I often hear people talk about the quality of a certain saw based on the number of nuts that are used to attach the blade to the handle. "Yup, that D8 with 5 nuts was the best saw that Disston made." While the D8 is a good saw, it certainly is not the best. This begs the larger question: What are the quality differences in the Disston line, and what made one saw better than the other? In this article, we will take a look at this question.
The data in this article was derived from an original Henry Disston and Sons 1914 full line catalog and represents the company at its zenith. While there were at least two other major makers, Simonds and Atkins, the models numbers referred to in this article reference Disston products. However, similar conclusions can be drawn for the products of both Atkins and Simonds.
A quick look through the handsaw section of the catalog reveals 17 first-quality models, with many more second-quality saws. Those 17 saw models used four distinct types of steel: warranted extra refined London spring steel, warranted extra London spring steel, warranted refined crucible steel and warranted crucible steel. I maintain that the quality differences lie largely in the type of steel used in the blade and to a lesser extent, the type of handle applied to that blade. Let us look at the various models with respect to those four types of steel.
Warranted Extra Refined London Spring Steel
The saws which contained the warranted extra refined London spring steel were the very best (and most costly) saws that Disston made. Topping the list is the D115 which had a skew back, carved rosewood handle with wheat flourishes and five nickel plated screws. The old adage holds for this saw, but as we will soon see, quickly comes into problems. The next saw down in price and quality using this steel type is the #112 and #12. Both saws are identical except that the #112 has a skew back and the # 12 has a straight back. Both have carved and polished apple handles with wheat embellishments and 4 brass nuts. So much for the number of nuts/quality theory. Last in this category is the #99. It is essentially a #12 except that it uses a "close up handle." The idea was that the handle placed the grip much closer to the blade which allowed more precise control of the saw. In use the difference is imperceptible, and not many of these saws were sold. As a result, these saws are pretty rare. Virtually all these saws were marketed at cabinetmaker shops and to gentlemen woodworkers who could afford the very best. Not many D115 saws found the way to the dock or construction site.
Warranted Extra London Spring Steel
The saws which used the warranted extra London spring steel were a group of relatively uncommon saws and as a result are rarely found today. The #120 was fitted with a skew back blade, apple handle with carved wheat embellishment, and five brass screws. This saw was made with deeper tooth gullets and an extreme taper ground blade allowing it to be used without applying set to the teeth. It was marketed for use in dry seasoned lumber only. It is interesting to note that it is slightly more expensive than the #12/112, not because of the quality of materials, but due to the increased costs in manufacturing the special blade. The #77 is a very similar saw, using the same deeper gullets. This is the economy version, with a straight back, carved apple handle (no embellishment) and four brass nuts. The last saw in this group is the #9. It looks identical to the #12 in every respect except the apple handle has no wheat embellishments. The difference in price at that time was a full $10 per dozen less than a that for the same model #12. These saws, again, were all marketed at high end cabinet shops that longed for the best in saw quality and the latest in saw technology.
Warranted Refined Crucible Steel
The backbone of the Disston line contained saws which used warranted refined crucible steel. Topping the quality in this group was the D100. It was a skew backed saw, carved apple handle with wheat embellishments and five brass nuts. Slightly less costly was the #16, which was an identical saw except that it sported a straight back. Next in this group was the D20 series which consisted of 4 saws. All used a carved apple handle with wheat embellishments and five brass nuts. It is important to note that the wheat carving was less refined than that used on the higher quality saws like the #12. The difference among these saws was the blade. The D20 used a narrow skew backed blade intended for shipwrights. The D21 used a full width skew backed blade. The D22 had a full width straight backed blade, and last but not least, the D23 which used a narrow width straight back blade. The next saw in this group was the D8, which was the most popular and common saw that Disston made. This was a no frills saw with a skew back blade, apple handle with no embellishments and five brass nuts. The last saw in this group was the slightly less costly #8, which was very similar to the D8 except that it used a straight back and four brass nuts. The saws in this group were the most popular that Disston made and could be found virtually everywhere: construction sites, shipyards, cabinet shops and home shops.
Warranted Crucible Steel
The last group of saws that Disston made used warranted crucible steel. This group only contained two saws, the #76 had a skew backed blade, four brass nuts and apple handle. It looked identical to the D8 except for the number of nuts. It was a full $1.50 less per dozen than a similar D8. The last saw in this group was the #7. This saw is the second most popular saw that Disston made, and was available in the most sizes, from a 36" rip to a 14" panel saw. It used a straight back blade, beech handle and four brass nuts. This was definitely an economy saw, but enjoyed a great reputation. It is interesting to note that even the cheapest saw that Disston made was still considered to be very high quality and found extensive use in a variety of applications.
I hope that this article has shed some light on the various quality levels and saw models that Disston made. This article makes one assumption that the various grades of steel that Disston reported using were actually different grades of steel. A truly complete treatment of the topic would include analysis and electron micrographs of cross sections of the various steel grades to see if there is an quantifiable difference.