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Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use

This project covers the necessary steps to restore a vintage handsaw to working order for the modern workshop.

Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use

This project covers cleaning and restoring an old handsaw – worth about $5 at a yard sale – and turning it into a useful tool again.

Handsaw Basics

Handsaws come in two basic forms: handsaw and backsaw. Backsaws are (typically) short saws with very thin blades and fine teeth with a rigid steel or brass back to stiffen their thin blades. They are mainly used when a very accurate cut is needed such as when cutting dovetail joints.

Handsaws are like the one pictured in this guide, blades of spring steel with wooden handles attached. They come in a variety of sizes from about 20" to over 30". They are generally used for cutting stock (boards) to the proper width and length. Saws on the shorter end of the scale are often referred to as panel saws; they make excellent toolbox saws and are easier to use in tight spaces or when sawing at an odd angle. However being shorter they cut less wood per stroke than their longer cousins.

Both backsaws and handsaws can have teeth that are filed for either rip cuts or cross cuts. Rip saws are used for cutting with the grain the wood (along the length of the board) and crosscut saws are for cutting across the grain of the board. Rip teeth are shaped like tiny chisels and scoop up the wood grain as they cut, producing sawdust made of tiny curly shavings. Crosscut teeth are shaped like little knives; they sever the wood fibers as they cut and produce a more powdery saw dust. Tooth size is measured in teeth or points per inch (TPI or PPI). The higher the TPI the smaller the teeth. Other things being equal, a saw with finer teeth will cut the same board slower than a saw with coarser teeth but will leave a better surface.

A crosscut handsaw between 7-10 TPI is a very good all-around saw and does a good job on boards around one inch thick, leaving a decent surface but cutting quickly. For rip saws, between 5-7 TPI is a good all-around size for working with one-inch boards.

Why Bother?

Modern saws found at the big-box home centers usually have induction-hardened teeth that can’t be sharpened – they are meant to be thrown away when dull. They also have thick heavy blades, blocky plastic handles and teeth that seem to be engineered to do a bad job at both rip- and cross-cuts. They are really designed and marketed towards users who won’t bother to learn how to saw properly and can’t be bothered to maintain their tools.

Vintage saws from the turn of the last century, though, are literally the tools that built the U.S. These are tools that were made for skilled craftsmen to use and care for. They are fully user-serviceable and with the right set of files can be easily converted or tweaked to any use you have for them. With a little patience and practice to learn proper sawing technique, using a quality handsaw can actually be much faster than setting up a power saw for many types of cuts, not to mention safer, cleaner and quieter.

Vintage handsaws, and hand tools in general, made in the US from about 1880 to the 1950’s are very common at online auction sites, garage sales and thrift stores. Aside from a few collectible brands and models most can be had for a fraction of what similar-quality new tools go for. With just a little TLC in the workshop these old tools can be brought back to life.

Well-made vintage handsaws have many features not found on modern saws, except through a few specialty makers, that really improve the user experience. For starters they have much nicer handles made from fine hardwoods and shaped to be comfortable for working with all day. Many are also quite beautiful, especially compared to the blocky plastic handles on modern hardware-store saws. Vintage saws frequently have thinner, lighter blades which are often taper-ground. A taper-ground blade is thicker at the tooth line than it is at the top, reducing the drag on the blade as it moves through the wood making it easier to use for longer periods of time.

Common Problems & Wear and Tear

Many old tools show many signs of use and abuse in their long histories, some more than others. Common damage to old saws includes missing saw nuts or medallions, chipped horns on the handle, cracked or split handles, broken teeth, kinked blades and of course rust. Most of these problems are fixable or can be worked around.

Saws also show regular wear that’s not the result of abuse. The most common is naturally a narrowing of the blade from sharpening over the years. Once a blade gets too narrow it loses too much rigidity and can easily bend or kink while in use. A full length (>26") handsaw that has become too narrow can be shortened to panel-saw length (~21") and gain many years of life, which is exactly what I show in this guide.

What’s Ahead

This guide will cover the basics of finding a good vintage saw in the open market; how to clean and refinish the handle; how to clean and polish the blade; and an introduction to saw sharpening. Check the conclusion for information on where to find tools and equipment as well as links to detailed tutorials on saw sharpening.

Steps

Step #1:

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Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use
  • The first step is to find an old saw. Look for something with a nice comfortable-looking handle with no obvious breaks or missing parts. A good handle, like the one on this saw, won't look blocky or have any sharp arises on the grip. The more detailed and refined-looking the better.
  • A little surface rust is OK but look out for any pitting, especially near the tooth line. Anything worse off than the saw in this guide is probably best left as restaurant decoration, unless it's a family heirloom of course.
  • Look down along the tooth line to see how straight the blade is. A shallow curve in one direction is OK. Even a slight "S" curve in the blade is fine. What you want to avoid is a sharp bend or kink in the blade; these are virtually impossible to fix.
  • If you happen upon a very old saw with split nuts instead of the domed saw bolts like this saw has you may want to reconsider using it for this project. Check with the Disstonian Institute or Vintage Saws to make sure you don't have a valuable antique.

Step #2:

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  • Carefully unscrew the saw bolts holding the handle to the saw plate.
  • Be very careful when you do this. If the threads are frozen the bolt may just start spinning freely all the way through the handle. Once it starts doing this it's very difficult to remove without damage.
  • WD-40, Liquid Wrench or other penetrating lubricants can be used if necessary.

Step #3:

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  • To begin cleaning the handle first start with a flexible card scraper and scrape off all the dirt and old finish you can reach with it. It's much faster than sanding
  • After scraping, sand away the remaining dirty finish with 220-grit paper and then lightly sand the whole handle with 320-grit paper.
  • After scraping and sanding look for any cracks or breaks. If you find any, carefully bend the cracked area so the crack opens up a little - careful not to break it completely - and try to wick as much thin CA glue in as possible. When it's taken as much as it can, lightly clamp it closed and let it sit for at least an hour.
  • Once the glue has dried scrape and sand any glue off the of the surface of the wood.

Step #4:

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  • Apply boiled linseed oil (BLO) to the handle. An old dried-out saw handle will soak up A LOT of oil so just keep wiping it on with a rag every few minutes. At first you'll actually be able to see the oil being sucked into the wood, especially the end grain. Once it stops soaking in fast enough to see it you can stop applying it.
  • Let the oil in the handle cure overnight before applying additional finish.
  • I like a shellac finish on my tool handles. Here's how I apply it. After the BLO has cured overnight rub in another light coat before shellacking the handle; it will help lubricate the shellac. Load up a rag with a few squirts of shellac from a squeeze bottle and start wiping it on the handle, with the grain. Take a swipe across the top, then another overlapping swipe below it, etc... until you reach the bottom. Go back to the top and repeat until the rag starts to stick. Take care to shellac the end grain as you go. Reload the rag and repeat on the other side.
  • Once the sides and end grain are done, do basically the same thing to the top and bottom only wait a few seconds between swipes to give the alcohol a chance to flash off.
  • Warning: Shellac uses denatured alcohol as a solvent which is highly flammable. Take all due care when handling it.
  • Warning: Rags soaked in BLO should be hung up or laid flat on a non-flammable surface to dry. BLO-soaked rags can spontaneously combust if left wadded up in a confined space due to the heat generated by the curing oil.

Step #5:

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  • If your saw is less than about 1 1/2" wide at the toe you may want to consider trimming it back a few inches. Likewise if there is kink near the end or just heavy corrosion at the toe, cutting it off can be your best bet.
  • For this saw I trimmed it down to 21" at the tooth line because I needed a solid fast cutting panel saw in my collection.
  • If you need to cut down the saw for any reason a rotary tool with a cut off wheel is probably the best way to go. A metal-cutting bandsaw or jigsaw will work well too, but whatever you do don't try to use shears of any kind; they will warp the blade near the cut and make the saw useless.
  • After cutting round off the sharp corner with a file and generally clean up the cut area so it's smooth and nice-looking.

Step #6:

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  • Time to work on the blade. Line your bench with newspapers or plastic before starting; this is messy.
  • The shape your saw is in when you start really determines how aggressive you have to be with the blade cleaning. The one in this guide was at the limit of what can be saved. Anything worse than this is probably beyond saving
  • First thing to do is check for an etch. A saw etch is a decorative maker's mark acid-etched into the blade. Usually it shows the company logo, the model number and some claims about the saw. They don't affect how the saw functions but they do look cool and are worth saving.
  • The etch is always found on the left side of the blade in the middle. Check this area by lightly sanding with #320 sandpaper and looking carefully at the metal in a low raking light after you wipe it clean. If any text or images jump out you've found the etch. Continue to carefully sand the area until you define the borders of the etch and then stop for now.
  • According to the etch this is a Hibbard, Spencer and Bartlett Company branded saw. HSB was a pretty well-known Chicago area hardware company in the early part of the 20th century. Much like Sears Craftsman, their house-branded tools were made by other big-name manufacturers. This saw was probably made by Disston for HSB.

Step #7:

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  • Start by lubing up the blade with either mineral spirits, WD-40 or, if ventilation is an issue, Windex (yes, really).
  • The first weapon is a razor scraper to try and knock as much of flaking rust off as possible. Go nuts with this; just be careful not to scratch the blade and mind the etch.
  • When sanding use a piece of scrap wood as a make-shift sanding block. This will help you sand evenly along the blade. For this saw I had to actually start with #80 sand paper which is ridiculous. Normally after scraping #180 is the coarsest paper you'll use. Use firm but gentle pressure, keep the blade lubricated and wipe it clean with shop rags frequently to check for progress. The middle picture is how the blade should look when you're done with the #180 grit.
  • You can start sanding the etch area, with the sanding block, once you start with the #180 grit paper, just be careful and never sand just the etch. Always sand across the entire blade.
  • The last two pictures show how the whole blade and the etch should look when done with the #180 paper.
  • Keep sanding at higher grits up to #320ish. You can use the #320 to clean stubborn spots freehand.

Step #8:

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  • Most saws have the teeth per inch (TPI) stamped near the heel (back) of the blade. This saw is 8 TPI, a very common tooth size.
  • Now it's time to shape and sharpen the teeth.
  • As the photo shows this saw suffers from "calves and cows" or alternating big teeth and little teeth. This wasn't done on purpose; it's just the result of sloppy sharpening over the years.
  • The teeth alternate between dirty and clean because of the saw's "set." Handsaws have their teeth bent slightly off center, in an alternating pattern. This is done on purpose and it allows the saw to cut a kerf slightly wider than the blade itself, which keeps the saw from binding.
  • I'm not going to cover in detail how to shape and sharpen saw teeth in this guide. See the resources section in the end for links to online guides and books that cover the topic better than I can.

Step #9:

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  • First step is to "joint" the teeth. Jointing means to make all the teeth square to the saw plate and even with each other. It's similar to jointing a board on a jointer.
  • Use a mill bastard file in a saw jointer. Drag the file over the entire blade repeatedly with firm, even pressure until every single tooth has a flat top. Remember, files only cut in one direction.
  • Stop when all of the teeth have a nice flat top.

Step #10:

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  • Now shape the teeth with an appropriately sized triangular saw file.
  • File in one direction only and stop filing when either of the teeth the file is touching loses its flat top.
  • Repeat jointing and shaping until the teeth are uniformly shaped and spaced across the blade.
  • After shaping use your saw set to set the teeth - follow the manufacturers instruction for using the saw set. Set every other tooth in the saw going one way, flip the saw in the vise and set the other teeth.
  • After setting the saw lightly joint the teeth again and begin sharpening. Sharpen the teeth whose backs face away from you first then flip the saw in the vise and do the others. When the flat tip is gone the tooth is sharp. You can darken the back of each tooth with a sharpie before you begin to help you keep your place.
  • One or two short teeth or even a missing one isn't a big deal. Future sharpenings will restore them. Just make sure 90% or more of the teeth are even.
  • See the links at the end of this guide for all the details on how to sharpen the teeth.

Step #11:

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Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use

This is how properly shaped and sharpened cross-cut teeth look.

Step #12:

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  • Before putting the saw back together rub down the blade with some steel wool and paste wax. You can buff out the wax everywhere on the blade except where it fits into the handle. Leaving the wax on will help prevent rust.
  • Once the shellac on the handle has dried for a few hours rub it out with paste wax and steel wool also and then buff it out with a clean rag to a nice satin shine. The handle will feel silky smooth to the touch.
  • Insert the blade into the handle, line up the holes and put the saw bolts back in. Cinch them up nice and tight by hand so the blade doesn't wobble in the handle at all.
  • Pictures of the finished saw including a reunion with the section I trimmed off.

Step #13:

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  • Refinished handle. Notice the graceful curves and the fact that there are no sharp corners anywhere on the grip. These are signs of a good-quality saw handle that can be used all day in comfort.
  • One of the saw nuts was missing from this handle. In a pinch a brass "Chicago bolt" works well as a replacement, though it doesn't look quite right.
  • A saw handle like this works best with a three-fingered grip wrapped around the handle with the index finger pointing out straight ahead in the direction of your cut.

Step #14:

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Once you start fixing up old saws it's really hard to stop!

Conclusion

Saw Sharpening

There's a lot more to sharpening and maintaining a handsaw than I could put into this guide, so to help with those tasks I've compiled some additional resources for your convenience.

There are many good tutorials on the internet that explain saw sharpening in great detail. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Full saw sharpening tutorial from Pete Taran of VintageSaws.com.

Bom Smalser's take on saw sharpening.

I would suggest reading both sharpening guides starting with Pete's very thorough guide and then Bob's more down-to-earth take on the topic; they are complementary works IMO. In practice it's a lot easier to do a decent job of sharpening a saw than it seems and even an imperfectly sharpened saw will cut much better than a dull one.

Keeping the Cutting Edge by Harold Payson is probably the best book written on the subject of saw filing and includes information on sharpening circular saw blades as well.

Saw Vises

You need something to hold the saw in while you sharpen it to hold it steady and to dampen vibrations from the files. Shop-made wooden vises and commercial metal ones both work equally well.

Wooden Saw Vises

Instructions for building a saw vise at the Cornish Workshop

More plans for a shop-made saw vise from the Norse Woodsmith

Very simple saw vise by Daryl Weir

Very well documented saw vise plans by Dom Greco

Metal Saw Vises

Gramercy Tools steel saw vise from Tools for Working Wood. The only newly made saw vise currently on the market that I'm aware of.

If you prefer vintage iron, eBay's collectible tools category usually has several saw vises pop up every week.

If buying vintage, try to get the widest jaws you can find. Heavy is good and be wary of shipping costs. Saw vises are pretty simple, rugged cast-iron tools and it's not hard to find one in working order. If you end up with one that doesn't seem to grip the saw blade firmly or evenly just glue a thin strip of leather or rubber tubing to one of the jaws. A lot of the old vises have a groove milled in one of the jaws for this purpose.

Final Thoughts

This may seem like a lot of work and a lot of new tools to buy just to fix up one trashed old saw when you can just go down to the home center and buy one for $20-30. But keep in mind that you can't sharpen that hardware-store saw; its impulse-hardened teeth are too hard to file. Once it's dull, it's trash in the landfill. If you're going to pursue even a modest amount of woodworking you're eventually going to acquire more saws as your skills advance and you take on more complex projects. You will probably want a pair of these panel saws, one rip and one crosscut, right away and a few backsaws for making woodworking joints like dovetails or mortise-and-tenons. With the tools and skills covered in this guide you can put together a kit of saws that will last a lifetime and always be sharp and ready when you need them.


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