Authors: Bob Summerfield, Rocky Mountain Saw Works, Missoula, MT
Kyle McQuade, Grand Junction, CO
Henry Disston made backsaws as early as the 1840s. Beginning in the 1860s, his company produced three numbered models of closed-handled backsaws. The No. 4 was by far the most common model. It had an apple handle with a single top nib ahead of the upper horn and a blued steel spine. The No. 5 also had an apple handle, but with double nibs forward of the top and bottom horns. This model, which was sold mostly in Canada and the United Kingdom, had a brass spine. The No. 7 was somewhat a combination of the two, having an apple handle with double nibs and a polished steel spine. All three models were available in lengths suitable for dovetails through large tenons, with the No. 4 also including saws sized for miter boxes. By 1876 Disston also began producing the No. 77 backsaw which had a taper ground plate that required no set.
With the exception of the No. 77, which had the famous “For Mechanics Not Botchers” etch, most Disston backsaws of this era were not etched on the plate, instead having the maker’s name and location stamped into the spine. However, some backsaws did have etches in addition to stamped spines. Among these were saws “Made For” certain hardware retailers such as Hammacher Schlemmer. When etches occur on backsaws, their usual orientation is centered on the plate and parallel to the spine and toothline.
In August, 2019, co-author Kyle McQuade sent Bob Summerfield, also a co-author and operator of Rocky Mountain Saw Works, a 16” Disston backsaw for restoration. The saw has a double nibbed apple handle and steel spine with no signs of bluing, indicating that it is a No. 7. The saw has an H. Disston eagle medallion and a Henry Disston & Son “inchworm” style spine stamp. The eagle medallion is a sign of an early (pre-1866) Disston saw. Hamilton Disston, Henry’s eldest son, joined the firm after returning from the Civil War in 1865. Saws prior to early 1865 were marked H. Disston or Henry Disston, while those made between 1865 and 1871 were marked Henry Disston & Son. After 1871, all saws were marked Henry Disston & Sons in recognition of his second son, Albert, joining the firm. Saws made up of parts from multiple eras are not uncommon and presumably mark those saws as being made at transition periods in the company’s history. The combination of parts on this saw indicates it was likely made in 1865.
Saw 1: Kyle McQuade’s restored 16" Disston & Son backsaw c.1865. (credit Bob Summerfield)
Removal of oxidation from the saw plate revealed a shallowetch, but not the type one would expect to see on a backsaw. The etch contains wording similar to Disston handsaws of the period, and the number 7 within the etch confirms the backsaw’s model number. But the orientation of the etch is atypical. It is exactly perpendicular to the spine and toothline and located midway between the handle and center of the plate.
Saw 1: Unusual etch position and orientation. (credit Bob Summerfield)
Initially, we didn’t know what to think of the unusual etch on this saw. Was it a mistake or perhaps a prototype? We didn’t know, but we felt further research was warranted. So, we began a search for other similarly etched saws, and it didn’t take long to find a few.
The second example we uncovered is a 14” backsaw owned by Pete Taran of Vintage Saws (www.vintagesaws.com). This saw has an eagle medallion and Disston & Son etch identical to the 16” saw described above. However, the spine stamp is an arched Henry Disston (no Son) rather than the inchworm Henry Disston & Son stamp on the 16” saw. This is clearly an example of Disston mixing parts from his inventories from different timeframes.
Saw 2: 14" saw with similar etch. (courtesy of Pete Taran)
A third example is a 14” backsaw owned by Rob Streeper of Alamo Toolworks (www.alamotoolworks.com). Again, the Disston & Son etch is identical to the saws described above. Like the Taran saw, this saw has an arched Henry Disston stamp on the spine and an H. Disston eagle medallion.
Saw 3: Another 14" saw similarly etched. (courtesy of Rob Streeper)
Saw 3: Etch detail. Spine is on the right. (courtesy of Rob Streeper)
A fourth find, a 12” saw sold by Josh Clark at Hyperkitten Tool Co. (www.hyperkitten.com), is different from the others, but still unusual. The Disston & Son etch is oriented in the typical way (i.e. parallel to the spine and toothline), but it is off center on the plate in the direction of the handle. The spine stamp is of the inchworm Disston & Son style, and the eagle medallion is the same as the other saws.
Saw 4: 12" backsaw with uncentered etch, parallel to spline. (courtesy of Josh Clark)
Saw 4: Etch detail. (courtesy of Josh Clark)
In summary, we have identified four Disston-made backsaws with unusual plate etches. The commonality among these saws is that they are all No. 7 model backsaws made in c. 1865.
Discussion and Conclusions
Discussion and Conclusions
Having words inscribed on a saw plate at a right angle to the toothline and near the handle is not unheard of. Some 19th century British handsaws have secondary stamps in this location. The MADE FOR USE stamp on the pictured Taylor Brothers handsaw is one example.
Taylor Brothers MADE FOR USE stamp (credit Bob Summerfield)
We are not aware, however, of any primary etches located in this manner on any backsaws or handsaws other than the four backsaws noted here. What could have been Disston’s motivation for orienting etches this way? Finding multiple examples makes it unlikely that it was a mistake.
According to the Disstonian Institute (www.disstonianinstitute.com), Disston first began etching saws in 1865, the same year these unusually etched backsaws were made. Prior to that, Disston saws were die stamped. The earliest known etches on handsaws were parallel to the toothline and bore the name Henry Disston rather than Henry Disston & Son. These saws are rare, and we are not aware of any such etches on backsaws in c.1865. We don’t know why Disston placed the shallow, oddly located Henry Disston & Son etches on the No. 7 backsaws. Maybe they were experimental attempts at etching backsaw plates. Perhaps the first backsaw etches were perpendicular to the toothline and near the handle while later etches were placed parallel to the toothline but still off center, before finally being centered as is more typical in later examples. This, however, is all speculation.
As more atypical saws are uncovered, the evolution of early Disston backsaw etches may become clearer. The authors would like to hear from others who have oddly etched Disston backsaw plates like the ones in this article. Please leave your information in the comments section below.
About the Authors
Bob Summerfield is a retired wildlife biologist who has been using woodworking tools, including handsaws, for 65 years. He has been restoring vintage saws and making new saws for about a decade. Bob lives in Missoula, Montana, USA. His saw work is displayed at www.rmsaws.com.
Kyle McQuade is a biologist and recreational woodworker. He lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, USA.