For some collectors, a stationary engine is a portal to the past. For others, sentimental ties are maintained by preserving a tractor that's been in the family for decades. For Chip Barkman of Texarkana, Texas, an anvil used by his father and grandfather is a very solid connection to the roots of agriculture in America.
"We have an old family anvil that was my grand-dad's," Chip says. "Three generations have used it. Last year, we retired it. We regard it as a family heirloom now."
It's also the start of a collection that now numbers more than 30 anvils from the U.S. and abroad. Chip's dad began the hobby with a small collection; Chip has taken off from there. "About two years ago," he recalls, "I saw an anvil for sale, said 'What the heck' and bought it." His wife, Michelle, joined forces with her husband: She collects small anvils, the type used by jewelers. The couple is also interested in related tools: tongs, chisels and hammers.
Anvils were once common on the farm and industry. "Blacksmiths and farriers used large anvils to shoe horses," Chip says. "Anvils were used for all kinds of metal work and welding. They didn't have arc welders back then. Larger anvils were used in industrial shops - machine shops, shipyards and railroad yards."
Although a special anvil created for the Centennial Exposition of 1876 weighed in at 1,400 pounds, the biggest anvil produced by most manufacturers 100 years ago was in the 800-pound range. More typical was a piece at the other end of the scale, Chip says. "The typical Texas farm anvil weighed 100-150 pounds," he says. "Farm anvils in the north and east may have been bigger. With westward migration, people carried everything they owned with them on covered wagons, and they had to be more selective. Those big anvils were just too heavy to haul out here."
Specific anvils were used by makers of plows, coaches, saws and chains. Ultimately, as technology grew more sophisticated, the need for anvils diminished. "There was less dependence on horses," Chip says, "and at the same time, trip hammers and steam hammers replaced anvils in industrial use."
On the farm, however, for decades the anvil remained a useful tool. "My grandfather was a farmer, and he sharpened plow points on our anvil (which is dated 1917). He'd hammer edges down, sharpen things and bend out bent metal," Chip says. "And I've watched my dad work with an anvil all my life."
Chip's collection numbers about 30, with American-made pieces as well as some from England and Sweden. "I've been lucky," he says. "You can find anvils, but you really have to be looking." Chip advises looking for them at farm and estate auctions, at antique stores and in classified ads. Word of mouth is also good, he says; you might also try draft horse auctions, machine shop and ornamental iron shop auctions, flea markets, swap meets, antique farm shows and blacksmith events. "Of course there's eBay," he says, "but that's really expensive."
The Mousehole Forge in England is generally considered to be the first site of commercially manufactured anvils, reaching as far back as the 1600s. Sometime in the 1700s or early 1800s, a worker at that facility, Peter Wright, left to form his own company. "You see a lot of Peter Wright anvils in the U.S., and a lot of them are still in use," Chip says. "Most of those were imported, or brought by settlers. There were no American-made anvils until about 1850."
Mark Fisher is said to be the manufacturer of the first anvils produced in the U.S. Fisher & Norris anvils were produced at Trenton, N.J., from 1847-1961. The first model was made of cast iron with a cast steel face. All Fisher & Norris anvils bear an eagle trademark. "Even if the name is unreadable," Chip says, "if you see an Eagle, you know it's a Fisher."
In the 1890s, Hay-Budden anvils entered the fray in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until its demise in the early 1920s, the company produced wrought iron anvils (considered to be superior to cast iron) with crucible cast steel facing.
As with all farm equipment, anvils were meant to be used. With many now at the century mark, condition varies. "I've seen some in remarkably good condition," Chip says. "Others are not. I haven't seen one that's been perfect.
"If the anvil is cared for, it stands up pretty good. What you see in the wrought iron with steel plate is that the steel is much harder and a piece may have broken off and have to be repaired. Or, it may have been used until the break was so bad that it couldn't be repaired." He prefers to leave his anvils the way he finds them. "I buy them for their historic value," he says.
Identification is easy, in theory. "Almost all manufacturers put their names on the anvil," Chip says. Usage, though, can make that name impossible to read. "Often when you bend metal on an anvil, you actually hammer on the anvil's side, where the name was," he notes. "A lot of times, the name is gone, just because of use." German and Swedish anvils are measured in kilograms and may carry that designation.
Find an anvil with a mysterious three- or four-digit number cast into it? It's almost certainly of old English manufacture. The number reflects an English system of weights and measures based on the English hundredweight, equivalent to 112 pounds. The number is deciphered in this way:
Say the number on the anvil is 117. The number in the first position stands for multiples of a hundredweight, in this case, 112 pounds.
The number in the second position stands for the "quarter weight" of a hundredweight. Because it stands for quarter-weights, the number in the second position will be either 1, 2 or 3, representing, respectively, 28 pounds (one-quarter of 112), 56 pounds (one-half of 112) or 84 pounds (three-quarters of 112). Because the number on this imaginary anvil is 117, the number in the second position (1) represents 28 pounds.
The number(s) in the third position represents a value between 1 and 27. In this case, with our imaginary anvil marked 117, the number in the third position represents seven pounds.
To compute the anvil's total weight, simply add the three figures: 112 + 28 + 7 = 147 pounds.
Anvil shooting, a long-established Southern tradition, is not a natural partner to anvil collecting. Dating to the end of the Civil War, when Confederate field artillery and cannons were removed by Union troops, the practice (in which a large quantity of black powder is ignited in an anvil) is one said to be born of necessity. Without cannons, how else to make "a big bang" on the Fourth of July? When extreme force meets flaws in the iron, however, the anvil can be damaged (and airborne fragments become, essentially, shrapnel). When it comes to anvil shooting, Chip is interested … to a point. "I know very little about it," he says. "I would like to see it done, but it would hurt me bad if I saw one of my anvils up in the air."
■ Chip Barkman, 7120 FM 559, Texarkana, TX 75505; (903) 832-6227; e-mail: email@example.com
■ Anvils in America (considered by anvil collectors to be the ultimate authority on the topic), by Richard Postman, Postman Publishing, 10 Fisher Ct., Berrien Springs, MI 49103;
■ Blacksmith's Gazette, P.O. Box 2168, Snohomish, WA 98291; (360) 668-0976;
■ Anvil Magazine, available online only at www.anvilmagazine.com
■ The Artist-Blacksmith's Association of North America, online at www.abana.org