Handsaw Restoration by: Mark Harrell
The first step in restoring a vintage saw is to remove the handle. All too
often, the sawnut/bolt assembly has become frozen over time—and it's always far easier to clean the sawplate without the handle, or if you have some horn repair ahead of you. Get a Wooden Clamp:
Nothing too large—a 10-incher will do. Break out your drill—you're going to bore a hole in it.
Bore a Hole:
Bore a 3/4" to 7/8" hole in the clamp, about an 1.5" down from the tip. The intent here is to clamp your saw in the clamp, and access the frozen nut through the hole. Clamp the Saw:
It helps to remove the other sawnuts/bolts that aren't locked up. You want as much wood on handle contact as possible. The clamp will hold the sawbolt in place while you torque the sawnut out.
Unscrew the Sawnut:
Make sure your slotted screwdriver is ground thinner, such that you can fully insert the tip inside the sawnut to avoid deforming the edges. Tap out the Sawbolt: A note of caution here: make sure when tapping out the sawbolt, that the handle is supported on either side of the sawbolt, so that you have a void to tap the sawbolt into—otherwise you'll wind up deforming the shank of the sawbolt.
You're Done: So that's it: the concept is to clamp your saw tightly with a wooden clamp you've bored a hole into to access the frozen sawnut. Pretty simple, but someone had to tell me how to do it, too.
One man's patina is another man's rust. I fall into the latter group. Rust on
a sawplate promotes friction in a cut, and should be removed prior to sharpening your saw. You could always pay me to do it for you, but why? All that's required is a little elbow grease. With the procedure and pics below, I'll how you how to clean up your sawplate in about twenty minutes. Equipment Outlay: Here's the stuff I like to use. It's certainly no product endorsement; essentially what you've got is a bottle of rust remover available at any home store, a razor-blade scraper, some Scotchbrite pads (medium and fine), a Sandflex block rags, and metal polish. Note the gloves—use them. And if you have more rust than what you see on this saw, it's a good idea to use a mask.
Spray and Scrub (quickly!): Lay down some cardboard or thick kraft paper to keep the crud off your workbench. Then spray the bottle of rust remover onto the sawplate and immediately begin scrubbing. Important to do this quickly, or the rust remover will pool in spots and leave marks on the metal. I like using a fine sanding sponge for this stage of the cleaning. Use it on edge to concentrate on spots where the rust is heavily built up, and hit the teeth with it in particular. Scrape:
There's usually a 'grime-line' that contours the handle—this is a good time to scrape it off with a razor. Be careful—don't want to scratch the plate, so use a sharp razor and don't let the corners dig into the sawplate. The razor is also good to use on other spots on the sawplate where rust is heavily built up.
Clean the teeth:
Using all the abrasives shown in the outlay, concentrate on really getting the teeth clean. This is where having a clean sawplate really counts. Rusted teeth just won't cut well, and it's worth the time to clean them up right. Be careful—they like to bite fingers, lol. Scotchbrite Medium & Fine:
Now that you've shredded your sanding sponge, wipe down the plate with a paper towel and go to work on it with your Scotchbrite medium and fine pads. Great products, useful for wood finishing as well.
Sandflex Block (Fine): Another product I like to use are sandflex blocks; they're rubberized sanding blocks with varying grits (yellow is fine, green medium, and red coarse). I never use anything coarser than the medium block and find that the yellow/fine block handles 75% of my needs when cleaning a sawplate. Now's a good time to flip the sawplate over and repeat the above steps prior to polishing. Polish:
Wipe down the sawplate with another paper towel to remove any residual grit from the sanding process, and break out your metal polish. I like using Wizard's metal polish. Just squirt a little on an old tee-shirt or cotton cloth, and wipe away. Really brightens and protects the metal.
And that's all there is to it. Takes anywhere between 15 minutes to half and hour, depending on the degree of rust. Rust is funny—never can tell what lies underneath, and many's been the time I've found a great etch. At any rate, if you're sending a saw to me for sharpening or repair, I strongly encourage you to clean your sawplate first.
Anyone can restore a saw handle — it's not rocket science. It does
require some patience, but most of all a determination to see it through. There
are a lot of pics on this page, and it can seem a bit overwhelming. But trust me on this—it's easier than you think. This is my method, and like anything else, other methods will work. Have fun with it—the worse that can happen is you simply saw off your repair piece, and start over. Equipment Outlay: Here we have a nice old Harvey Peace panel saw handle with a blunted upper horn—a pretty typical scenario. This shot reflects a suggested outlay of the equipment and finishing supplies I like to use. Essentially, you'll want a small crosscut saw, your dovetail saw, rasps to contour-shape the horn, some cyanoacrylate glue, a dremel with associated buffs and sanding drums, a scraper, an exacto knife, clamps, and even rubber bands. To Cut is to Heal...
...that's what the SF medics used to tell me anyway before scrubbing an infected owie away with a ScotchBrite pad (in the name of debriding the wound, right?) As
it applies to horn repair, what you're doing is cutting away the damage. Clamp the handle in a vise and cut away the damaged part of the horn with a small tenon saw, no coarser than 14 ppi. You may have to cut away the entire damaged piece with a vertical miter cut, amputating the damage completely, such that the underside of the horn cutaway is longer than the upper side. This utilizes as much of the remaining wood on top as much as possible where the repair will be most apparent. Other times, the damage won't exist across the full depth of the horn, like the Harvey Peace handle I'm working on here. What I'm doing is creating a notch—a 90-degree angle for the repair piece to fit into. I make a cut across the grain with my crosscut saw, and make the notch with my dovetail (or small tenon) saw, by sawing with the grain to the crosscut kerf. Do this whenever possible, because two glue-up surface are stronger than one. Clean the Cut with a Chisel
Once you've made the cut or cuts to remove the damaged wood, you'll now want to pare it smooth with a chisel (for notched cuts), or a block plane (if making a through cut. Notched cuts require a 90-degree angle, and so some tweaking here is in order prior to gluing up the repair wood.
Cut the Repair Piece to Fit Now rip-cut your repair piece of wood lengthwise to appropriate height with a shallow mitre appropriate to the grain flow of the handle. Much of the time, you'll want to use apple, but cherry is a good choice too. You'll wind up staining it to the look of the handle later on anyway. The main thing is to predicate your cut(s) to match the grain flow on the handle. You don't want to glue on a piece of wood with grain that zig-zags from the original wood. Here's a shill for my Bad Axe Bench Hook set. This is a very useful accessory while you’re making these cuts. Lee Valley’s wonder dog, bench pup, and bench clamp are other great accessories to free up your hands while you work. Check the Grain Test-fit the repair piece to the handle. Don't worry about cutting it to length yet—it's easier to clamp with a longer piece of wood. Also, make sure the repair piece is about a 1/16" taller and wider than the handle wood, so that you can shape the contour, height and width to size in the pics that follow.
Again—you're miter-cutting the replacement wood to match the grain direction of the handle. Don't attempt to shape or cut the repair wood yet. Use an over-sized chunk. The repair piece should be thicker and longer than what is required. You’ll cut and shape it to size later. Invest in some Rubber Bands Here's the fun part: use a couple of rubber bands to clamp the repair piece into position. Rubber bands let you clamp the repair piece into position flush with the notch or miter cut, and they work great for clamping asymmetrical pieces together. Don't glue it up yet, so you can get the pieces lined up correctly. Note the piece of bracing wood to achieve the direction of pull I want. Glue-up Now clamp your handle in a vise, gently lift the repair piece, and apply the glue, making sure you get both surfaces. I like using the gap-filler cyanoacrylate glues available from Lee Valley. Wear gloves and like Mr. Bill, don’t inhale—this stuff is potent. Wipe off excess glue with a paper towel, and clamp the handle in an orientation where any gaps to fill will pool the glue in place for a stronger seam. Let dry overnight.
Repairing a Crack If you're feeling cocky by now, you can also attempt to repair other damage, like the through-crack I'm gluing up just above the lower horn. In this shot, I'm wedging open the crack with a screwdriver, while applying the glue. It's smarter to wait until the other repair is dry first, but I was feeling pretty full of myself the day I worked on this handle. Wedge apart the crack with a thin-bladed screwdriver or an exacto knife, and shoot the glue into the crack using a wood glue syringe. If you don’t have a syringe, use a razor blade or the tip of a knife to 'push' the bead of glue into the crack, and gravity will take its course. Use two clamps to squeeze the crack closed along the vertical and horizontal planes. If you have a major crack in the handle, I’ve found it useful to insert two opposing and tapered pieces of wood inside the grip to spread the crack. If you wind up completely breaking the handle, don’t flip out. Just glue the pieces together and clamp. Cleaning the Brass The next couple of shots show how I clean up the medallion sawbolt and sawnuts using a brass wire wheel on my Dremel. This is a matter of personal taste. Some people like shiny, others don't. When working on a vintage saw, I clean out the gunk with the Dremel without overdoing it, leaving some patina to
match the appearance of the saw handle itself. In situations where I have to completely strip the handle, I'll make the brass shiny at that point. Regardless, exercise care not to grind down the embossed artwork and lettering within the medallion. Be the Dentist... Dental tools aren't just for probing root canals and cleaning your M16; they work great to pick out decades of gunked-up skin cells and oil inside slotted sawnuts. I've often found that if you clean out the slot, you'll be less apt to distort the brass when removing or tightening the fasteners with your screwdriver. On that note, file or grind the flathead screwdriver you use to achieve a thinner tip so it can fit all the way inside the sawnut slot—antique sawnuts often require a thin blade to fit. Polishing the Brass Here's where purists will take umbrage with me—actually polishing the medallion sawbolt/nut. If you like shiny, you can chuck the medallion sawnut in your cordless drill and bring the polishing cloth to the spinning medallion. If you want to retain a clean patina appropriate to the salvageability of the original finish, a gentle buffing will suffice, such as I'm doing here.
Part Two of handle restoration covers shaping the repair to the correct
length, width and contour, and how to finish the repair. Draw the Horn
Once you've let the glue-up cure overnight, draw the contour of your new horn onto the repair piece. If you have a matching handle with intact horns, use it to trace the outline on the repair wood. Not a mission-stopper if you don’t. Web sites like www.disstonianinstitute.com have many pictures of vintage Disstons to go by.
Cut the New Horn to Length
Here's a step that's easy to goof up: while cutting your hon to length, don't cut to the line; leave yourself an eighth of an inch so you can creep up to the line while shaping the horn in the following steps. Break Out Your Rasps Time to shape the radius, length and width of the repair piece with your favorite rasp.
Shilling for Joel at Gramercy Tools Now shape the contours of the repair piece with a saw handle rasp. Tools for Working Wood sells their Gramercy Tools' saw handle rasp for this step of the procedure, and it’s a pretty handy tool to have in your arsenal. If you don't own a saw handle rasp, use a Dremel equipped with a sanding drum. After roughing out the shape with a rasp, I like using my 10.8 Lithium battery cordless Dremel with a sanding drum to further refine the repair piece to shape and appropriate contour. Strongly recommend safety glasses with the bifocal lenses and a dust mask while doing this, not only for safety reasons, but so you can get close in and see in minute detail what you’re doing. Scrape the Glueline Flush It's important to make the transition from vintage wood to replacement wood smooth and even, with no ridges or bumps. Recommend you put a fresh burr on your scraper at this stage to make a good transition.
Buff the Repair Smooth
Starting with the coarse and graduating to the fine Dremel buffing wheels, smooth out both vintage and new wood. This softens the edges and helps you achieve a smooth transition between the two pieces, and prepares it for your final buffing with Scotchbrite pads prior to staining and wood treatment. You might find yourself alternating between the Dremel, your scraper, and some fine sandpaper at this point to attain a consistent transition between both pieces. Be careful with the Dremel so you don't wind up sanding a ridge or hollow in the wood. Pop the grain with fine and polish-grade Scotchbrite pads.
Evaluate for Fit and Proportion
Time to walk away and throw a beer down your neck. When you come back, check out your work. Look at it objectively, and make sure it feels right in your hand. Hold it at arm's length and see if it has the kind of shape that resonates with the rest of the handle. Buff the Rest of the Handle Now that you've repaired the horn, it's time to buff out the rest of the handle. If the original finish/lacquer on the handle isn't worth saving, strip it down to raw wood. Often, however, you can save the original
finish by gently buffing the handle and judiciously scraping off grime and paint splatters with your scraper. The intent here is to even out the remaining color on the handle in preparation to stain the raw wood marks from the repair work. Stain the Raw Wood Stain the handle's raw wood with the procedure of your choice. I generally use a touchup marking pen in Red Oak, which usually attains the color of vintage finishes with repeated coats.
Treat the Wood
Buff the entire handle with 0000 steel wool (or ScotchBrite equivalent), treat the wood with the product of your choice, such as Murphy's Oil Soap. I like using a wood treatment called Kramer’s Antique Improver, which cleans and preserves antique woods without stripping the original finish. I’ve also found that it assists the final blending of the two pieces to mitigate the ready appearance of a repair. You're done when you're happy.
Drum Roll... So here's the end state: the handle's upper horn has been repaired, and with repeated coats of stain the repair should blend over time with the rest of the handle. The through-crack above the lower horn is now secure. Though it is obvious that the handle has been repaired, it is now a far stronger handle and with care, the saw will see another century of use with a comfortable feel in the hand and a renewed ability to saw with confidence. This above all: have faith in what you’re doing. Repairing a saw handle is not rocket science, but seems a little intimidating the first time you do it. Don’t sweat this. The worst that can happen is that you cut away the repair piece and start over.
Henry Disston posted a motto throughout his Philadelphia plant stipulating—'Quality Sells.' Likewise, the NCOs bringing me up in Special Forces when I was a young Captain use to drill into my head that 'excellence is not an option with anything you do. Do it right, do it on time, and do it better than anyone else.' This is the philosophy I bring to the table with the Bad Axe products I offer to you.
That's me in the middle with my crew in Afghanistan in 2007, where we ran
a special training program for the Afghan National Army. It was a great assignment, fantastic bunch of guys to work with, and a meaningful deployment. After 28 years of bouncing around the planet with the U.S. Army, I retired and am now living in Southwest Wisconsin, where I once ran the ROTC department for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Restoring vintage hand tools and working on my environmental home in Bad Axe feed my passion and underscore my philosophy that the progressive Luddite does not have to reject the new to embrace the old.
— Mark Harrell