Anvils Made From Sections of Railroad Rail

Updated: August 30, 2014


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Introduction to Railroad Rail anvil making and design

I make rail anvils to show that you don't need a huge investment to get started in blacksmithing.

Not much has been written about railroad rail anvils, but many folks have made them. Some think they are okay and others don't think much of them at all. In this article, I am taking the positive approach about anvils made from sections of railroad rail, so if you don't want to hear positive things about them or ideas on how to make them, don't read any farther.

How to locate a piece of Railroad (or other) Rail for Yourself

-Just start asking everybody you come in contact with if they have a chunk laying around of if they know anyone who might have a piece that you could get/buy/beg, etc.
-Go to just about any local (to your area) fabrication shop, welding shop or general repair shop. Present yourself in a humble manner and ask if anybody there might know where to get a piece of railroad rail.
-It won't take very long before you make a contact. I think you will be surprised at how many people who are in the metal trades have a chunk or two laying around.
-Contact local scrap metal yards, too.
-Not all "Rail" is railroad rail. Many overhead cranes, etc. run on rails.
-I do know that some people have had luck directly asking rail repair crews for a chunk. You need to know, however, that rail is not normally supposed to be "sold" out of the rail/metal recycling industry without proper paperwork.

Make your rail section into an Anvil

-Try to get at least 20 inches of rail.
-Once you find your rail, decide what shape or design you want and mark it in chalk on the rail. Take the rail to a welding shop and pay them to do the flame cutting to shape for you. It shouldn't take more than 20 minutes or so of cutting.
-Then, it's on to the grinder, with a good eye shield and ear plugs.
-You could get the face milled or ground at a machine shop, but you can do a serviceable job with a framing square and some felt tip markers to get the face flattened.
-You don't have to have a hardy hole to get started; instead you can clamp the hardy tools into a vise, which is another staple tool you'll eventually need anyway.
-I suggest not grinding a "step" on the horn, because removing that much metal could unnecessarily weaken the horn.
-Beware that the railroads frown on simply picking up stuff you might see along the rail lines. They can tend to procecute agressively.
Lastly, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to do good work. About 30 years ago, I remember marvelling at the high quality work being turned out by a group of Hmong immigrants working on a garage floor with one claw hammer, wet rags to hold the hot work instead of tongs, and a broken Caterpillar crawler casting for an anvil. Their forge was a 2X6 wooden frame with a "redi-crete" cast firepot. The bellows was a hollow log with chicken feathers for a piston and the tuyere was simple river clay.

Here are some various shapes of railroad rail anvils that I have found:

RR track anvil1     RR track anvil, rusty
RRtrack anvil old and pitted     RR track anvil on RR track stand
RRtrack anvil, short and simple    RR track anvil, horn view    RR track anvil side view    RR track anvil, short, for jeweler
Simple RR track anvil

About Railroad Rails and RR Anvil Design

I did some looking around on the web for design ideas, but I didn't find very much information.
I do know that railroad rail is sized by the weight in pounds per yard of length.
Dave, a recent visitor to this page found these Great Tables of Railroad Rail Specs.

A Guild of Metalsmiths member who worked on the railroad for 40-some years tells me that the biggest rail in America is (I think he said) 141#/yard. He said that rail goes up to 150# plus/yard in Europe.

Eau Claire, Wisconsin blacksmith Monte Bygd told me that he used to make them and sell them for $35. His were about a foot long, with no hardy or pritchel hole. I think it would weigh about 15 or 18 pounds. It looks to be made from about 70# rail. He flame cuts the horn out and grinds it to shape.

Another Guild member runs a beginning blacksmith tool making project course in Minneapolis Minnesota. As part of the course, each student receives a rail anvil, along with other tooling that they make, as part of the project. This anvil is about a foot long. It looks to be made from about 110# rail. They have a machine shop at the institution where the face is milled flat to some degree and that's it. No horn at all. No hardy hole or pritchel. You can still see the wear on the inside of the rail's ball and the burr on the outside. They sell it for $40 as part of the class. I think this anvil might weigh 25#.

My own Railroad Rail Plans and Activities

I have been saving up pieces of rail for some years for this purpose. Recently, I cut up a 12 ft length of 74# rail into 6 ea. 20" sections.
I have other pieces of railroad rail laying around that are about the same size rail and a few larger pieces. None of the rail that I have is over about 120#/yard size. I wish I could get some of that 141# rail.

The best inputs I have so far for rail anvil designs are from Alexander G. Weyger's "The Modern Blacksmith" book (copyright 1974) and the Bernhard Heer/David Harries book "Basic Blacksmithing" (copyright 1993).
A year or two ago, I flame cut out one anvil to the Heer/Harries design and one to the Weyger's design. The Heer anvil is 74#/yard rail X 20" and the Weygers design is 108#/yard rail X 21".
Weygers RR Track Anvil Rough Cut
The Weyger's Design, Flame Cut to Rough Shape. It weighs 48 pounds at this point.

So far, I have been working mostly on the Heer design, and here are three pictures of it as it progresses:
Heer Design RR Track Anvil Hardy Hole Done
The shape has been flame cut, the face has been milled and the hardy hole has been drilled and filed. I had no trouble milling the face. Drilling the holes for the hardy hole was okay until I reached the exiting end of the hole. The cast part of the rail that had not been machined was very hard, probably due to the flame cutting, and it dulled a couple of drill bits.

Heer Design RR Track Anvil with Face Milled
Here the Pritchel hole has been drilled. Same problem with tough drilling as the bit exited the hole, but I did get the job done.

Heer Design RR Track Anvil Almost Done
If you look carefully, you can see that I have spent some time grinding the horn to rough shape. I haven't yet decided whether to fill in the underside of the horn with weld or not. It weighs 29 pounds at this point. I feel that this anvil is at the lowest end of the weight spectrum for doing any useful blacksmithing.

Hardy Hole Details

You don't see many Rail Anvils with hardy or pritchel holes.
But to me, you really need them, the hardy hole at least, if you are going to do blacksmith work to any degree.
So, here are some details about making the hardy hole:
I used to make them to the exact "nominal" size that I wanted; eg: 3/4" = 0.750" +0.005,-0.000. But now I am making them 1/64" oversize since many hardy tools are actually a little oversize and I don't like filing.
Rail Anvil Hardy Hole Layout Rail Anvil with Hardy Hole Started
Hole Layout for a 3/4" hardy hole                                                 Rail Anvil with 4 corners and center drilled to 3/16"

Here you can see the progression once the large hole has been drilled, and then what the hardy hole looks like when it has been filed out.
Rail Anvil Hardy Hole, Drilling is Done Rail Anvil Hardy Hole Complete
Drilling Completed                                                                                 Filing Complete

Here is a picture of three of my rail anvils in various stages of completion. I get the machine work done and then the grinding has to take place. I tend to put that task off until it's nice outside.
But you can see that I CAN make hardy holes in my railroad rail anvils!
Close up of 3 Hardy Holes in Rail Anvils
Close-up of three of my rail anvils

What if you don't want to go to all that trouble of making the square Hole, one step at a time?
ANSWER: Simply drill a large round hole, then go out and BUY a square hole to weld into the round one!
Square Hole for welding into Hardy Hole
A square hole purchased from: Green Bay Mfg. Co.

Some Metalurgical Specs on Railroad Rail:

I got this from wikipedia rail profile:
"The American Railway Engineering Association (AREA) and the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) specified carbon, manganese, silicon and phosphorus content for steel rails. Tensile strength increases with carbon content, while ductility decreases. AREA and ASTM specified 0.55 to 0.77 percent carbon in 70-to-90-pound-per-yard (35 to 45 kg/m) rail, 0.67 to 0.80 percent in rail weights from 90 to 120 pounds per yard (45 to 60 kg/m), and 0.69 to 0.82 percent for heavier rails. Manganese increases strength and resistance to abrasion. AREA and ASTM specified 0.6 to 0.9 percent manganese in 70 to 90 pound rail and 0.7 to 1 percent in heavier rails. Silicon improves steel by increasing density. AREA and ASTM specified 0.1 to 0.23 percent silicon. Phosphorus and sulfur are impurities causing brittle rail with reduced impact-resistance. AREA and ASTM specified maximum phosphorus concentration of 0.04 percent."

Is there any disagreement with that?

Miscellaneous Stuff about Railroad Rail

Interesting to me:
I got 6 cuts with one Doall Imperial 100 band saw blade in used 88# (or so) rail before it started to go dull. I'd guess that means that those rails are NOT fully hardened when they leave the mfr and they don't work harden to the point where they are fully hard by the time they are removed from service.

Why do I have that much rail laying around?
It's the left over from my son's 39 foot high Tyranosaurus Rex. He used 2 18 foot lengths to reinforce the legs.

That's all for now. I will add to this page as I find time to work on these railroad rail anvils some more.