Recycling an Old Hand Saw

COMMENT ADDED 7-08-04 - This was an incredibly fun project to do - I would highly encourage any fan of old saws to tackle making some of their own!  It was so much fun, I've gone and bought myself a whole gaggle of old saws that I can mine for steel and saw nuts....
Note: Notes formatted in this fashion were made later. in hindsight when I had a chance to reflect back on what had gone right or wrong.  I thought it would serve both myself and anyone else reading this better to learn from my mistakes and comment on them, than just to pass over them.  This seems like the easiest way to accomplish that.

I seem to be on a hand saw kick as of late...  I've done a piece on restoring an old hand saw to useable again, so I guess its only fitting that I do something on what you do with saws that are too far gone or otherwise seemingly worthless.  It is such a waste to throw a handsaw away because its getting too narrow, or the handle is uncomfortable, missing or broken, or you have too many (is that possible?) and just want to get rid of some of the lesser saws you have.

The original saw

This is an unremarkable "Warranted Superior" saw I've had in my possession for some time, and never used much:

It's too narrow along its entire length for my tastes, the handle is uncomfortable - it has no redeeming qualities in my mind, past having some good steel.  I thought once (briefly) that I might restore it, but there isn't really enough blade left to bother, and you have to consider that it never was any sort of valuable saw, nor will it ever be.  Before you go throwing something like this away, consider the possibilities...  old hand saws make great scrapers, and you can shape them however you like.  The blade can also be cut up into scratch stock.  I'm planning both of these for another old saw I own that has steel too hard for itself - I break more teeth on it every time I try set it (some teeth are hard, some bend too easy - very poor steel for a saw), so it never will make a good saw, but will make for good scraper and scratch stock material.  This one has good steel for saws, so I will convert it into smaller saws.

What to make, and where to get the pattern?

Compass and keyhole saws are narrow bladed saws used for cutting radiuses, and are an excellent choice for this project. I will be making 2 compass/keyhole saws, a larger and a smaller version.  That will still leave me about 7 inches of blade from the donor saw.  On the carving details I did for our kitchen, I had to use a router for the stopped grooves where I inlet some contrasting pieces of wood.  A hand plane doesn't work too well for a stopped groove - where an old fashioned saw called a "stair" saw would work excellently.  Many wood stairs are built by inletting the step and riser into dadoes/grooves in a board stringer that is mounted directly to the wall, with none of the 2x12 stepped stringers that are so common today.  Before the days of the router, a craftsman used a stair saw to accomplish these cuts.  

The blade of a stair saw is also adjustable for depth simply by loosening the saw nuts and moving the blade within the body of the saw (you can use the body of saw as a depth stop), allowing for sawing to a consistent depth.  The blades, therefore, require each bolt hole be slotted to allow for this adjustment.

But where to find the pattern?  All you really need is a photo shot straight on. There are several outlets available on the web.  EBay is always a good source for photos, and you can look at,, and often there are craftsman that might post their work on the web too.  Here's what I found for this project:

These are the three patterns I started with.  The bottom is a photo of a Disston stair saw with a 6" blade courtesy of (I hope they don't mind me borrowing it for this - they have an excellent site that is a must see for every hand saw enthusiast), and the top photos are from saws sold on eBay. I'm not sure of the maker of the top right saw, but I believe it to be either E.C. Atkins or Disston.  There were many, many saw makers during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth to select from.  The top left is a classic design (french?) of a stair saw with a 5" blade, probably made by the original user...  kind of like what I'm doing.  The swoop of the handle is common among coach maker's planes, too, so it may have its roots there.  

Another option for patterns is to freehand them - but with so many beautiful saws out there already, with so much experience behind them, I thought this time I would just use existing saws as patterns.  On the next saw handle I do, while I do plan on using an existing handle as a pattern, I plan on embellishing it, and exaggerating some of its features.  But that's for another project.  The only embellishing these saws will get is from some chip carving I'll to add to them.

I didn't find the pattern for the fourth saw until later:

This image is also off of eBay.  Why didn't I find it with the others, before I started?  To be truthful, I wasn't sure of the size of the saw blade I would have left over from the first one.  I waited until I knew, then went off in search of a handle to fit the size blade I had remaining.  This last one was by a saw maker from the mid 1800's some time that I hadn't heard of before, and of course I didn't save the information.  So if there is any tip here, it's to save the info - it would have been an interesting tidbit of info to keep with the saw.  

I found where I got the image - here is the text that came with it:  "An early Albany, N.Y. saw maker. William B. Gregory worked circa 1850-1857. His factory was called the "Albany Saw Manufactory". Beech handle with split saw nuts. Original blade is generally bright stamped "Wm. B. Gregory & Co., Albany, Cast Steel, Warranted" (see photo). Part of mark is weak, but this is the same mark as reported in the "Directory of American Toolmakers"."

Preparing the Blank

Once I decided on the patterns I wanted to use, I needed to enlarge them up to an appropriate size.  There are several ways - if you own the original, you can just copy it directly, of course, but I didn't.  For the stair saws, I knew the length of the blade used, so I used AutoCAD to enlarge the photo till the blade was the proper length.  You could do also just do it by trial and error with any image program (or even a copier for that matter), just scaling the picture and printing it  until you end up with the right size.  That's what I ended up doing with the compass saws, holding the pattern over a saw I owned and looking against a light to see if the size was right.

Using a piece of carbon copy paper, I taped the final pattern along one edge to the wood, then I transfer the pattern using a slightly dulled pencil:

I used beech - cherry is a good substitute for handle material, as is walnut (though neither are quite as strong as beech, they should still be plenty strong).  You'll want to avoid soft woods, or woods that are very open grained such as oak, as the open graining is uncomfortable on the hands after a time using them. The best saws from before WWII used apple wood, and beech became the standard sometime between the 1930's and 1950's, probably because of cost.  You'll notice that the apple wood handled saws are more comfortable in general - it's not because of the wood, its because the manufacturer was more worried about quality, and more time was spent shaping the handle for a more comfortable fit.  With the advent of electrically powered saws, the fine shape of the earlier saws fell to the inevitable onslaught of mass production and economy as hand saws fell out of favor as the preferred tool for cutting wood.

I chose as stable a piece of wood as I could, avoiding the ends of the board that shows cracks or checks.  It would seem to go against convention, but for handles, I prefer flat sawn to quarter sawn wood - having the grain running that way will lessen the chances a break will occur in the saw's weakest point.  In the stair saw shown above, the weak point of the handle is the area directly ahead of the handle, but before the body of the saw.  

It's then a trip to the bandsaw to cut out the blanks:

There are some fairly tight curves to cut out, so I used a 3/16" blade.  If there isn't a bandsaw available, a frame or bow saw, or even a fret saw can do the job just as well.

Cutting the Slot for the Blade

It's pretty darn important that the blade slots be cut straight so the blade doesn't mount in the saw cockeyed, so using a marking gauge to make a guide for the saw cut is prudent here.  Afterwards, I trace the line left by the gauge with a pencil to make it easier to see.  You don't want to mark past where you are cutting because it will force you to remove that mark it leaves later.

To make the cut, I use one of my favorite back saws - an old 'Warranted Superior' I've owned for years.  It's been with me since before the dozuki years (and now I've returned to the western style as my preferred method), and had suffered silently from extreme dullness until I finally decided to get a magnifying lamp that allowed me to see what I was sharpening.  But I digress... as I am using a panel saw as the source for the blade, I needed something that wouldn't leave too large of a kerf (which might leave the blade too loose in the handle) when I cut it.  A backsaw blade is slightly thinner than a panel saw, so with the set of the teeth (which on this saw is fairly minimal) it ends up just a hair narrower than the thickness of the intended blade.  You want to use a saw that tracks straight - adjusting for an off tracking saw in such a long cut is seemingly next to impossible.

Here I am sawing the slot for one of the stair saws.  So what's wrong with the above picture?  Take a look at where the handle of the blank is.  I cut much deeper, and I risk cutting into the handle.  Watch out when cutting the other way that you don't bash into the handle with the end of the blade, either.  For the stair saws, the depth of the completed cut was like 1-1/4" or so - the actual depth isn't all that important, but there's no need to make it too deep, as you wouldn't want to compromise the structure of the handle body any more than needed.

Cutting and Mounting the Blade

Cutting the Blades from the Original

One might think the big trick to this whole thing is cutting the old saw up, but it really isn't.  There is no big trick to any of this project - but one does need the right tools, though really not that many.  A hacksaw would probably work, but its much, much easier if you use a couple simple power tools.  Here's what I used:

I already owned a couple skil saws, of course, so the only added cost is the blade for the saw (about $5.00).  I also purchased the pneumatic cut-off tool from Harbor Freight on sale for about $10.00, so the final cost of both tools wasn't much to worry about.   The skilsaw worked better for the longer cuts because my air compressor isn't enough to keep up with the cut-off tool for very long - but because of its size the cut-off tool was much handier for the shorter cuts, such as the slots in the blades for the stair saws.    I used a little layout dye to make seeing the mark I wanted to cut easier:

The cut needs to start straight, as its hard to straighten it out as you go along (and impossible to do well) .  Where there was just a little bit to do, I brought the blade over to the grinder to remove some of the material.

If you use a grinder, be careful not to "blue" the steel by letting it get too hot - the steel will lose its temper, and not be able to hold an edge well.  Use quick passes, and have a bucket of water handy to cool the steel when it starts getting too warm..
After cutting, I thought it a good idea to go in with a large file and smooth the edges so I wouldn't cut myself, and so the blades would fit where they were supposed to go better.  It also was needed to straighten the edges of the new blades.

Here are the finished blades, before I add teeth (note the slots cut into the stair saw blades that allows them to be adjustable for height):

Because I was going to handle them quite a bit, I waited to add teeth to the blades until the very last, so I will here, too (why risk cutting myself on freshly sharpened teeth?  I do it enough already!).  I wanted them to be at their final shape so I could mount them in their respective handle before going too far, though.  On one, the largest, I kept the teeth from the previous saw so I wouldn't have to cut the teeth for it again.  If they are sharp, one should consider using a pair of leather gloves while handling it in later parts if attempting a similar project.

When you have the blade to its final shape, fit it into the saw cut you made earlier.  It was very tight for me, so I fashioned one of the left over scraps of saw blade into a makeshift scraper:

Just the right width, it worked great for getting the width of the saw cut just right for the new saw blade.  Use a burnisher to draw an edge like a regular scraper if needed.

Mounting the Blade in the Handle

First thing needed for mounting the saw in the handle is a pair of screws.  There are 2 sources for these screws - used ones recovered from old saws (of which there should be some left from the saw being cut up) and new ones.  The old ones are often nicer, and brass - but I'd rather keep mine for replacing missing ones in old saws.  New ones are getting scarce, but are still available.  I found these through (item #20066 replace saw handle screws) for something like $7.50 for 10 sets.  One might check with Lie-Nielsen or Adria tools to see what they have available.  Here's a shot (taken at a later stage) of the saw screws:

Sorry for the focus of the picture, I suck at close-ups.  
It's been brought to my attention that I've missed a step here, and that is to countersink for the nut and bolt heads.  It's too late on these, but if you want to countersink the bolt heads, it would be the first step.  Drill about a 1/16" hole so you can place the countersink on each side, then with a forstner bit that matches the  diameter of the head of the screw, and drill a shallow countersink for each screw head. Then proceed as follows.
Anyway - the holes that are drilled for the screws must be precise - or the blade will feel loose in the saw.  There are three things to look at here, and to account for when drilling the holes.  First, The screw is what determines the size of the first hole to be drilled, this one was 7/32".  Mount the blade into the saw as it will be when its finished, and using a drill press, drill through the entire assembly.  
Second - the nut (on the right in the above photo) has a larger diameter (this one used a 5/16" bit).  The nut should go on the "back" of the saw... so I flip the saw so the "back" is up in the drill press.  It doesn't reach the blade, so I set the stop on the drill press so I didn't cut into the blade, and enlarged the holes that were just drilled to accept the nuts.

Third - at the top of the screw, there is a squared off portion (the screw is on the left in the picture above, and in the inset just for a better view of this).  This is to prevent the screw from turning when tightening.  Don't try to force this portion into the hole, use a small chisel (I used a 1/8" chisel) to square up the hole on the "front" of the saw to accept this.  Failure to do so may result in splitting the wood.  I know this from experience - I had to re-make the smaller stair saw.  Impatience has its virtues, though - mostly in acquiring more practice.  I am very practiced, if that is the case.

When finished with drilling the holes, I removed the blades and file the rough edge left by the drill in the saw blades so they could be slid into place more easily.  For the stair saws, I then cut the slots from the top, so the saw could be adjustable.  The cut-off tool mentioned above was invaluable for this step.  Then a final test fit, with the saw screws in place and tightened, and I was ready for the next step.

Shaping the Handles

Some might use a router to do this work, others might want to use a drawknife or spoke shave, but I find the most useful and quickest tools to be old fashioned rasps and files.  My set of handle-shaping tools are shown below, from the roughest at the top, to the smoothest at the bottom: 

They are all rounded on one side for concave curves, and flat on the opposite.  I find it best to mount the handle in a machinists vise, which is more solid and helps to reduce the vibrations caused by the files and rasps.  I mount and remount the handle being carved in whatever way works best for the cut being made.

This part is tough to explain, but easy to do, so bear with me, I won't spend too much time on it.  I start by roughing out with a rasp, being careful that the teeth don't cut too deep - into what will be the finished face of the handle - the rasps are just for the grunt work of removing the majority of the material.  It helps sometimes to draw a line that demarks the end of the curved portion, and use it as a guide...  A few times doing it, though, and a well placed light works best.  I like the light from an open door that faces north the best:

Care is needed when using rasps that you don't break a big chunk off of the edge, especially at the ends of the horns of the handle. I always try to work with the grain to lower this risk.   Files work in much the same manner, but are used for final shaping of the handle.  Its surprising to me how few woodworkers use files in their work - they aren't just for metal.  I start with the coarsest file, and work to the finest, just as with sandpaper - and just like sandpaper, each "grit" will remove the coarser scratches left from the previous grit..  

If you ever have trouble seeing the final shape come out in your work, one thing I think helps when making pieces like handles out of wood is to stop thinking of the wood as a material to be machined.  Rather, think of it as a medium - like a sculptor's clay, or an artist's canvas.  To paraphrase Michelangelo (not that I'm trying to compare myself to him in the least), "the handle was always in the wood... I just remove the wood that isn't a part of it".

I try to concentrate on shaping one section at a time, till I get it just right, then move on to the next section.  Here, you can see by the weeds in the doorway that the Weed-B-Gon hasn't been used yet, I'm too busy making saws:

At least that's all I see when I look at that shot.  Once the shape is roughed out, I take 100 grit sandpaper to the handles to smooth out the rough edges.  For inside curves, it can help to wrap the sandpaper around a dowel.  Sanding is a tedious, time consuming part of projects like this, but a sloppy job is the first thing noticed, so I try (OK, not always hard enough) to do a good, thorough job.  Final sanding comes later, after a bit of chip carving.  And don't forget the weed killer!

Adding Some Detail - Chip Carving

Here's what I have after the primary shaping of the handle is completed.  It's pretty bland, and would make for a very boring tool, though it is quite useable without any adornment.  I wanted to dress it up, though, and the standard for dressing up saw handles in the past was the addition of some chip carving that vaguely resembles a stalk of wheat - which is a fairly simple application of chip carving and one that can greatly enhance the appearance of these handles.  Besides, I needed one more operation that gave me another chance to screw something up!

These carvings are accomplished with a chip carving knife such as the one shown in the photo below, which was made by my father for me a couple years ago.  After the "stalk" is carved out, the "leaves" are added using 2 cuts (sometimes more, but that's because I was doing it wrong) with the knife.  You must have a good knife, and it must be *sharp*!!!  You will only get poor results from a dull blade.  It must cleanly slice through the wood - you will feel it when it starts to dull.  I sharpened this knife fully twice during this episode, and honed it several times between those times.

There are 3 ways to mark out the carvings.  The first, as shown drawn on the handle portion in the top photo, is to draw the intended carving out completely, including the full size of the intended "leaves".  Then, it's simply a matter of following the lines with the knife, and this method, while by far the most time consuming, produced the most consistent results.  The template for the larger compass saw above had carvings on the handle, and I used carbon paper to trace them onto my handle.  This was the only place in all four saws built for this project where that was the case, however.

The second method is to simply draw a set of lines... the first line representing the stalk, then a series of angled lines emanating from the stalk to a pre-set distance from the stalk, at the same angle as the leaves.  This method works faster, as you don't have to fuss about with the exact shape of the "leaves".  It does require a bit more confidence with the knife, though.

The third method, by far both the fastest and the trickiest to do right, is to freehand it.  I tried this on 2 of the saws, but I can't recommend this method until after several practicing sessions.  For sake of clarity, I will discuss only the second method, as I think it was the best of the three in terms of both speed and consistency.

Before I put the knife to the handles, I took the cut-offs from the handles and practiced making these carvings till I got a blister on the inside of my palm.  Only when I felt confident enough with my skills did I go to the finished piece.  Clamp the piece you are working on to the bench - you cannot do a good job if the piece isn't well clamped down.

When I feel up to attempting the real thing, the first action is to draw out the line that represents the stalk with a pencil, then carve that line out with the knife, using 2 cuts - a left and a right so the stalk forms a "V" shape: 

It's not as hard as it sounds to do, with a bit of practice.  In the second cut, the knife naturally wants to follow the groove made by the first cut (with some care, of course).  Next is to draw out the lines that represent the leaves.  They can be either directly across from each other, or alternating.  Then, start the first of two cuts, slightly tilting the blade (to the right, in my case):

The next cut will complete a single leaf, starting at the top (the part of the leaf away from you) and pulling the blade to you in a slightly 'rounded' fashion.  You'll know you've done it right if a small chip lifts out of the cut when you end your sweep:

You can clean up the cut, if necessary, by further careful cutting with the knife.  Then, it's just a matter of repetition, one cut following the next, until finished.  While practicing, try different lengths, widths, shapes, and spacing to see which suits you best, and which looks best.  The only way to improve carving skills is practice.  But this isn't like practice, really - it's much too fun.  When the chip carving is completed, I final sand the handles with 150 grit sandpaper.

Adding a Finish and Some Teeth

Putting a Finish On

Here's what I've got so far, after a single coat of boiled linseed oil (BLO):

My chip carving skills are still a bit crude, but I think these are passable.  This project is great practice for those skills, indeed. 

At this stage, it's time to start applying a finish.  My favorite finish for tool handles is BLO, but I think I'll take these a step further - I'll put two coats of BLO on, let it dry for a week or two, then for that old fashioned look, I've got some dark amber shellac flakes that are just the thing.  I'll get some photos up at the end of this article when I get there.

Giving the Saws Some Teeth

While waiting for the BLO to dry, it's time to cut some teeth in the "new " blades.  The longest blade, the compass saw, doesn't need this step as I used the teeth from the original saw there.  The remaining three do, however, and I can choose any points per inch (PPI - similar to teeth per inch) or configure them for rip or cross-cut - which ever I feel is right.  For the keyhole saw, I think that a 12 PPI cross-cut configuration is probably best.  For the stair saws, it seems most were originally offered with a cross-cut filing at about 8 or 9 PPI.  For the squirrel tail stair saw, I think I'll try a 9 PPI rip configuration, and for the last stair saw I'll use a 9 PPI cross-cut profile.  I'll use this last blade as the example for all the saws as it shows the more complex cross cut filing, but at a scale I might be able to actually photograph.  Like I said, I suck at taking close-ups!

First off, the best primer on saw sharpening on the web is available at - so get on over there and review some of the terms.  Most, if not all, of the following is covered in more detail on that site.

I apologize for the length, here - but sharpening is often misunderstood  and I don't know of a shorter way to describe this process fully, short of showing someone.  To cut new teeth, I start by using a CAD program to print out a set of lines at the desired number PPI (these lines are 1/8" apart - they can also be laid out with a sharp pencil and a drafting square), then mount that paper in the saw vise along with the blank blade. I then make a series of prependicular cuts with either a triangular file or a hack saw (the thin blade makes it easy to see where I am placing the cut):

Here is my desired profile for the stair saw (note, the heel - or handle - of the saw would be to the right, and the toe - end - of the saw to the left):

I'm not going to worry about the fleam angle at this point, just getting the teeth properly shaped.  Starting from flat, this will be the progression of the teeth as I file them.

Here you can see what I mean - a progress shot.  I'm not putting enough rake angle on the teeth here, but that's easy enough to correct with the next round of filing.

You can add a bit of side pressure so you file one side a bit heavier than the other to correct minor deviations.  I don't worry about sharpening every other tooth  from each side quite yet - I'm just shaping the tooth here, and I'm more worried about getting the shape right, so it's all done from one side..  Take your time and do it right - it makes sharpening a lot easier when you get to that point.  You can count the number of strokes made with a file, but double check yourself - make sure the teeth are being filed evenly, and go back and get the ones that need it again.  Over-filing a few teeth is OK, but if you get too far out of whack, don't be afraid to joint the teeth again and get a fresh start,  The actual sharpening comes next, once I have the teeth shaped down to a point. 



Now that the teeth are shaped, it's time to do the sharpening.  I start by giving the teeth some set with a Stanley 42X saw set (every other tooth, then flip and do the other side):

Now is time to sharpen every other tooth, and flip sides to do the other, after lightly jointing the teeth to account for the new set.  I find it easier to maintain a constant rake if I jam one end of the file into a hole drilled into the end of a block of wood, as you can see below.  I angle the file about 15 to 20 degrees off of perpendicular (called the fleam angle) - more than that makes the saw sharper, but it dulls too quickly.  For a guide to help maintain a constant fleam angle, you can use the same trick as with the lines for the number of teeth and mount a piece of paper with lines matching your fleam angle drawn on it - you'll need a left version and a right version as the angle "flips" when you flip the saw blade.

One needs to be aware of which tooth is being filed, making sure it is not the wrong one.  Start with a tooth bent away from you and keep it to the right side of the file.  Then reverse the blade, switch the fleam angle to mirror the flip, and start on the remaining teeth.  Keep it so you are sharpening the teeth with the sharp point to the outside of the tooth.  This is one of those hard to explain, easy to show sort of things... review the sharpening primer at again if there are more questions.   Or even if you don't have more questions.  That's some good stuff, there.


One thing that helps is to darken the teeth with something before you file, so you can tell which teeth you haven't sharpened - you can see on the left of the file above that I've done that.  You can use chalk, Sight Black, layout dye... they all work equally well.

Now, I have a nice, new, sharpened blade, ready to mount in my new stair saw:


Mount the Blade and Try It Out!!!

The real test of the saw is seeing it in action, so I grabbed a piece of hickory, put the blade in the saw, and gave it a go...

Works great!  What a blast to make!  I still have some finishing to do, but the saws are essentially complete.

The next page is photos of all the saws I made during this session - I've updated them with finished shots now that the finish is completed on all the saws.  And the last page.  I promise.

The Final Products

Final Page - I Swear, Really!

This is just a few shots of the completed saws with all of the blades installed and teeth cut, and the handles with 2 coats each of boiled linseed oil,  followed by 3 coats of dark amber shellac and a final coat of wax.  What a fun project!

All the saws together:


Compass Saw:

Keyhole Saw:

Squirrel-tailed stair saw:

Stair Saw:

Thanks for reading!