Saw Shop Tech: Vintage saw steel quality, the facts, the fiction, the marketing babble.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

I had a special request to talk about the differences in vintage saw steel between different major brands of saws so here I am! I’m going to separate fact from fiction from marketing smoke from the practical view of the saw sharpener.

First off, I want to make clear that I’m talking about good old high carbon steel blades here. Chrome is an absolutely atrocious thing to put in saw steel. Adding chrome to saw steel to make it “stainless” makes the steel behave like a very thick liquid (I refer to it as “gummy”) rather than a nice hard solid. Using a file on chromey steel produces fine gouges where a nice high carbon blade produces an extremely smooth edge. I have yet to see any chromey saw that can come close to matching the quality of edge of a high carbon blade.

“London spring steel”, “Extra”, Disston certainly invented more than a few marketing terms to make their saw steel stand out from the competition in the mind of the buyer. The problem is, from the standpoint of the saw sharpener, there’s little difference in any of it. Disston saws uniformly file and set without difficulty and they produce teeth sharp and pointy enough to seriously bite you if you’re not careful about handling them (especially the 1 man and 2 man crosscut saws!). I’ve gotten sliced by Disston crosscut saws more than once and it was sharp enough that I didn’t know it at the time.

I also know at least one informal study has been done and the various “types” of Disston saw steel were virtually identical, bearing out my sharpening observations. Disston made great saw steel, the rest of it is marketing fluff.

The same things generally apply to Simmonds saws. At least Simmonds just advertised that their saws were made of “Simmonds Steel” and didn’t invent (and reinvent) bogus marketing names for it. Simmonds blades generally sharpen, set, and behave comparably to the Disston ones. Once again, just generally great steel.

It is worth noting here that Disston and Simmonds both made their own saw steel so there’s likely an advantage in consistency of the steel in these saws, but good saw steel appears to be just good saw steel.

The one vintage saw steel I have seen some difference in is Atkins “Silver Steel”. I’m not aware of the actual chemical composition of this steel, but the 6 1/2″ Atkins No.52 2 man crosscut bucking saw I currently have in stock seems to be a fair amount tougher than either the Disston or Simmonds crosscut saws. The Atkins seemed to take a bit more effort to file and definitely required more effort to set, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a runaway.

So, what to take away from this? In the end result here, there really isn’t enough difference in the saw steel to justify accepting or rejecting a vintage saw on that basis. Get a saw from one of the big three ( Disston, Atkins, or Simmonds ) ( or an OEM version ) and avoid the temptation of the shiny saw that never rusts and the evils of chrome and you’ll be just fine with the quality of the steel in your blade!

Visit me at any of the following locations:

Depot St, Norridgewock ME (Mondays)
Tractor Supply, Skowhegan, ME (Tuesday)
Arundel Flea Market, Rt 1 & Log Cabin Rd, Arundel, ME (Fridays)
298 W Front St, Skowhegan, ME (all other days)

If you’re looking for a special tool, please drop me an
email and let me know and I’ll restore one just for you!

SwiftWater Edge Tool Works provides mobile sharpening services across Maine and mail in services around the world for handsaws, carbide blades, planer knives, hand planes, chain saws, knives, scissors, hair clippers, router bits, and almost any blade!

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