Cutting Corners

Recently I’ve been working on a few older split nut saws and in the process of restoration, I noticed the top corner of the Disston No 7 in hand was docked. My first thought was that the plate had been replaced at some point, as the odds are better you’ll win the lottery than having the holes lining up when swapping out a handle or plate.  The results are you need to add/alter the holes or possibly, I was thinking, dock the plate to adjust the fit into the handle.

Note to Jr. pickers: be sure to check the plate fit at the handle; it’s easy to overlook a replaced plate.  Often on saws with replacement plates they sit proud of the kerf in the handle.

Handle removed I realized no alterations to the holes had been made and I was 99% sure this was the original plate.  But to quench my curiosity I went to the vault and pulled a few more of similar years and found they all custom pair of Spanx to close up that unsightly gap.

And your asking yourself. Why haven’t I read about this you ask?!?

Now you shall.

For starters we all know saws made in the 1800’s have some of the most intricate handles made, so the idea that the cut is an oversight doesn’t sit well with me.

I emailed with a few friends and went to the board for an answer.  The net sum resulted in similar suspicions but no real answer.

The strongest theory is it helped reduce cracking of the handle.  When you look at the force generated in use due to handle shape, hang angle and depth of kerf the pressure at the top corner would be the highest.  This would result in the top corner of the plate cracking the handle.

Split nuts use small diameter shaft and often bend over time due to the force of the plate. This bending almost always results in a shift backwards towards the hand.  If the corner was left on the plate it would surely crack the handle over time.

Another reason could be that pre-industrial revolution saws were often made piecemeal by independent craftsmen specializing in one aspect of the process.  A smith or ironmonger made the plates and the handles were crafted by the saw maker or another specialist. All these craftsmen working independently were missing the glue provided by mass production, namely the standardization of sizes, and may have add a “little extra” for the final craftsmen assembling the saw

A somewhat weak case, yes.  But I put it out there none the less.

So what changed in the early 1900’s that allowed for tighter tolerances negating the need for Spanx paving the way to a perfect kerf–to-plate ratio?

Are you racking your brain wondering how is it possible that magnificent cover top D-8 with the let in handle is crack free, plus it features a “let in” handle, that surely must tempt the gods!

Here’s a big hint

Simply put, BIG NUTS.  In particular the 181,648 patented by Disston on 08/29/1876 differed from those before them, as they attached with cap screws instead of split nuts.  This was followed up by patent 375,350 on 12/27/1887 by Charles Glover of Hartford, Connecticut. The Glover patent screws would eventually become the de facto standard. Lots more can be read here about the evolution of handle fasteners.

Henry Disston and Charles Glover Patents

This is just one mans take based on working with saws but the larger size screws make better quality fasteners, holding tighter, resulting in less plate shifting and therefore less cracking in the handle.  With those worries behind them this paved the way for plate fit.  I’m sure tons of other benefits went along with this evolution, the least of which is the industrial revolution, but that’s a tale for another time.

Joe Federici
saw whisperer

What’s in a Name?

When it comes to owners marks and other flaws in tools, I find people fall into two camps. They sand and paint everything until it looks new or they touch as little as they can to preserve it.

I tend to fall into the latter, focusing on just what’s needed to preserve, but not alter the look. You find some owners marks are done with great care while others are hastily burned in. As someone who restores saws, I don’t love them all but unless they hamper use they stay. In the process of collecting and buying I ask about names and marks and every once in a while you get a surprise. Such is the case with this S. L. Allen mark found on this early 1900’s Disston D-8. I credit the connection to the current owner and collector of farm implementation made by S. L. Allen Co.

Samuel Leeds Allen and the formation of Moorestown. Although there were property owners as early as 1680 the Village wasn’t founded until 1682.

Not recognizing the name I did a little digging and realized although the name wasn’t familiar we’ve cosmically crossed paths for years. Samuel Leeds Allen was born in Philadelphia went to Westtown School  It was there he developed a love for Sledding, or “coasting” as it was commonly called. He went on to graduate from Friends Select and founded the S.L. Allen Co. in Moorestown, N.J. to manufacture agricultural machinery.

The Allen home built in 1841 named “Breidenhart” which means “broad hearth stone” or “hospitality.” The gardens were laidout by Charles Miller the designer of Fairmount Park. Breidenhart Castle was purchased in 1920 by Eldridge R. Johnson, inventor of the Victor Talking Machine.

Raised Quaker his future marriage was held at the Moorestown Meeting House, now part of Moorestown Friends School. A school and Meeting House I attended (authors note: under protest) while I attended the school.  Samuel patented over 300 pieces of farm equipment that were sold worldwide, however, he’s most famous for the flexible flyer. The story goes the sled was developed in part to a concern over year-round work for his employees.

Patent for the Flexible Flyer

The sled was a side project started while attending Westtown School and finished with help from his daughter at there home “Breidenhart” in Moorestown. The modern “castle” estate was built on property acquired from the Stokes family and hill across the street retained the name “Stokes Hill” and was used both by he and his daughter Elizabeth for sledding, or “coasting” as it was commonly called.

Ads possibly depicting stokes Hill pictured on the right

Growing up in the 80’s near Stokes Hill, sledding in the winter was top of mind.  The minute snow was forecasted, and on snow days the hill was busier then grand central in NYC. Being a tinkerer and love for speed and danger, I tried just about every known object including the hood of a Volkswagen bug and many home made toboggans in the quest for maximum speed.  My friends and I, like drag racers, closely guarded our favorite techniques, mine being Johnson’s paste wax.  The same paste wax I use on saw plates today!  Later in high school it was popular to meet up after dinner when the hill would be frozen over producing it’s fastest runs.

I started working at the kitchen in the Lutheran Home, which was just down the street from Stokes hill and who’s administration building I now know was Samuel “Breidenhart” castle. It must have been an impressive stretch of land as today there are over a dozen houses between the hill and home.

Although my hobbies and interests have changed, I still ride by the hill when the conditions are right.  I see a lot more plastic in kids hands but the flexible flyers are still prevalent.  I did see they are still being made in the US by a long time sled manufacturer, Paricon in Mane.

So as I pack up the D8 for it’s trip to the west coast my thoughts drift to its possible use and Joy it brought. The saw was made in the early 1900’s and at that time his company’s manufacturing would have moved to it’s final location in Phily. This being about 25 miles from his house in Moorestown and less then 5 miles from the Disston plant located near the Tacony–Palmyra bridge.  By today’s standard, that was considered around the corner, however, at the time it was a difficult commute considering the bridge wasn’t built till 1929!

One thing’s for sure, I have no idea where my sled is but I plan to borrow one and make plans for a late night run on Stokes

Joe Federici
King of the Hill

Nativity in Black

Often when you find saws, the nib on the leading edge is missing, or gone completely. Also if you shorten one, a new nib should be added back. I’ll go over my process for creating them, and a few tips I find helpful to elevate the final look. I will not get into their function. Lots of speculation out there and I don’t think anyone has found a definitive answer.

As a rule, nibs are found on straight back saws only.  Picture the very popular Disston No. 7. One has to wonder if Henry Disston, when designing the first skewback, Choice 80 used the opportunity to simplify the process by leaving it off? Regardless, I’ve found nibs on at least one (warranted superior) skewback design. I suspect, however, it was added later by a saw smith with a sense of flare.

The good new if you’re already filing saws you most likely have the tools needed. I find used files work fine with the smaller files working best. I also use a set of jewels files however I’m told historically they were made with just the triangular saw files.

The next thing you’ll need is a template. The simplest thing is to use a saw with good nib. Lay it on top, use an “ultra fine sharpie” or metal awe to trace the slope and nib.

Once done, I start the process with a triangular file to shape the bottom right angles of the nib. Then work back to the shoulder. After that, it’s just a matter of fine tuning till your happy. Keep in mind nibs most often were filed by hand and do vary from saw to saw and even within models. So don’t over think it and just make something esthetically pleasing to the size of the saw.

Look sharp: Watch that the area your nib touches the baseline DOESN’T dip below it. The one edge of the triangular files has a tendency to dig as you shape the side of the nib. Looking at this nib you will see from the shoulder to the tip is on the same plane.

Finishing touches: Take a look at the area you just filed. The filed edge will be blunt and wider then the rest of the top edge. The original top edge, either through use or design was tapered to some degree. Using a flat bastard file; like the one used for jointing, gently file the edge to match the rest of the saw. Once done it’s nice to use a little darkening agent commonly sold for touching up bluing on gun barrels to darken down the area. Then blend with the rest of the restoration.

For those wondering about the “Nativity in Black” get with the program! It’s a reference to a Black Sabbath song from their first album N.I.B.

Rock on!

Joe Federici
restoring saws one nib at a time.

The circle of value

Or is that life?

The only pragmatic way for a SawMonger like myself to go about restoring saws is to work in batches. It allows for no one part of the process to get overly monotonous.

However, the start of the process, sanding plates takes the prize as the dullest, energy sucks part; while at the same time, being mindless. Yes we all strive to excel at unskilled labor. Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.

However as I sand (trying not to hunch my back) sanding over my workbench. I take  solace in knowing I’m part of the circle of value for these old tools.  There is joy in the fact I’m retuning the high value, pride, and respect they deserve.

Evidence to this point can be seen in the owners marks on both the handles and spines of countless vintage saws. Looking at them you can trace the value of the saw through the quality of their marks. The latest being done when they had no vale, owners initials carved with dull pen knife or rusty ice-pick.  Juxtaposed that to the aesthetically placed metal stamp of the original cabinetmakers. Old catalogs remind us that these once great saws cost for many a full weeks wages and their marks reflected not just protection from theft but their pride in ownership.

One of the pleasures I have in restoring them is the knowledge that I’ve help to reinstate that pride in ownership. As most of the new owners I hear from are please as punch and wouldn’t dream of carving their name in them with a rusty nail.

And with that close of that thought, I move to the next grit of sandpaper. Paying attention to the nuances of the plate, and the story they tell.

Joe Federici
head down, nose to the grindstone

museings of a monger

Ok so we’ve established I look at a good deal of saws and I must enjoy working on them. Mix that with my love for details,  interest in history, and tools of all kind and you begin to see my neuroses.

Example A

Check out the chisel marks left when cutting the inlet for the back on this Spears & Jackson back saw. I’ve been working on dating it but it’s safe to say it was made in Sheffield England around 1850.

Let’s think about that. These delicate flakes of English beach were made about 162 years ago. True English beach these days is all but gone. Considering the tight and straight grain and the price of a saw like this when made new.  The wood used would be both, quality and well seasoned. It could easily have come from a tree 300 years old, and sprouted from the earth around 1550. That puts the wood at 462 years old!

Are we stoked yet?

That’s over 300 years before electricity was common place and the common working conditions would included daily contact with diseases like Smallpox, Cholera, Typhoid, and TB to name a few.

Whooph! that’s a lot of math and hopefully illustrates some of the fun history that goes along with these crazy old saws not to mention owners marks and other mysteries you find on handles, backs, and plates. It’s a treasure trove for a procrastinator like myself.

Not to leave commerce out of this post; after all this little beauty will be for sale once restored. To get a price I asked a friend and fellow saw lover, Andy aka Brit from the LumberJocks board for a guestimate on price. He loosely figured the price to about half a joiner / cabinet makers weekly wage or 3 shillings. . . .quite an investment by today’s standards.

Ok, back to work.

Joe F.
Bubble gun historian

The search doesn’t end with the saw

One thing I’ve learned very quickly sharpening saws is not all files are the same.

Oh they may be labeled the same size but that’s where it ends.

In the old days Simons and Nicholson files were made in the US then Canada and at some point overseas.  Them moving production isn’t the issue at hand it’s more about the production quality dropping.  The outcome is non-uniform sizing and improperly hardened files.

Files are hardened in batches and to some degree it’s impossible to have every file be the same hardness but you’ll find as you use them some files last forever and others last ½ a saw a real issue if you’re buying files individually.  Short life can also be compounded if the lack of production is mixed with inconsistently shaped throughout a run.

Take a look at the three sides of a triangular file. Each one needs to come to a clean right angle and be consistent through the box, or boxes you buy. Without the consistence, when you switch to a fresh edge, your file will not seat properly in the gullet producing misshaped teeth. If this happens mid sharpen your back to square one. My advice: stay positive, re-Joint, re-shape, re-sharpen.

examples of common problems

Edges chip while in use. This can be caused by over or under hardening of the edges.

Flat edges. The file edge on the left does not come to a sharp right angle like the one in the right side image. This is the same file and if you were shaping or sharping the a saw and switch between these edges it’s sudden trouble.

 best practices when buying

  •  The simplest is to buy from someone you can trust. Email me. I’m happy to recommend a few online venders.
  •  When buying more than one file, check files edges for sharp right angles. If the box looks bad, send them back. Hardness can’t as easily be checked, but if the seller is reputable, they will stand behind it.  When a file is done is a subject for another time, but I find when they loose there bit on the metal it feels like the file is sliding, similar to a burnishing effect.
  •  Last but not least! Buy vintage. This option is not for the faint of heart.  Finding old file caches is as much an art as saw collecting. I was lucky enough to find one local to me (see picture at the top). Mind you, these caches normally come with strings like a crotchety store owner, ridiculous prices, bad hours, or a combination of all three.

However, if you’re buying vintage tools, you most like enjoy the challenges




Look at me! I’m a SawMonger

With all that’s been going lately, working on saws, getting the sites up and ebay It doesn’t leave a lot of time for backend things like inventory.  My idea is to number each saw and document some basic info, brand, size, price, condition and hopefully tie that in with the sales so when I get email requests I’m not making customers wait.

Fast forward to the weekend and I enlisted the help of a friend to input the data while I rattle off the info. We got through about 40 saws and while doing the evaluation (I use 1-10) on a grooves backsaw I found a stamp: Ironmonger.

How great is that.

I’ve been searching for title to use; owner just doesn’t suit me, sawwright is good but it’s big shoes to fill. Roy Underhill being the yoda of “wright’s” plus I’m not big on wearing newsboy caps and suspenders.

Looking at the definition it’s chiefly British and refers to a dealer in or trader of a commodity. Not a perfect fit but I’m more about the esthetics then the practicality or rules, so it works.
Joe Federici


Sheffield Saw Works— Whats in a name?

One aspect of selling and dealing with saws is the rich history. I spend a good deal of time searching the web, emailing friends, and posting on boards looking for background on the many saws I have. Some are simpler then others, like Disstion. Others can be a little more tricky like H.M. Finch.

Recently I restored a saw made by Sheffield Saw Works and not knowing about them I email a friend from England that also belongs to the lumberjock boards. He quickly pointed me in the direction of E. C. Atkins.

 What I found so great about was the use of an established British name used as a ploy to sell saws made here in the US. Seemed very P.T Barnum-ish to me.

Then researching a little deeper I found that both Men were born and spent time in Connecticut.

Coincidence?  You decided