Purpose and Philosophy of the Disstonian Institute

or What Makes You Such an Expert Anyway?

A few words about assigning dates and ages to old tools and the reason for publishing this website.

Saws, woodworking planes, and other tools are different from old cars and washing machines in that they were not manufactured during specific model years and given serial numbers. This makes it difficult for collectors to tie down manufacturing dates with great accuracy. For some tools, such as Stanley planes, there has been a good deal of research, and type studies have been created, based on the characteristics of dozens or hundreds of examples of the tools. Planes are a very popular collectable, so the type studies are accurate and reasonably conclusive. Even the exceptions and anomalies are well documented.

This is not so much the case for Disston saws, and even less so for other brands that are not as common on the old tool market. There has been comparatively little research on saws, and the number of collectors, while growing, is still far less than that of Stanley tool collectors.

Because a handsaw has fewer design elements than a plane and has no moving parts, there are not as many characteristics to track over the period of manufacture. This makes it difficult to break the years of production of a particular saw model into a type study. In the case of a Stanley Bailey bench plane, in the period from 1867 until the 1960's, there are 20 distinct eras in Roger K. Smith's type study. For Disston saws we can say with certainty that a saw was made before or after 1928 because of a complete set of drastic changes in the whole line of saws. Beyond that the only characteristics that date a saw with much accuracy are the shape of the handle, the medallion, and the etch, but even those changes were few and generally far between.

There were fewer changes to the medallions and etches during the 20th century than during the 19th. The earliest Disston saws have eagle medallions and stamped, rather than etched, logos on the blade. Because there were relatively few saws manufactured in the first 20 years of Disston's production (1840-60), and they are so rarely seen today, there lacks a sample of saws that can be used to produce a type study as conclusive as the one that exists for Stanley planes.

That said, with the growing interest in saws and the ease of communication through the internet, more saws are coming to light and good scholarship is taking place. The research is based on catalogs and the saws themselves. Because it is a formidable (and expensive) task to collect a large range of saws and catalogs to assemble information, it benefits the community of collectors to share the information each member has. Added together, it could be a great resource. If you can document an omission or discrepancy in the information I have published in the Disstonian Institute, I'd like to hear about it.

Much of the information on this site is not based on my own research, nor do I own most of the saws shown here. There are guys who have owned more saws than I'll ever see. I don't consider what I've written to be the final word, because it's based on a limited sampling of data. The range of saw lengths and tooth pitch (PPI) for each Disston saw model tended to increase toward the end of the 19th century and started to decrease after the first decade of the 20th century. With that in mind, take the catalog information about the saws' lengths and PPI that I've included on several saw pages as only a general guide to what was manufactured. It probably is accurate for saws sold at the time the catalog was published, but the models and options on those saws gradually changed over time.

I've published the Disstonian Institute online for the purpose of enlightening and entertaining readers with information that's been lost to most people over the last several decades. This is not a commercial site. I'm not selling anything, nor am I buying much, for that matter. I developed this to be a resource for people interested in Disston handsaws: whether you're a beginning collector, an online auction seller who wants know more about the saws you're trying to pitch, or someone who wants to restore and actually use a handsaw.

When I became interested in Disston handsaws just a few years ago, information was scattered here and there, lots of it was word of mouth, and there were no websites related to saw collecting. Online resources were limited to a couple of sites with reproduced catalog pages. It was a start, but I was not the only one looking for a place to see photos of old saws or to find the manufacturing date of a particular Disston saw. For the most part, I think I've accomplished it, so I hope it's of use to you.

Erik von Sneidern
   Published Oct. 2001

Post Script: It's been twelve-plus years since I wrote this article, and I would say it's time to revise the statement in the 7th paragraph to say that a sizable majority of the information now on the site is the result of my research. The articles have ten times the amount of text they contained in 2001, and the information is more accurate. I have owned easily half of the saws that are photographed in the articles on the website. Some I sold after photographing them, but the pictures on the site are much better now than the images I lifted from Ebay auctions when I was starting out. The karmic payback has been the liberal use of my photos and writing by others to illustrate and describe their auctions. Serves me right. Collector interest in Disston saws and other brands has grown over the last decade. The sharing of information I wrote about did happen, and collectors are far-better informed about saws than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.
Added Jan. 2014.
Enrico and Sara


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