Anvils: A beginner buyers guide

Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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Ok chaps - I can't for the life of me remember if I ever posted this here before so mods please feel to move/ remove as necessary.

This is a very long read so go get a nice beverage and settle in - we seem to have a number of folks getting into blacksmithing at the minute and this is a post I wrote out some years ago for another forum that people have found helpful in the past so I thought I'd post it here too.


First of all I want to make it very clear that if you’re just starting out in blacksmithing you DO NOT NEED a “London Pattern anvil” to start hitting hot metal on. "Real" anvils are usually very expensive (your location in the world makes a big difference) not to mention relatively rare and hard to find.

All too often I see posts on forums or Facebook where a new smith has spent all of their spare cash because they “HAD” to have an anvil.

A large sledge hammer head, a section of rail track mounted vertically (more mass under the hammer) or any large chunk of scrap steel will make a perfectly serviceable anvil. Some are even better than a “real” anvil for one reason or another.



Also I’d like to make it very clear that this guide is aimed at newcomers to the craft and not seasoned smiths.



Also I’d like to note I’ve copied these images from the internet. All rights go to their respective owners. If you have an anvil that looks similar to the ones I’ve shown then please post them here so that we can use images from forum members. If anyone has issue with me using their image please let me know so I can take it down.



So this is the anatomy of an anvil:



Firstly lets look at a “Perfect” Anvil.



This is a brand new Refflinghaus anvil pictured on blksmth.com - The face is perfectly flat. The edges are straight and crisp. There’s nothing broken or missing. This is arguably the daddy of all anvils. A wonderful tool. If I could afford it I’d buy one. But the reality is I can’t.

Chances are that the anvil you are going to look at is very unlikely to look like the above. If it does you are either a) incredibly lucky or
spending a great deal of money. Which is absolutely fine either way.

So you’ve saved up a wad of cash and have found an anvil within reasonable collecting distance. What do you need to know and what should you be looking for?



When going to view an anvil you need to bring a testing kit with you.



You will need:

A hammer

A 1” ball bearing

A ruler. (preferably metal)

A scraper if the anvil is covered in paint. More on all that later.



RULE NUMBER ONE: ALWAYS TAKE CASH WITH YOU AND BRING MORE THAN THE COST OF THE ANVIL!!!!





Step 1: Figure out what it’s made of.



The first thing for me would be to work out what it is made from. Generally speaking it really doesn’t matter at all. The only real thing you need to discern is whether or not it is made of cast iron. (the bad kind)



Just for your knowledge though: There are several materials anvils can be made from - in no particular order.



Wrought iron body with welded steel face.



The oldest construction method of the bunch. These anvils have a forged wrought iron body with a steel face welded to the top. There are numerous British and American makers that used this method and it makes a superb anvil. The fact that so many survive today is a testament to the quality of their construction methods. - Older anvils had the face plate made up of several different pieces of steel, as steel was harder to make in large sections. Notable makers include Mousehole Forge, Peter Wright, Hill, Isaac Nash, Henry Wright, Wilkinsons and many others.

All forged anvils have identifying features that give away their construction. The most obvious is the presence of handling holes at the waste of the anvil and often a handling hole under the base of the anvil. This is where large tongs gripped the body while it was forged.


Another indication of forged construction is having a stamped makers mark, depressed into the steel rather than raised out of it.Forged wrought iron anvils have two very common “faults” - “delamination” and “sway”. More on these later.




I’ve inserted an image of a forged anvil. This is a Peter Wright. Notice the handling holes at the waste and under the base. Also note the extra handling hole in the feet, this is characteristic of Peter and Henry Wright anvils. You can also make out the stamp in the picture.



Another thing to note here is that I often see beginners try to identify anvils for one another on Facebook with some very strong opinions on what the anvil “DEFINITELY” is. If you are trying to identify an anvil with no clear markings I would suggest asking the forum or PM me directly. There are too many armchair experts out there who quite frankly have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.



Case and point is that there were literally HUNDREDS of forges making anvils in Britain. Below is a forged English anvil. NOT ALL ENGLISH ANVILS ARE THE “MOUSEHOLE” BRAND. - A great many makers made anvils with the same features as Mousehole Forge. The above anvil shares all the features of a Mousehole but I don’t see a makers name. As such it is likely not made by Mousehole.





Cast Steel

With technological advances and cheaper steel makers were able to cast entire anvils. Depending on the maker these can be hard to identify but will typically lack handling holes of any kind. - The biggest giveaway to a cast anvil is raised lettering on the body.

Below is an image of a Brooks anvil. Note the parting line running centrally up the anvil and the raised lettering on the side.



Cast anvils are generally less prone to sway, but it can happen. The issue many cast steel anvils have is chipped edges. More on this later.







Cast iron with welded steel face: (Henceforth called CISF) -

There are several American makers that constructed anvils in this way. Fisher, Badger, Star and Vulcan are the ones I know of though there may be a few more. These have a cast iron body with a steel face welded to it producing a perfectly good anvil. Though beware, Vulcan anvils are generally considered poorer quality as they had very thin face plates that were very likely to chip in use. Fisher face plates were quite hard I believe and are also prone to chipping. - It is worth noting that this method of construction produced an anvil which doesn’t “ring” and as such are relatively quiet. If the smith has concerns with noise, an anvil made this way would be a good investment.

Below is an image of a Fisher anvil. Notice the raised numbers and makers mark indicating a cast anvil. If you are faced with an obviously cast anvil but do not recognise the makers mark, posting it to a Facebook group via your phone (assuming you have a smartphone) will often lead to a quick identification. HOWEVER google that maker yourself just to clarify it.



- Please note here that CISF anvils are not typically found in the UK. Some examples did make it over but these are few and far between. Should anyone happen to spot a Fisher anvil - I call dibs. I own one already and know of 3 others in the country.



Cast ductile iron

- the last of the decent anvil construction materials. Ductile iron is similar to cast iron but much much stronger. IT makes for a relatively soft anvil but is vastly superior to cast iron. I believe only a few modern makers use ductile iron - they are made specifically for farriers. Below is an O’Dwyer farriers anvil. Identification of these should be rather easy. - As an update I am told that O'Dwyer now use cast steel. As such it will only be their older models that use ductile Iron.






Cast iron:

- Finally the worst of all the materials. Cast iron is brittle, weak and frankly an awful material to make an anvil from. These will dent and chip in use and should really only be considered if you honestly have no access to a large sledge hammer head or chunk of scrap steel. The money spent on a new cast iron anvil should easily cover the cost of a cheap hardware store sledge hammer which will serve you far better in the long run.


Cast iron anvils come in several shapes and forms. They are very easy to spot once you know what you're looking at. The proportions of the anvil will be wrong. The horn will likely be either very short and stubby or flat. Or both. The overall shape often looks wrong and they will typically be very small in size. Less than 20lbs in most cases. They often have no pritchel/ hardy hole or no hole at all. Sometimes the hardy hole is smaller than the pritchel hole. The cutting table will be very short if present. And they're almost always painted blue... Pictured are all cast iron junk anvils.











 
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Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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Step 2. Start checking the anvil over. Visual inspection.



Now assuming you’ve given the anvil a once over you’ve probably figured out what it is made from and you may have seen a makers mark. But try not to get too excited and hand over the cash. Now is the time to really check the anvil over.



This is where you need to start your visual inspection of the anvil. How does it look? Does it look in good overall condition or is it chipped or swayed? Are there parts broken off?



Ideally the anvil should be in as good condition as possible. But it is still a perfectly serviceable tool even with some significant damage.





Sway:



This is the name given to an anvil face that has become concave through use. This is typically the result of a combination of the nature of the materials used to make the anvil (Wrought iron is relatively soft) and the scars of many years of heavy use.

*It is interesting to note that Peter Wright anvils were made from high quality wrought iron, compared to other companies that used “Best Scrap” which inevitably had bits of steel in there too. As such the “Best Scrap” anvils were often a little tougher than the Peter Wright anvils. As such the early PW anvils would sway relatively easily; eventually PW started making their faces very slightly concave to combat this.



Sway in an anvil is not a problem, indeed some smiths prefer it. Excessive sway however should really be avoided if at all possible. Ideally is there is any sway it should be less than 1/8” over the length of the anvil face. Use your ruler to check for this.



This anvil has some sway, Personally this is the most I could work with but some folks are perfectly happy with more sway. The anvil is in otherwise perfectly good condition and well worth having.




This anvil however has excessive sway. The face has dipped significantly and even the heel has been bent. (I should really point out that we are spoiled for choice for anvils in the UK and there are enough available within driving distance that I can afford to be fussy. - personally I would pass on both of the above and keep looking. BUT if you’ve spent several years looking and this is all you’ve found then they are both still a workable tool. Nothing has been broken off and the central part of the face appears to be relatively flat. The face plate also appears to be intact. Buy it if it’s cheap. Pass if not.)


Chipping and edges:

All anvils can chip, cast steel and CISF anvils are particularly prone to it. As such there is a good chance the anvil you go to see will be at least slightly chipped somewhere.



Whether or not this is an issue on the anvil varies dramatically. In short the less chips out of the edges of the anvil the better. BUT a chipped anvil face does not make it a bad anvil at all. Quite the contrary. Chips should be ground smooth and radiused with a flap disc on an angle grinder. This gives the smith some very useful surfaces to work on when forging.



As with sway, a little chipping is not a problem at all. Almost all of the anvils I’ve owned have been at least a little chipped. Excessive chipping however should be avoided.



This anvil below has chipped edges. In my opinion this is not excessive chipping and with some work with an angle grinder and a flap disc this is a perfectly usable anvil. Notice how the chips are limited to the outer edges of the face and do not extend into the face itself.





Excess chipping would be where the chips extend deep into the face of the anvil itself or deep into the body of the anvil; so much so that grinding it back would require removing a significant amount of the anvil. Common sense should prevail here.


This particular anvil is a CISF Vulcan brand mostly seen in the USA - but serves to give you an idea of severe chipping. It's not actually THAT bad on this anvil and if it were of forged or cast steel construction this level of damaged could be repaired by a skilled welder but personally I'd just walk away.


Sharp edges:

New smiths seem to be fascinated by the idea that anvils need to be perfectly flat and have perfect 90 degree edges. This is not the case. AT ALL. You really do not need sharp edges for 99% of forging processes. If a sharper edge is required then a hardy tool can be made for this job.


Delaminating/ Delamination:

This is only really an issue for forged anvils with a wrought iron body and steel face. Delamination is where the weld between the body and the face of the anvil has failed. This can occur on just part of the face or across its entirety.



Above is a perfect example of where a face plate has completely delaminated and broken off of the body of the anvil. Of course this does not always happen like this. Some times the delaminated area of the plate remains attached to the face plate but is detached from the anvil body. This is why it is important to check the entire face for ring and rebound. A delaminated plate will sound different; dead if you will, compared to the rest of the face. More on that below.


Again common sense prevails. If 90% of the face plate is missing I would walk away. If a small portion at one corner has broken off and the rest appears to be ok, and the anvil is in otherwise good condition then you could still buy it.

Welding an anvil:

DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER THIS IF YOU ARE NOT A HIGHLY COMPETENT WELDER. If in doubt don’t buy the anvil and walk away.

Anvils can be repaired by competent welders. It IS doable. BUT only if you do it properly. The vast majority of Facebook armchair smiths I’ve seen have offered WRONG advice on this matter.


As a general rule I almost always suggest that people do not weld their anvils as 99% of cases do not really require it. However there are times when an anvil would benefit from a good quality repair. An anvil with a small piece of the plate missing is a good example. The anvil above has a significant amount of the face missing but it seems to be in good condition apart from that. Depending on the sale price it could be a good candidate for repair.

Just do your research. The Robb Gunther method is generally regarded as a good way to repair an anvil.



Step 3. Testing:

Assuming your anvil passes a visual inspection and has no obvious flaws then it is time to test it.


Ring and Rebound:

These are the most well known tests for any prospective anvil buyer. Be aware that paint or rust on the face will dramatically effect the results so you should clean at least a portion of the face if you can. (with current owners permission obviously)

Ring:

Take your hammer and gently strike the face of the anvil. If the anvil is forged wrought iron or cast steel it will ring like a bell. The pitch of the ring can also help indicate what the anvil is made from.

A wrought iron anvil in my experience usually has a high pitched ring like a bell, with almost a musical note to it. This is usually not a prolonged note.

In my experience cast steel anvils have a very high pitched ring that can be very piercing and almost unpleasant to the ears. The ring can also be quite prolonged and drawn out.

Cast iron anvils with a steel face will produce a note when struck but will not sound like a bell. The note shouldn’t reverberate or be prolonged at all.


Cheap cast iron anvils should sound dead under the hammer. I can’t honestly say what they sound like as I have never been in the situation where I’m looking to buy one.

Strike all over the face, horn, heel and body of the anvil. Even the feet. At this point it is worth noting that the horn and the heel of an anvil WILL sound different to the body. Higher pitched usually. This is because there is less metal in these areas so the note is different.

When striking the face it should all sound the same. If you are striking and suddenly the face sounds wildly different in one area it could indicate a crack or delamination. Be sure to visually inspect this area closely and be sure to test it with the rebound test.

Also check to see if your hammer blows have left dents. Dents left by light blows are a good indication that the face is soft. I’ve used an anvil with a soft face and it worked perfectly well, just keep it in mind and use it as a negotiation point if needs be.

NB - ring is only an indication. It is not a rule set in stone. My first anvil barely had any ring to it at all but it was a perfectly good anvil.
 
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Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
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Rebound:

To me this is the more important of the two tests. If you’re on the hunt for an anvil the I’d keep that 1” ball bearing in your car on the off chance you come across something.

“Rebound” is the name given to the amount of energy an anvil reflects back at the user. But it can give a good indication of face plate problems.

Take your 1” ball bearing (Larger or smaller it doesn’t really matter.) and your ruler. Now hold the ball at 10” above the anvil face and drop it. It’s best to do this so you can see how high it bounces.

10” is ideal as it’s very easy to do the math for it. A “good” anvil should have more than 70-75% rebound. So the ball should bounce a minimum of 7” high. Many anvils will produce rebound higher than this but anything drastically less should be approached with caution.

This is where cleaning the anvil face makes a big difference. Paint and thick layers of rust WILL drastically reduce rebound, so clean the face if you can.

Like the ring test, you should check rebound all over the face. The heel will have less rebound than the face, just like the ring there is less material there so it behaves differently.

The rebound should be the same across the whole face. An areas where it suddenly rebounds a lot less may indicate a crack or delamination. If this occurs during the testing then have another good look at the anvil. (Common sense) It may be that there is a significant crack you missed initially so proceed accordingly.

As frustrating and disappointing as it it. (Trust me, I know) You are better off in the long run to save your cash and walk away from an anvil that is too damaged to be usable.

Step 4. HAGGLE!!!!

So you’ve looked over the anvil and everything is in order. There’s a couple small flaws, a little sway or maybe a chipped edge. Use that to your advantage. Start to umm and ar about the price. Make a cheeky low ball offer. You never know you might get lucky.

If for arguments sake your seller wants £400, why not offer £250 or less! They might know what they have is valuable but they might not. You might get laughed at but on the other hand they might either accept the offer or come back with a slightly reduced figure. Ultimately you’ve saved yourself some cash.


Remember rule number one? Always bring cash and bring more than you need if you can afford to. Money talks. Your seller might start to budge on price if he sees some nice crisp notes being counted out infant of him.

A trick I’ve heard of people use is to count out the sum they want to pay in front of the seller. Some guys crack at this.

The other trick to try is to ask if they have any other blacksmithing stuff. You might stumble on a gold mine of equipment. If that is the case and you can afford it (and there are things you want) then you should try and get some other stuff as part of the deal.


So I hope this has helped some of you out there. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask. PM me directly if needs be.

All the best

Andy
 
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Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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Can you guys see the pictures in these posts? I copied everything over from another forum and I can't see the pics - but I am offshore with rig internet so that might be the issue. - If not I'll edit the posts to include the right pictures.
Andy
 

Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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Right roger that chaps I'll see if I can sort them from out here if not you'll have to wait until I'm home.

Andy
 

Robson Valley

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Nov 24, 2014
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Great thread. What a knowledgeable contribution and well illustrated.

"Bring cash. Lots of it" Could not agree more.
Might I add: wads of smallish bills to be displayed? Effective grease.
 
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VaughnT

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Oct 23, 2013
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Good work, Mac.

Fisher anvils are, to my mind, the best out there. It's so nice to work on an anvil that doesn't have a ring that drills into your ears.

If you do find your anvil quite noise because it's Cast Steel or the older Wrought Iron construction, you can quiet it a very good bit by seating it in silicone caulk from the hardware store. This creates a solid bond between your stand and the anvil, taking most of the resonance out of the metal. It's not as quiet as a Fisher or Vulcan anvil, but it's a sure sight better than not being caulked at all. Your neighbors will thank you, too! :D
 

Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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Cheers gents.

I've been keeping an eye on anvils and kit that comes up for sale quite regularly for years and have been known to snaffle the odd bargain here and there but the in the last few months definitely it's becoming increasingly apparent that prices are rising quite significantly and it looks like it'll stay that way. Which is unfortunate but that's just the way it is.

The Essential Craftsman over on youtube made a very good video about that subject just the other day. A channel well worth watching btw.

He makes some very valid points worth remembering when you're on the hunt.


BUT, you don't "need" a "real" anvil to get going in blacksmithing. Sure it's nice to have the extra weight and all the funk shapes to play with but you can get going with much much less if you have have the imagination to do so.


But what are good alternatives? Get yourself to your local scrap yard and have a rummage and see what they have.

Big chunks of steel:
Any big chunk of steel can be used as an anvil. In my experience big chunks like this are harder to come across in UK scrap yards but they are out there.




Some kind of big chunk of steel - perfectly usable.



Forklift truck tine:
This stuff is tough as old boots and makes for a great anvil. But not exactly a user friendly shape. You'd need some fabrication skills to get this cut down and mounted. You want to use the upright bit of the tine really and mount it vertically rather than flat as you get more mass under the hammer - which supposedly lets it act like a much larger anvil.





Large sledge hammer heads:
Set in a big bucket of concrete or a log this will do just fine for most people starting out. They make Kukri's on these over in Nepal.
Remember all you need is a surface to hit on that is larger than your hammer face. You can only strike one hammer face sized area at a time.




Railtrack / Rail Road Track:
Almost synonymous with beginner anvils RRT is great steel. Like the fork lift tine it is best to mount this vertically to get the best from it. The end of the rail bit is large enough to hit on.
The added benefit of RRT is that the "H" profile can be shaped to your needs with various radii, a little horn or even a hot cutting edge.




There's no real "best" option for any of the above. Harder steels like the bottom three are going to be a bit more durable long term but there's nothing that can't be fixed with a flap disc on an angle grinder.
Any of the above can be supplemented with a few add on's. Such as a brick chisel set in a hole next to the anvil for using as a hot cut. Or a length of bar bent and shaped into a horn like the first picture.


All the best
Andy
 

Everything Mac

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Nov 30, 2009
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I realise someone saying you don't need a real anvil whilst practically swimming in them is a bit hypocritical. Maybe I'll do a video using an anvil substitute at some point if I ever get time.

Andy
 
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