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Used Anvils and Barn Fires?

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In looking at used anvils on ebay and CL, and reading a lot of descriptions like "pulled out of an old barn," it occurred to me that it's probably not that unusual to find anvils for sale on CL and ebay that have been through fires and thus lost the hardness and temper in the faceplate.

And, I realized, if you happen to have such an anvil (and not many scruples), it would probably be wise to try to sell it on CL or ebay, where buyers are in effect "buying a pig in a poke."

So my questions to the more experienced folks here are:

1. Is it common to find anvils for sale that have been in fires and lost their hardness/temper?

2. Is there a fast and reliable non-destructive test to quickly determine if a particular anvil has this problem?

3. How involved/difficult/expensive is fixing such a problem? I imagine it means somehow:
- bringing the entire faceplate and horn up to critical temperature;
- quenching it without cracking anything, and
- reheating it to the proper temperature, soaking it for the proper length of time and cooling it at the right rate to get the right hardness.
At any rate, it sounds like this is a challenge best avoided or left to the experts!

How concerned about all of this should I be in shopping around for a used anvil?

Thanks again for all the help I get here...this site is great!

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I want Thomas Power's opinion on this, he has handled a vast number of anvils.

1) I know if an anvil go through a fire, the face softens. I also know that a quality anvil with a softened face is still better than a cast iron ASO. Welding on an anvil can soften the face too.

2) Ball bearing test. Get a large steel ball bearing (say 1 inch) and drop it from a known height using a ruler (say 10 inches) and measure the rebound. A "good" anvil will have 50% rebound or better. An excellent anvil will have much better rebound than this. You can look up this on Anvilfire.com in their FAQ section (sorry, deep linking not permitted)

3) Handling the anvil is no small challenge, but anvils have handling holes that can be employed, and/or the waist wrapped in chain. Heating the anvil is relatively easy, you can use torches or a forge. Quenching the anvil is hard, you can't just dunk it, you need a forceful stream of HUNDREDS OF GALLONS of water to break the vapor.

Lastly, the majority of barn fires through history are from hay barns that build up heat and ignite. Loose stacked hay is prone to this if not dried properly, where bales are more resistant to this because of how dense the bale is the oxygen cannot get to much of the hay. (not saying this won't happen to bales though!)

Blacksmith tools were not kept, or at least used, in a feed barn, doing blacksmith work would have too much risk to the feed. I expect that there are relatively few fire damaged anvils out there for how many barn fires have happened.


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It happens but it is quite rare to run across. An anvil with a soft face will show lots of hammer marks and they will show raised edges. The higher the raised edge the softer the anvil. In my 20 years of smithing I have run across one anvil that came through a fire and it actually wasn't that bad.

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Good Morning,

If anvils could talk, think of the stories one could tell.

I know on some anvils the faces were not heat treated but allowed to work harden. On making early anvils the body was not the same material as the face. The better steel was fire welded onto the wrought iron body. If you are going to heat treat the face of the anvil, the heat in the body would spoil the temper. Maybe keep a river of water running onto the face? What about different expansion rates? Working red hot material on an anvil slowly heats up an anvil, I haven't seen one smoking from use yet.

How many life-times does it take to wear out an anvil? Are you worried that the anvil with nine lives may have ten??

I personally don't think that an anvil that has been through a fire has had it's life taken away.


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Fires in general were a pretty common occurrence in all buildings back when all heating and cooking was done by open fire, not to mention being roofed with tinder (wooden, often cedar, shingles). (Note that fire insurance predates the American Revolution in the USA and started after the Great Fire in London in the mid 1600's)

It is possible to reharden a softened anvil; but difficult due to the size---most of us do not have practice in raising, moving and quenching large chunks of metal that throw off obscene amounts of IR radiation. Or the equipment to do so safely. Charles McRaven mentions re-hardeing an anvil face using the local Volunteer Fire Department's high pressure hose in "Country Blacksmithing". I don't recall if he mentions what a great idea it was to co-opt the very folks most likely to object to someone doing something like this. There is always a possibility that the stresses involved will damage the faceplate weld(s) or even pop it off.

Also as mention just dropping it in a pond doesn't work and is much more likely to cause problems as the steam jacket makes for slower and uneven cooling. Many anvil makers used a water tower and a large diameter pipe to bring down massive amounts of water under high pressure to beat through the steam jacket and get a good quench.

Tempering may not be needed for a large anvil as it may not get too hard. It's fairly well known that larger anvils tend to be softer than smaller anvils due to the retained heat "auto tempering" them. This was seen as a good thing as large anvils tended to be used roughly in industrial settings---if you have 4 guys striking with 12# sledges it's *nice* not to have shrapnel if one misses. Tempering for a smaller anvil IS STRONGLY SUGGESTED! Being a coward when it comes to my eyes I'd probably go ahead and do a low temp snap temper on a large anvil---just to be safe.

If you read the old adverts you will see companies offering to repair, reface and/or reharden damaged anvils. This is probably why we don't see too many of them in such a state. I've seen a couple, most of which had the "fire rust" still on the body somewhere and only 1 that had been cleaned off and was being offered in a misleading manner.

Best fast test is the ball bearing test already mentioned---details are over at Anvilfire.com; however a good sound tap with a ballpeen hammer can be a substitute test---and one you would do anyway to check for face delamination or hidden cracks. (even anvils that don't ring, like Fishers and Vulcans, will give some indication of problems with such a test.) It does help to have some idea on the values to expect---in my experience HB's are way harder than Vulcans just as they came from the factory.

Note that slumping of an anvil face may not be an indication of a fire experience as several brands used top grade very soft wrought iron in their bodies that tend to "pound down" over time.

One final aspect; back in earlier times the smith primarily used real wrought iron which is generally forged at a white heat and at that heat it's DEAD SOFT and so the anvil itself didn't need to be too hard and you can get things like the Roman anvil in the Museum in Bath England which has a lovely mushroomed face on it from generations of forging on it.

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Holy mackerel, thank you all for the very good, detailed replies. I should be paying tuition for all I take from here!

I'm glad to know that the possibility of fire damage probably isn't that great.

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I am the current custodian of the anvil from my wife's family's ex-horse-barn. It was purchased new when the barn was built around 1837 to keep the horses shod. Bank barns in the area housed horses in the lower level and hay in the upper level. A well stocked barn for horses around here would likely to have had an anvil for shoeing horses. I hope to be able to pass it on and keep it in the family. So, the bottom line is that a well supplied horse barn would or could have had an anvil and not have been through a fire. This particular anvil was likely buried in the mud inside the barn when Lee passed through on the way to Gettysburg.

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Although in many places you took your horses to the smithy and an anvil in the barn may be for general repairs for items you didn't want to take there. (My wife used to volunteer at a Historical farm" near Columbus OH that had originally worked that way. A large blacksmith shop was just down the road but they still had a forge and anvil to do some things themselves.)

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