Rural Heritage Village Smithy

by F. Thomas Breningstall

Those of us who work with our hands can never have too many tools. Just as it takes eggs to make chickens and chickens to make eggs, it takes tools to make tools. One of the most important tools for any blacksmith or farrier is the anvil.

An anvil is a heavy block of steel or iron on which metal is shaped or forged (formed by heating and hammering). Starting from the bottom and working up, here are the names and uses of an anvil's parts:

The base and feet form the foundation that supports the anvil. Next is the waist, or throat, which allows room under the horn and heel to readily work stock or horseshoes on top of the anvil without interference.

The horn, or beak, is a cone-shaped projection on which the blacksmith shapes round or bent designs on or into the piece of stock being forged. Stock, or bar stock, is the piece of metal being worked or forged.

At the base of the horn is the table, used more by blacksmiths than by farriers. The table is made of non-tempered iron and is therefore softer than the anvil's face which is tempered. On farrier anvils, the table may have a clip horn, used mostly to draw toe and side clips on horseshoes.

The step is, well, a step up to the face of the anvil. The face is the hardened, flat, top surface of the anvil. It is the work surface where most of the hammering is done. In some anvils the face is made of a tempered plate welded to the base of the anvil; in others, the whole anvil is one piece, with the face hardened to Rockwell 1085, 1095, or 1930—if you're an engineer, you know what those numbers mean.

At the opposite end of the anvil from the horn is the heel. Most heels are as wide as the face and square on the end, but some are tapered, depending on the user's preference. In the heel is a square hole called the hardy hole, which (would you believe?) holds the hardy. Hardies are a group of tools used to cut, swage, fuller, flatten, or shape bar stock. The blacksmith puts the hardy tool on top of the hardy, heats the stock in the forge, places the hot stock on top of the hardy, and strikes it with the hammer to forge it into the desired shape.

Also in the heel are one or two smaller round holes called pritchel holes, used for punching holes through bar stock or horseshoes with a (pritchel,) or punch, without damaging either the face of the anvil or the pritchel.

Anvils range in weight from 5 to 1,000 pounds. Some have built-in modifications like turning cams, clip horns, nailing grooves, and other odds and ends custom made to the smith's liking.

If you enjoy the challenge of making your own tools, you can fashion an anvil from a variety of different materials. One of the most common is a piece of rail from a railroad track. With patience you can turn it into a useful anvil with horn, face, and heel. A block of hardwood faced with a flat piece of 1/4" to 1/2" steel also makes a useful anvil. I wouldn't recommend using a rock as an anvil, due to the hazard of flying chips, but in a pinch you might use a board on hard ground. When nothing else was handy, I've seen a trailer hitch and ball used as an anvil.

Whether you make your own anvil, find a used one, or buy one new, try not to abuse the face, horn, or heel by:

  • working cold stock on top of the anvil;
  • striking the top of the anvil directly with a hammer or any other hard object;
  • cutting steel on top of the anvil with a hammer and chisel, without using a protection plate between the face and chisel;
  • using the anvil for anything other than what it was designed for—it is not a tractor weight, it is not a scraper blade weight, it is not a boat anchor;
  • grind smooth any nicks and gouges as soon as they happen;
  • sand off rust and don't allow it to accumulate. If you won't be using your anvil for a long period of time, sand it shiny and give it a good coat of oil so it won't rust.

For those of us who make our living from its use, an anvil is a precious tool. Care for yours well and it will never wear out.


F. Thomas Breningstall is a full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan. His column “Hoof & Hammer” appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column was in The Evener 1997 issue.

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31 October 2011 last revision