Reshape Your S & J

I have thoroughly tested the Spear & Jackson handsaws over several years, recommended them as an economical alternative to higher cost makes and those offered by premium makers. They might not look as nice but that they are every bit as good and even better as far as functionality goes than saws that sell for five to ten times the price. What everyone should remember is that any saw will stay sharp enough to use efficiently, time economically for only a few hours. Once it dulls it must be resharpened and the only efficient way to do that is not to not use it so much but to master sharpening which in my view everyone can do in a matter of minutes. I must say too that I have enjoyed using the Spear & Jackson just as much and oftimes more than many other saws I have used and owned. The issue for many is their looks rather than their functionality so if you have an hour or two, a half decent rasp and a little decisive energy, join me in reshaping your Spear and Jackson.

Investing an hour or two in reshaping the handles is only really worth it if the saw measures up. It’s the saw plate that matters most, so when S&J decided to resurrect their 70s-style handsaw a decade or so ago I decided to give it a go, but I admit, I was distrusting of the possibility that it might fit the work of a craftsman. These saws proved to be really nice handsaws and, though not British made any more, there is no compromise in terms of quality materials and functionality. What I have enjoyed all the more about these particular saws is that they are totally resharpenable and they hold a good edge, something every handtoolist must have in a saw and also come to grips with once owning such a saw within a few hours of purchase. Owning a western-style saw of this type with its power-thrust cutting capabilities takes me four minutes to sharpen, and you can do this too. Just follow my saw sharpening videos on YouTube.

Having covered reshaping and resharpening saw teeth techniques for both rip- and cross-cut saws, and knowing this saw to be worthy of additional refinements, I decided to reshape the handle according to my own hand and then to add in a couple of curves to improve the appearance. I was not surprised that the new shaping would improve the feel and positivity of the saw, I’ve done this several times to saws over the years. It is always a surprise to me just what will sell for so high a price when the metal and wood are almost identical whether a so-called premium maker or an economy one. The S&J is solid beech wood handle and it is finished nicely with regards to the actual finish applied or the smoothness. I see no difference between something costing £120 and £200 because often these too could do with refining to remove hard corners where the hand grips the saw.

In a good hour or two at the workbench, and with a decent rasp or two, the handle should be refined, redefined and shaped and sanded smooth enough to apply three coats of brushed-on shellac.

The reality is that it is hard not to succeed at this and the transformation is remarkable. I have decided to continue using these two S&J saws in my ongoing work for good reasons; they are affordable (under £25 and £30 respectively), they work/cut well, they keep a good edge, they have exactly the right flex/stiffness/tensioning and they are well balanced in the hand.

Screws and caps to replace the press-fits existing in the S&J (and many more modern makes too) are best drilled out.

This avoids damaging the wood. A centrepunch pops the centre and then it is just a question of upsizing graduated drill sizes until the contact between the barrel and the core separates. The article I wrote here for tomorrow’s blog on screws and caps explains how best to find the right ones.

44 thoughts on “Reshape Your S & J”

  1. Hello Paul,
    I have one of my fathers old saws which has slotted type fixings ( it’s a very old I.Sorby ) where the thread comes through on the nut side. They’re loose and damaged and I’m wondering whether to replace them with the type you used here.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Great post. I suggested this a while back and I can’t wait to now give it a go myself. Is danish oil a durable finish for a saw handle such as this?

    1. Danish oil is a non-prescriptive finish in that you can make it any way you want to make it from any material and call it `danish oil. Depending on the maker, the finish is just a mix of chemicals and oils, solvents and evaporatives, etc. Basically people like it because it’s a no-nonsense wipe-on, no-skills-needed finish. I’m just going with shellac because of its safety, durability, and ease of both application, repair and feel.

      1. I was under the impression that I should not use shellac, based on some old planes I have, the handles of which the shellac finish has begun to crack and flake off of, leaving behind bare wood.

        Is this a natural property of shellac or will it last “forever” if properly cared for?

        1. Usually, that flaking is a lack of use and atmospheric impact. I doubt that that happened in less than 20-30 years. Even so, it’s just a few minutes to repair and that’s just applying more shellac.

  3. I do this to all my saws. Recently did a Disston no 4 backsaw, which now looks a lot better.

  4. Thanks for this post. I bought mine on Amazon after your recomendation. Works great. Look forward to improving the handle this way.

    1. Not really as far as fit goes. Just the added refinement of the deeper bevel where the fore-end of the handle meets the plate.

      1. Roberto, you could always cut a horn off a little short and add more material then reshape it. Similar to the way you would fix a saw hande if the horn was broken off, just that you are the one “breaking” it a little more than normal and adding more material to the palm side of the grip. You can then reshape it to fit your own hand for a perfect fit. I think this would be much easier than making a handle from scratch. The holes are all drilled in the exact locations and such.
        If the woods don’t match, it will be a constant reminder that you customized your own saw and it is a badge of honor.

  5. My hands are much smaller than yours, so with all saw handles I have, I must pick whether I want support from the top or the bottom horn when gripping. I’ve never had one that would brace my palm back.

    Is it worth reshaping this handle or should I just make a new one from a block of beech I have? I don’t know where to get a template from or how to undersize a bigger template… Should the bottom horn be aligned or the top or the center?

    1. Roberto, you could always cut a horn off a little short and add more material then reshape it. Similar to the way you would fix a saw hande if the horn was broken off, just that you are the one “breaking” it a little more than normal and adding more material to the palm side of the grip. You can then reshape it to fit your own hand for a perfect fit. I think this would be much easier than making a handle from scratch. The holes are all drilled in the exact locations and such.
      If the woods don’t match, it will be a constant reminder that you customized your own saw and it is a badge of honor.

    2. Ron gave an excellent source for templates that I have used a few times. However, you may want to design your own, perhaps based on a style from among those you see at the site Ron recommends. I say this because you mentioned size, but also because these different handles have different angles, and you will want one that fits you just as you want the handle to fit you in size. One other consideration is that as I recall the S&J blade is curved where it fits inside a slot in the handle rather than straight as is usually the case. It has been a while since I rehandled my S&J saws, but I think I remember that cutting the blade straight was not going to work well, so I had to cut a curved slot. I found a way to do that, but it probably wasn’t the best way. One of my Japanese saws had teeth that extended in such a way that I could draw it through the slot and cut the curve. But you might want to think about that before taking the old handle off. It was a tedious job the way I did it. I’m much happier with my saws now that the handle fits me. and I used some wood that has a special association for me, so it was a project that was a lot of fun–except for that curved blade part. I wish I’d known a good way to deal with that ahead of time. This is not an issue with the S&J backsaws as I recall. Have fun.

  6. Paul,
    I would love to see a video of how you removed the saw handle. I contemplated removing mine, but the “rivets” holding it together seemed like a one-time fastener.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I’m thinking of the same thing. Much in the way folks fell in love with that piece you made 20 years ago that eventually resulted in a video.

      I must say, your timing is perfect. I am in the middle of a tool chest build (decided to go with the Japanese carpenter style) so that I can have a portable tool chest. I needed on because this summer I am taking a woodworking class to make a large size classic tool chest.

      I have the B&J saw. I wanted to see how it cut before reshaping the teeth. It was obvious for a little use that the handle could use some reshaping. Your pictures will help.

      A video would be nicer though.

  7. This is great. However the problem in the US is getting S&J tools without exorbitant shipping from the UK. I wish someone locally would import UK tools economically for resale in the Us.

    1. Probably this is not necessary because you probably already know this. But it would be Amazon UK that you would want to go to. I think I’m correct is saying that Amazon in the USA won’t be helpful, but I may not know enough about that. I am in the USA and I did buy from Amazon UK a couple of the shorter S&J saws (for some reason after three tries Amazon UK couldn’t get the longer ones shipped to me–long story, not worth hearing) and some backsaws and the cost including shipping was not high nor did it take long to get them here. I have bought other hand tools from Amazon UK, and some of them are also imported from the UK and sold in the USA, but for much more money than the combined price and shipping from Amazon UK. And then, sadly, there are some that can’t be shipped to the USA. It’s worth looking.

      1. Interesting yeah last I looked the free shipping wasn’t available to CA once I actually tried to checkout, even though it initially said “eligible for free shipping”, but at checkout it was like $48 shipping for a $30 saw!

        1. We have similar exorbitant postage from USA to UK.
          E.g. USD $23 to send a small Sticky Label by mail. Not even AirMail.
          PLUS; Import Duties, Inspection Fees, V.A.T., Hardwood restrictions…
          That’s Trade Deals, Tariffs & Duties for you.

          Just don’t tell anyone ‘Sheffield Steel’ means ‘Chinese Steel’ 😂

          1. It’s funny hearing such complaints. Hardly exorbitant considering the saws could be traveling 5,000 miles and then across the vast regions of the USA too. Customs and import duties and inspection etc protect the borders so in reality, apart from stick lables, it’s probably well worth it still.

      2. Harlow Chandler

        I was wrong. Amazon USA now carries S&J saws at good prices; somewhat less than what I had been paying at Amazon UK with shipping to the USA in past years.

  8. Totally agree on reshaping the handle, and would add that before calling it ‘done’, try sawing for a while and check for any pressure points – my hands are normal/large but I have a large first joint/knuckle on the right thumb – a few extra strokes with the file where this impacts makes all the difference to long term comfort.

    (I also slightly prefer the feel of linseed oil over shellac)

  9. Andre van Westreenen

    I looked at my S&J I bought in the early 80s and it struck me how ugly the handle looked, now i know what to do.
    Mine is British made, and is still in very good nick, paid quite a bit for it, hand tools don’t come cheap in Aus.
    Thanks Paul

  10. I was concerned with sharpening my vintage handsaws which while not expensive i still liked for looks and comfort of handles. I purchase a couple of rip and crosscut handsaws on ebay and have been using them to practice on. They definitely cut better . maybe not great. I have a hard time judging the sharpness other than counting strokes and how deep they cut before and after sharpening them . I decided I should use them to see how long they maintained their sharpness. However after using thhem for a while i decided the handles obviously machined with little thought to comfort needed to be modified for better fit. I did fairly simple modifications to the four saws based on contours from my vintage saws . Paul did a couple of things which I will try that will improve their overall appearance.
    These saws now feel great when using them. i only have to pick up a current mass produced saw to realize the improvement in feel never mind the improvement in appearance.
    I will have to check into the possibility of new handle screws. I looked previously online and saw some hefty prices. Looking forward to more info on screws from Paul.

  11. There is a curved rasp from Gramercy Tools which is made for shaping handles which works a treat and has proved handy for other work as well. I have found in a very dry climate , like a lot of Australia, especially for site tools stored in hot vehicles, the handles have benefited from multiple coats of oil in addition to any shellac . Takes a while to build a surface finish but again easy to apply.

  12. I have a Stanley Sharptooth hand saw that I use for cutting plywood. I actually think it does a good job for that. It has those funky shaped hardened teeth, so it can’t really be resharpened. I have wondered about grinding them off someday and doing a traditional tooth pattern, but I’m not so sure if the plate steel is sturdy enough to keep a decent edge.

    Anyway, I think reshaping the handle looks like a fun idea, so I may try it on the Stanley saw. I don’t hand cut a lot of plywood, so this saw may actually last quite a while before the hardened teeth wear out.

    1. It’s funny how people want to somehow ‘save‘ an atrocity as if they feel sorry for it or if making up for something because they bought it in the first place. People say the same about making things like card scrapers out of the saw plate steel too. Better to just buy a decent resharpenable saw in the first place and then too a couple of card scrapers will likely cost less and work better than making them from the steel plate. The steel from the Stanley will likely end up back in the country of origin, get melted down and blended with other alloys and be made into another throwaway. It would be nice if people got the picture that admiration for a throwaway saw that stays sharp five times longer than a resharpenable version is misplaced and good only for the economics of the manufacturer who creates his own built-in obsolescence into a product that keeps you coming back year on year. A resharpenable saw like the one I have written of should last 150 years and can be sharpened 30,000 times if sharpened once a week. Truth is hardened teeth do not work better than resharpenable whether it is plywood, pressed fibreboard or OSB. Mostly it’s because we have five generations that can no longer sharpen a basic pocket knife let along a rip or a crosscut saw. Oh, and I think I should say this here too, I didn’t reshape the handle because it was fun, I did it because it was necessary to improve the performance of the saw and created a much better fit and feel. The etymology of fun: late 17th century (denoting a trick or hoax): from obsolete fun ‘to cheat or hoax’, dialect variant of late Middle English fon ‘make a fool of, be a fool’, related to fon ‘a fool’, of unknown origin. I often wonder whether the makers of such throwaway stuff is having a laugh as they print their own money by making disposable things. Just a thought, really.

      1. Yes, I agree. Disposable bothers me a lot. I bought this 10 years ago before I had even heard of the name Disston or Spear & Jackson. But it got started and on the path and it was inexpensive and it was at my home center. Sure it is a waste of time to fiddle with the handle, but maybe I will develop some wood shaping skills that will help me with other projects. I often do little things like this to get some sense of the mental and physical process. And I try to have “fun” in the process of learning. 🙂

  13. After watching one of your sharpening videos years ago and doing the sharpening, I pondered whether I should also do the ‘beautifying’ to the saw handle as you did. It seemed a bit of frill to me at the time to do so. But since I had already removed the handle of that backsaw and had the time to modify it, I did so. Rounded of all the sharper edges, made the handle lighter and more elegant, tried a little bit of carving (first attempt ever), polished the handle and coated it many times in boiled linseed oil. Seemed all a bit silly to me, as it wouldn’t make any difference in how it’d cut….

    The irony is that I had two identical second-hand back saws. I sharpened both at the same time but modified the handle of only one. About half a year later I noticed that I always seemed to grab for the modified one. It was then that I figured that perhaps you had a point anyway. Ever since, all my saws get the full treatment. Cleaning, sharpening and handlework. It’s time well spent, I’ve come to realize.

    W.r.t. your response to another commenter: it always surprizes me when people say they don’t use their good/resharpenable saws for MDF or plywood. I don’t hesitate to do so, knowing I can quickly and easily resharpen them again.

  14. Hello Paul,

    Can you communicate the link to → The article you wrote (for tomorrow’s blog) on screws and caps, which explains how best to find the right ones.

    Many thanks

  15. Paul – love the blog and the youtube channel. Thanks for sharing all the expertise. Have no axe to grind at all but just to point out that while you may not be able to “see a difference” between this and a new $200 saw, perhaps the $200 saw was produced in the UK, or EU or USA and the person(s) making it was actually paid a living wage, provided with benefits and so on. Whilst I am as guilty as the rest of us of buying based on price, sometimes it is worth remembering that not all companies treat their employees equally and (no guarantees!) your $200 may be going to more than just the wood in the handle and the steel in the blade.

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