Anvils: A beginner buyers guide

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    So I figured I'd write a decent buyers guide for buying anvils.



    First of all I want to make it very clear that if you’re just starting out in blacksmithing you DO NOT NEED a "REAL" “London Pattern anvil” to start hitting hot metal on.


    London pattern 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:

    anvil_parts_txt_1.gif


    Firstly lets look at a “Perfect” Anvil.


    ER_58_330_lb_001_cropped_small.jpg


    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 B) 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 (ideally 1" can be smaller)

    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. I also go through this in this video:



    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 British makers include Mousehole Forge, Peter Wright, Hill, Isaac Nash, Henry Wright, Wilkinsons and many others. (There were no "bad" British makers.


    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.


    pw_anvil_2.jpg


    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. (as is often the case with many things.)


    Case and point is that there were literally HUNDREDS of forges making anvils in Britain. Below is a forged English anvil.This is more for the Americans out there but; 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. ;)


    Anvil01.jpg




    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.


    For the Brits here, Brooks are a very prolific British manufacturer. Indeed they still make anvils today but I understand they are made out of the country. I have no idea what the material or quality of them is like these days. Chances are they're way out of most peoples price range anyway. But I dare say these are the most common anvils on the second hand market. Particularly the little 51kg/ 1cwt anvil. They are good anvils.


    168_lb_john_brooks_cast_steel_1_1a6af1bd


    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. Don’t ask me how they did it, as far as I know no one knows exactly how they did it. Either way it produces 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. You can see that demonstrated in the video above.



    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.

    Fisher100_1.jpg


    We don't see very many of these anvils in the UK but they do crop up from time to time. I have seen a handful of Vulcans over the years and know of at least 4 Fisher's in the country. I have one of them. I'd buy another Fisher in a heartbeat.



    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.


    UPDATE: I am lead to believe O'dwyer anvils are now cast in 4340. So it'll be older O'Dwyer anvils that are ductile iron.


    odwyer_anvil_on_exhibition.jpg



    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. Pictured below are cast iron junk anvils.


    Note that some cast iron anvils are marked USA. Which does not mean it is good quality.


    images.jpg

    image_21926.jpg





    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 could be a combination of poor quality materials used to make the anvil. (wrought iron is rather soft) Or simply the scars left from 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; 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 if 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. I.E. put a straight edge on the face and gauge how much the face dips.


    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. Ie the edges are crisp and the face is flat going across the anvil rather than along it if that makes sense.





    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 this anvil and keep looking. BUT if you’ve spent several years looking and this is all you’ve found then it is 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.)




    IMG_0133.jpg


    This anvil is too far gone.



    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. The face is flat and the anvil is intact. This anvil is in better condition than my very first anvil.


    $_1.jpg


    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.


    Blacksmiths_Anvil_Metal_Work_Tools.jpg


    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.

    A sharp edge is usually a hinderance, if you're working over the edge and miss strike slightly you'll get a nasty divot in your work that will be difficult to work out. A radiused edge is far better.


    As mentioned above any chips in an anvil edge should be radiused. I two main anvils, and have radiused the chips on both of them. This gives me several different working surfaces to play with and makes the anvil a much more useful tool as a result.



    Delaminating/ Delamination:


    Delamination is where the weld between the body and the face of the anvil has begun to fail. This is only an issue for anvils where a separate face plate has been welded on. Nine times out of ten the weld was perfect, but you need to remember these were made by humans and some times mistakes did occur. This can occur on just part of the face or across its entirety.


    image.jpg

  • image.jpg


    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.



    We are lucky here in the UK that the number of delaminated anvils that crop up for sale are few and far between. I believe this to be a result of them being scrapped during the war. But they are far more common over in the USA.


    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.



    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.


    There will be more to follow


    All the best

    Andy

  • What size anvil do I need?

    Well, how long is a piece of string?


    This is a question I often see asked by new smiths. And the answer is complicated. Generally speaking you’re almost always better off buying the biggest one you can find, however that’s such a broad sweeping statement that it is effectively worthless.



    Instead ask yourself the following questions:


    What do I want to make?

    How much can I afford to spend?

    How frequently do anvils actually come up for sale within my price range and within reasonable collection distance?

    How fussy am I?


    You’re going to have to bear with me on all this as I think it will get quite wordy. Also apologies in advance if this sounds condescending in any way. It isn’t meant to. Merely to make you think.




    SO, What do I want to make?


    To a certain extent what you want to make doesn’t matter. But you don’t need a 500lb anvil if all you want to make is little 2” neck knives. For me all of the hand forging I do could easily be done on the 100lb travel anvil I use.


    Don’t limit yourself to a particular size anvil purely based on the idea of what you want to make. The other questions above are far more important in my opinion. It’s all well and good saying “Well I only want to make knives for my entire smithing career. Therefore I will only buy a 100lb anvil.”

    - That idea is nonsense. Firstly how much can you afford to spend on this anvil? And how often do anvils that size come up in your area??


    Lets say you don’t have a “real” anvil and a 300lb anvil came up for sale ten miles from you, within your budget and in good condition. Don’t be silly and let a preconceived idea stop you from buying it! Go get that bad boy and bring it home. Similarly If an 80lb anvil comes up then yeah go get it.

    What I’m saying is don’t limit yourself and pass up a good deal because it doesn’t fit with the idea of what you want to make.



    How much can I afford to spend?

    This is the big boy pants moment. How much can you actually afford to spend on this block of steel? I can’t tell you what you can afford.


    I’d love a brand new Refflinghaus anvil but it isn’t happening.


    Pick a budget and stick to it. Put those spare notes in a jar and don’t touch it for 6 months. You’ll soon have a decent amount of cash saved up for something. (I’m doing that just now)

    Obviously this can be quite variable. If you have £200 to spend and something comes up at £250 then you might be able to do a deal. But if it’s £450, then pass.


    If you’re over in the USA and have to put up with the ludicrous $ per lb system then this may hamper you more than any other factor. Same thing applies though. Put your money in a jar and save all your spare notes. You’ll have enough eventually.

    Thanks to things like “Forged in Fire” we’re currently seeing a major rise in prices. Even in the UK. Moaning about that fact doesn’t change anything, you’ve just got to get on with it.



    How frequently do anvils come up for sale?

    If you get ten anvils for sale in your area in a year, and only one of those is the “size you want” then you might have to broaden what you’re looking for.


    This can be really frustrating. I can’t tell you how many anvils I’d have bought over the years if they were five minutes down the road. A 6hr drive across the country is not something I’m willing to do in order to hand over a wad of cash.

    (check if they’ll ship it. ;) )

    Again patience is key. Sit it out, something will turn up.



    How Fussy am I?

    Personally I’m very fussy. I won’t spend my hard earned on an anvil that doesn’t pass the tests and is in a condition I’m not 100% happy with. Same applies for any kit I want.


    BUT not everyone can afford that luxury, in most cases any anvil will do just fine as long as it passes all of the tests described in my earlier post. If you’re just starting out, an anvil with a few chips, a little sway etc is far better than no anvil at all. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be fussy. Don’t buy it simply because it’s the first anvil that’s come up for sale in your area, check it over and make sure you’re happy with it.


    We’re typically spoilt for choice in the UK, but the anvil market goes through peaks and troughs in terms of quality, price and size. These days the average price has gone up quite significantly from even just 5 years ago. Play a patient game, keep an eye on a few on eBay and gumtree/ craigslist. Get an idea of what prices they go for, then you'll be able to spot the bargains.



    Is bigger always better?

    Well - that depends what you do with it.... (If you can read that with a straight face you're a better man than me.)


    Lets be honest - chances are you’re not forging boat anchors of any size let alone big anchors. I’d say 99.9% of smiths both professional and amateur do not need an anvil over 300-400lbs. Some guys do, sure. But most don’t. As far as I can tell most guys just buy them for bragging rights.


    I’ve got a 204kg Brooks London Pattern anvil in my workshop that was there from the previous owner. I don’t touch it. The bick on it is enormous, and the tip is about 3/4" in diameter. Useless for a lot of the work I do. The anvil takes weeks to walk around and the hardy hole is so big most of my hardy tools slip through it without touching the sides. I do not need an anvil that size.


    I’m more than happy to sacrifice size for practicality. I like to be able to move my anvil by myself if I have to, without mechanical aids. My main anvil is a 250lb South German double horn anvil, in my opinion far more useful than a London pattern twice it’s size. (in my profile pic)

    Physical size is another thing to think about. It's fine if you have a huge workshop but if like me you're restricted space wise then a smaller anvil is the obvious choice.



    You can also take into account the amount of mass in an anvil. A 500lb block of cold steel takes an awfully long time to warm up (and cool down) If you’re just working small blades. It’ll suck the heat out of them quite quickly. Unless of course you pre heat your anvil before you start working. Rest an electric iron on the face while you start up the forge etc. You can do this for any size anvil obviously. A particularly good idea if you live in a cold climate. - Like Yorkshire.



    But Andy - the more mass you have under the hammer the more efficient it is.

    Yes - to a point. Sadly I can't remember the reference but I recall reading that the most efficient anvil weight is about 400lbs. Anything over that is a waste with no noticeable differences. If you were to forge on a 5lb Viking anvil and then a 100lb modern anvil you'd notice a difference but I dare say you'd not notice much beyond that.


    Can't I use a heavier hammer on a bigger anvil though?

    You're not Thor, get over yourself. You're forging with what? Up to a 5lb hand hammer? You're not going to break anything. Just don't whack the horn or the heel full force with no hot steel between your hammer and the anvil. Common sense prevails here once again.



    Andy

  • very interesting! Thank you for that.

    I bought my anvil about a year and a half ago. It's still buried in the back of my shed unused. I am really looking forward to trying some smithing, but it will be a couple of years before I get to that sadly. I currently work away from from the house.

    I was looking for one, but not too actively, then two showed up at an auction. I ended up paying €240 all in for one of them. I had my 1" ball bearing with me on the night and it passed that test.

    Will take some pics next time I am up there with some time to spare.


    Thanks again, I will be able to better judge it now hopefully.

  • Excellent article! Where did you get your anvil? Was it new? The shipping was cheaper than I would have thought. The selection used anvils coming up for sale in Ireland isn't great and they're all looking for big money for them, it will probably be cheaper / more cost effective, to buy new!

  • Excellent article! Where did you get your anvil? Was it new? The shipping was cheaper than I would have thought. The selection used anvils coming up for sale in Ireland isn't great and they're all looking for big money for them, it will probably be cheaper / more cost effective, to buy new!


    My one? I had it shipped over from Germany. I bought it on eBay.de


    You might have better luck buying one from England and shipping it over.

    All the best

    Andy