Hand Saw Basics
This is intended more as a primer for the novice hand saw fan - but hopefully there is something in here for the more experienced sawyers out there as well. I will try to cover as much as I know about them, but remember that I am only conveying my own knowledge and experience, which may differ from others on some matters, and surely is not complete. Much of this stuff may seem like common knowledge to many, but it still doesn't hurt to cover the basics.
One thing I should also mention - I won't be going over frame or bow saws, that's another subject entirely, at least to me. Same thing with Japanese saws. The subject would be too broad to be inclusive of those types of saws in a small article such as this, and as I am less experienced with them, I have less to offer the reader on using them.
Why This Article?
Since I started keeping a web site and documenting my adventures with hand tools, I've been asked a lot of questions about them, and hand saws in particular. I've decided to give documenting some of those basics that I know about hand saws into this article, to see if that can answer some of the more common questions I get.
Why Use Older or Make Your Own Saws?
Older saws - and I'm talking pre-WWII saws for the most part - were made in a time when the hand saw was king. The golden age of handsaws was from around 1860 to 1940, and it's end came around the time that electrically powered saws became affordable. Hand saws fell out of favor, and economics forced severe cutbacks in quality. First to fall victim was the handle - gone was the wonderfully shaped applewood handle that fits your hand like a glove, replaced with clubby beech handles. While beech is still a fine wood for handles, the manufacturer's no longer had the resources to pay much attention to how the handle was shaped.
The saw on the right is 100 years old, the one in the middle is about 50 (circa WWII), and a hand made handle for a backsaw is on the top. The one in the middle is made of beech. You can start to see the shape of the handle losing some of it's grace... Some don't consider these saws worth their time, but I think they are OK - the steel in them is pretty good. They aren't as comfortable as the older ones, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as the clubs that have been put out in the last 30 years. There are too many of those to waste even a lowly WWII era saw. Not that they are incredibly valuable now, but someday, they will be. Trust me on that... I won't cut up one that has a handle like any of these, unless the blade itself is badly damaged or rusted beyond repair.
I'm not sure of the exact date that saws went to pot - but I believe that sometime in the mid-50's to early sixties saw the last of any hand saw worth it's salt. The quality of the steel used remains pretty good, even to this day for most saws (except those with specially hardened teeth), but the care taken to make it the best possible saw steel is now missing.
Note the "patina" of the blade of the one on the right - it doesn't have to be shiny, just smooth, and free of rust. Discoloration is not a defect, and doesn't affect performance - I won't be "restoring" that particular saw any more than it already is. There's no need to make them look brand new, which would probably lower their value anyway, if that's what you're concerned with.
If the saw has true brass hardware, it's usually a sign of quality... Later saws, including the WWII one in my picture above use steel hardware.
Why did the quality decline? They simply weren't in demand anymore, and shaping the handle is a laborious task... it's why you still don't see it today. The computer driven machines made today still can't compete with the quality handle one can achieve with a simple hand rasp, at least IMO. Which leads me to the "why make your own" section of this treatise... There are still several older saws available for purchase, but as time goes by, these will become fewer and more expensive.
Making your own saws affords you several options that purchasing antiques doesn't. First, you learn a great deal about saws. Also, you're not scared you'll be the one to screw up a tool that lasted 100 or more years before you got a hold of it. It also allows you to custom make the saw to your own specifications. It's this third point I consider the most important of all of them.. I hate re-toothing an old classic Disston - it shortens the expected life of a classic tool.