Over recent years I have sharpened hundreds of saws by every manufacturer imaginable ranging from their early and later models so I suspect this really does give me an insight most woodworkers will not have gained even if they do have sharpening skills. Those who possess this skill should be commended to the dedication to their craft, they know full well the benefits adapting the geometry of the tooth to suit specific wood types and the benefit it brings with acute concentration levels. I implore those new to woodworking to consider learning this skill, its not easy to master but it is unbelievably satisfying once the skill is in your locker opening the door to the pleasure of using good quality saws.
I’m very much in the camp that a tool should be fit for purpose and a saw should be sharp and straight to have any real value.
Let’s start with modern saws (1970’s onward), Plastic handled disposable types not included as rubbish doesn’t need discussion other than how bad it is for the environment, millions of tons of this disposable junk must have been made to date, this waste is a travesty. Waste is an extremely bad habit and every good workshop has a good collection of odds and ends that always come in handy.
Let’s talk about the saws that can be sharpened, later saws require the least effort to sharpen and set because the saw plates possess softer spring steel from the earlier saws. Whilst this may sound great it has an impact on the frequency they need sharpening and many saws we get in from this era rarely have teeth missing but instead have been used to such an extent they usually wouldn’t be able to cut cheese. I guess if you regularly work with softwoods this won’t be such an issue but those who intend to work with hardwoods really do need quality tools.
Spear and Jackson are probably the most common used saws found but manufacturers such as Roberts & Lee, Thomas Flinn, Lie Nielson are a better quality saws from this period. Post War to the late 60’s saws was a good period for saw makers and there were many gimmicks and elements to try and separate makers, but as a whole each manufacturer had to cut the mustard where quality was paramount. The use of power tools was usually restricted to larger workshops and much was still cut by hand, the hand saw and its maintenance was a essential and woodworkers soon realised their qualities. The period 1900-1940 production of saws can still be found but condition and wear usually render many unusable or they requiring excessive restoration. Crystallisation of the spring steel can become a bigger factor and not every restoration is not going to be successful. 19th century saws again throw up some real user gems but these are generally sold to tool collectors who look for makers are becoming scarce to find. Often where users and collectors collide is because a valuable Antique saw may not always possess the spring steel qualities a user expects so always ask the question if it is suitable for use.
There were pure saw makers and through generations of development and passing of skills these makers always stood out with their quality. Producing the perfect saw plate that was flexible but also tough enough to hold an edge requires supreme skill and know how. Whilst there were plenty of good saw makers such as R. Groves & Earlier Spear and Jackson, Tyzack, Thomas Turner, I would say two makers stand out for me that being Drabble & Sanderson (English) and Henry Disston (Philadelphia USA). My favourite saws I’ve found to date were by Buck & Co (1840’s) and another by Spear (1820’s) both little dovetail saws so it’s always good to keep an open mind when buying old saws.
Spear & Jackson are a good example to use as they produced good quality saws in the past making them a household name to trust, but like Stanley there was a continuous decline in standards. Their No: 88 saw has morphed over time and is a poor reflection of the earlier models. The same could be said with Disston who lost its good reputation after moving its operation to Canada but given how many earlier Canadian Disston’s I’ve sharpened I’d say its less likely to be the steel that was an issue but more a case the handles were less comfortable. Disston’s later saws also declined in quality but having said that the competition’s quality was also declining at the same time, they were probably the best of a poor bunch at the end.
Whilst many woodworkers will recommend their favourite makers it’s easy for those being influenced to become railroaded with their search for the perfect saw. I think the most important factor is to identify the period of production but until its proven to sharpen and has been set then caution should always be applied.
For this reason we always sharpen and set our saws and every saw is priced in accordance to its quality, life on the saw plate and condition.