Updated: Oct. 2, 2019
The anvil is one of the signature tools of the farrier. It will get more use and see more miles than many of your other tools, and the quality of the anvil will play a big part in the quality of your shoeing. Anvils are an investment, in more ways than one. If you’re a new farrier and it’s time to make the purchase, there are going to be some factors to consider.
First, you need to figure out what you’re primarily going to use your anvil for. Yes, you’re definitely going to hit some stuff on it, but you’ll need to know what kind of stuff you’re going to hit, how you’re planning to hit the stuff and where you’re going to hit the stuff.
Generally speaking, farriers use two types of anvils: a shop anvil (or forging anvil) and a farrier anvil. The farrier anvil is lighter and therefore portable – this is the one that goes in the truck and is used on the job for cold shoeing and light forge work. The shop anvil is heavier and more suitable for, surprise! Shop work. Your choice will depend on the kind of horseshoes you plan on working with. If you think you’ll make a lot of heavy shoes, or if you think you might do some other smith work on the side, it might be worth the investment to have both.
Farrier anvils will run anywhere from 70-150 pounds, while shop anvils typically weigh in at 150-250 pounds (or heavier). The shop anvil usually has a wider face, with more surface area to work on. The weight of the shop anvil will be concentrated more under the face and less in the horn and heel. The farrier anvil is made with more weight in the horn. The heavier the anvil, the more counterforce it will reflect back into whatever piece of metal you’re working with. If shoeing draft horses is going to be your bread and butter, you’ll want the heaviest anvil you can find (and by that I mean afford).
Farriers and blacksmiths often say that the weight of the anvil you pick should depend on the hammer you’re planning to use most often. Jock Dempsey suggests “an average hand hammer to anvil ratio of about 50:1 is normal. [For] example, a heavy 4 pound (1800g) hammer and a 200 pound (90kg) anvil are a good match.” David Edwards at Persimmon Forge tells us “I was taught, and have confirmed from experience, that a good forging hammer/anvil ratio is 1:40.”
The Butler Professional Farrier School tells us that anvils used to be made of wrought iron, but that most “modern anvils are cast in one piece from high quality alloy steel.” Forged steel anvils are less common and more expensive, but highly durable. Hardened ductile iron is an option, too. Some smiths report that ductile iron is respectable but not as tough as steel. Some anvil makers will use a cast steel face plate and a base of another metal such as aluminum. Cast iron is never a good option. Cast iron makes what blacksmiths call an “ASO,” or “Anvil Shaped Object.”
The material you choose might end up mattering less than the quality of the manufacturing. There are a number of anvils on the market in each of these materials, all ranging in quality. Looking at the manufacturer’s reputation and at some customer reviews could save you from picking something that doesn’t work or that doesn’t suit you.
New or Used?
New anvils are pricey, but many farriers and blacksmiths swear by new over used. Used anvils can be tricky to find and need to be carefully checked to make sure there are no chips, dents or other flaws that will affect the quality of the work. In addition, unless the company name is clearly visible, it can be difficult to know what you’re getting.
If you are planning to buy a used anvil, most people agree you can expect to pay $1 to $2 a pound for it. Often it’s a buyer beware situation, so it’s recommended that you try to see the anvil in person rather than rely on pictures over the internet. Sort of like internet dating. To test an anvil for hardness, bring a steel ball bearing with you and drop it onto the anvil (from a bit of a height. Think 5 or 6 feet. This is where the similarity to internet dating ends). The bearing should bounce back almost to full height. If it doesn’t, it’s not springy enough. If the bearing leaves a mark, the anvil’s too soft.
Another test for anvils is to hit the anvil lightly with a hammer all over the face. Some farriers say it should make a sound like a bell. Others say it needn’t, but all agree that the hammer should make the same sound across the board – if there’s one spot that sounds duller, that suggests the face of the anvil is starting to separate from the body.
When deciding on what anvil to buy, your best bet will likely be to find farriers who do the kind of work you’d like to do and ask them what they use (or what they’d like to use). That extra bit of research now will pay off later when you and your anvil make a lifetime of happy memories together.