Designed by early US industrialist Henry Disston and produced in his Philadelphian Key Stone Saw Works, by the late 1800’s the ‘Disston range of Backsaws’ had become synonymous with quality furniture and cabinetry making across the US.
This Disston 8 inch, No 5 Back Saw (Circa 1890). with its distinction Brass engraved ‘Back’, Applewood handle and featuring the renown Disston medallion is a rare example of one of the Keystone Saw Works early models and features in the Disston catalogue of 1876.
Disston's "skewback saw", was developed around 1874, anecdotally based on a chalk design created on an office floor, and became extremely popular across the country and often viewed as far superior to many of the English models of that era.
Born in Tewkesbury, England in 1819, Henry immigrated to the US with his family in 1833 arriving in Philadelphia on their way to New York. Just days after their arrival, Henry’s father took ill and died and Disston took on a job as a saw makers apprentice. By 1840 he had started his own saw making business and began to encourage more of his countrymen and women to immigrate to ensure his factory was staffed by skilled workers.
During the American Civil War, a protective tariff on foreign manufactured goods was imposed which further helped expand Disston's business even further and the Saw Works continued to thrive.
By 1871, Disston's saw mill had outgrown its factory and he moved the business to the outlying neighbourhood of Tacony, in what is now Northeast Philadelphia. At the time, Tacony was a small outlying area of Philadelphia, but it was located near the railroad and the Delaware River, and provided Disston with room for his saw mill to grow. Disston constructed homes for his workers, and designed them in an effort to improve their surroundings from their former dwellings in Philadelphia. This area of Tacony, known as the Disston Estate, was designed to bear Disston's imprint in the fashion of true Victorian utopianism.
Backsaws have two uses, to cut joints and to cut accurate angles in a miterbox and Disston offered backsaws in lengths from 8 to 18 inches, with the 8 and 10 inch saws having a thinner gauge blade and two saw-nuts on the handle.
There were three model numbers for the basic Disston backsaw. The common No. 4, with a blue back (darkened and given a bit of rust resistance by coating heated steel with linseed oil), the No. 5, featuring a brass back (as per this example), and the No. 7, which had a bright steel back.
According to the Distonian Institute’s reference website, this No 5 Brass Back Saw is one of the early models with the original handle design which later changed shape about 1918, when the so-called v-joint in the handle (the area of the hand hole just below mid-point, in front of the user's fingers) changed from a deep notch to a more gentler curve.
Another point that seems to date this model as mid to late 1890’s is the fact the Disston introduced an etching onto the blade of all their saws in the early 1900’s which continues to this day. Earlier models with their thinner steel blades did not carry this.
The No 5 Brass ‘Backsaw' continued up until the early 1940’s when it was discontinued when brass was no longer available for consumer goods due to WWII.