In The Saw Shop: restoring vintage tools, to refinish handles or not, that is the question.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

I’m always pleased when I hear a customer comment on how beautiful my restored vintage tools are, but every once in a while, someone will take exception to what I do.

A lot of the people who are used to dealing in antiques are horrified to see me refinishing handsaw, wood plane, and other vintage tool handles and wood such as transitional plane bodies. For these folks, disturbing the original finish (or remnants of original finish) or “patina” (don’t get me started on “patina”) on anything old is a cardinal sin and destroys the value of it completely.

The first fact is that the tools I restore are done with the goal of returning beautiful and high quality tools the likes of which are not being made today to use. People (rightfully) won’t buy a tool that looks like garbage (no matter how much of a wonderful antique it might be) because it’s unusable in that condition. A handsaw with a rusty and crusty blade and a cracked and split gray weather worn handle might have the virtue of being “all original” but even the most ardent tool collector wouldn’t hang it on the wall, much less try to use it.

Second, leaving wooden tool handles and other wooden tool parts missing finish WILL end up destroying them. I just took a RARE Disston #1 (C. Bishop Special) handsaw in today to do a total restore for a customer (you never know what someone is going to bring into the mobile sharpening rig). Made between 1865 and 1876, this saw has an arrow straight blade, darned near perfect teeth, and, most surprisingly, a 100% bright and legible etch! It also has a handle with 5% original finish, a whole bunch of checking, and a nasty crack through the medallion hole that has also started a crack near the lower horn, threatening to split the entire handle in half. Leave this unfixed and the next thing you’re going to have is a rare blade with splinters instead of a handle.

Leaving vintage tool wood without finish allows it to expand and contract repeatedly from absorbing moisture and the drying out. Expand and contract enough and now you have a crack. Crack enough and now you have a pile of debris that used to be a handle.
I keep repairing 1 man crosscut saw “D” handles that show this, gray, weather worn, and tons of small cracks.

On the old Disston #1, I’ll secure the crack at the bottom of the grip with a hidden brass wood screw and seal the crack with Loctite Woodbonder. Once I’m sure the handle won’t split, I’ll remove the handle from the saw and repair the split across the cheek with Woodbonder again. After I seal the remaining larger cracks, I’ll sand the entire handle clean and smooth, coat it thoroughly with my linseed oil and stain combination formula (for a near duplicate appearance to the original finish) to “feed the wood”, and a textured spar urethane clearcoat. The spar urethane closely matches the appearance of the original finish, provides better grip, is highly durable, and is impervious to water and weather.

The purists can keep their disintegrating handles and other vintage tool wood, MY customers get a finish that looks great, looks original, but is comfortable to use and wears like iron.

I’m pretty sure I know which they’ll prefer.

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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