A History of Anvils

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore relates the evolution of metalworking, including types of anvils from copper and lead to cast iron anvils and the cast steel of today.

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A typical blacksmith's anvil.

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This month's column is a change of pace from tractors and farm equipment. Instead, we'll take a look at the histoy of anvils. Most early farm shops had an anvil, or at least a chunk of railroad rail that could be used to straighten or bend metal, set rivets – and crack walnuts.

The discovery of metalworking, which began in the area of present-day Turkey and Iran about 6,000 B.C., changed the world. According to Anvils in America, by Richard A. Postman, copper and lead were being smelted together and the resulting lumps of metal hammered into thin sheets and used for ornaments by 5,400 B.C. Also, copper was being used to make weapons and tools by 4,000 B.C. Another millennium passed, though, before smiths learned how to mix molten copper and tin to make bronze.

Types of Anvils

The early smiths used stone hammers to beat the copper and lead, and stones served as their anvils. Pieces of meteorites that appear to have been used as anvils also have been unearthed. These meteorites are quite hard and consist mostly of iron with a bit of nickel and other trace elements.

Eventually, both hammers and anvils were made of bronze; a number of bronze anvils have been found and dated to between 1,200 and 800 B.C. Axes, daggers and similar weapons and tools were cast in open molds chipped out of stone. The molten bronze was poured into the stone mold and covered with a clay cap. After cooling, the casting was reheated and hammered to harden the metal.

About 1,700 B.C., the Hittites in Asia Minor discovered iron and how to smelt it. Iron is harder and tougher than bronze, and soon the Hittites were crafting superior weapons. They dominated the Middle East for 500 years before their civilization finally crumbed. Iron weapons appeared among the barbarian tribes of central Europe about 700 B.C., and were spread westward by the Celts, who dominated much of Europe from 650 B.C. until they were subdued by the Romans in about 100 A.D. Iron anvils have been found in Roman ruins, and the anvil is mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah 41:7.

Early anvils were made of many materials, including stone, iron-bearing meteorites, bronze and iron as already mentioned. After the process for making steel was discovered, the soft wrought iron anvils then being used were fitted with a hardened steel faceplate, and when cast iron became available about 1600, it was much cheaper than steel, so some anvils were made of that material.

Chilling could harden the face of a cast iron anvil but cast iron is brittle, so these anvils couldn't be used for heavy work. A few manufacturers sold steel-faced cast iron anvils that worked fairly well.

Wrought-iron anvils were made of blocks that started out as piles of scrap iron. The scrap iron was forge-welded, and the resulting block was shaped into an anvil under a trip hammer. Next, the hardened steel faceplate was hammer-welded into place and final finishing was done by hand, using sledge hammers, flatters and other shaping tools as well as grinders. As many as seven men were needed to position and hammer a single anvil during this process. Present-day anvils are made mostly of cast steel with a hardened face.

Anvils have been made in many styles over the years, although the types commonly found today at farm sales and in antique shops are smiths' or farrier's anvils. The farrier's anvil differs from the smith's by having no shoulder and a larger horn, as well as often having a second pritchel hole. Sometimes, a small, flattened protrusion comes off the side of the larger horn and is used to form the upright clip at the front of a horseshoe.

Many different anvil tools, called hardies (also spelled 'hardy'), can be made to fit into the square hardies hole on the anvil's heel, including hot and cold cutters, flatters and fullers, and swages. Typically, these tools are made by a blacksmith for various purposes; their uses are limited only by the user's imagination. The pritchel hole is used for punching holes, while both it and the hardies hole can be used for holding the end of a rod for bending. The hardened face of the anvil is used for hammering hot or cold metal, and the unhardened table is used for chisel work. The horn is used for bending curves, particularly the shaping of horseshoes.

Buying an Anvil

The 'liveness' of an anvil determines its efficiency and is characterized not by the ring, as many folks think, but by the anvil's ability to cause the hammer to bounce up after each blow. Wayne Goddard writes in How to Buy an Anvil for Knife Making that the best way to tell if an anvil is any good is to drop a 1-inch ball bearing onto the face from a height of 18 inches. If the bearing bounces right back into your hand, the anvil is one of the better ones and will be easy to use.

Most second-hand anvils on the market today have been used hard and are often rusty, with the formerly square edges of the hardened steel faceplate chipped and rounded off. Prices vary widely, but usually ran from $1 to $2 per pound for an anvil in average condition. I found anvils selling on eBay recently at these prices: a 150- pound example with no name went for $260; a 110-pound Peter Wright brand for $169; a 60-pound no-name with the horn point broken off for $60; a 170-pound Sterling Hardware Co. anvil, in good condition, with one hardie, for $227.50, and a 200-pound Vulcan brand in good shape for $300. I have a rusty and chipped 150-pound smith's anvil of unknown make that I bought for $100 about eight years ago at an engine and tractor show.

Unless you're a serious blacksmith, chipped edges shouldn't be a big problem. If a sharp corner to work on is important to you, the edges can be built up by welding and then ground back square. This process requires careful preheating and controlled cooling, and should be done by someone experienced in the process.

Before use, the anvil should be securely mounted to a solid base. If it bounces, the piece being forged will not receive the full effect of the hammer blow. Also, if a hardie or pritchel hole is being used to bend a piece of iron, it's essential that the anvil be stable on its base. The base can be a solid block of wood (sections of tree trunks are often used) or it may be built of dimension lumber or steel channel.

To provide for the least strain on both the smith's back and his hammer arm, the anvil must be adjusted to the smith's height. Robb Gunter writes in Anvil Magazine that the anvil should be high enough that the smith needn't bend over, yet low enough to allow his arm to be fully extended at the time the hammer strikes the anvil. He recommends that the top of the anvil's face be about 'wrist high.' FC 

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.