Saw Talk #27: The one that got away...

  • Advertise with us
Blog entry by Brit posted 05-24-2013 09:33 AM 7526 reads 2 times favorited 13 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 26: Shopping list for the upcoming saw sharpening video Part 27 of Saw Talk series Part 28: Sharpening Western Saws - Full Length Instructional Video »

I was going to save this one for later, but on the Saw, using collecting, cleaning and buying thread, Stumpynubs asked if anyone knew anything about W. H. Armitage saws. Well it just so happens that I do and here’s what I’ve managed to find out.

Some time ago now I acquired a 14” brass-backed backsaw and just by looking at it, I can tell it is the oldest backsaw I own.

This saw plate is very rusty and black. There are a few missing teeth and the handle is loose and ill-fitting. Funny how the seller never mentioned that. This one is definitely going to be a challenge to bring back into service, if indeed the saw plate can be rescued. When it was new it would have been a first class saw, since it is made from London Spring Steel and has a brass back. The trade mark is a weird creature that has a horses head and front legs, but the rear half of the body kind of morphs into a curly tail.

You can see the logo more clearly in the drawing below.

If anyone knows what ‘CAPS ANY.’ means, please let me know. The initials W H stand for William Henry Armitage and this is what I have been able to find out about him from various online records. On 4th October 1833 he got married to one Rachel Cookson.

The London Gazette dated 24th July 1844 has the following entry:

So prior to 1844 he was in partnership with William Blackford (also a saw maker). The London Gazette dated 2nd February 1849 has this to add:

So between 1844 and 1849 he was in partnership with Alfred Parkinson and Adam Knowles. In 1852, W H Armitage & Co was registered at a house at 41 Netherthorpe Street in Sheffield. The street is still there, but it now has a block of flats and a primary school on it.

Netherthorpe is a district in Sheffield. The photograph below shows how it looked in the 19th century with row upon row of terraced houses and cobbled streets.

This was the environment in which this saw was made. The smoke from the furnaces turned all the buildings black. It is said that the tilt hammers could be heard and felt everywhere and the town shock with every blow. The tables in the public houses had bars around the edges to stop the glasses vibrating off onto the floor. The working conditions were atrocious for the working men and women of the day. The ‘wet grinders’ (the men who ground the saw plates) started work when they were 14 yrs old and by their early 20s, suffered from chronic asthma after breathing in steel and stone dust. Isn’t it incredible that even in these conditions, they managed to turn out such high quality products that we now fight over on eBay?

I found an additional reference to confirm the Netherthorpe address at who site Whites (a trades directory published in 1852) as their source.

If you look at the reference below the red line, it has William working out of the Burnt Tree Lane works in 1849 and the house on Netherthorpe Street. Burnt Tree Lane was only a short walk from Netherthorpe Street and just around the corner from a public house called The Saw Makers’ Arms, which incidentally was later owned by Joshua Ibbotson (brother of Thomas). The following entry shows that in 1852, William went into partnership with John Pacey (also a saw maker) and they worked out of 31 Burnt Tree Lane together under the name of Pacey and Armitage.

In the following advertisement, you can see the type of products that bore their name.

I also found this entry on the OldTools Archive which has Pacey and Armitage at Burnt Tree Lane from 1852-1855 and confirms Armitage was working there before that in 1849.

On 20th October 1858, the partnership was dissolved and Pacey carried on the business alone.

The only other references I could find to W. H. Armitage after 1858 were three advertisements.

The first is dated 1876:

The second one (which is the same advert) is dated 1882.

And the third is dated 1890.

These advertisements tell us that from 1876 – 1890 W. H. Armitage & Co. were working out of the Vesuvius works on Henry Street in the Portmahon district of Sheffield. Notice that in the last advert, they claim that W.H. Armitage had been established for 50 years prior to 1890, so this tells us that William started in the saw making business in 1840.

Then I found this entry in the London Gazette dated 8th December 1891, which I think indicates William was getting out of the tool making business:

So where does that leave me in terms of dating my saw. Well at this point in my research all I could say was that it wasn’t made between 1840 and January 1849, because W.H. was in various partnerships between those two dates. Also, it wasn’t made between 1852 and 1858 when Armitage was in partnership with Pacey, since it doesn’t bear the name Pacey and Armitage. However, it could have been made between 1849 and 1852 or any time after 1858 up until 1890. So although it was most enjoyable to sit in my armchair and play detective, all of the above information still left me wondering when my saw was made. I had to find another way of determining the saw’s age and just when I was starting to think it would remain a mystery, I came across an article on entitled The Nineteenth Century American Back Saw written by Philip W Baker. Although the title refers to American back saws, much of what he has to say equally applies to English back saws. The article presents a study of the shape and features of back saw handles from the 19th century and shows how this information can help narrow down the year of manufacture.

Consider the following two handles. The one on the right is from my Armitage saw and the one on the left is from another saw in my possession which might make an appearance at the end of this blog series. One thing I can say for certain, is that the handle on the left was made in 1887.

Now it is time to play spot the difference. Apologies for not having a better camera, you’ll just have to take my word for it as far as some of the features I’m going to point out are concerned.

The Nibs
Both handles have nibs between the base of the Hook and the base of the Top Horn. However, only my Armitage handle has a Bottom Nib. The article states that nibs started appearing at the top and bottom of handles around 1845, but at this time the nibs were rounded over and did not go to a point. Only after 1850, did they start to go to a point. In the photo above, the nib on the left handle goes to a point, but both nibs on my Armitage are of the rounded over variety. So this puts my handle between 1845 and 1850.

The Cheeks
On earlier saws, the cheeks were larger and covered more of the saw plate. The chamfer at the edge of the cheek was also larger. The cheeks started to become smaller around 1846. As you can see, the cheeks on my Armitage are larger than the handle on the left, indicating the saw is older. Notice too, how the Re-curve Break is more pointed and the shape of the lamb’s tongue is more squashed to accommodate the larger cheek size. These features also support the fact that the saw is older.

Older saw handles tended to be thicker than later handles. The Armitage measures in at 19/32” whilst the handle on the left comes in at 17/32”, a whole 1/16” thinner.

When all is said and done, I believe Wiliam Henry Armitage made my saw around 1849-1850, just before he went into partnership with John Pacey. However, I would love to see a saw made by W.H. Armitage & Co at the Vesuvius works between 1876 and 1891 to be sure. Anyone got one? If so, please post a picture and put this sad Englishman out of his misery. 

I won’t be restoring this one for a while yet. When I removed the handle I found that it will need a new saw plate since it is cracked between two of the holes. Although I have the steel, I just don’t have the time at the moment unfortunately.

Thanks for looking!

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

13 comments so far

View stefang's profile


17040 posts in 4582 days

#1 posted 05-24-2013 10:44 AM

Interesting history Andy and your detective work is right up there with Sherlock’s. With a little luck you will soon solve this mystery. It’s too bad these tools weren’t series or date stamped.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View StumpyNubs's profile


7853 posts in 4048 days

#2 posted 05-24-2013 11:26 AM

Great work indeed!

One thing I might mention, your saw says “W H Armitage & Co” which implies that he was in partnership with someone at the time it was made. If he was the most senior partner, or for whatever reason, the name of the lesser partner may not have actually have appeared on the saw. I say this because my saw, which I posted on the saw thread looking for help on dating, says just “W H Armitage”, no “Co”. It also has all the handle features of a very early saw.

Not that the fact that he was in business with someone else changes the age of your saw. It simply means it didn’t have to be made before his partnership with Pacey. I suspect mine was made before any partnership, and yours was made after.

I wonder if a couple of differences may help in dating as well: Yours has a medallion, mine does not. Yours has a stamped trade mark design, mine does not. And yours says “London”, mine says “Sheffield”. I don’t think the “London” on yours refers to the steel. Its position on the saw under the name indicates that it is the firm’s place of business. So, find out when he was in a partnership in London, and you may find out a great deal about your saw.

-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications:

View JoeinGa's profile


7741 posts in 3255 days

#3 posted 05-24-2013 11:38 AM

Nice saw, Good story. Great detective work

-- Perform A Random Act Of Kindness Today ... Pay It Forward

View Dave's profile


11435 posts in 4088 days

#4 posted 05-24-2013 12:27 PM

Nice work on the story Andy. Good luck on the “caps any”.
And the break down of the handle were great.
In searching I did find this
Brit great work as usual.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View Brit's profile


8448 posts in 4090 days

#5 posted 05-24-2013 12:37 PM

Stumpy – You’re probably right about yours being earlier for the reasons you state. My saw was probabbly made after 1876. The ‘& Co.’ does not necessarily mean he was in partnership with someone else. It just means that he registered his company at Companies House (or whatever it was called in those days). The ability to register a company in the UK was made available from 1844 onwards.

I do think the London refers to London Spring Steel. In those days, the making of steel was a closely guarded secret and saw manufacturers were always trying to outdo each other by coming up with more outrageous names for the steel used to make their saw plates. You will find saws with:

  • Cast steel
  • Refined cast steel
  • London spring steel
  • Refined London spring steel
  • Extra refined London spring steel

I presume their thought process was that anyone in the market for a saw would rather buy a saw made from ‘extra’ refined london spring steel than a saw that simply made from refined London spring steel. All of these supposed types of steel were in fact essentially the same and it was just a marketing ploy to sell more saws.

I did look to see if W. H. Armitage & Co. were ever in London and I couldn’t find any record of them being located there, but I’ll have another look.

By the way the saws he made with Pacey actually have Pacey & Armitage on them, so I don’t think mine was made during their partnership.

The plot thickens….

When you get a chance, please can you let me know the thickness of your handle.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Brit's profile


8448 posts in 4090 days

#6 posted 05-24-2013 01:27 PM

Thanks Dave – I’ve lingered there many times looking at those handle templates.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Don W's profile

Don W

20190 posts in 3815 days

#7 posted 05-24-2013 01:35 PM

Interesting as always Andy.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View OnlyJustME's profile


1562 posts in 3624 days

#8 posted 05-24-2013 02:28 PM

I think the Caps Any simply means that it’s quality is above the rest, so it’s on top and what goes on top? a cap, ergo it “Caps Any” other saw made.

Always love reading your detective work Andy.

-- In the end, when your life flashes before your eyes, will you like what you see?

View StumpyNubs's profile


7853 posts in 4048 days

#9 posted 05-24-2013 05:59 PM

I suppose you could be right. The reason I thought it implied a partnership was the “& Co” rather than just being “Co”. Normally the “&” would mean it is Armitage AND those with him. But that is a modern American understanding, which may not have been the case in 19th century England! You may also be right about London. I always assumed the city name under the manufacturer signified the place of business, but that may not be the case. I wonder, though, why Armitage, living in the high quality tool steel center of the world, would purchase steel elsewhere for his saws? This is very interesting. I hope you keep digging!

-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications:

View jjw5858's profile


1135 posts in 3850 days

#10 posted 05-25-2013 01:23 PM

Great blog Andy, always a terrific education on saws.

-- "Always continue to learn, laugh and share!" JJW

View Mauricio's profile


7168 posts in 4399 days

#11 posted 05-28-2013 01:04 AM

Great work Andy, looks like you were knee deep in micro fich.

I’m with OJM, I think “Caps Any” means Tops Any or something l like that.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View AnthonyReed's profile


10184 posts in 3688 days

#12 posted 06-02-2013 04:06 PM

You are amazing Andy. Thank you for taking the time to share the wealth of information that you pull from the depths. Spectacular read as always.

-- ~Tony

View Brit's profile


8448 posts in 4090 days

#13 posted 06-02-2013 10:31 PM

Thanks guys – I can’t wait to get this video behind me so I can do some woodworking. I still have a few saws to restore, but I need to work some wood first.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics