Repairing a vintage handsaw handle


“We’re going to have to cut out a big chunk to save her,” I could hear the saw-handle doctor saying. “We’ll also have to deal with that cheek chip.” I swallowed hard before he continued. “The horn repair is pretty straight forward, but the other two things add up to major surgery.” After waiting a moment to let that sink in, he added “As her ward, you’re going to have to make the decision one way or the other.”

My heart sank at the diagnosis. But the x-rays showed over a century’s worth of damage as clear as a harvest moon.

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My head told me that 124 years of kicking around shops and jobs are bound to produce some dings. But my heart longed to put the worst of these indignities in her past. So that she could face the next century with pride.

“Let’s operate,” I said. “What forms do you need me to sign?”

The “doctor” in this case was me. And the patient was a Disston No. 7 handsaw I recently picked up at a handsaw honey hole I wrote about here.

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I resolved to repair the handle as best as I could. Still, I was nervous about putting her under the knife. I had never repaired a handle like this before, so I would be adding to my rehab skills on the fly. ***shudder*** “Surgery,” and “on the fly” are four words you never want to hear spoken in the same sentence.

I thought back to the first time I spied the Disston No. 7 standing in the “$3.00 each or 4 for $10.00” barrel. Its fine lines, distinctive lamb’s tongue and incuse medallion had 19th-century written all over it. Back home, the Disstonian Institute’s Web site confirmed it, dating her to between 1878-1888. That makes her at least 125 years old. Oh the stories she could tell…

What’s your surgical plan doctor?
The red circles below identified three spots for repair.

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The plan was this:

  • Cut out the offending areas—removing as little of the adjacent “good” material as possible (e.g. use a fine-kerf saw)
  • Flatten the cut bases to a consistent depth using a router plane
  • Glue over-sized donor wood in place, and then
  • Shape and blend them to form, using rasps, files and sandpaper.

Tracking down an organ donor
I have all sorts of scraps around my shop from cocobolo to mahogany to cherry. My goal was to have the repairs be as inconspicuous as possible—so none of those species would do.

The original handle appeared to be beech. I didn’t have any beech. In retrospect, I should have hunted some down. Instead, I hit eBay and garage sales to buy a few, worn out vintage saw handles to serve as donors.

Many of them were still in good shape and had neglected to check off the Yes under “organ donor” on their drivers’ license. But tragedy being a part of life, I found a brain-dead handle that had indeed given its consent in the form of a “Y”. And even though it was applewood, I paid up a whopping buck for it at a garage sale. As I walked away, I wondered if I had the courage to cut into it—cadaver or not.

A wood-surgeon’s tool kit
The delicate task of excavating damaged wood—and preparing the surface to graft healthy wood—called for my most precise tools.

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Starting from the top and going counter-clockwise my surgical kit consists of:

–Dozuki dovetail saw for making very precise cuts

–LN dovetail saw for drift-free cuts where a thicker kerf is ok

–15 ppi carcass saw for preparing donor wood to be grafted

–Router plane to establish a consistent depth of the excavated area

–Chisel for detail work around excavations

When I need to make a very precise cut, I like to have the nurse slap my Dozuki saw into my hand. That’s the one at the top of the picture above. I’ve found that the very small kerf, pull-stroke cutting action and handle combine to give me surgical control over my sawing.

Making the first incisions
Cutting away the horn’s damage was pretty straightforward.

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I made the rip cut first using the Dozuki saw. Then with the 15ppi JH Noble carcass saw I crosscut away the remaining waste.

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The side, top and cheek cuts were a bit trickier. The lateral rip cuts could not be made with the saw teeth parallel to the handle because they would bite into other areas. So I angled the Dozuki as best I could to establish a shoulder. Then I used a chisel to pare away the bulk of the material.

A SB #71 router plane pared the last bit of wood to ensure even depths for both cuts.

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Collecting the donor wood
Even if I had a 125 year old piece of beech I think it would have been difficult to get donor wood to match my handle’s grain. So I didn’t worry too much about using applewood. That said, I paid particular attention to ensure that the grain of donor wood matched the orientation and direction of the “healthy” handle.

This was really difficult to do because to get donor pieces thick enough, and with the grain oriented in the right direction, I had to work around saw-nut holes and the saw plate kerf.

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Stitching up the cuts—the right adhesive for the job
Desirous of strong repairs, I opted to use 5-minute epoxy.

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Note that the donor piece was oversized to allow for the shaping stage to come.

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Performing plastic surgery-it’s all about symmetry and blending
Once the glue was dry, it was time to shape the oversized parts and blend them in with the rest of the handle.

A course rasp took off the majority of the excess while roughing out the curves. This was followed by a double-cut-half-round file to refine the shape and to remove more excess. As I got to 1/32″ of material, I used sandpaper to complete the final shaping. Eventually, the “proud” surfaces blended into the adjacent material, leaving a surface that felt to the touch to be in the same plane.

During the shaping process, I took great care to maintain a symmetrical appearance using the undamaged sections on the opposite side of the handle as a reference. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought because my labors display slight differences between the two sides.

Before sanding the new pieces flush to the side of the handle, I shaped the saw-bolt holes using a 9/16″ spade bit. I put it in a hand brace, and only rotated the cutting edge along the newly added wood to “carve” out the remainder of the hole. This was done while simultaneously applying English so as to rim the new wood without cutting away any of the legacy wood.

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Here’s what the handle looked like after the repairs but before finishing.

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Applying a dermal abrasion to get that youthful look
Once the shaping was done, I sanded the whole handle through the grits (150, 220, 320 and 400), then took it for a spin on the cotton wheel of my bench grinder. This polishes the handle to leave a silky-smooth surface inviting to the touch.

After letting two coats of BLO dry overnight, I applied three coats of paste wax, allowing each coat to dry for at least 15 minutes before buffing it out.

The reveal…good thing they signed the “informed consent” form
Well, for my first effort, I’m ok with it. My suture work could use some improvement however.

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The epoxy glue lines are far too conspicuous in my opinion so next time I’ll try using yellow wood glue. And while I did a decent job aligning the grain in the upper fix, the cheek repair was a few degrees off.

In my own defense, I was collecting donor wood from an old saw handle, complete with weird angles, changing grain direction and such.

And the grains of the two woods are sufficiently different that I might as well have tracked down some beech stock. It would have been easier to work than the vintage handle I butchered up.

If you don’t look too closely, you’ll see a 19th century No. 7 that’s going to become a nice user once I sharpen it.

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Once the finish dried, the patient was discharged.

She’ll still have to go in for outpatient care—to be sharpened—but we expect her to make a full recovery, and lead a normal, productive, sawyer’s life for the next century. And that’s a healthy prognosis in my book.

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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.
This entry was posted in Rehab, Saws, Tools, vintage tools, woodworking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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