So I’ve put together the following method for identifying a quality saw that literally anyone can use. You don’t need to know squat about saws. In fact, about all you need to find a good one is at least one working eyeball and just a touch of common sense (my apologies to those deficient in this area). That said, we’re going to divide our evaluation of old saws into two parts. First, we’re going to talk about QUALITY from a manufacturing stand point, and second we’re going to look at the CONDITION of the saw as you find it. To find a good user saw, you’re going to have to take both into account, and both have a specific set of criteria.
DISCLAIMER: Before the know-it-all armchair tool historians get fired up and throw the M-WTCA handbook at me, I would like to point out that these are not hard and fast rules. They are generalizations for the layman to increase the chances of him identifying a quality handsaw from a horse-manure one without any further knowledge of saws. Here goes….
1) Brass nuts: I’m talking about the hardware that affixes the saw plate (or blade) to the tote (or handle). If the nuts and bolts are made of brass, it’s a mark of quality. Brass was the industry standard from the dawn of handsaw manufacturing until about the 1940s or so. After that period, steel became the standard.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with steel nuts (I love mine), but it can be an indicator of a saw made after the point of general decline in the quality of handsaws. It just so happens that by the 1950s, quality in saws started to take a nose dive and by that time, steel nuts were the standard.
2) Nib: The nib is a decorative bump filed into the steel plate of the saw along the spine towards the toe (the narrow working end). It is not used for starting a cut. It is not for securing a tooth guard. And it’s definitely not for testing the temper of the saw during manufacturing. Its decorative.
Tradition is a force not to be ignored in hand tool design, and tradition at the time said that all handsaws have a nib as decoration. Period. End of story. And if a saw has a nib, it means it was most likely made before the 1920s.
Once again, nothing necessarily wrong with a saw that doesn’t have a nib, but if it does, it means it was made by a tradition-conscious maker and you can bet your Panther head that he was a good one. Further, it added a manufacturing step to the saw and that cost the maker money. Manufacturers didn’t cut into their profit margins unless they had good reason to: Quality!
3) Skewback: This refers to the shape of the back of the saw plate. In this case, the ‘skew’ means that from the area in front of the tote to the toe of the saw, instead of a geometrically straight line, the shape is concave. The skewback was patented by Henry Disston in 1874 and revolutionized the handsaw industry.