Railroad Rail Transformed Into Blacksmith’s Anvil With The Simplest Of Tools

One of the biggest challenges facing the aspiring blacksmith is procuring the tools of the trade. And that means tackling the unenviable task of finding a decent anvil. Sure, one can buy an ASO — anvil-shaped object — at Harbor Freight, but a real anvil is much harder to come by. So perhaps the beginner smith’s first build should be this railroad rail to anvil conversion.

Repurposing sections of rail into anvils is hardly a new game, but [The Other Finnish Guy]’s build shows us just how little is needed in terms of specialized tooling to pull this off. Other than a file, the bulk of the work is done by angle grinders, which are used to cut off the curved crown of the rail section, cut the shape of the heel, and rough out the horn. Removing that much metal will not be a walk in the park, so patience — and a steady supply of cutting wheels and sanding discs — is surely required. But with time and skill, the anvil hidden inside the rail can be revealed and put to use.

We have questions about the final result, like its lack of a hardy hole and the fact that the face isn’t hardened. We wonder if some kind of induction heating could be used to solve the latter problem, or if perhaps a hardened plate could be welded into the top to make a composite anvil. Still, any anvil is better than no anvil. More on the anatomy and physiology of these tools can be had in [Jenny List]’s article on anvils, and her whole excellent series on blacksmithing is highly recommended. [Jenny]’s not the only smith we have on staff, though — [Bil Herd] has been known to smite a bit too.

42 thoughts on “Railroad Rail Transformed Into Blacksmith’s Anvil With The Simplest Of Tools

  1. Might be enough to just cover the top surface with beads from hardfacing arc welding rods, then grind a smooth, level surface onto it.

    Good enough for dozer blades and excavator buckets.

  2. >lack of a hardy hole

    It does have one, but it’s round. If it’s not square, does that make it not hardy enough?

    This is obviously an arbitrarily shaped decorative piece. It also lacks a step at the base of the horn.

      1. A pritchel is offset to the back and aside from the hardy hole, so your holdfast can reach the middle of the anvil and the stem doesn’t get in the way lengthwise.

        Though you can put the holdfast in the hardy hole as well, if you’re a particularly disreputable person.

    1. Good ones are pretty hard to come by. Years ago I took my daughter to a farm auction that featured a real anvil, 300# or so, probably from the 1940s. I knew what I wanted to pay for it, but so did a 15-year-old kid in the audience with his father. The two of us ran up the bid until I reached my mental limit, so the kid won. I was disappointed, but he was overjoyed and I hope he made good use of it over the years.

    2. “Real” here means, “one I like.”

      As in, Real Scotsman.

      A cheap one is $100 but cast iron, not “real” enough. Granted. But a good steel one only starts at $300. It is hard to say it isn’t “real” considering the metallurgy is likely far superior to the old ones that people love.

      But if you made it yourself, nobody can argue it isn’t “real.” Even if it doesn’t have a heat-treated face. Though it was pretty well hardened as a railroad rail, and probably wasn’t heated much during working.

      It is the same with swords; people, unfortunately especially enthusiasts, make the mistake of thinking that some ancient sword that was famous in the past has some sort of lost technology, when of course metallurgy was less advanced then. And none of the technology was lost. The True Believers presume that the archeological finds didn’t find the “real” thing, because everything they found was using normal technology for that age. The simple truth is that the swords used by the most successful armies would have the most amazing words written about them, but they were just swords wielded by soldiers with good military leaders.

      For example, the cheapest “katana” at the mall gift shop has better steel than any sword made over 100 years ago. But people make the mistake of thinking a 500 year old katana would be even better and more mystically powerful than one made only 200 years ago. But actually it would easily be damaged if you hit an armored opponent full force, such was the low quality of the steel of the age, and a skilled swordsman had to know how to strike with the sword to avoid damaging it. In fact, sword breakage was so common in the past that in the 1600s the Scots had lots of dirks and short swords of better steel than their English counterparts; but the English swords were full length. Why? Because Scotland was the broken-sword recycling center of the world for about 500 years, buying high quality broken German swords by the boat load, and turning them into very nice dirks. That’s right; so awful was the metallurgy that even the best swords broke often enough to supply whole smaller countries. Real swords.

      1. >For example, the cheapest “katana” at the mall gift shop has better steel than any sword made over 100 years ago.

        But it isn’t heat treated properly, and will not hold an edge, so is it better or worse?

        The point of old steel vs. new steel is kinda like the difference between a chicken breast and “pink goo”. If you want even consistency every time, buy the mcnuggets.

  3. On the subject of hardened top surfaces, it’s worth pointing out that rails aren’t quite normal mild steel, they’re something harder. Possibly closer to spring steel? Which makes sense due to the stresses they take. I encountered a tale of how old rails were re-rolled into structural steelwork of some kind, which was much more difficult to cut than normal mild steel.

    So it’s possible that a rail anvil might not need a hardened surface in the way a piece of mild steel would.

    I’ve never worked on one, I must see if I can find someone who has one. The way it reacts to the hammer would tell me a lot about it.

    1. The piece of railroad track I have that was cut out of existing rail line (IE heavily used) had a LOT of cracks in the upper surface. I wasn’t able to put a polished surface on it that was acceptable for jewelry work. In contrast, new cutoffs cleaned up beautifully. It was definitely pretty hard.

    2. I checked a supply company and new steel railroad rails come in hardness range of 200 to 390 HB, so at the hard end of the range for hardened steel.

      I found mild steel listed at 130 HB.

      1. You can buy “wear resistant” steels at 400-500 HB, which is the stuff they put on excavator blades. The wear resistant steels are made with alloys that balance hardness and impact resistance, so they don’t just fall to pieces when the temperature drops.

        The railroad track actually needs to be ever so slightly soft or else the train wheels would skid over it like on ice – more than they do already – and because the softer material of a pair is the one that abrades away. Chalk doesn’t scratch glass. If the wheel was softer than the track, you’d have to be replacing them constantly.

          1. Let’s suppose you have a train wheel that goes around once per meter. You ride the train for a hundred miles. Any point along the track sees the wheel passing over once, while any point on the wheel sees the track passing over 160,000 times.

  4. Just cutting the section off the rail took a few hours and several cutting discs when I made mine. It’s much, much tougher than regular steel. I’m planning to use the rest of my rail for the footrest to my bar, but first I have to figure out how to bend it. Current thought is to use a torch and gravity, but I don’t have the highest of hopes for that working.

    1. I wonder if an induction heater wouldn’t be a better choice. A torch might not be able to apply heat over a large enough length of track to get a smooth bend, but an induction coil should scale nicely and heat the rail evenly.

    2. I can attest to the hardness of the rail. My dad and I had a section and decided to split it between us. It took forever to cut it with a 14″ abrasive cutoff saw. I use it all the time and it’s much harder than my actual cast iron anvils. It takes abuse well. Yours looks much better and I can’t imagine working it that much with a file…

    1. Exactly my question. My neighbor has a small section of light-gauge rail in his shop — maybe something from a trolley line. We’ve got a ton of BNSF lines around here, and a couple of huge railyards in nearby Spokane. Maybe I should chat up one of the maintenance crews someday.

    2. Railroad track is officially the property of the railroad. My local scrapyards that buy steel both have big signs up “WE DO NOT BUY RAILROAD TRACK STEEL.” Which is to say: it’s more or less theft to acquire chunks of railroad track. However, if you spend time walking along railroads you’ll sometimes find cutoffs, either from repair/splicing or possibly stuff that’s fallen off scrap gondolas. (A friend brought me a broken-off coupler, that weighs like 20kg; we assume it fell off a gondola because they’re piled pretty high when they go by.) I had luck with asking at a tourist railroad, because they don’t have enough throughput to worry about scrap recycling efficiency.

      1. When I was a kid my grandpa made a couple of anvils for sizing horse shoes out of rail sections. He bought everything at farmers auctions so I assume that’s where it came from. I don’t know how it got to the auction.

        Anyway, when I found I needed something hard I could hammer against (never did really shape mine into an anvil) I went and walked a local biking trail that was built over an old train track bed. Growing up I used to hike and hunt in the vicinity of train tracks both operational and not so I knew that they almost always have scrap lying around.

        I found a piece of rail that was cut off and just the right length. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to take it and there was still an operational track maybe 10 yards away so I suppose if the railroad company ever shut down and recycled their rails they might have taken scrap from the side of the walking path too.

        I chose my piece carefully though. It had fallen or been thrown down the slope and was half buried in mud. Unless they were going to dig up the entire railroad bed and dump it into a sifter to recover every last scrap of metal I really doubt anyone would have ever retrieved it besides me.

    3. Does it need to be retired? Call up the company that supplies the rails and ask them if you can come in and pick up some offcut piece.

      >Which is to say: it’s more or less theft to acquire chunks of railroad track.

      Anyone can buy railroad track, so anyone can have it for any reason. It’s just that few people have any reason to, so most of the people coming in with a bunch of track are either construction companies who will call ahead, or criminals who just yanked a local rail line and are trying to cash it before they get caught.

  5. I have several (very crude) versions of this that were salvaged from the dumpster as engineering shops were made less-useful in academia. I think that the Sun will be a red giant when it’s finally beginning to wear a bit.

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