The enigmatic nib
A buddy showed me an old estate-sale handsaw that he bought to decorate his shop walls. The end of the blade featured a small protuberance. He didn't know its purpose, and to this day I puzzle over that handsaw bump. Any clues to its purpose?
—Shawn Farris, Needham, Mass.
That tiny bump—called a "nib"—near the front of old handsaw blades has, for decades, been a source of contention among antique-tool collectors, Shawn.
A lack of firsthand info has bred many theories.
Erik von Sneidern, historic handsaw aficionado and curator of disstonianinstitute.com, has heard every theory imaginable. Some of the more amusing suggest that the nib was used as a gauge to tell you when to stop pulling the saw (though muscle-memory serves better), a scribe for starting a cut (though the teeth are far more suited to the task), or a tool to break through nails in recycled wood (which does not work, but might explain why you find so many saws with the nibs broken off).
Erik's pet theory relates to 17th-century Dutch saws that featured a knob-type handle in the same location. Modern, more-rigid steel eliminated the need for a stabilizing front handle, but the similarly shaped nib was added in its place to invoke a traditional look.
"Remember, back around the late 1800s and early 1900s, the appearance of the tool was as important as its function," says Erik.
Disston and Sons, an early major manufacturer of handsaws in the United States, gives perhaps the final word on the matter, backing Erik's theory. According to Disston's Lumberman Handbook: "The 'nib' near the end of a hand saw has no practical use whatever, it merely serves to break the straight line of the back of the blade and is an ornamentation only."