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The Fascinating World of Antique Hand Saws: A Collector‘s Guide

Antique hand saws are more than just tools – they are a direct link to the history of woodworking and the evolution of craftsmanship. For passionate collectors like myself, each vintage saw tells a story through its design, markings, and the patina of age and use. Whether you‘re a budding collector or a seasoned saw aficionado, this comprehensive guide will deepen your appreciation for these marvels of engineering and give you the knowledge to build an enviable collection.

The Evolution of the Hand Saw

The story of the hand saw is in many ways the story of human progress. As our species developed from stone age to bronze age to iron age, so too did our saws advance from primitive serrated flints to the precision-ground steel marvels of the 19th century.

The first major leap forward came in the 1500s, when European sawmakers discovered how to produce steel hard enough for saw blades. By the 1600s, England‘s metalworking expertise made Sheffield the epicenter of the saw trade. Saw manufacturing began in the American colonies not long after, with references to sawmakers in New England appearing by the 1640s.

But it was the industrial revolution that truly unleashed the potential of the hand saw. The rise of steam power and mass production, coupled with a growing appetite for sawn wood, saw an explosion of new saw designs and manufacturers in the 1800s. In his seminal work "A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes," Emil Pollak identified over 3100 American planemakers prior to 1900. It‘s safe to assume that a comparable number of sawmakers were also active during this golden age.

The Anatomy of an Antique Saw

To the untrained eye, one rusty old saw might look much like another. But for the knowledgeable collector, each saw has defining features that speak to its heritage and intended use. Here‘s a quick primer on the key components that characterize an antique hand saw:

  • Blade – The business end of the saw, usually made of steel. Look for a maker‘s mark etched near the handle.
  • Teeth – The sharpened serrations along the blade‘s edge. Tooth shape, spacing and geometry varies by saw type.
  • Spine – The thick back edge of the blade opposite the teeth. Some saws add a brass or steel spine for rigidity.
  • Handle – Traditionally an open wooden grip, often apple or beech. Some feature decorative carvings or inlaid medallions.
  • Nuts – The screws that secure the blade in the handle. Split nuts were used until the 1870s, followed by superior dome nuts.

Anatomy of a hand saw
Basic parts of a vintage Disston No. 7 hand saw. (Photo by author)

Types of Antique Hand Saws

One reason saw collecting is so exciting is the incredible diversity of saw designs that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. It seems there was a specialized saw for every conceivable cutting task. Here‘s a sampling of the main saw types and their distinguishing features:

Saw Type Blade Length Teeth Per Inch Defining Characteristics
Hand saw 14-30" 5-12 General purpose saw for crosscutting boards to length
Panel saw 14-26" 8-12 A smaller handsaw for cutting wooden panels
Rip saw 14-30" 4-7 Teeth filed for clean cutting parallel to the wood grain
Back saw 10-18" 10-15 Rectangular blade with a stiffening rib along the spine
Dovetail saw 6-10" 14-20 Small backsaw for cutting fine dovetail joints
Carcass saw 10-14" 10-13 Medium backsaw used in cabinetmaking and joinery
Tenon saw 14-20" 8-12 Large backsaw for cutting tenons and bridle joints
Sash saw 10-16" 11-14 Lighter backsaw for delicate trim work and moldings
Keyhole saw 6-14" 7-12 Narrow blade for sawing small holes and curved cuts
Compass saw 10-18" 6-10 Blade tapers in width for cutting tight radiuses
Bow saw 10-36" 4-10 Narrow blade tensioned in a wooden frame
Felloe saw 18-36" 4-10 For sawing curved segments used in wooden wheels
Pit saw 60-120" 3-5 Two-man rip saw used to resaw logs into boards

This is just a small cross-section of the scores of different saw patterns that came out of the 18th and 19th century sawmills. The subtle variations are endless, which is why saw nuts like me always get excited to spot an unusual specimen at the flea markets!

The Most Collectible Antique Saws

As with any antique, a saw‘s value is determined by an interplay of rarity, condition, and demand. Age isn‘t everything – a pristine Disston No. 12 from 1900 might fetch more than a crude 18th century saw by an unknown maker. Collecting saws is all about zeroing in on the sweet spot of quality, historical importance, and personal appeal.

Generally speaking, the most coveted saws are those from the leading 19th century American manufacturers. Henry Disston perfected the steam-powered manufacturing process and dominated the market with over 1500 models of saws. The Simonds family were New England sawmaking royalty, known for their "Simonds Blue Steel" No. 371 saw. Atkins of Indianapolis had their famous No. 65 silver steel saw.

Other highly collectible makes include E.C. Stearns, Wheeler Madden & Clemson, Richardson Bros, Bishop, Jennings, and Woodrough & McParlin. Of course, condition is paramount. A lower-tier model in pristine shape will always outshine a top-tier saw that‘s been abused or poorly repaired.

To give you a sense of the current market for antique hand saws, I‘ve compiled some representative values from recent eBay sales. Keep in mind that prices can vary widely based on condition specifics and bidder interest.

Make Model Year Condition Sold Price
Disston No. 12 1896-1917 Excellent $150
Simonds No. 371 1892-1910 Good $80
Atkins No. 65 1860-1875 VG w/ tag $375
E.C. Stearns No. 1 1880-1890 VG+ $200
W. Madden No. 18 1860-1870 Fair $60
Richardson No. 17 1880s Good $90
Woodrough German pattern 1870-1890 VG+ $175

Recent sale prices for collectible antique hand saws in USD. VG = Very Good condition. Sources: eBay, Live Auctioneers.

Building a Collection: Insider Tips

The thrill of the hunt is what draws many to the hobby of saw collecting. There‘s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of spotting a rare 19th century Disston peeking out from under a pile of rusty junk at the flea market. Here are some strategies I‘ve learned over the years for uncovering the gems:

Be Patient – Building a collection takes time. Focus on quality over quantity. It‘s better to wait for the right saw at the right price than settle for a so-so example.

Do Your Homework – Spend time learning to recognize different saw makes, models, and characteristics. Study the old tool catalogs. Join collector forums. Pick the brains of more experienced collectors.

Buy the Best You Can Afford – It‘s almost always better to stretch for a pristine example of a lower-tier model than a beater example of a high-end saw. Condition, condition, condition!

Get Hands-On – Photos alone can be deceiving. Whenever possible, inspect saws in-person before buying. Rust and repairs can be deal-breakers.

Look Beyond the Blade – An original handle in good shape can be worth almost as much as the blade itself. Check for cracks, chips, rot, and replaced hardware.

Know Your Niche – Consider focusing on a particular type of saw or a region of manufacture. Specializing will make you a more discerning buyer.

Network – Attend tool collector meet-ups, subscribe to specialty publications, and get to know the key dealers. Sometimes it‘s who you know!

For me, the best place to buy antique saws is at the semi-annual Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meetings. Nothing beats being able to inspect hundreds of saws in-person and learn from the incredibly knowledgeable members. I always come home with a few exciting new additions to my collection.

That said, eBay and other online marketplaces certainly have their place, especially for connecting with far-flung sellers and finding specific models. The key is to understand the inherent risks of buying sight-unseen. Don‘t be afraid to ask detailed questions about condition, and pay using a method that offers buyer protection. Even a seemingly crisp photo can mask repairs or issues, so a return policy is a must.

Cleaning & Restoration

Finding a nice old saw is just the first step – chances are it will need some TLC to bring out its full potential. Most collectors prefer to keep antique saws in as close to original condition as possible. It‘s OK to gently clean and conserve, but avoid any repairs or "improvements" that erase the saw‘s history or patina.

My go-to cleaning method is to first scrub the blade with a soft brass brush to remove any loose rust or dirt. For more stubborn rust, I‘ll soak the blade in a shallow tray of white vinegar for 10-20 minutes, checking it frequently. A quick scrub with 000 steel wool afterwards will usually leave the blade clean and bright but not too shiny. Finish with a light coat of camellia oil to prevent new rust.

For the handle, a gentle cleaning with mineral spirits and 000 steel wool will brighten the wood without removing the old finish. Don‘t oil the handle – it will just get gummy. Linseed oil is a definite no-no as it will eventually blacken the wood. If the handle is loose, you can carefully remove it and add a new split-nut screw of the same vintage.

If you‘re planning to actually use the saw, a quick touch-up of the teeth with a saw file can work wonders. But think twice before doing a full re-toothing, as it will wipe away the evidence of the original sharpening. The Disstonian Institute website has some great tutorials on sharpening vintage saws.

Displaying Your Collection

Half the fun of collecting antique saws is getting to live with them every day. Saws have a graphic, sculptural quality that makes them perfect for displaying on the wall of your workshop, office or den. Here are some creative ways to showcase your collection:

  • Mount saws on a pegboard or perforated hardboard panel
  • Display saws on individual wall-mounted racks or hooks
  • Arrange a group of saws in a custom shadow box or glass case
  • Affix saws to a repurposed wooden ladder or tobacco drying rack
  • Build a special cabinet with vertical saw slots to store your collection

Wherever you choose to display them, try to keep your saws away from moisture, direct sunlight and excessive heat. Consider adding stick-on rubber bumpers to the back of the blades to prevent scratching the wall.

The Joys of Saw Collecting

I‘ve been hooked on antique hand saws for going on three decades now, and I‘m still learning something new every day. The amount of history and craftsmanship embodied in these tools never ceases to amaze me. It‘s almost like the old sawmakers left hidden messages in the details of their work, waiting for us to decipher them.

What I love most is that saw collecting can fit almost any budget and space constraints. Whether you have $50 or $5000 to spend, there are interesting saws waiting to be discovered. And thanks to their slim profiles, you can comfortably store dozens of saws in the space taken up by a single antique plane or machine tool.

But beyond the "thrill of the hunt," saws connect me to the generations of craftsmen that came before. The heft of a well-tuned vintage saw as it slices through a board is an experience everyone should have. It‘s visceral and humbling all at once – a direct link to the pre-industrial world of hand work and human skill.

So if you‘re thinking of taking the plunge into saw collecting, I say go for it! Start by learning to appreciate the subtle variations in style and function. Explore the different niches, from 18th century English saws to the regional American makers. Get to know the community of collectors through the MWTCA, EAIA, and other organizations. Most of all, have fun and let your collection be a reflection of your own interests and personality.

Who knows – maybe someday a passionate new collector will marvel at the 100 year-old Disston No. 12 that you rescued from a dusty attic and lovingly restored to its former glory. And the cycle of craftsmanship will continue on for another generation.

  • Beaudry, Mary C. "Saws." Artifacts of the American Past, AltaMira Press, 2006.
  • Disston Saw Tool Manual. Philadelphia: Henry Disston & Sons Inc., 1920.
  • Roberts, Kenneth D., and Jane K. Roberts. Antique Woodworking Tools: A Guide to the Purchase, Restoration, and Use of Old Tools. The Astragal Press, 1999.
  • Salaman, R A. Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, C. 1700-1970. Taunton Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Roger K. Patented Transitional and Metallic Planes in America: 1827-1927. North Village Publishing, 2010.