Here's an article that I was asked to write for the CRAFTS of New Jersey in 2002 that first appeared in the February of 2003 issue of the "TOOL SHED". I will most likely be updating some of this and adding more pictures. In the meantime I hope you can glean some information from it that will aid you in restoring and sharpening your vintage saw.



Vintage Saw Restoration


I guess it's been a while back now when I first fell in love with old hand saws. There were a couple hanging out in my father's shed in rural Illinois that were rusty, dirty, the handles had dried out age cracks and the horns had even been chewed  by mice. They probably shouldn't have even been restored but they had belonged to my Great Grandfather who in his early years had been a box car maker around St. Louis and they held some sentimental value. When I uncovered an etch on the H. Disston & Sons D-8 panel saw that to me at the time should not have even showed up, I was hooked. I still have these saws hanging up and though I don't use them much (they do a reasonable job of cutting) they remind me of my first attempts at saw  restoration and sharpening. Many saws have followed since then!


I have loved woodworking since school but my interests in tools has gradually switched from power to hand. Hand planes came first followed closely by handsaws.  How many of you have tried using hand tools but became frustrated because they never performed up to your expectations and then set them aside never to be used again? They were probably not sharp or tuned properly and hand saws are no exception to this rule. When properly sharpened they slice through wood with ease and are a pleasure to use.


There are some questions to ask when searching for a saw to restore that will make your job a lot easier.  


1.Blade: How rusty is it? Is it straight,bowed,kinked? Any dings? Teeth missing? Cracks around the gullet? Has it been sharpened down to nothing (and I don't mean a ship point)? Taper ground?


2.Handle: How does the handle feel when you hold it, is it comfortable? Chipped or broken horns? Cracks? How much finish is left? Is the medallion and all screws/ nuts present?

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If you can find one with a bright blade congratulations, but more than likely it will have a dark blue cast or be a darker

brown. The blue has seen less corrosion and will usually clean quicker and better than the brown and sometimes offers a sneak preview  if there's an etch lurking below. Try to stay away from red rust and scale because these usually have severe pitting and are not usually worth the trouble. What most people like to refer to as patina is no more than what has been left in the wake of corrosion. Unless they are fairly bright, all saws have some form of pitting which doesn't really hurt to much unless it is really severe and is concentrated along the cutting edge. On a rip this doesn't even hurt to much but is a little more critical on a

crosscut because of the tooth geometry. Don't get to caught up worrying about some light pitting. After setting I always side dress with a dull file, which will remove some or all of the pitting anyway.

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Look for a blade that is as straight as possible. Ones with bows can generally be worked out by bending gradually in the opposite direction of the bow.  Stay away from severely kinked blades but minor kinks and dings can usually be worked out with a piece of end grain hard maple serving as an anvil and a copper or a good convex faced hammer to tap with. A pin straight blade is great but hard to find. I might get some disagreement on this one but as long as you can get the main imperfections worked out there really isn't much of the blade engaged (percentage wise in length) in a 1" to 2" thick piece of wood anyway. I have not found to much tracking and cutting differences between a pin straight blade and one less perfect.

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Ideally you want all the teeth to be there.  If you find a blade with one to two gone it's not to much of a problem since it really doesn't affect the cut. Any more than this and I start getting concerned about a brittle blade. I've run into

these and they're almost impossible to set without tooth breakage hence the reason the teeth were probably gone in the first place. The only exception to this would be if someone had tried to set a purposely harder blade such as Disston's Acme 120 which had more taper grind for clearance and was never meant

to be set in the first place. Personally I stay away from a saw that has cracks around  the gullets or anywhere else on the blade.


Try to find a blade that still has a full width blade and hasn't seen to many sharpenings. Exceptions to this would be a Disston lightweight or a true ship point that had a narrow blade to begin with. This is a matter of personal preference and depends on what you are going to use the saw for and how heavy a saw you are comfortable with. Whether you want a straight back with nib or a skew back is entirely up to the individual.

I always look for a saw that has a taper ground blade. On these the blade thickness remains the same at the cutting edge

but on the back becomes gradually thinner from the handle to the point. This reduces the weight a little and provides some built in clearance so you don't have to put as much set in the teeth. Less set means a smaller kerf. The benefit of this is a saw that is a little easier to push because you are removing less material. I have heard of people referring to a saw as double taper ground where it gets thinner at the cutting edge from point to butt end.

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I don't believe this too be true. It really makes no sense to me, as it would create the possibility of binding as you sawed. I think they have mistaken the top view in the photograph at the left (Atkins is not the only one to have illustrated this) to mean the blade is like that through out it's width. It is actually only showing the blade thickness at the very back edge. The small end view along with the 20 gauge markings shows that the cutting edge remains the same thickness the whole length. Blades will start measuring thinner at the cutting edge, at the point than the butt end, the more they are sharpened. This only makes sense since the taper is more severe at the point than the butt, which has hardly any taper grinding at all. That being said I have also had some old non-taper ground saws that cut admirably when properly set and sharpened.

Look for a handle that pleases you and is comfortable to hold. The older saws have beautifully rounded details,  thinner horns, and that nice bump in the grip that fit's so comfortably in the palm of your hand. Ergonomics was nothing new to

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these folks especially when you had to use a saw all day and have one that didn't create blisters! Chipped or broken horns don't pose any problems except visually or if they make the saw uncomfortable to hold. They can be repaired if desired and I'll discuss this latter on. Age or drying out cracks don't hurt anything as long as they don't affect the integrity of the handle. Cracks can present a problem if they're to severe, affect the stability of the handle to the blade or can't be repaired.

If the handle has a lot of the original finish remaining that's great and if it doesn't have much left there are a few options to consider which all come down to a matter of  personal preference again. I'll try and get into that later.

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Try to make sure all of the screws and nuts are present. Almost all the saws prior to the 1870's had split/flush nuts (where the screw actually comes through the nut and then were draw filed flush with the handle) while the latter ones have the more common capped style (these stand proud of the surface) which are seen more frequently today. Some of these can be fairly easily replaced and some can be extremely difficult because they're not all the same diameter and the screw size and  pitch varied from manufacturer to manufacturer.

I don't advocate most people trying to clean and restore a historical saw and I won't debate whether they should even be touched at all.  There are just to many later saws from the late 1800's through the early 1950's to restore that will make excellent users and I still believe these tools were meant to be used in my honest opinion. Don't you think the makers would be proud to see there saws still around and in use over 100 years later.

Now that you've found that perfect saw where do you begin? This will depend on what you want your saw to look like and how you want it to perform. If the handle is O.K. and you like the patina on the brass leave it alone and start cleaning on the blade. If the handle needs some work and you want the brass clean take the screws out but be cautious. If you have split nuts mark them with a small felt tip marker or pencil as to the location on the handle and the orientation (vertical,etc.) so you can put them back in the same location. You will probably have to take a regular screwdriver and grind it thinner to fit in the slot of the nut and grind or file a small slot into the center of the blade to clear the screw to remove them. I have had good luck driving them out with a small diameter pin punch. Proceed slowly and gently because if you break them the only resort for most would be to have someone silver solder them.

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If you run into to much resistance tapping them out you might consider stopping and leaving the handle in place because you run the chance of buggering the threads up to where you can't even get the nut back on.

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Allot to think about, Eh. The modern style nuts present less of a problem. There is one thing I look at before I remove them. For some reason on some handles (more often than not) over the years through wood swelling and screw tightening the wood fibers around the perimeter of the screw heads and nuts have flowed over them. If you remove these they can lever tiny slivers and chips right out of the handle which can be glued back in place

with cyanoacrylate glue but it's best to avoid this altogether if possible. My method to help this situation is to use an X-acto knife which I very carefully trim and score around around the heads to remove these fibers before I take the screws out. I usually back the nuts out part way and tap on them with a plastic mallet to free the screw from the handle and blade then remove the nut.  Some can be stubborn and if they still aren't loose enough to remove you might have to use a punch to tap them out the rest of the way. The handle can be pulled off next. This can take some effort on some because of the burrs left behind on the holes in the blade. These have a tendency to grab the walls in the handle slot and hang on!

Cleaning the blade comes next. If you still have the handle on you'll have to clean around it the best you can. I usually start in the area where the etch is. If you can see it that's great, if you can't, take a guess at the location, usually it's centered in the middle of the blade. Try to get the blade laying on a fairly flat surface. If the blade has a heavier brown rust on it I'll start with a heavier weight 150 grit aluminum oxide and sand dry in the area where I think the etch will be. Just be cautious and go

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slowly. If an etch is still there, I'll usually start seeing one appear, then I'll start being very carefull in that area. If and when it appears fully, I'll start concentrating on the rest of the blade and leave the etch for the finer grits. I know this sounds crazy but it's kind of thrill to me to see if I can read any of the script on the blade that's been hidden all these years. If you're blade is cleaner you can skip down to the steps below.

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Next I'll start by taking some some abrasive sheets of 400 and 600 grit silicon carbide and cut them up into 8 equally sized pieces. Make a small wooden block the same width as the narrow dimension on the piece of abrasive and about an inch shorter than the longest dimension so you can wrap the ends over the block and hold them with your fingers. I usually start with 400 but 600 will work if most of the etch is visible. Since I use mineral spirits

for lubrication and to keep the paper from loading up it's best to wear some plastic gloves to protect you hands. Put some mineral spirits on the blade and start rubbing length ways with the original grind marks. Keep plenty of lubrication on it and wipe periodically with a paper towel to remove the rusty swarf and check your progress. You might even consider switching to 600 at this point.

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Once your satisfied with the etch you don't have to you use the block anymore. I only use the block to keep my fingertips from following the very shallow depressions of the etch and to keep from rounding over the edges and distorting it anymore than I have to. Now comes the tedious task of removing almost all of the remaining rust on the rest of the blade, front and back. I say almost because you'll probably still have some dark areas mixed in with the steel gray. This is O.K. because you're not striving for

a shiny, new, perfect blade (it's not, that's kind of why you got it in the first place) just smooth. To me this is were the beauty of patination comes in on an old tool, not in the previous rust that would make this a tool useless to cut with. Lastly I'll polish the blade with some worn 600 grit, used dry only. When you're satisfied with the cleaning put a coat of paste wax on it to protect it followed by a good buffing out. My preference for this is SC Johnson paste wax but any good paste wax should work.  I'd try to stay away from anything with silicone in it that could contaminate the wood surface and cause finishing problems latter on.

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Now the edge of the saw probably needs attention. Most of the saws I pick up need the teeth jointed, reshaped, set and sharpened and yours will probably be no different. Site down the edge. Is it fairly straight or does it have a slight crown to it. If it's convex you probably have what is called a crowning breast to the saw. This practice was used for a while which was supposed to aid in the cutting action by keeping all the teeth engaged in the cut due to the natural arc motion of the arm while sawing. If the saw has a crowning breast I use to use a tool that was made for filing the crown and setting the height of the raker teeth on large timber crosscut saws.

This tool will hold an 8" mill file at 90 degrees to the gauge fence and have register surfaces at opposing ends with a screw in the center. By setting the gauge fence against the saw face you can purposely bow the file to match the curvature of the blade. My gage happens to be a Simonds but I believe most of the major saw manufacturers had their own version. Any more I just free hand the crown in the blade by sighting down the edge while I'm filing it to determine where I need to remove metal. If the edge

is straight you can make you own jointer from a block of wood with a groove plowed in it 90 degrees to the face. Make the groove wide enough so your mill file will fit snugly into it. Relieve the corner of the groove directly below the file so there will be clearance for the set that are in saws teeth. There are old cast iron jointers that can be found at flea markets that work well also. These straddle the blade while holding a file in place with screws from each side.


You can possibly hold the blade by hand while jointing but I've found it much easier to hold it in a saw vise or clamped between two boards. Jointing is the process of making the teeth all the same height so they all will do the same amount of work while sawing an some won't be along just for the ride. Start at the heel of the saw and stroke to the tip. You'll probably hit high teeth and snags along the way telling you this saw is severely out of joint. Site down the blade once in a while to check how straight the edge is or how true the arc is. Try to concentrate on the high areas. Keep stroking until all of the teeth have little shiny

flats on the top. Some of these flats are most definitely going to be bigger than others. If you can't get a flat on all of them before removing whole sections of  teeth, STOP! You'll lose the gullet groove for a guide to file in the new teeth and laying out new spacings is not that much fun. Jointing also aides in removing set which most saws have to much of to begin with.


Shaping the teeth is the next operation in line. First you'll definitely need some type of good work light. I use a incandescent/fluorescent combination light with an articulated spring loaded arm that I can position anywhere along the blade to produce the best lighting situation. Some type of saw vise is necessary whether you buy an old cast one at a flea market, auction, etc. or make your own from wood is up to you. You'll also need to purchase some tapered saw files from a local hardware store or purchase them online where you'll probably find the best selection. Each length of file 7", 6", 5" and 4" comes with different designations such as tapered, slim taper, extra slim taper and double extra slim taper. You will not need every variation but each size has a different radius on the corners to form the gullet and a different cross section. The cross section should be large enough so when one corner becomes dull and is rotated to the next the previously two dulled adjacent faces do not come in contact with the tooth profile you are working on and your using fresh sharp cutting edges but small enough to make it easy to see what you're doing. You should switch to a new edge when you start having to apply excess pressure to make it cut or the file starts squealing at you in agony.  Here are the sizes I typically use.

wooden rake gage Stanley 42X Filing new teeth in

I use a small block of wood with a hole drilled through it just small enough so the three corners of a specific sized tapered saw file will bite into it. I then lay a line out tangent to the  right side of the hole at the angle of whatever rake I'm going to file on the teeth. This is usually around 15 degrees for a crosscut and 4 degrees for a rip. Line one side of the file up with this line and press into place. Now as long as you keep the top of this block as close to parallel as possible with the edge of the saw

you'll file the correct tooth profile. I usually begin at the heel and work toward the tip. Place the saw in the saw vise with the teeth exposed no more than necessary to file them. Exposing the least amount out of the vise will give the blade more support and less chatter providing a cleaner cut. File straight across and try to maintain the same number of strokes per tooth pressing a little harder to the side that has the larger flat. If some of the gullets are a little deeper than others don't take that extra stroke on these. Your trying to do a few things at once here like even up the tooth profile, correct poor geometry, gullet depth and maintain the file in the right relation to the blade. This takes a little hand eye coordination but with practice you'll catch on. Once you have gotten almost all the teeth shaped back to sharp edge joint again.  Joint again, he says, Arrgh! Remember those teeth that you couldn't get flats on the first time, hopefully you'll get them on this second jointing. Time to shape again. If you've had this much perseverance, congratulations you're getting closer to the payoff!

Looking at the set

There's some debate on what to do next sharpen or set. I prefer to set next since this process slightly deforms the tooth by extruding metal due to the pressure of the saw set and sharpening will correct this. If you sharpen carefully you will not remove much of this set at all. You can pick up an old set at flea markets or buy a new one through a woodworking supply catalog. than the more horizontal handled ones.

I use the Stanley 42X for everything now. I have found the pistol grip sets a little more comfortable to use I've got one that I've bevel filed the sides of the strike to set finer teeth. Hopefully you've removed most of the set when you jointed it.

Looking down the side of the blade

Pick the saw up and hold it at eye level with the back edge of the blade toward you and site down along both sides. You should be able to see the set in each tooth as a dark shadow. Chances are you'll see to much shadow and it won't be even from tooth to tooth or from one side of the blade to the other. If you had to joint allot there might not be any set left which to me is ideal because I would just as soon start fresh. I use a pair of dial calipers to check the thickness of the blade just below the teeth and then to check the set. I shoot for about .005" set per side, or .010" total, on most hand saws and about .003 per side, or .006" total, on back saws. You don't want binding but the less set you can run with the smoother the cut will be. If there's to much set you might have to live with it or at the very least even it up with a saw set trying not to put any more in than is already present. I have had good luck taking some excessive set out with a sheet metal hammer and a hard flat surface, such as an anvil. I have read you shouldn't do this but I'm always experimenting. Set the teeth of the blade on the surface and lightly strike the teeth that are bent upward. You can start at the front of the blade or the back, it really makes no difference. Check your progress once in a while to see if you're removing any of the set. When your satisfied with the one side flip the blade over and do the other.

Setting the teeth Depth of set

Now it's time to grab your set and set the teeth. I disregard the numbers on the anvil adjustment (if you have any) as to their coinciding with the ppi of saw you're about to set. Instead I use them as a reference from saw to saw. On the 42X, positioning the anvil at it's highest point will give you the least amount of set. The more you lower it will increase the set and also keep moving the fulcrum point lower on the tooth. Error on the lighter side to start

with because you can always put more in. If the teeth  have a little set but need more bend the teeth in the same direction as they currently are, if they have no set at all which way you choose to bend them makes no difference. Start at the heel of the blade (handle end) and align the plunger  of the set (the part that does the bending) on the tooth you want to set. I usually press gradually about 5 times instead of one hard push and proceed setting every other tooth. Set about 4 or 5 teeth then flip the blade and set the ones you skipped. Stop and check your progress with a pair of calipers. Since these back teeth aren't used much if you put to much set in it won't hurt anything, just retract the threaded stop a bit and try a few more teeth. If you still don't have enough set advance the stop and try setting the same teeth again. Once you have the set adjusted finish the rest of the teeth.

Dykem layout fluid Bevel gage Bevel gage flipped

With the setting completed you're ready for the final step of sharpening. I'll apply some Dykem lay out fluid to the teeth so I can see where I'm removing material. When this dries start by placing the saw in the vise with the heel at the right end of the vise. When sharpening a rip profile I don't use any gage since you file straight across at 90 degrees to the saw face. Place the file in the farthest right gullet that fits this description, the right face of the file is against the cutting face of the tooth that is bent away from you and the left face of the file is against the back of  the tooth that is bent towards you. The tooth that is bent away files better with less chatter producing a smoother cutting face.

With the tip end of the file (you still have to leave yourself enough to hold onto) placed in the gullet rock the file around a bit until you get a feel for it being properly seated then take a light stroke. All you're trying to accomplish is cleaning up the damage caused by the set on the cutting edge of the front of one tooth and the back of the other. Skip a tooth and move on to the next one and so on. Now flip the saw around and  starting at the heel end again, file the teeth that you skipped on the first round. Filing from each side makes up for any error you may impose in the way that you hold the file and should make the saw track better.

Sharpening a crosscut is slightly different in that you're trying to create more of a knife edge for severing cross grain fibers than a chisel edge on a rip that actually plows the wood out with the grain. Make yourself a wood gage that has a shallow kerf cut in opposing faces at 25 degrees (or whatever you want to bevel file at) to the edge. When viewing one of the kerfs, the opposing side kerf should be angled in the same direction as the one being viewed. This gauge will straddle the cutting edge of the saw and serve as a visual

guide to bevel file the teeth. With the heel at right side of the vise place the gauge on the saw so that the end farthest from you is angled to the left. Position the file in the gullet basically the same as you did for a rip but now angle the file to line up with the edge of the gauge. You will be filing a small bevel on the front of one cutting edge and the back side of the other tooth. The objective is to hold the file in the correct position to remove an equal amount from each tooth, top to bottom, (again the cutting edge of one and backside of other) until the outside edge of the tooth becomes sharp and you've filed up to the point of the tooth.

First bevel filed Second bevel filed Finished profile

Count the number of strokes it took to achieve this and repeat this on each one. If you find yourself removing more material from one than the other exert more pressure to the side that needs the material removed on the next stroke. Work your way down the blade repositioning in the vise as necessary. Turn the blade around and start at the heel again. Turn the gage over so the end facing away from you is now angled to the right. Repeat the process filing in the gullets skipped from the first side. When your done take a

test cut. The saw should track and cut nicely. If it pulls to one side dress that side lightly with a stone or small. Don't take to much or you'll remove most of the set.

Cleaning or repairing the handle is another subject. If most of the original finish remains on the handle or it has a nice color  (patina) to it I usually just clean it with some #0000 steel wool and paste wax. Then I buff it with a towel when dry. Most of the time I encounter handles that have little or no finish left and can have a brownish gray cardboard look to them. Sometimes the finish is so bad it just flakes off when rubbed a little.