The Big Tillotson…

Last year, after I rehabbed a LittleTillotson saw that I found in an old barn,  JoshClark emailed me and said that he had the saw’s big brother for me. So, more than a little intrigued, the next time I saw Josh at a local antique tool auction, he presented me with said ‘big brother’ and I quickly understood why Josh had referred to it as such.

Here she is as found and delivered from Josh…

18 inches of pure, refined Sheffield cast steel a fixed to the most gorgeous saw tote I have ever laid eyes on!!!! 

Here’s a shot of the makers mark…

Sure, she was beat up as all hell….and the saw plate was as crooked as a mobster…but I was in love!

I thanked Josh profusely and upon returning home, hung her in a place of honor in my shop along with the dozens of other saws on my Waiting to Be Rehabbed wall. The next several months passed and every few weeks I would take down this big, beautiful British beast and caress her in my hands. Sometimes my wife would come down with a load of laundry and find me drooling, eyes glazed over and rocking back and forth with the saw in my arms. I cannot describe the look to you, but I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

Anyway, a few days ago, I figured her time had come to move from the Waiting to Be Rehabbed wall to the Tuned-Up and Ready to Be Used but Only on Special Occasions wall….a notably loftier location in the antique tool hierarchy.

My first step was to remove the handle and carefully mark the nuts with their placement in the handle…when I put her back together, I wanted every nut to go back in the original spot. Next, I gingerly removed the folded steel back from the saw plate.

Here she is disassembled…

You can see the line of crud and rust that marks where the back has been improperly resting for the last few decades or so…

See how the line from the back gradually angles downward towards the toe? That shouldn’t be like that, but is a very common occurence on old back saws, and is often the cause of a wave in the tooth line due to uneven tension along the spine. These waves then make the saw bind in the kerf and cause kinks. Thankfully, the fix is relatively simple….though sometimes a bit risky, as kinks require hammering out and this must be done delicately in such relatively thin steel.

But before getting to the smithing, I clean the plate thoroughly with rust remover and 400 grit paper. For old saws like this Brit, I have stopped going up to 600 grit and beyond…I’ve found that the polish is too garish. The dull sheen from 400 is a much nicer compliment to the saws natural patina and plenty fine enough a finish for the steel.

So now back to the hammering….the plate on this saw did have a very pronounced wave and two requisite kinks…one going in each direction. Thankfully I was able to remedy them with some judicious hammering on my little anvil…

As I’ve been teaching myself saw smithing over the last year, I keep the words of master smithers like Ron Hermann and Bob Smalser in my mind at all times… can never remove a kink fully, only compensate for it and correct 80 or 90% at best. I was actually very pleased with the result of this plate….I was able to remove most of the kink and straighten the toothline properly. Again, not 100%, but for 160 year old cast steel, I don’t need perfection anyway…just so long as I can sharpen her up and use her occasionally.

Now that the saw plate is all cleaned up and hammered true, I can re-install the folded back, and for this, I use my Moxon twin screw vise. I’ve found that clamping the saw plate in the vise jaws with the exact depth of plate I want buried in the back makes for a much easier task than the tap, tap, measure….tap, tap, measure….tap, tap, measure procedure that most employ.

Here’s the saw plate in the vise…

I like to use a small dead blow hammer to install saw backs…it makes for much more accurate and safe back installation. Plus, the one I use is coated in rubbery plastic, so there’s no risk of damaging the steel of the back. I rub a healthy amount of paraffin wax on the saw spine and tap away…

Here she is all reunited with her partner to a uniform depth…

On to the tote….which was in miraculously fine condition considering the age. I simply gave it a good scrubbing with mineral spirits to remove the crud from the crevices, then a light coat of dark brown Briwax…

And next, I reinstall the tote to the saw using my dandy little new split-nut driver (maybe I’ll post soon on how to make this very handy tool)….

Now I turn my attention to the teeth….which are quite coarse for a tenon saw…9ppi (or 8 tpi, I should say, as this is a British saw). This is certainly just about the coarsest tooth spacing you will find on a back saw….but they do make for great big cuts!!!

I use my Moxon vise once again with a saw vise carriage made for re-toothing. I’ve been using my Moxon vise more and more for saw filing lately…you just can’t beat the solidness of it…

It took two jointings and filings to correct the very misshapen teeth, but once completed, they look ready to chew lead and spit bullets. 😉 Given the coarse spacing, I filed them with 10 degrees of negative rake…

And here she is all tuned up and ready to fight…

Hardly able to contain myself at this point, I hastily chucked some 8/4 cherry into my leg vise and had at it with my new British blade…

Now I have to say, I wasn’t expecting much from this old girl…but when she flew through this cherry like a spring (steel) chicken, I nearly crapped myself…the old lady can cut!!!!!!! And the action was sweet right from the vise….dead nuts straight to boot!

How about some close-ups?

The mark all cleaned up…

The back side of the tote and split nuts…

And how about a reunion? Two saws…separated at birth for 160 years….two Tillotson’s together again…

Excuse me while I insert  myself into this little party….



Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm  Comments (18)  

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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great rehab Matt! That old girl looks ready to go another century

  2. Beauty of a saw and great restoration job. I may have to use that handle design in the future.

    Jamie Bacon

  3. Oh Sweet, Matt what a neat saw and a great refurbish. Like you said the patina is simply beautiful and the handle turned out wonderful.

    I also see The Moxon Twin Screw vice is going to become very handy.

    Thanks for a great tutorial.


  4. Excellent job moving this saw to your ready-to-use tool kit. I have one question.

    When you say “Next, I gingerly removed the folded steel back from the saw plate.” what exactly do you mean by that? There are a few steps between holding the cold steel back between your loving fingers and laying it down, unbent and undamaged beside the sawplate on the workbench.

    What are those steps I ask 🙂

    • Thanks Brad….good question.

      I sometimes get caught up in the moment and didn’t take pics of removing the spine. It is a bit tricky the first time you do it, but once you get the hang of it, its quite easy.

      In the Little Tillotson rehab I did, I think I included some pics. Basically, I clamp the saw plate upside down in a machinists vise and place a block of wood against the folded back near the toe. Then you tap on the block until the spine starts to move and work your way down the back towards the heel. Once the back is off the toe, the going is easy…the toughest part is getting it to budge those first few millimeters.

      I should write up a post with full details….but check out this post as well…scroll down and you can see the pic of the saw in the vise…


  5. Excellent post Matt. I enjoyed that story. yaakov….

  6. Great Rehab!

    Where did you get the pads for your holdfasts? I just picked up a pair from TFWW for my birthday and need to come up with a non-marring solution.

  7. I enjoy your blog. I want to start trying to straighten some of my saws. Where did you get your anvil? Or do you know where I should look for one?

    • Justin
      Thanks for the comment and nice to hear that you are enjoying the blog.

      I actually got the anvil at Harbor Freight, and taken with the previous comment, I realize it may seem like I shop there a lot, which is NOT the case…funny though.

      I would actually recommend that you not get one of their anvils for smithing saws. True anvils have a hardened steel face (ala Fisher) that concentrates the impact of the hammer blow back into the work, i.e. the saw plate. With the cheap, cast iron Chinese anvils you see at Harbor Freight and elsewhere, you get no such hardened work face and they are not effective for smithing thicker gauges of saw steel. They are just big lumps of cast iron…not true anvils.

      That said, my little anvil is OKAY at best for smithing thinner gauges up to about 0.025…but you still have to work them pretty good. This can be a crap shoot, because you can also over work and ruin the saw plate this way.

      Bottom line is, get yourself a real anvil (if you’ve got $300+ you don’t know what to do with) or do what I’m going to do and get a nice 1 to 2 inch thick piece of tool steel measuring maybe 6 x 6 inches and you’ve got an instant saw anvil. You could of course also find a vintage saw smiths anvil, but be prepared to spend more than $500 and hunt for a hell of a long time….they are very scarce….rare even.

      Good luck!


  8. Saw Miester,

    Brother, sorry I haven’t been by lately, but the crazy hillsmen and their custom party vests have been keeping me up at night!

    Great post, and yes, you need to put one more together, make that two, one for a backed saw and another for a regular one, on a complete refurbishment start to finish!

    On anvils: Fellows, go to the scrap metal yard a nd look for a chunk of cylindrical or square steel 4 to 6 inches in diameter and 4 to 6 inches thick. There a ton of references on the net on hardening one with nothing more than a pile of scrap wood, and a big bucket of brine or oil. Dangerous, but very doable. The toughest part is getting it flat, but even if you pay to have it fly cut or milled flat, you are still way ahead of buying a good anvil.

    If I was home, I would write a tutorial on it with pictures, but I’m stuck out here in Afghanistan, and I’m lucky to get this internet occasionally!

    On another note my wife is going to kill me when I get home. She claims I have thirty boxes of tools I have bought on eBay!

    She’s such an exagerator! I have all my e-receipts right here.

    I only got 28.

    Best Regards,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™

    • Good to hear from you Albert! And a great idea for an anvil….I myself just found a local shop that specializes in truck springs and am going to grab some salvage pieces of broken leaf springs for my anvil face. I figure they will be 4 or 5 inches wide, 1/2 to 3/4 thick and maybe 6 to 8 inches long. Nice!

  9. Fellows,
    Did a little more research on the saw anvil buisness, and they came in a bazillion different sizes and weights. What they all have in common is a rectiliniar shape, and no hardy or pritchel holes. Most were deeper than they were wide, with a flared base.

    If you have the muscle and ambition, an 18 inch piece of 6X6 4140 steel, (pretty common stuff) would make a great saw anvil. Machine the top flat, polish, heat, harden and temper, then inlet it into a hardwood stump with long wedges to square it up, and you have yourself a sawmakers anvil as good as any!

    Ought to be an interesting project.

    Best regards,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
    Handfeeding a Baby Mockingbird

  10. Hi Matt!

    Very interesting and educational tutorial upon resurrecting an “Old Lady” 🙂 I really enjoyed this one…and the others! Could You recommend any literature on saw smiting (truing-up) other than Bob Smalsers article on WKFineTools? Is the process for handsaws and back-saws blades the same?

    Lukasz Budzynski

    • Greetings Lukasz

      A great question! Unfortunately, information on smithing hand saws is scarce and scattered. There is some info in Hodgson’s book on hand saws, as well as Grimshaw, but it can be misleading, as much of what they discuss relates to circular saw blades, which is a whole different animal. There are also ocational references in other 19th and early 20th century books, but they are brief.
      And generally speaking, the process for smithing saw steel is the same regardless of if the steel is for a hand saw or back saw. There are certain methods and precautions that apply when smithing the thinner steel of back saws, but the principles are the same.

  11. Hello Matt,

    There are also about ten pages in Vol I of Holtzapffel’s “Turning and Mechanical Manipulation” on saw smithing . It’s chapter 21, section IV, entitled very clearly “The principles and practice of flattening thin plates of metal with the hammer”. It’s hardly clearly written, but I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.

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