Just Some Thoughts Surrounding Saws

For more information on saws, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

I bought a panel saw on eBay just recently. The plate steel it’s made from is quite thin for a western saw, but it’s thin on two counts; through maker design first, and then long-term wear. And it’s plate tapers too, like the more modern taper-ground saws of the 1900s, but this one tapers by wear not from its making. You find that in older saws, you know, ‘thin to back‘ but not manufactured that way at the time. In this case the saw is indeed tapered by redirecting the saw in the zillion cuts it made, which causes wear on the sides and top edges of the plate through a century or even just a half a century of daily use. Anyway, at .68 of a mil at the thicker part, and then with a spring steel resistance factor I have yet to find in any modern saw; in use it has just reached perfection itself.

Experience tells me we’re unlikely to see innovative changes for better handsaw making not even in replication of the levels of what our forebears left to us. At least it seems that way for the foreseeable future, but I am open to possibilities. I see backsaws being better engineered than the low-grade versions British and US makers stooped to after the 1940s by the key makers of that era. The ones living off their founder’s reputations who shamefully introduced the new plastic-handled versions using low-grade standards of manufacturing and quality. Most higher end back saws on the market are replications copying old models from the 1800s. I suppose this to be because the quality of old back saws was so utterly good. But as for handsaws, no one seems to want to touch them for some reason. So thankfully you can still buy good quality secondhand ones for reasonable and even bargain prices if you are not in a hurry. Often they go for much less than half the price of the newer versions that don’t really come near to measuring up. I would like to see just one of the modern makers (course there are really too many around) step out of the risk-averse safety zones  and take on the challenge of making a set of really good handsaws. Anyone can make a back saw, but not everyone can make what I speak of with regards to handsaws. I’d like to see one of them do the research, do the experimenting as those must have done in the 1700s, and come up with saws not too thick, not too thin. Ones that don’t wobble too much in the cut or then buckle under the slightest pressure too. Who is the man or woman up to this? I still do the research and come up with new ways of working, even after 50 plus years.

Cleaning, restoring, sharpening and setting

Well, anyway, I took a little time to clean off the light surface dirt and the hint of rust on the plate came with it. Thankfully there was no evidence of any pitting in the plate. I probably would still have bought it because of the rarity of the saw, but I was so, so glad it came up for sale. Good old eBay! I really don’t like pitting, even if it makes little noticeable difference to the functionality of the saw in use. It’s just looks, I know. I wanted this saw because it concludes my gathering of like saws by a like maker I respect. Probably I would not have wanted one that wasn’t so well used and worn as this one was. Whereas I like other makers too, especially those that set the standard in the 1800s, Philadelphia Disston, early Spear and Jackson and others, once you find a maker you like you will gather your own preferred models.

The teeth were a mixed hybrid of composite tooth shapes. Some cross-cuts others rip-cuts, sporadic shapes side by side, which I hadn’t noticed until I used it and examined why it would cut nothing. I enjoyed the challenge of redefining and reshaping the poor things. It felt hard and harsh at first. The heavy grind on some, topping (jointing USA) was essential to remove the unevenness and the resultant undulations that so trip up the saw in the cut.


  1. There is one modern maker who has done the research and does make fantastic saws with all the features of the best tools of the eighteenth century – Shane Skelton in Scarborough. I think you’ll appreciate his work. http://skeltonsaws.co.uk

  2. Paul, Bad Axe Tools Works has just announced a replica D8 that seems to be built to some incredibly high quality standards. I don’t believe they’ve innovated in any way, but referring to your comment that no one wants to touch them.

  3. Hi Paul, have you changed your mind about the current-production Spear & Jackson saws you’ve used in recent videos? I think I remember you calling it a “lifetime tool”, albeit not as pretty as those from the 1800s. Or is the S&J good enough, just not to the standards of the past?

    I’ve been fortunate enough to find several good-quality handsaws in good condition at the local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store; I don’t think I paid more than $10 for any of them. Back saws have been harder to come by in this way.

    1. Not at all. They are very good saws and I use them all the time. I have yet to find anything comparable in price that matches their functionality. The handles are not pretty but they are quite comfortable. You could replace them. They have the exact right spring and resistance I like too. They are lifetime tools, the teeth hold their edges so no complaints. You’re right though, they are not pretty that’s all.

      1. Would love to see you do a tutorial on how to make a replication of the old style handles,open dovetail and full closed panel saw size ones.

        1. Perhaps not quite what you have in mind Russell, but Paul has a video on ‘adapting’ a Spear & Jackson handle to look & feel just like an older one; improving the comfort, adding nibs, carving wheat-grain patterns…
          If you haven’t seen it, its well-worth searching for.

  4. Paul,

    did you try Wenzloff & Sons, Lie-Nielsen, Bad Axe or Skelton?
    There are maker of good saws but they aren’t doing it for free.

    How thick do you want a blade to be?


    1. All fine and good makers I am sure. It’s not too realistic for most of us to pay hundreds of pounds or dollars for what are at the end of the day regular hand saws with refined and polished out handles. Some people can and do buy them as something called ‘collectable’ saws or tools, but I can’t recommend to my audience what I can’t afford to use myself and I really don’t want any tool I might be scared to use for whatever reason. Having run one £220 handsaw alongside those made for one tenth the cost and finding that the inexpensive ones, with only a very minor 2 minute touch up with a file, came out tops in regard to functionality, I prefer to recommend the one I now reach for every day. When woodworking becomes exclusive, be that by machine or overly fancy hand tools, I step away from it. You don’t need very much to make excellent quality woodworking be that planes at £20, chisels at £2 each or saws for £25. I have proved that time and time again.Now that said, I do respect those who put great effort into their businesses, which is to make and sell high-end tools.

      1. Paul with all due respect your core point was about innovation in saws, not cost of saws. If we want innovation, we can’t expect to also pay 25.00 for a saw. That goes for any industry.

        1. Robert, I think you are missing the point. There is NO new innovation in saws and the only true measure that we can compare is that of the cut. Perhaps you would like to share with us the innovation that you see that justifies the cost, its certainly not performance. Perhaps its the cost of the varnish on the handle that makes the difference to how it feels in the hand. I have owned/used many saws by the so called high end manufacturers, but today I measure quality not by price but by the way it performs and as such have sold all my over priced tools and purchased excellent quality period tools for a fraction of the cost. Has my work suffered not at all.

          1. Well, I can’t speak for other sawmakers, and definitely not for those selling their work as I haven’t even begun to do that yet… but I find myself wondering about a bit of traditional saw handle design.

            I totally understand how it is important for the spine to fit snugly into the mortise in the handle, I’ve made quite a few handles now, and I’ve only made a couple that I’m really completely happy with to the point I’d actually even consider selling it as my own work.

            My biggest problem with my early handles? slicing through the top of the mortice to fit the blade, and chopping out the rest of the mortice for the spine. Left the cheeks feeling floppy and after using them for just a bit I could begin to detect early signs of failure points on any of the pieces where I didn’t have thick enough wood to overengineer the sides.

            I dug around and found a drill bit that matches the width of the spines I have, got a handle lined up and marked out spine mortice and just hogged it out with a drill and narrow chisel before cutting the blade slot on the underside alone. That is a bit fiddly because I like to avoid cutting the heel end of the cheeks apart completely if I can, but I’ll probably end up making a float to carve out the interior quicker once the depth is established.

            The result being an uncut top and a stiffer mortise to spine joint: https://i.imgur.com/ECUhMqi.jpg

            So unlike with all of the earlier handles my cut down and previously extremely floppy feeling 12 inch stanley miter saw has no wobble, nor does the 14 inch long kobalt, and the little 10 inch crown gents is snug and stiff as can be: https://i.imgur.com/CacuqFj.jpg

            I actually had a problem with the big blade on the kobalt causing the little brass-colored (but actually steel) sex bolts (tee hee, they aren’t saw bolts because they lack the squared inner section for locking in place) to work themselves loose and fixed it by grabbing the big black ones off a little stanley camp saw I rehandled and using a split washer to grip the male bolt, while the stanley and crown are slim enough that the rounded bolts suffice: https://i.imgur.com/N4hPkDH.jpg

            I spent so much extra time trying to diagnose and pre-emptively avoid what seemed like inevitably floppy cheeks because it was so easy to just slice through the whole thing to fit the blade back into place, feels silly now compared to a saw with the spine tucked back into a mortise with uncut top and back holding the cheeks together before the bolts are even in place.

      2. Paul,

        1. how thin?

        2. Old good saws are only cheap because they are old. The haven’t been, when they were young. Just the idiotic system of erybody has to have everything (AKA Aldi, LIdl, you name it) leads you to cheap bad things for all.

        BTW you can buy a stanley fatmax, make a new handle for it and have a well sawing saw.


        1. Cheap doesn’t necesary means bad. Mr Sellers have shown those aldi chisels working very well (can’t speak for myself on that one, haven’t seen them in my life other than in videos) and these spear and jackson new saws.

          The problem is that even if you reduce costs as much as you can, woodworking still requires an investment in money to get tools. Depending on what you buy and what you consider, or what really is a minimum set of decent tools to work you need certain ammount of money (also considering that people from countries that never heard of a router plane or a resharpenable saw have to pay a lot of money in shipment and taxed for each one of the tools). That quantity of money is variable and it is also different on terms of “it’s too much” or “that’s cheap” depending on who you talk to. Obviously most people don’t buy all the needed tools (not even a minimum set) all at once, it requires time, effort and savings to get what you need.

          Anyway, those cheap things can come in handy until you can buy good tools. Also, if those cheap things are a life time tool even better, I bet that a lot of people will buy a high end veritas, lie nielsen or a vintage rare tool anyway when they get the chance (I know I would) even if they have a functioning one at hand.

          There is of course a bad side of all those cheap tools, beeing the reason that they are so cheap is not just because the materials are, but the workforce is. Anyway, that’s a different topic.

          Also, I don’t think that that Stanley fatmax is a resharpenable saw. If you buy that you will spend more money in the long run.

          Sorry for my horrible english by the way

  5. I love old hand saws. I have one, when I touch the handle, it feels like it was made for my hand. So many saws and so little money.

    1. If the crack is towards one end, you can shorten it to eliminate the damage part. Paul showed us how he did exactly that to a damaged saw. If the crack’s elsewhere, say in the centre of the plate, I doubt you can do much about it, but I’m no expert. Why did it crack? Was it inferior steel or did someone step on it? Does it affect sawing?Only you can tell really.
      Shorten it / Braze it / Glue it (JB-Weld) / Ignore it / Make scrapers from it.

  6. I recently purchased 2 vintage Disston saws on e-bay. I found a 13TPI crosscut and a 12 TPI rip set. Both came set and sharpened from the sellers as ready to use and they both were. Absolutely amazing tools and I don’t think I paid more that $60 for either of them. Both have the names of 2 or 3 different owners stamped on the handled and one owner scribed a name on the Blade, “Amy”. I like to think that craftsman named his saw out of affection and respect for its quality and utility. With this kind of quality available at these kinds of prices I can see why the current “name” manufacturers have a tough time competing.

    1. Read the book ” The Village Carpentor ” or ” The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” and it tells of tradesmen earning a few shillings a day, they prized their tools as they were access to a living (just)
      You talk of $60 ….that could be a years wage, IF, they found work, supplying their own candle to light the workplace. Carrying tools home, bicycles beyond there pocket, to sharpen on the kitchen table. We don’t know how lucky we are.

    2. My vintage Disstons are stamped with the owner’s name too – matching the metal Nameplate on his Carpenter’s Tool Chest.

      I can see why craftsmen would stamp valuable tools today, but this practice contradicts what I was led to believe of the olden days; no-one ever touched another man’s tools, people respected the property of others, knowing it meant their livelihood. Vintage cars didn’t even come with door locks!
      Was this name-stamping to avoid confusion in a crowded workshop, or are we misled regarding the level of honesty in those days?

      1. According to Christopher Schwarz, who has done considerable research on this, a carpenter, joiner or cabinetmaker, once qualified entered into a guild. Among other things the guild insured the tradesman’s tools against loss or theft but only if the said tradesman had his name stamped on each tool.

  7. paul, what kind of saw would you look for if you were looking for a good general purpose rip saw? Thanks, I greatly enjoy your videos and blog posts.

  8. DISSTON Hand Saws are worth the expense, for the comfort of their handles alone. They fit your hand like nothing else. A pleasure to hold. You can use one all day without getting hand fatigue.

    FOOTPRINT is an often-overlooked manufacturer. Their new Brass-Backed Tenon Saw (£25~) is excellent quality. Good steel, real brass and quality wooden handle. You don’t get the detailing found on vintage saws (hook, nibs, lamb’s tongue) but you could add that. Their performance matches renowned Sheffield makers.
    The alternative is to ‘win’ an auction (with a bid higher than anyone else is prepared to pay), gambling on the level of abuse and pitting, and if the saw-nuts come out without breaking; restoration, rust-removal, sharpening, setting…
    There’s a lot to be said for a shiny new saw-plate with all its teeth, sharp, set, and ready to work.

  9. Paul, I’m a bit late to the party, but have you checked out Pax handsaws? They are quite reasonably priced and I’m very happy with my rip version.

  10. I was lucky to pick up an E.C. Atkins #400 skew back hand saw from a local car boot sale for £4 !
    I had been looking for a nice old hand saw, passed over lots of old regular quality wooden handled stuff, when I spotted this on a stall of house clearance items.
    It was so obviously above & beyond anything I had already handled with it’s polished steel plate (minor rust), beautiful wooden handle (minor burn marks) & nickel finish on screws & medallion (partially worn off).Not “mint” or “collector”, but it’s still one of my prize possessions that rips like a hot knife through butter.She’s a beauty and no mistake!

  11. Oh Mr. Sellers, your influence on me and hand saws has been pervasive!! I finally hung up my japanese pull saws because I could not find a decent rip saw outside of Japan, and sending it from the US back and forth for maintenance was out of the question. I am back to learning to maintain and sharpen western saws after at least 35 years. I was not aware just how old most of your lovely saws really are until I started researching saws again – what a lovely bunch of steel and wood. The heyday of hand saws may indeed well be over, but you have many fine examples from the golden era of saws. Their beauty from use only makes them that much nicer – thanks for sharing them with the rest of us!

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