Should an anvil be among the first tools to be recommended to new woodworkers? The answer is probably no. But as our shop grows and with the diversification of our work I can wholeheartedly advocate for every shop to have at least a small anvil on hand. After many years in the trade, both as a teacher and as a maker, I have learned to appreciate the anvil’s contribution to my work. In this entry, I will explain why we need an anvil and what products are on the market.
Bellow: One of my students while cold forging aluminum on our Japanese steel railroad track anvil.
Woodworkers use anvils for various tasks, from straightening crooked nails and deformed hardware, to reforming tips of tools that accidentally fall to the ground and get bent, to occasionally reinforcing the depression in the backs of Japanese chisels and plane blades, and on and on.
In addition, anvils are paramount in the process of forging new hardware, new tools, riveting, and even as formidable weights during glue-ups.
In my quest to find the perfect anvil for the woodshop, I learned a few things about these beasty helpers, but I also discovered some myths that need to be dispelled.
Size, shape, material, and hardness are the most important factors when looking for an anvil.
Size and weight
The larger (and heavier) the anvil – the better it will be able to dampen hammer forces levied on it. But of course, the heavier the anvil, the more expansive it is, and the more difficult it will be to lift and tuck away (for storage) at the end of the use. In my opinion, anything between 10 to 35-pound is a good and manageable size that will serve you well, will not jump around too much, and will provide sufficient surface to work upon. In our woodshop at school, we have two small anvils that we use often. One is a Japanese steel railroad track anvil, and the other is made of cast iron. Both weigh around 10 pounds and see a lot of use. Lee Valley under its Utilitas label used to sell a great hardened surface (7Ib) anvil that I bought a decade ago. This anvil is very handy, and I only wish they had kept carrying it in their catalog.
The exact shape will vary depending on the anvil’s intended use and the regional traditions of the foundries that cast it. A classic British and American anvil will have a formidable horn connected to a flat rectilinear or trapezoid surface behind it. German anvils are a bit different as their flat surface culminates into a pyramidal shape, so in essence, it has a round horn on one end and a flat triangle on the opposite.
Professional blacksmiths use steel anvils whose surface has been hardened. Steel anvils are much more expansive than cast iron but will last forever, be more rigid, and will resist developing surface indentations. While researching the subject, I encountered the claim that the way to identify a steel anvil from a cast-iron one is by the ringing sound that a steel anvil produces when struck. This ringing sound, I was told, is the hallmark of quality. But is it really the case?
Bellow: Preforming the ringing test on our newly bought 22Ib “steel” anvil.
If you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for an anvil you can get a cast-iron tool that would still do a good job at under $50. These anvils will not have a beautiful horn or a polished and hardened surface but will fulfill most of our occasional needs. A Chinese maker has recently introduced a line of anvils that are claimed to be made of steel and whose surface was presumably been hardened to 50 RC. After reading and watching many positive reviews I decided that at $59 for a 22lb anvil I should give it a try so I ordered this anvil for our program. While the anvil passed the ringing test with flying colors it surprisingly failed the hardness test. I used a coat hanger wire made from mild steel and tried to forge it into a squarish shape. It didn’t take me too many hammer hits to discover that the purported hardened surface of this anvil became heavily bruised and indented. This was more of a shock to me than to the anvil – how can it be that all the experts who assured me that the ringing sound is proof of hardness ended up wrong? But wait; there is an even more shocking revelation to come.
The Best That Money Can Buy
While visiting a colleague who teaches metalsmithing I discover an American-made anvil that really impressed me. My colleague said that his school is very happy with these anvils and that they have been using them for many years. The 35 Ib Cliff Carroll anvil is the smallest anvil that Cliff Carroll Forge and Tool company makes. This Texas-made tool is stunningly beautiful and is made with very remarkable attention to detail. Surprisingly the maker declares that they make their anvils out of ductile cast iron followed by a special surface hardening process which makes them less expensive than steel-made anvils. This family of anvils (the heaviest weighing 125Ib) is very popular among farriers but it is also perfect for around the farm and shop tasks. After hearing, reading, and trying to lift the 35 Ib anvil (I had to make sure I can handle the weight) I decide to buy it for my one shop.
I purchased the anvil online at Meader Supply for $210 plus $23 for shipping. The price has gone up recently thanks to inflation, yet even at $240 (current price) I still believe that this is a bargain for such an impressive American tool of this caliber. When the anvil arrive I submitted it to the bell ringing test which produces a flatter sound than the Chinese 22Ib “steel” anvil. But my slight disappointment shifted immediately to total admiration after I presented to it the coat hanger test. To my surprise, the hardened ductile cast iron surface of the Lone Star State anvil proved to be way more resilient than its imported competitor. For this blog posting, I called the makers to ask them about the hardness level of the anvil’s surface. The owner, John Harshbarger revealed to me that his company treats the surface to 50-54 RC – which I believe is an adequate sweep point between softness and brittleness.
Bellow: Preforming the ringing test for hardness on my small Utilitas (blue) anvil and on my new Cliff Carroll 35Ib.
At three or four times the price of its imported competitors, this anvil is not for everyone. But if you are willing to invest in an American tool that is a beauty to look at and a reliable and hardy companion for a few lifetimes then the Cliff Carroll tool is the one for you.
This journey into the land of blacksmithing and anvils taught me a good lesson. Sometimes it is essential to question those a priori axioms that are so ubiquitous and are belied to be true. Perhaps they are true but perhaps there are more nuances to the matter than what is superficially visible on the surface, or in this case resonating to the ears.
*Neither I nor Popular Woodworking has been paid for this story. I have paid full price for my Cliff Carroll anvil.
*If interested you can check out these articles to read more about Cliff Carroll and the company that he created.
Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.