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.


| October 2002



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A typical blacksmith's anvil.

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.