In the last batch of saws I sold, I mentioned how great the steel is in early 20th century Disston saws, and this prompted some questions from customers and readers. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on steel quality.
In general, I divide vintage saw steel into three categories:
1) Early English steel
2) Early American steel
3) Modern American steel
I should note that I consider contemporary saws made by companies like Lie-Nielsen, Bad Axe, Wenzloff and all other high-end boutique makers of today into a fourth, and very separate category. More on that another time. I should also point out that the inclusive years I give below are general….they can go a few years one way or the other.
Kenyon handsaw, 26inches, c.1800
1) Early English steel: 1750 – 1855. Saw steel made in this period is the most varying in quality and composition. Casting crucible steel was as much an art as a science at this point, and no empirical methods yet existed for measuring carbon content, alloying elements, hardness or any other technical aspect of the steel itself. So how did steel makers know what they were making? Tradition. This was the time when tradition ruled manufacturing, and the English were masters of that tradition. The best saws of this time were made with English steel, mostly from Sheffield, which was the worlds leading producer of crucible steel. The steel was cast, hammered, rolled, and cut into sheets suitable for making saws. It was then sent in its unhardened state to saw makers who cut it into patterns, punched teeth into the saw plates, hardened, tempered, ground, hammered, and polished them, and finally set and sharpened the teeth. It’s important to note that until about 1855, all American saws used English steel. In fact, most of the saw makers in America at this point were in fact native Englishmen–born and trained in England–making English style saws for craftsman trained in the English tradition. The US saw industry was completely reliant on England for its steel at this point.
These saws typically are die stamped with the makers mark, and not etched. Etching did not become prevalent until after 1860. These saws also tend not to ring when tensioned and thumped (as is the habit of saw geeks like myself) in an attempt to to evaluate the temper and smithing of the saw. Saws of this vintage can make wonderful users….especially the backsaws. The handsaws leave a bit more to be desired, as taper grinding was not yet perfected, nor was tensioning thinner gauges of steel, so the saw plates themselves are a bit bulkier and less springy.
Henry Disston is largely credited with ending this period of English steel dominance. He is purported to be the first US producer of crucible quality cast steel in 1855. Regardless of whether or not it was in fact ole Hank who was the first to cast and roll his own saw steel, he is certainly the guy who put almost everyone else out of the saw business. And without a doubt, Disston’s steel was, and is, far superior to the English variety. So that’s why I use the rough date of 1855 as a marker of the end of the Early English steel period. American saws after that point were increasingly made with domestic steel of far better quality, especially after the Morrill Tariff of 1861 really put the kibosh on imported steel. Go Henry!
Henry Disston & Sons handsaw, 26 inches, c.1875
2) Early American steel: 1855 – 1920. This was the golden age of American handsaw production. The steel of these saws was more uniform in composition and temper, and was rolled, ground and smithed to a finer degree than previous saw steels of English origin. It would seem that this was due to the mass production of steel in America. If nothing else, we Americans have proven ourselves to be masters of replication on an epic scale. The ‘little messers’ of Sheffield were toiling away in a tradition bound manufacturing system that wasted much time and energy and prevented any kind of standardization. One small business would cast the steel, roll and cut it, then another would cut the saw plates and grind them, another would harden and temper them, and on and on. In the US, makers like Disston created huge factories that facilitated the standardization of each manufacturing and processing step and created a steel of much more consistent quality. One factory cast, rolled, cut, punched, hardened, tempered, etc.
Following the Civil War, companies like Disston, Wheeler Madden Clemson, Harvey Peace, Bishop, Richardson and many others truly came into their own. The proliferation of American handsaws in this period was simply awesome, and saws made in this period are the heart and soul of the handsaw renaissance now taking place. Many makers today copy saws of this much loved vintage, and with good reason. These are wonderful tools. The handsaws have a great resonance when tensioned (which even gave rise to an entire genre of Vaudevillian musicians!), take a high polish, and are tough but not too brittle, nor too soft so that they take a set to the teeth and hold the edge a long time.
Most vintage saw users and collectors covet saws of this era…everything from the Disston #12 and ACME 120 to the Woodrough & McParlin Panther saw were born in this period. It’s hard to find a weak spot with saws of this era…they were as near perfect in form and function as any tool could be. I would say, that after filing hundreds of saws of this age, that occasionally the tempering of the steel can leave a bit to be desired…every once in a while I come across one with teeth too brittle to take a set and they simply snap off. This is maybe 1 in 100 saws or so, and the brittleness is almost always limited to only a few inches of toothline. There could be another explanation, but I’ve not found one.
To me, the most interesting thing about saws from this time is that even though steel made in the next era (1920 – 1955) was of technically superior composition (more pure of unwanted alloys, more consistent carbon content, more consistent tempering) it is these earlier saws that are superior. And that’s not just my opinion…many prefer saws of this age. The convincing argument seems to be one of form….saws after 1920 started to resemble blocky, unwieldy tools instead of fine implements of the craftsman. There were still great saws made after 1920…but they just weren’t as pretty. And we tool people like pretty things….it makes us think that we’re more likely to make pretty things when we use them.
Henry Disston & Sons handsaw, 26 inches, c.1930
3) Modern American steel: 1920 – 1955. In the 1920s a lot of things started changing in the handsaw industry. On the plus side, metallurgy as a science was taking giant leaps forward and saw steel production reached new heights of consistency and refinement. On the down side, labor disputes, shrinking hand tool markets and greedy rich people really started to take their toll on the saw companies like Disston. But damn did they still know how to make one hell of a saw!
The steel of this period is tough. Very tough. Several makers started offering proprietary alloy steels in their high-end saws to help them keep an edge and even resist rust better. Some say that this period saw the finest saw steel ever made . I would tend to agree from a purely metallurgical stand-point. The E.C. Atkins Co. made some simply marvelous saws during this era. They are some of my favorites.
Saws of this period are marked by several common features. Handles are typically much blockier and less shapely than previous offerings. Nibs disappear from saws in this period as well…straight back saws are plain, though skew-back patterns persisted well into the 1950s.
Saws from this period make fantastic users for several reasons. First, they are younger, so they tend to be found in better condition and require less work to get them back into shape. Rust free saw plates and fully intact totes are easy to find. They take and told an edge finer than older steels…perhaps the biggest selling point.
I use 1955 as a book-end for this period due mostly to the sale of companies like Disston from family ownership to corporate ownership. In most opinions, this rang the death knell for quality American handsaws of traditional form. I would tend to agree.
Nowadays, high-end makers like Bad Axe, Wenzloff, and Lie-Nielsen make quality handsaws in an entirely different way. The steel is far different and is worked in its hardened state…a much different process than of old. But that’s a story for another day.