The railroad track is known as one of the most popular anvil alternatives in Blacksmithing for a variety of reasons. Depending on the Size, some people use it for small projects while others use it for larger projects. Now, some people are saying that railroad anvil is not a good as an anvil. In this article, we decided to cover that topic in greater detail.
So, is railroad track the good anvil alternative?
The railroad track is an ideal anvil alternative for beginner blacksmiths since they don’t require expensive equipment. Due to the lower hardness level than typical anvils, the railroad track is mostly used for small and medium-size projects. The railroad track is cheap and often easily available. Note that before usage, the railroad track must be adequately dressed.
Next, we will discuss related topics, including:
- What Makes the Rail So Popular Among Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths?
- What Is the Railroad Track Made From?
- Can You Harden the Railroad Track?
- What Size Should Rail Track Be?
- Where to Find Railroad Tracks?
Okay, let’s tackle the first topic.
What Makes the Rail So Popular Among Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths?
As we already said, the railroad track is the common anvil alternative among blacksmiths, especially beginners. The first great benefit of the railroad track is that it is relatively cheap to acquire, sometimes even free. Contact everybody that you think they have one laying in their garage or around the house.
The chances are that someone has it and will be happy to give it away. If somebody wants to sell you one, most of the time, that price will not be high. As a beginner, you want to start forging as soon as possible, you don’t want to wait months for a new anvil to arrive. That being said, for beginners, it makes sense to start with the railroad track as an anvil.
Another great thing about the railroad tracks is that they can be dressed and look like a “real “anvil. You can cut and shape the horn, based on your needs. You can smooth the edges, so they don’t cut into the material, and many other things to support your blacksmithing work.
The railroad track is usually tough, meaning it can withstand a lot of hammering. But that feature alone is not enough, anvil should also be hard. While the railroad track is not composed of the hardest steel, it still has a decent level of hardness. Note that they drastically vary in their composition in different parts of the world.
If you find that your railroad track is not hard, you can try welding a plate of high-carbon steel on top of the track and fix that problem. As you see, for both situations, there are solutions. When I picked the railroad track a few years ago, the first thing I did was testing its hardness.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact level of hardness it was, but I know it wasn’t enough to use it as an anvil. So, I decided to weld a plate of 1095 steel. With enough dressing and proper mounting, that anvil is still in my workshop and serves me well.
The rail is ideal for making small and medium-sized projects, which represent most of the beginner work. You can easily forge items like hooks, bottle openers, fire pokers, and many others. Besides that, it is also sufficient for making various knives, so if you are more into bladesmithing, a piece of the railroad track is an ideal choice.
ADVANTAGES OF RAIL TRACK ANVIL
- EASILY AVAILABLE
- GOOD TOUGHNESS
- SUFFICIENT FOR BEGINNERS
DISADVANTAGES OF RAIL TRACK ANVIL
- NOT SUITABLE FOR LARGE PROJECTS
- NOT AS HARD AS BLACKSMITHING ANVILS
- NOT DURABLE AS BLACKSMITHING ANVILS
What Is the Railroad Track Made From?
According to the American Society for Testing Materials, railroad tracks are made from steels in which carbon, Manganese, silicon, and phosphorus are primary alloys. Carbon content ranges from 0.55 to 0.82%, depending on weight and size. Rail contains a high amount of Manganese, which increases strength and abrasion resistance. Steels like 1084 or any equivalent hot rolled steel are commonly used.
1084 is medium-high carbon steel, which can be heat treated. It contains 0.8-0.9% of carbon, 0.9% of manganese, 0.5% of silicon, 0.3% of phosphorus and 0.5% of sulfur. This steel has incredibly high wear resistance, which makes it less likely to crack.
It also allows a solid heat treatment that will increase its hardness. Namely, the face of the anvil must be hard enough to endure constant striking, so having a hard surface is essential. There is nothing worse than having damaged anvil on the first day of usage.
In that case, you have two choices, to dress it all over again or to throw it away. I usually prefer the other option. I want to note that these statements don’t necessarily apply to all countries. Some countries use better-quality steels while other lower-quality steels.
There are many possible steel-grades used in making the railroad tracks. Some may turn out to be excellent anvils, while others do not.
Can You Harden the Railroad Track?
I see a lot of debates on the blacksmithing forums where some say that railroad track cannot harden while others argue otherwise. As always, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Since not all railroad tracks are the same, not all of them can be effectively hardened. Due to the medium carbon content, any attempt to quench harden usually results in either no gain of hardness or too much of it. The worst-case scenario is that after the quenching, there could be a large crack that could ruin all hard work. On the other hand, the best-case scenario is having a harder face of the anvil.
The bottom side is usually softer than the top, and therefore if you plan to use the bottom side, hardening becomes even more critical. The top side is typically quenched, but it is still not as hard as before it has been in service.
One of the best ways to harden the railroad track is by water-quenching it.
For those who may be unfamiliar with this term, quenching is a cooling process where hot material is taken out of the forge and immediately placed in some type of medium, usually in water or oil. After cooling down, the material becomes much harder, but also more brittle.
Before starting, make sure that the rail is adequately cleaned. Contrarily you are putting the whole further process at higher risk of cracking. After cleaning, bring it to a non-magnetic temperature and take it out from the forge. Now, slowly soak it in a water bucket at a slight angle.
Do not drop it. After the complete cool down, take it out and test it with a file. If the file bites it, the hardening process is not successful. On the other hand, if it doesn’t grind into it, the railroad track has been hardened correctly.
In terms of ideal hardness of the anvil, it is very tough to say the exact level, but as a general rule of thumb, anywhere from 50-55 HRC is sufficient. Having the hard anvil helps to reduce the damage of wearing down. It also provides a better rebound when hammering.
This guy made an excellent video on this topic, check it out.
What Size Should Rail Track Be?
Well, it depends. Since I could leave it at that, I highly doubt that this answer satisfies you, so let’s answer this in greater detail.
The size of the rail track should fit the type of blacksmithing work you are doing. Therefore, if you work only on small size projects, you need a smaller piece of rail track. Contrarily, if you make larger projects, you need a larger piece of the track. Except for the type of work, hammers weight is another crucial factor. Generally, it is recommended to have an anvil that is at least ten times heavier than a hammer.
So, if you mostly use a 2-pound hammer, the minimum weight of the anvil should be 20 pounds. The ideal weight ratio of the anvil to hammer would be somewhere between 30-50:1. For example, if small projects like hooks and bottle openers are all you do, you don’t need anvil more massive than 100 pounds.
On the other hand, if you are more into bladesmithing, we recommend having at least 120-150 pound anvil. While lighter anvils would also do the job just fine, remember, a heavier anvil is almost always better.
Another common question is whether you should use the bottom or top side as the face?
Remember, your goal is to have as much weight as possible to produce greater force under the hammer. Knowing that it usually doesn’t matter much which side is used. The top side is generally used as the face due to the lower vibrations and ringing noise. The bottom side is usually completely flat, which makes it ideal for mounting on a base.
Let’s go back to the size factor. Another extremely important factor is portability. Do you have regular blacksmithing shows? Do you have to move your anvil often? These are also questions you have to ask yourself before choosing the right size of the rail track.
If it happens you have to move the anvil very often, we recommend having an anvil no heavier than 100 pounds, mainly due to practical reasons. Imagine having the 200 or 300-pound anvil that you have to move in and out every week. It is simply not practical nor easy. Moving that monster would require having at least two or three persons. As you can see, it would be a huge PITA.
I have seen some people welding together three pieces of rail tracks. While for some large project that may be necessary, for most beginner blacksmithing work, it is simply not. Typically, a 20-inch piece of railroad track with a plate of high carbon steel welded on top is sufficient.
Where to Find Railroad Tracks?
The wonderful thing about rail tracks is they are most easily available. For some people, it may be a little harder to find them while for others very easy, primarily depending on where you live. Before I start discussing where you can get them, I should first say where you shouldn’t do that.
Namely, NEVER search them on the railroad property! You can get yourself into serious legal issues. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s move on.
Railroad tracks could be found in a variety of different places.
The first thing you do is to say your family and friends that you are looking for some piece of rail track and see does someone has it. You would be surprised how often people have stuff like that laying in the garage or around the house. Most of the time, it is just useless for them, but for you, it is gold.
For example, my buddy gave me two pieces of railroad tracks for free. He couldn’t wait to finally get rid of them. The best thing about that was that these tracks didn’t require a lot of dressing. They were already shaped like an anvil.
Another commonplace to search for rail tracks is a scrapyard. Not only that, there is a high chance of finding it, but the price you will pay is low. In a scrapyard, you can find a lot of useful things for your work, from metal used as a material to old anvils.
Other places worth checking out are various state sales, auctions, maintenance yards, and auto repair shops. Ideally, you want to find already track that is already dressed. Since that is rarely the case, know that you are gonna have to do that either by yourself or pay someone else to do it.
To find more about anvils alternatives, make sure to check Blacksmithing Without an Anvil-Top 6 Alternatives.
In the end, the most crucial thing is to start Blacksmithing. Don’t wait until you can afford the best equipment and tools. That is absolutely not necessary. As the Nike slogan says; Just do it.