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Handles

Well - what's the sense of going though building your own back saw, if you don't spend some time looking for the best possible handle you can get?  I could have made one up myself, but what makes a good handle was as true 150 years ago as it is today.  Saw making as an art was at its peak between 1850 and 1920, and there were hundreds of makers with many, many different handles, so I undertook a bit of a search to find one I thought was just right.

Choosing a Pattern

The first pattern I looked at was on disstonianinstitute.com's web site - an open handled saw made by Disston.  I liked the basic lines of it, but I've handled older saws that are a bit more comfortable than Disston's.  The main feature about the saws I found more comfortable was a small "hump" in the middle of the handle where it fits into the palm of your hand.

I found a handle of a saw made by J. Buck around 1900 or so on Bob Brode's web site that I thought would be perfect.  To properly size a handle, the best way is to make a test blank to see for sure it it's the right size.  Using Photoshop, I resized the photo for about 5 different sizes, then I chose 3 that covered the gamut of sizes and band sawed out 3 blanks to try for size.  The one I ended up choosing was smaller than I imagined, but fit my hand quite nicely.  It's only around 5% larger than the handles of the Disston saws I have, which surprised me - I thought it would need to be much larger.  It seems it only requires the smallest change in size to make huge differences in how a handle feels.

With that mockup in hand - I grabbed a blade for a saw (before it had a back on it), cut a slot in it to hold the blade and tried it to see if I liked the angle of the handle in relation to the blade.  I'm glad I did, because it was much too severe.  It's been mentioned that if you point with your index finger while holding a saw, it should point directly at the middle of the saw.  This makes sense, as the handle should be holding the saw basically at a right angle to the work.  

I checked the Disston pattern, and it was not severe enough - at least to me.  So, I went back to the Buck pattern I had, and in Photoshop, changed the angle so it was roughly half way in between the Buck pattern and the Disston pattern.  Here is what I came up with:

It retains the handle of the Buck saw that I likes, yet the angle is more appropriate to my needs.  If you wish to use the same pattern, the one above should suffice - right click on it and select "save image as" and save the image to your computer somewhere, and print it off with a graphics program such as Paint or Photoshop.  If you print it directly from your browser, it may not come out at the proper size, which is 7.319" x 4.806", or 527 x 346 pixels at 72 dpi.

Added 10/6:  I've since had the opportunity to let others use some of these saws... most seem to agree that the handle is a bit too big.  If you reduce the graphic above about 5% (or make it 500 x 328 pixels at 72 dpi - or 6.94" x 4.56") it will make it about the same size as the handle is was originally patterned after.  My hands are large by comparison to most others, which is the reason the larger size feels comfortable to me.
Here's the smaller version:
 
Also - the swoop of the handle at the bottom back can be "shortened" (for a lack of a better term) - this has the same basic effect.  My best advice is to try it with a couple scraps first.  Remember, a rough sawn blank like the one in the photo below should feel just a bit small and constricting in your hand.  Rounding over the edges has the effect of making them feel a bit bigger, too.
It was off to the bandsaw with me to cut the pattern.  I left the portion that attaches at the blade for later, so I could make sure that I had enough wood there for the screws that attach the blade to the handle, and so I would have some extra wood to cut off after mortising out the slot for the blade:

The grain of the wood in the handle needs to be oriented to there is a straight run of grain through the thinnest part of the handle, like you see in the photo above.

Mortising the Handle for the Blade

After band sawing out the blank, the next step is to mortise the handle to accept the blade.  First, using a marking gauge, I mark the center of the handle where the blade will be - all the way around.  I'll also be using it later to help guide my saw cut for the blade - bur first comes the mortise for the back.  

I use a wood clamp to hold the handle steady and perpendicular to the drill press.  A brad point bit that is a size smaller than the thickness of the back is used to drill holes to a prescribed depth - I hold the intended saw blade up to the handle to mark it's depth, then use the depth stop on the drill press so the holes are all uniformly deep:

After drilling the holes, it's over to the vise where I used a combination of different sized chisels to pare out the remainder of the slot:

I don't pare it completely to finished depth yet - it will be better if I can use the intended blade in the slot to get it to individually fit the blade into it's intended home.  To do that, I need to cut the remainder of the slot for the blade. 

An important note:  the width of the saw you choose to cut this slot is important.  I have 5 backsaws, and only this one was thin enough to cut the slot so it wasn't a sloppy fit.  This would be more of an issue if I was using thinner blade stock than I was...  Remember, it's also not the thickness of the blade you're using - it's the thickness of the kerf it cuts.  Test it on some scrap first.

The photo above shows the depth of cut I made.  You can use the intended blade as a guide, drawing it's profile on the side of the handle blank at its desired location, and sawing to the depth it indicates.

After that cut is made, I can start fitting the blade into the handle:

As I insert the blade into the handle, it begins to bind against the sides of the mortise, so I pull it out and pare more wood away until it slides in snugly.  You can see in the mortise where the blade is binding on the wood, as it will be compressed slightly, and a bit darker.  Be careful and don't force the blade into it's slot, as the way the grain of the wood works in this area it makes it easy to break off the corner, making the handle a complete waste.  If I needed to make the slot for the blade wider, I simply used folded up sandpaper.