Vintage Tool Rehab Projects #1: Disston #4 backsaw rehab-Part 1-Cleaning, repairing, rehabbing

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Blog entry by Brad posted 04-06-2011 04:30 AM 10282 reads 10 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Vintage Tool Rehab Projects series Part 2: Disston #4 backsaw rehab-Part 2-Sharpening, testing and adding to tool kit »

Disston Backsaw Rehab-1 Cleaning, repairing and rehabbing

I was in Salt Lake City recently on business. After dinner I slipped into my pajamas to watch tv and do one of my favorite on-the-road activities—look for tools on Ebay. Now that my hand plane inventory has reached 7, it’s time to focus on some other tools. Apparently, if you want to build things out of wood, saws can be pretty helpful.

It’s not that I don’t have any. I have a modern (read crappy) handsaw along with a 14″ Stanley miter box backsaw hanging from my pegboard.

The backsaw has an aluminum back and what’s astonishing is how well it’s performed for me over the last two years. In the course of my box projects, I reach for it frequently. I use it to crosscut pieces to length, to tweak fits, and even to rip small pieces. I think my saw skills have improved though. I feel that I’ve pushed the full envelope of what I can do with it and the plastic miter box that came with it.

So on to Ebay I went, a-lookin for a crosscut backsaw. On page 1 of my backsaw search, I came across this picture.

“Yikes. What a beater,” I thought. The description said it had “some rust, but the blade was straight.” I took exception to the use of the word “some” but the blade did look straight enough from the pics.

The handle looked like a frat-party disaster. Someone had clearly used it to break up ice for a kegger. The tip of the upper horn had a chip and there was a crack in the lower portion—just as the seller had described.


This is exactly what I was looking for. It was just the opportunity to learn to rehab and sharpen a handsaw. I would learn to remove rust, repair handle breaks, refinish a handle and, most importantly, how to sharpen a saw.

My lone competitive bidder’s heart wasn’t in it and he walked away when the bidding reached a blistering $11.77. Tack on $10.66 for postage (ouch!) and $22.43 later, I was the proud owner of my next woodworking “course” in tool rehabilitation.

Now before you east coasters email me to say how you routinely pick up such treasures for $5.00 at a flea market or garage sale keep in mind that I live in Colorado. While you were all turning Colonial woodworking into a fine art in the 18th century, my state had trappers, outlaws and native Indians traipsing around the Rockies on horseback.

Not wanting to waste any time after my successful bid, I wrote out a saw rehab plan. Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Toolworks has a nice article on cleaning a sawplate here. Bob Sturgeon has a good article on the subject here. And Frank Brickhouse wrote a good plate + handle rehab article here. These helped me decide on the materials and techniques I would use.

Back home in Colorado, I opened the package to take stock of the saw. The Disston medallion dated the saw from 1917-1940. It’s probably a #4 manufactured in the 1930s. The handle was a bit boxy to me which fit with the Disstonian Institute’s description of handles from this period.

The handle’s 80-year old finish was in bad shape. So bad in fact that it couldn’t be saved as I had originally surmised. The decision was made to completely refinish it. The crack turned out to be a solid repair. It wasn’t loose at all.

In fact there were two pin nails in the base of the handle (see red arrow below), firmly holding the glued break in place. I decided to leave that as it was, feeling that the break—and the repair—were part of the tool’s colorful history.

The sawplate was quite rusty, pitted in a few places and had paint drips. Luckily, it would be serviceable once cleaned up.


The saw nuts unscrewed easily despite 80 years of patina and muck.

Light tapping from a Phillips screwdriver from the underside freed the screws and the handle separated from the blade with a little effort. The steel back would not budge and I chose to leave it in place for the rehab.


To fill the 30 minutes before dinner, I started cleaning the brass sawnuts. I knew my Army experience would come in handy one day. Some Brasso, a toothbrush and a cloth rag returned the brass nuts and medallion to their used state.

Now, I could have polished the fittings to like-new with some 400 grit emery sandpaper. But I wanted to keep the history of the tool—most of its nicks and such—intact.

Then I spent an hour on the sawplate. On the etched side, I used 220-grit sandpaper with mineral spirits as a lubricant. In order to compare its effectiveness versus this method, I slathered on Navy jelly rust remover on the other side using the same sandpaper. It seemed to go faster, but truth be told it gummed up as it dried and the addition of mineral spirits seemed to make it worse.

After rinsing the blade and wiping it down, I immediately coated it with 3 in 1 oil to prevent flash rusting.

In the end, this is what I ended up with.

Refinishing the handle

The process began with sanding the handle down to bare wood, being careful to leave nicks and dents (history) intact. During the sanding, I tried to blend in the repaired crack with mild success, though you wouldn’t think so from looking at the picture. I also added CA glue to a small crack to reinforce it (see red arrow below).

The handle felt a bit boxy to me in its original state, so I eased the handle edges that meet my hand with sandpaper. Those sharp edges are now a bit rounded over and ready to caress my hand.

After sanding it with progressively finer grades (120 for some nasty spots, 220, 320, 400 for everything else), I finished the bare wood off by using the buffing pad on my grinder. You’d be amazed at how baby’s-bottom smooth your handles get after this treatment. Special thanks to Scott Grandstaff for that tip.

Boiled linseed oil served to both stain the wood and to condition it. Three coats of spray-on semi-gloss polyurethane would serve to protect the handle for the next 80 years. It’s too shiny for my taste but I’ll leave it for now.

After everything dried, I reassembled the saw. It’s not ready for use, but here’s what I have so far.

Next up, The Disston Backsaw Rehab-Part 2-Sharpening.

-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."

10 comments so far

View docholladay's profile


1287 posts in 3572 days

#1 posted 04-06-2011 04:59 AM

Well done on the saw rehab. I have a bunch of old Disston saws and when they are tuned up and sharpened properly, they are second to none. In my opinion, the older the better, as long as they are in good enough condition to clean up and tune up. If the steel is still in good shape, new handles can be made pretty easily. I have enjoyed making handles for a few of mine. If you look at my projects, you will see a similar saw for which I made a walnut handle. These saws with the heavy steel spine are easy to use because you don’t have to put any downward pressure. Just move it back and forth and the weight of the saw does the work for you. This saw will be good to use for another generation now. For information about sharpening, I recommend the following website: There are several articles about restoring and sharpening saws that are helpful. Another site that is good, in particular about restoring old Disston saws is:

Good work,


-- Hey, woodworking ain't brain surgery. Just do something and keep trying till you get it. Doc

View chrisstef's profile


17960 posts in 3520 days

#2 posted 04-06-2011 03:06 PM

Nice save Brad. I have the exact same backsaw, which i acquired from my grandfather after he passed. They are great saws that stand up to the test of time. You will love the feel of this one as it whistles through cuts.

-- Its not a crack, its a casting imperfection.

View swirt's profile


4238 posts in 3485 days

#3 posted 04-06-2011 03:48 PM

Nice save Brad, and a nice documentation of the work you did.

-- Galootish log blog,

View Bertha's profile


13567 posts in 3206 days

#4 posted 04-06-2011 04:07 PM

What a gorgeous saw. You should be very proud of it.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View Dan's profile


3653 posts in 3394 days

#5 posted 04-06-2011 05:31 PM

Very cool. I restored a Disston saw much like that one and I am in the process of getting it sharpened now. Good job on the restore.

Here is the Disston saw I did, it even has the same medallion as yours.

-- Dan - "Collector of Hand Planes"

View Brit's profile


7801 posts in 3356 days

#6 posted 04-06-2011 06:02 PM

Nice job Brad. You’re part of that saws history now.

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

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 3629 days

#7 posted 04-06-2011 10:12 PM

great blog Brad and a well done job :-)
its always good to see a tool come back to the life

thank´s for sharing it with us

thank´s for the link´s Doc. and Brad

take care

View Brad's profile


1140 posts in 3253 days

#8 posted 04-07-2011 05:46 AM

Dan, that’s a fine restoration you did on your Disston. How did you get the sawplate to sparkle like that?

-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."

View Brad's profile


1140 posts in 3253 days

#9 posted 04-07-2011 05:50 AM

Doc, thanks for the links. There are some really good sharpening articles there.

And I love the layering of two different woods that you did on one of your saw handles. That is some seriously cool bling.

You’re right about the weight of the saw. I’m going make a conscious effort to let it do the cutting versus applying downward pressure. It’s amazing how a tip here and there can make such a difference in your woodworking.

-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."

View Andy1010's profile


6 posts in 1544 days

#10 posted 09-04-2015 10:10 PM

Looks like you filled the holes were the saw nuts go in one of the pictures the pic were you show the filled crack with ca clue

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