate + handle rehab article here. These helped me decide on the materials and techniques I would use.

Back home in Colorado, I opened the package to take stock of the saw. The Disston medallion dated the saw from 1917-1940. It’s probably a #4 manufactured in the 1930s. The handle was a bit boxy to me which fit with the Disstonian Institute’s description of handles from this period.

The handle’s 80-year old finish was in bad shape. So bad in fact that it couldn’t be saved as I had originally surmised. The decision was made to completely refinish it. The crack turned out to be a solid repair. It wasn’t loose at all.

In fact there were two pin nails in the base of the handle (see red arrow below), firmly holding the glued break in place. I decided to leave that as it was, feeling that the break—and the repair—were part of the tool’s colorful history.

The sawplate was quite rusty, pitted in a few places and had paint drips. Luckily, it would be serviceable once cleaned up.


The saw nuts unscrewed easily despite 80 years of patina and muck.

Light tapping from a Phillips screwdriver from the underside freed the screws and the handle separated from the blade with a little effort. The steel back would not budge and I chose to leave it in place for the rehab.


To fill the 30 minutes before dinner, I started cleaning the brass sawnuts. I knew my Army experience would come in handy one day. Some Brasso, a toothbrush and a cloth rag returned the brass nuts and medallion to their used state.

Now, I could have polished the fittings to like-new with some 400 grit emery sandpaper. But I wanted to keep the history of the tool—most of its nicks and such—intact.

Then I spent an hour on the sawplate. On the etched side, I used 220-grit sandpaper with mineral spirits as a lubricant. In order to compare its effectiveness versus this method, I slathered on Navy jelly rust remover on the other side using the same sandpaper. It seemed to go faster, but truth be told it gummed up as it dried and the addition of mineral spirits seemed to make it worse.

After rinsing the blade and wiping it down, I immediately coated it with 3 in 1 oil to prevent flash rusting.

In the end, this is what I ended up with.

Refinishing the handle

The process began with sanding the handle down to bare wood, being careful to leave nicks and dents (history) intact. During the sanding, I tried to blend in the repaired crack with mild success, though you wouldn’t think so from looking at the picture. I also added CA glue to a small crack to reinforce it (see red arrow below).

The handle felt a bit boxy to me in its original state, so I eased the handle edges that meet my hand with sandpaper. Those sharp edges are now a bit rounded over and ready to caress my hand.

After sanding it with progressively finer grades (120 for some nasty spots, 220, 320, 400 for everything else), I finished the bare wood off by using the buffing pad on my grinder. You’d be amazed at how baby’s-bottom smooth your handles get after this treatment. Special thanks to Scott Grandstaff for that tip.

Boiled linseed oil served to both stain the wood and to condition it. Three coats of spray-on semi-gloss polyurethane would serve to protect the handle for the next 80 years. It’s too shiny for my taste but I’ll leave it for now.

After everything dried, I reassembled the saw. It’s not ready for use, but here’s what I have so far.

Next up, The Disston Backsaw Rehab-Part 2-Sharpening.


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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5 Responses to Disston Backsaw Rehab-1 Cleaning, repairing and rehabbing

  1. Cliff says:

    “Your dog Bella” ?


    • Yes, MY dog Bella. The MY in this case has been earned rather than being anything official or legal like “adopting” her from the local lab animal rescue I think. I feed her twice a day, pick up her poo all over hell’s half acre and walk and run her several times a week. She’s even taken to sitting by me even when my lady (who really owns Bella) is home so I think the doggie feeling is mutual 🙂

  2. Pingback: The New Traditional Woodworker Project #1–Long overdue appliance: Let the edge planing begin! | Hand Tool Journey-A woodworking show of hands

  3. pcf11 says:

    I live on the east coast and I am an avid flea market and yard sale participant. I do not see back saws very often, when I do they do not sell for $5.00 either. If they did I would have piles of the things. Alas they do not and I only have one backsaw, it is not a dovetail saw either. It is quite a monster that probably came out of a miter box, with a 20 inch blade. It’s a nice saw, but I wouldn’t cut dovetails with it.

    I think you did very well with your ebay purchase, and better still with your restoration job. You did good with, and by that saw I think.

    One of these days I hope to run across a good proper western style back saw. Hand saws in good condition are just tough to find. The ones I do see look pretty well wrecked to me.

    • I agree pcf11, it can be hard to find good saws. But when you do, there can be a lot of them. I’ve only come across one single solitary backsaw worth buying in the wild and that was a 16″ Disston backsaw that I picked up at a garage sale for $3.00. But I visited many an estate sale and garage sale to find that one.

      So Ebay has been my source for backsaws. I’ve done well, gotten some decent quality ones from there. I would suggest that you pick up a good Disston 12″ saw and clean it up and learn to sharpen it. That’s the only way to acquire the skill.


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