Dating a Disston Backsaw

My buddy Andy’s latest backsaw restoration inspired me to research the #4 I rehabbed last year. Dating the saw proved to be a woodworker’s game of Clue.

For you skimmers, here’s the who-done-it:

The Joiner did it in Philadelphia with an apple-wood handled backsaw manufactured before the Crash of ’29.

Now how on earth did I come to that conclusion?

The Disstonian Institute (DI) had all the information I needed plus a little logic to sort through it. Let me explain.

My Disston #4’s specifications
My backsaw has a sawplate a hair under 12″ long, with 2 ¾” under the back spine, and 11 ppi teeth.

What’s interesting is that period catalogs list the #4 with a sawplate that is 3″ “under the back”. That suggests to me that over the decades of use, sharpening wore my plate down by ¼”. Period catalogs also list a ppi count of 14 for the #4. So it’s possible that the missing ¼” could be accounted for by both a) sharpening and b) a complete re-toothing from 14 to its current 11 ppi (assuming that its original owner didn’t order it with 11 ppi.)

Following bread crumbs to determine a date
One of the things I’ve learned about saws so far is that typically, the finer the shape of the handle the older the saw is. “Older”, “finer”…a bit too subjective and not very accurate for dating purposes. Fortunately, we have some other clues that can help us zero in on a date.

These are:

–the medallion
–the stamping (on the spine)
–the etching on the blade, and
–period Disston catalog illustrations/descriptions

Let’s start with the medallion.

Here’s my backsaw’s brand identifier:

Notice that it’s identical to this one posted on the DI’s site:

From this, I conclude that this medallion was manufactured between: 1917-1940. Wow. That narrows it down to a razor-thin two-and-a-half decades. Maybe the stamping can help us shave off a few years from that range.

The stamped logo on the backsaw spine looks like this:

…which is a spitting image for one posted on the DI site:

The picture has an accompanying caption that reads “This logo is stamped on early 20th century backsaws. Backsaws started appearing without stamps on the spine sometime in the 1940’s.”

Not bad. This helps us cut our date range by a decade. I’d conservatively date this to before 1930. Beyond that year would not qualify to be called “early 20th century” in my book. Let’s see if the etching can help us squeeze the date range further.

Here’s a shot of my faded etching:

…which matches up nicely with the DI image below:

The etch on the left is from an early 20th century backsaw.

Hmmm. The same description. At first blush, the etching doesn’t seem to help narrow down the saw’s birth date. Rather it only supports the “early 20th century” conclusion. But let’s take a closer look.

Disston Catalog descriptions and illustrations
Here’s an illustration from Disston’s 1918 catalog.

1918 Disston Catalog: No. 4. Apple Handle, Polished Edge, Brass Screws, Blued Back.

Note that the saw plate does not have an etching, so my saw could not have been manufactured in 1918. That allows us to narrow the range by a whopping one year.

Current range: 1919-1930.

DISSTON BACK SAW, No. 4. (Information taken from Disston 1924 and 1926 catalogs)

The sizes range from 8 inches with narrow blades and fine teeth to 18 inches with the wider blades and coarser teeth — the 12 inch, a popular size being 3 inches under back and with teeth 14 points to the inch.

The etching in this illustration matches my saw. Based on the etching evidence alone, I would feel comfortable increasing the earliest date in the range from 1919 to 1924. But we need to consider other evidence as we’ll see shortly.

Current range: 1924-1930.

DISSTON BACK SAW, No. 4. (Information taken from Disston 1929 catalog)
Here’s an illustration of the #4 circa 1929.

Handiest of all small saws. Necessary for all fine joinery and cabinet work. The finest back saw made. Blade is of Disston Steel, with the Disston temper — hard and tough. Teeth are shaped for fast, accurate cutting. Backs are extra heavy, of bright, polished steel. Handles are of beechwood,with the Disston weatherproofed finish; brass screws.

By 1929 the #4 backsaw etching included the number four underneath the Disston logo. My etching clearly doesn’t have this number. So my saw must have been manufactured before 1929. That allows me to take off two years from the date range.

Current range: 1924-1928

We’re down to four years. That’s not bad. In fact, it’s the best we can do. Or is it?

Take another look at my backsaw’s stamping. Now compare it to the catalog illustration stampings. Do you see what I do?

The illustration stampings through the 1926 catalog feature epigraphy that is straight across. The 1929 catalog displays text that is arced. The stamping text on my Disston is arced, specifically the “Henry Disston & Sons” tradename. And that dear friend allows us to narrow the date range to after 1926 but before 1929 (because my etching does not have the number 4 that appears in that illustration).

So, incredibly, with a reasonable degree of certainty, I can date my backsaw’s manufacture to between 1927 and 1928. That of course assumes that the marketers of the day used updated product illustrations. It also assumes that Disston didn’t mate a surplus blade, made in an earlier year with a later-model stamped spine. Still…

The evidence is clear my friends—


That puts it a year or two before the crash of ’29. Also note that beech wood handles were first referenced in the 1929 catalog on the DI site. So my saw sports an apple wood handle.


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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