If I could describe blacksmithing as any one thing, it is the process of controlling kinetic energy to deform metal. A great deal of that energy comes from the anvil.
This may sound counterintuitive; after all, an anvil is (one hopes) the most solid object in a smithy. It’s still a cultural shorthand for massiveness, weight, and stability; long after most children are likely to encounter a blacksmith in real life, they still know what it means when an anvil is dropped on a cartoon character’s head.
But when a blacksmith swings his or her hammer, they are expending kinetic energy, of which they have a limited supply. Smithing is hard work. To be able to work long hours crafting a fine piece of metal, the smith needs to be able to recoup as much of the energy they expend swinging their hammer as possible.
That’s where the anvil comes in. An anvil is heavy enough to not shift when the blacksmith strikes it and hard enough to deflect the strength of the blow back up, returning a portion of the blacksmith’s energy for the next swing. It’s like running on asphalt: runners find it much easier than softer surfaces like sand.
To control the upswing and effectively use the returned energy, the shape of the anvil is important. Every curve, point, corner, and edge on the anvil has a specific function, and where the smith places the metal on the anvil allows for the creation of different effects.
On most anvils, those parts include a horn, or pointed conical section, used for shaping curve or thinning out metal (also called drawing down). It is the horn that gives the anvil its characteristic shape. Across from the horn, on the other side of the anvil, is the face, or work surface. Often, holes will be incised into the face to aid with punching and tooling; in fact, one of the holes, called a Hardy hole, has an entire set of tools specially crafted to slot into it and hold steady. Between the face and horn is usually a step, where chisels can be safely used. Of course, not every anvil conforms to this pattern; some anvils are used for specialist operations and have different shapes.
The main anvil in our shop dates from 1882 and was probably cast in England to create chains for tall ships. I like to think of the hundreds of years of history and countless swings of the hammer it has seen when we use it.
And use it we do; power hammers and hydraulic presses do not replace hammer and anvil in the modern blacksmith shop. We still use the anvil for shaping, finishing work, and occasionally, a technique called Smith and Striker.
Smith and Striker is a method of cooperation between two workers; in the days before power hammers, it was the only way to accomplish the backbreaking work of flattening bar iron. The smith is the more experienced; they hammer the metal in precisely the place they wish the striker to use more force, often with a much larger hammer. As smith guides and striker strikes, a rhythm is established.
Sometimes, we still use Smith and Striker, even though we have perfectly good power hammers just a few feet from the anvil. It’s fun. And it’s a fantastic reminder of the roots of our craft and a way to increase our connection as artists.
More from The Art and Craft of the Blacksmith:
- The Hammer: An Essential Tool with Primitive Roots
- Forge Your Own Iron Book Ends
- The Role of the Smith