The Complete Guide to Blacksmithing Anvil


Anvil is often considered as a mother of all forging tools for a perfect reason. Every working project requires anvils use, so we can also say that it is an inevitable forging tool. In this in-depth article, you will learn all about blacksmithing anvil before you decide to buy one.

Lets Begin, What Is an Anvil?

Besides hammer, the anvil is the most recognized tool in blacksmithing. Anvil is a massive piece of metal that serves as a work table for blacksmiths. The function of the anvil is to provide a tough working surface against which metal is later forged. Its weight can vary from 20 to 500 pounds, depending on the type of work being done. When someone uses the word anvil, most of the time, it refers to a London or German-style anvil, which is very similar.

When you are just getting started, it is essential to know the purpose and primary uses of the anvil. Techniques like drawing, upsetting, punching, cutting are all done on the anvil. Keep in mind that anvil has a lot of parts where each has its purpose. For example, the drawing technique is mostly done on the face of the anvil, whereas bending is mostly done on the anvil’s horn.

Anvils come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Even if two of them are of the same sizes, their shape can be completely different. For example, today’s London style anvils emerged from colonial anvils, which were very stumpy and squarish. To start blacksmithing, you need at least some type of anvil. If you don’t have a London or German-style anvil, don’t worry, there are many great alternatives that we discuss later in the article. You don’t need the best tools and equipment right off the bat. When it comes to blacksmithing tools, start slowly.

Anvil is the center of all action in the workshop, so good knowledge about this tool is critical. Understanding all anvils concept will make your work safer, more comfortable, and better quality. Remember, poor knowledge is one of the biggest dangers in blacksmithing. And now, let’s learn how the anvil has evolved over the years.

A Brief History of the Anvil

The first anvil dates back to 6000 years ago in the area of what is now Turkey and Iran. The early smiths used meteorites and stones to hammer materials like copper and lead. Meteorites were the ideal anvil due to its high hardness. They primarily consist of iron and other trace elements. Then, somewhere between 1,200 and 800 B.C., bronze was the primary material for anvil making.

In that time, forging was mostly drawing of edges and decoration work. Because of that, small anvils were used. The molten bronze was filled into the mold made of stone and covered with clay. After the cooling, the process was heated again and hardened.

After bronze, iron is finally discovered in Asia around 1700 B.C. Iron is much harder and tougher than bronze, so eventually, iron completely replaced the bronze over time. Iron anvils have a hard face that stops it from deforming from the continuous hammering. In the early 20th century, wrought iron was produced, which completely changed the anvil making process. Anvils made of wrought iron were considered the best then and remain so today.

Today, you cant find a lot of new high-quality anvils, mainly because of the mechanized production. In most cases, anvils made back in the 20th century are considered superior to those made later on. I would say this is primarily because the anvil was an absolute necessity compared to today. In the end, you can see that anvil made some considerable development over time.

What Are the Main Parts of the Anvil?

Each part of the anvil has an essential purpose in blacksmithing work. Although there are many different types of an anvil, most of them have the same main parts. The main components of the anvil are:

  • The Face
  • Table
  • The Horn
  • The Pritchel Hole
  • The Hardy Hole

The Face

Anvil’s face is the most crucial part of the anvil. It is located on top where most of the hammering takes place. Depending on personal needs, edges can be either rounded or sharp. In most cases, rounded corners are recommended primarily because they cant easily cut into the metal. The face of the anvil is usually the toughest and also the toughest part of the anvil.

This is because mainly, it is made of hardened steel. The face should be as flat as possible. If it is not, any mark on the surface can easily cause damage to the working metal. The harder the face is, the more efficient hammering is. Hard face reduces the amount of force lost in each strike. Note that you should never directly strike the face with tools made of hardened steel as that can damage it.

Table

The Table or Step is located between the anvil face and the horn. Its principal function is to cut metal. The table is usually softer than the face, which allows resurfacing or dressing in case the chisel damage it. Keep in mind that frequent use can damage the table.

The Horn

The primary purpose of the horn is to bend the metal. It is a cone-shaped extension of an anvil. The horn allows the blacksmith to make precise curves into the working piece. Some people use horn to draw metal, but most of them don’t. Anvils face much more convenient for drawing technique.

To shape metal on the horn, pick the section that seems to have the right radius, and hammer it around. Keep in mind that it is easier to work with the round bar than the flat bar due to less risk of distortion.

The Pritchel Hole

The Pritchel hole is one of the simplest parts of the anvil. It is primarily used for making a hole in metal. Except for punching, it can also serve to hold the tools that make your work much more manageable. Some people mix the pritchel hole with the hardy hole. The only difference between the two is the shape of the hole. The hardy hole is square, whereas the pritchel hole is round.

The Hardy Hole

The Hardy hole is a square hole, usually located near the Pritchel hole or sometimes on the opposite side of the face, depending on the style of the anvil. The primary purpose of the Hardy hole is to hold and secure various tools like chisels, swages, bickerns, etc. The tools placed in the hardy hole are called Hardy tools which can be used for various blacksmithing techniques like bending, cutting, punching, etc.

What Is the Best Size of the Anvil?

Simply said, there is no best size of the anvil. This primarily depends on the type of project you are working on. For example, if you are doing jewelry work, a 400lb anvil is not a good choice. On the other hand, if you are making swords, a tiny 30lb anvil is not very useful. Except that, portability is another determining factor. How often you plan to move the anvil?

In a typical blacksmithing shop, you will most likely find the anvil heavy somewhere between 70 to 150lb (32 to 68kg) as this is the largest suitable portable size. We can still give you some general guidelines for deciding the ideal size of the anvil. The ideal size should be proportional to the type of project and the hammer. The ideal anvil to hammer weight ratio is around 50:1. For instance, a 3lb hammer and 150lb anvil is an excellent combination.

What Is an Anvil Made Of?

Anvil can either be forged or cast. In most cases, forged anvils are a superior option due to the higher level of hardness and toughness. A well-forged anvil will last centuries, whereas a casted one probably won’t. Most of today’s best anvils are forged ones, but quality comes with the cost. Yes, forged anvils are much more expensive than the casted ones.

Casting vs. Forging

Casting is the process where the material is heated to extremely high temperatures until molten. While the metal is in the liquid state, it is poured into a mold of the desired shape. After that, it is allowed to cool and solidify. Casting is usually cheaper than forging.

Forging is the process where some way of compressive is used to shape metal. Most often, a hammer or die strikes the material until the desired result is achieved. This process creates anvils with substantially higher strength that is usually tougher than anvil processed by casting. Forged anvils are less likely to take damage during the work.

Anvil is usually made of iron, steel, or a combination of the two. There are a few ways how iron and steel could be mix together to form a good-quality anvil. Some of the most known ways are steel plates on a wrought iron body and a steel plate on a cast iron. The face of the anvil is forged into a high-carbon steel plate. The plate and the body were both heated to welding temperature and fluxed.

What Is the Difference Between Cast Iron and the Wrought Iron Anvil?

Cast Iron Anvil

When we are talking about cast iron, we usually mean gray iron. Despite its name, it is not pure elemental iron found in nature. Gray iron is an alloy that contains 2-4% carbon and often has a small amount of manganese and silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur.

It is formed by melting pig iron and mixing with other alloys. This liquid is then poured in molds that are allowed to cool and solidify afterward. During the process of casting, iron contains a few different materials in different phases in its microstructure. These changes affect its mechanical properties.

Cast iron contains carbon particles that create graphite flakes after it has been cool down. Graphite compromises the iron matrix by creating internal stress that often leads to cracks during the work. The cast iron anvil is excellent when you have a steel plate on top of the anvil.

Wrought Iron Anvil

Wrought iron is composed mainly of elemental iron found in nature. Except for iron, small amounts of silicon, aluminum oxides and phosphorus are also found. It is made by heating the iron material several times and using the hammer or die to shape it. It is also very malleable, which allows it to be re-heated and formed into the desired shape. The more it is worked, the stronger it becomes.

Because it contains less carbon, wrought iron is typically softer and more ductile. It has a high level of fatigue resistance that makes it an excellent choice for the anvil. It was used in 2000 BC in today’s Turkey. Wrought iron was commonly used in construction purposes in the 19th century.

Wrought iron and cast iron are both susceptible to rust. To increase the corrosion resistance, iron should be coated. Wrought iron anvil is superior to cast iron anvil. The best option is adding the steel plate on top of the wrought iron body that will drastically increase the toughness and longevity of the anvil.

How to Test an Anvil?

There are few different ways to test the quality of an anvil, including the steel ball rest and the hammer rebound test. Both of them are easy to do and don’t require advanced equipment.

Steel Ball Test

To complete the steel ball test, all you need is a tiny steel ball, ruler, and the anvil of course. The first step in this test is to place the ruler vertically on the anvil face.

Set the ball at around 10inch (25cm) and simply drop it down. We recommend repeating this test in a few different places, so you have a significant result. Results received can vary depending on the anvils mass, ball hardness, and the anvil’s surface. The higher the rebound of the ball, the better.

Be careful not to throw the ball out of your hand, but just drop it. That will tell you nothing about the quality of the anvil. If you throw the ball, it will bounce higher because of the increased energy, which makes this test pointless. Note that this is not the perfect indicator of anvils hardness but rather a decent estimate.

Hammer Rebound Test

Hammer rebound test is done by simply dropping the head of the hammer and observing the rebound. A higher the rebound, the better. Before starting, I must say that you shouldn’t make a strike as it won’t produce proper results. As you can see already, the same concept is applied here. To complete the test, all you need is a two or 3lb hammer and the anvil.

Set the hammer over the center of the anvil. The handle of the hammer should be parallel to the anvil’s face. Keep in mind to use the face of the hammer, not the peen. Once everything is set correctly, simply drop the hammer and observe the rebound. Everything above 30% of the initial distance is considered a good result. If the rebound is only around 10%, it is probably a cast iron anvil.

Where Should You Place the Anvil In the Shop?

Anvil is one of the most well-known forging tools. Besides its vast importance, smith does most of the work on the anvil, so it is vital to place it in the right place of the shop.

Generally, the typical recommendation is to place the anvil somewhere in the middle of the workshop. Placing the anvil in the middle of the shop creates enough space to walk around freely without a problem. There is nothing worse than constantly watching not to touch or burn something with the hot metal.

It is also a good idea to place the anvil near the forge. The anvil and the forge are often called “the heart of blacksmithing shop,” as the most work takes place there. That way, you can take out a hot workpiece and immediately put it on the anvil and start hammering.

The ideal distance between the anvil and the forge primarily depends on the size of the project you mostly work on. The larger the project, the larger the distance should be. For small projects, we recommend making a distance at around 4-5 feet (1.2-1-5m). For large projects, we recommend a slightly more extensive range of about 6-7 feet (1.8-2.1m).

Another common question is about the proper position of the anvil. Horn left or horn right? The horn’s position generally depends on personal preference. However, we can give you a couple of directions to make the right decision. Note that I will use the term “hammer hand” for the hand that holds the hammer. The term “tong hand” refers to the hand that holds the tongs.

Now, if you are using the horn a lot, it may be better to position it on the side of the hammer hand. This way, you are able to strike the workpiece without touching the anvil’s face with your knuckles. Besides that, you also have a better reach.

The position of the hardy hole is another important considering factor. Typically, the standard recommendation is to have a hardy hole on the side of the tong hand due to the use of hardy tools. Namely, a hardy tool placed on the left (tong hand) creates much free space to strike the hammer freely without hurting your knuckles on the hardy tool. While these are all just a standard recommendation, the best way to find out is to experiment and see whats works best for you.

The Easiest Way to Determine Your Ideal Height of the Anvil

Correctly setting the anvil is extremely important for two reasons. First, you increase the likelihood of injury. Continuous hammering on the anvil that is too high or too low puts a lot of stress on your body. If you set the anvil too high, there is a high chance of developing a shoulder injury. If you set the anvil too low, it either causes unnecessary stress on your lower back, or you have to extend the elbows fully.

Conserving energy is the second reason why it is essential to set the anvil on the right height. As you know, blacksmithing requires some level of physical endurance and strength, so it is vital to have enough energy. While proper hammering technique is one of the most critical factors, setting the anvil right is right next to it. If your anvil is not set correctly, you have to make negative postural compensation that will drain your energy level very quickly.

The easiest way to find your right anvil height is to stand by its side with the feet standard width apart. So, if you are striking the hammer with your right, stand by your right side. Make a fist with your right hand and observe the knuckle’s height. The knuckle’s height is your ideal height of the anvil.

Making your anvil safe and stable is the most important thing before you start working on it. Even if your anvil weighs only 50lb, keep in mind that it can still injure you if it falls on your leg. If you have a small anvil, you have to be even more careful to make it stable. In that scenario, wrapping a chain around the neck is a good idea as it will add some extra weight.

How to Properly Mount an Anvil?

While there are many different ways to install an anvil, the easiest one is to mount it on a stump with a couple of railroad spikes. The head of the railroad spikes pulls down the edge of the anvil feet, making the anvil stable. It is crucial to keep in mind that the size of the stump depends on the size of the anvil. The more massive the anvil, the heavier a piece of stump must be.

To see the easiest way to mount an anvil accurately, check The Easiest Way to Properly Mount an Anvil.

How to Silence the Anvil?

Blacksmithing is definitely among the loudest craft, especially when you are hammering stuff on the anvil. That often exceeds the 85 decibels, which is known as the harmful noise level. Working in that environment over a long period noticeably impairs hearing. In some extreme cases, complete hearing loss is possible. Before we go into the ways of quieting the anvil, I must say that you should always wear ear protection during work.

The most common ways to silencing the anvil are wrapping the chain around the neck and placing a couple of magnets. Note that it is impossible to reduce the ringing sound completely, but you can still minimize a decent amount of it. Wrapping the chain around the anvil’s neck does not always work. This method primarily depends on the size of the anvil. The smaller the anvil, the more significant effect it has on the reduction of the noise.

Recommended reading:
How to Silence the Anvil (5 Proven Ways That Actually Work)

What Is the Best Anvil Alternative?

Not everybody can afford the ideal blacksmithing anvil, so finding a good alternative is significant. A good-quality anvil is hard to find nowadays, but its price also jumped up significantly. Used anvils usually cost around 4-5$ per pound, whereas the new ones are around 10$ per pound. Yep, a high price for a piece of steel.

There are a few factors that should be considered before deciding on the anvil alternative. These are stability, hardness, material, portability, shape.

Stability is also a critical factor to consider. Typically, the larger it is, the heavier it is. So, the more massive anvil is, the more stable it is. The more massive it is, the less it will move under the impact of the hammer. If an anvil is not correctly mounted, it isn’t stable, so working on it becomes very dangerous. 

The hardness of the anvil is the most critical factor. An anvil must be hard and tough enough to endure constant striking without taking damage. The most important part is the face of the anvil. It must be the hardest as it takes the most hits. Always look for steel anvils, rather than the iron ones. Although wrought iron is not bad material, steel is the better option.

What your anvil is made of is incredibly important. A low-quality anvil will not serve you a long time. You don’t want an anvil made of cast iron as it is not hard enough to endure the blacksmithing work successfully. Wrought iron is superior to cast iron, mainly due to its higher level of hardness. It is also much stronger compared to cast iron making it a better option for an anvil.

On the other hand, steel is an alloy that mainly consists of carbon and iron. Steel is not naturally found on the earth. Carbon content is primarily what differentiates steel and iron. Steel is both harder and more durable than iron; therefore, it is the best material for the anvil.

One of the most common anvil alternatives is a railroad track. It is typically made of medium carbon steel. It is the most popular choice, mainly due to its high level of hardness and toughness. I should warn you that you should not try to find that on railroad property. That way, you could have legal issues.

To find out what is the best anvil alternative for you, check Blacksmithing Without an Anvil-Top 6 Alternatives.

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