Introduction: Make a Benchtop Anvil

Here's how I made a small benchtop anvil for my workshop.

It was made out of a piece of small-gauge railroad track. Without the log base, the anvil weighs about 10 pounds. I plan to use it for pounding various bits of hot and cold metal, setting grommets, stamping leather, and basically any kind of light-duty pounding or flattening I may want to do.

While I'm showing the steps I took to make this and am sharing some general instruction, I admit I am very much a novice with any kind of metalwork. Therefore, constructive and informative feedback from knowledgeable metalworkers is highly encouraged, both for my sake and for anyone else that may read this instructable.

Thanks for checking this out!

Step 1: Acquire a Bit of Rail Track

To make an anvil like this you will need a small section of rail track.

The piece I used is small-gauge rail that is only 3.75 inches tall. I got a 9-inch long piece from a blacksmith that teaches classes where I live. He bought a pile of old rail at a scrap yard, and sells small pieces like this to his students so they can get started pounding metal at home.

It is not illegal to have a piece of railroad track . . . if it is acquired legally.

Obviously, you can't go pulling up railroad track unless you want want to get locked away for a long, long time.

At any given time, eBay has several listings for bits of scrap rail, both newish and vintage. There are usually finished railroad track anvils available too . . . so you could just simply buy one of those, or even just buy a cast iron hobby anvil or a steel bench block, like this one.

However, I prefer to spend a little more time, money, and effort to make my own things, as I thoroughly enjoy the making process.

So the first step is to ask around, search online as well as at your local scrap dealer, and legally acquire a bit of scrap rail.

Step 2: Tools, Etc.

I used an angle grinder for all of the cutting and shaping of the rail. I have this Makita grinder kit, which was fairly inexpensive but works great.

For removing large chunks of material, I used a 1mm cut-off wheel. I went through two of these.

For removing smaller amounts of material and general shaping, I used a 40-grit flap disc. I went through two of these as well.

For flattening the top of the rail anvil, I used a 40-grit corner/edge grinding and polishing disc, which despite the listing in that link does NOT really have a conical shape (see 2nd photo above). This flatness is needed to help achieve a decently flat surface by hand (this is covered in detail in step 4).

Other tools and materials used on the rail:

I sanded and polished my little anvil to a mirror finish just for fun. This was definitely not necessary as it immediately began to dull with use. But it was an interesting endeavor and I learned a lot by going through the finishing process.

Step 3: Flatten Top, Part One: Remove the Pits

The top surface of my rail had some pretty deep rust pitting.

Rails like this are typically slightly convex across the width as well, and I wanted my little anvil to be flat. However, for this first step we're only concerned with removing the rust pits and any other imperfections.

I began with a 40-grit flap disc on the grinder and carefully removed small amounts of material just until all the pits were gone.

The trick with this and the following step is to not go "hog-wild" and end up removing any more material than needed. There is no need to bear down and dig out troughs, which is the exact opposite of what is desired.

Always wear appropriate safety equipment: eye protection, hearing protection, lung protection.

Step 4: Flatten Top, Part Two: Hand-machining!

For this step I switched over to the flat grinding disc.

To flatten out the top of the rail and remove the little ripples from the last step (as well as any remaining convex-ness), you need to make smooth, full passes, with light and consistent pressure, keeping the grinding disc perfectly flat against the top of the rail.

If you move in a steady and consistent motion, you will eventually reveal a very flat and smooth surface. I would suggest trying to find a sweet spot of mechanically consistent rhythm with your body. Every pass needs to be a full pass from before one end of the rail all the way straight off the other. However, be mindful that you don't dip into or off of the ends, or you'll create unwanted slopes.

There's no need to bear down, as the weight of the tool is all that is needed and nothing more.

To gauge the correct speed of each pass, check the resulting swirl marks on the metal. Ideally you should see a fairly tight, machined-looking swirl pattern.

Step 5: Begin Horn

I wanted my benchtop anvil to have a horn that would allow for shaping basic curves.

I laid out the shape I wanted, and used a 1mm cut-off wheel on the grinder to slice off wedge shapes as shown. Don't be fooled though, this took about 20 minutes for each side!

Step 6: Make It Anvily

I then removed a section under the horn using the cut-off wheel.

The size of this notch is dictated by the reach of the grinder. I made two cuts from each side of the rail and even so, full cuts weren't able to be completed.

However, the still-connected area was small enough that I was able to break out the pie-shaped piece with a swift hammer blow (see last photo).

Step 7: Refine Horn, Etc.

To refine the shape of the horn and the cutout below it, I switched back to a 40-grit flap disc.

I carefully laid out guidelines with a marker on the horn to indicate areas to be removed. These were ground away in sections making uniform passes similarly to how the top was done in step 4.

The cutout below the horn was shaped until I was happy with it as well.

Step 8: Remove Rust

Using a wire wheel on a power drill I removed all of the rust. This could be done in a number of ways, but I went for quickness with the wire wheel.

Step 9: Power Sanding

To begin the process of finishing the shiny surfaces, I first used an abrasive Scotch-Brite disc in a power drill. This removed all of the marks left by the grinding discs.

I then switched to an orbital sander, sanding all the shiny surfaces with the following grits: 100, 150, 220.

Just like when sanding wood projects, the goal is to remove all the marks from the previous grit. When all you see are the new marks from the current grit, it's time to move up to the next one.

For the hard-to-reach cutout under the horn, I used my $30 variable speed Black & Decker rotary tool with tiny sanding discs in similar grits. This worked great, although it was a little tedious; I went through probably 10 discs in each grit I used.

A note on orbital sander discs:I started this step using pretty typical aluminum oxide sandpaper discs on my orbital sander (which I've been quite happy with for all of my wood projects), but they wore out almost immediately on metal. Perhaps a rookie mistake. But then I switched to Diablo brand discs which are made with a "ceramic blend" . . . and the difference was amazing. The discs lasted much longer and were distinctly more effective.

Step 10: Wet Sanding

After the shiny surfaces were all dry sanded up to 320, I switched to wet sanding by hand using grits 400, 800, and then 1000.

Things started to look pretty nice at this point!

Step 11: Polish and Wax

I didn't have any fancy polishing compounds on hand, so I just used what I had: Mother's Mag & Aluminum Polish. It seemed to work fine though, since the polish turned black as you rubbed it in.

Following a series of rub-downs and buff-offs with polish, I did the same thing with Johnson's Paste Wax.

Step 12: Notches for Bolts

In order to be able to bolt the anvil down, I ground out notches on each side of the bottom plate.

This was done using an angle grinder with a 3mm grinding disc, by simply grinding away three disc-widths about 1/4" deep into the base for each notch.

Step 13: The Anvil Stump

I used a chainsaw to cut a small section from an old log.

I then used a router and a leveling jig to make the ends flat and parallel to one another. The process I used is covered in detail in another instructable I wrote: How to make log ends perfectly flat and parallel

Step 14: Add a Base Plate and Finish

A small base plate was made from a piece of scrap plywood which was screwed to the bottom of the log.

This allows the log to be clamped to my roll-out worktable (see step 18 in that instructable).

The log and base plate were finished with boiled linseed oil by simply rubbing it on liberally with a rag, letting it soak for a few minutes, and then wiping off the excess.

Step 15: Add Handles

I added two handles made from an old leather belt.

The leather pieces were fastened in place with 2 inch long 5/16" diameter lag screws, screwed into pre-drilled holes.

Step 16: Fasten Anvil

The anvil was fastened to the top of the log with the same size lag screws as were used for the handles.

These screws were fastened into pre-drilled 3/16" holes that were made at an angle to match the profile of the anvil's base (see last photo).

Step 17: Done!

This was a fun project and I learned a lot along the way.

If you're interested, check out my instructable that covers the first piece of jewelry I made on my new anvil. Here's a link: Gripping Hand Ring (from a fork)

Thanks for taking a look!

Comments

author
HibbityDibbity (author)2015-09-10

You continue to be an inspiration to get off my butt and into the shop. I've got about a hundred pound section of rail I inherited from my grandfather (who no doubt had some intention of using it as an anvil) that's begging for a flattening and a horn.

Well done as always!

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RobertH44 (author)HibbityDibbity2015-09-15

My late uncle bill made one of these back in the early 70's. He used it for decades in his shop to make/fix all kinds of things he need on his ranch until he was to weak from disease to work in there any more. I wish i could have gotten it but one of the blood sucking closer relatives sold all his tools after he passed away.

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seamster (author)HibbityDibbity2015-09-11

Thanks man!

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pnosko (author)2015-09-10

Wow, when I got to the photo in step 7, I was blown away. To shape steel like that by hand is just plain impressive. I bought a 5' length of 4x4 steel I-Beam that was all rusty. I used a knot wire cup brush and some of those sanding disks to just remove surface rust so I could paint it and keep it from rusting again. So I know just how much effort this took. Well done!

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jscanlan (author)2015-09-10

An articulate and well laid out Instructable. You did a very nice job, this is a tool to be proud of. Thank you for sharing.

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Eh Lie Us! (author)2015-09-10

Good night, Irene! that's a great looking anvil and all from a flipping piece of track. Impressive.

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rodgerbooth (author)2016-11-27

I just picked up 2x 5ft sections of the big old track today out of a farmers scrap pile and I'll be making a few of these

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OrenK9 (author)2016-08-05

WOW!. I love it! Sure is a great idea.

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menz414 made it! (author)2016-06-10

Nice Job, very helpful idea. I need one so this is what i made.

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JeffR9 (author)2015-09-18

So simple and yet so beautiful! I'd love to have shop tools and aids from that mindset of craftsmanship. Excellent job!

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chuckmadere (author)2015-09-15

You did a great job and it's something to be proud of.

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Boomer1 (author)2015-09-15

I have a 2 foot long piece of rail, an angle grinder and time. I'll be making one of these, maybe two as soon as I'm finished with my workshop. I found the rail pretty easily, there is a rail yard a 1/4 mile from my house. I just went in to the office, asked the yard manager and he introduced me to two nice young men that had just replaced a few sections and had plenty of scraps.

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nords (author)2015-09-14

Great job. Find someone with a milling machine and they can flatten the top in a few minutes. They probably also have a horizontal metal cutting bandsaw that will rough cut the two sides with a lot less effort. After that, the shaping is still done by hand.

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hotdiggidy (author)2015-09-13

This is great! Can you please tell me what tool you used to grind the notches? Did you use a carbide burr or a stone bit?

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seamster (author)hotdiggidy2015-09-14

Ah, I didn't mention how I did that! Oops, I'll edit that to update.

That was done with my angle grinder with a 3mm grinding disc--I just nibbled away three disc-widths for each notch.

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Swift2568 (author)2015-09-13

Very cool, but I'm confused about why you went through so much effort to polish it. I might have been happy after the 220 grit.

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seamster (author)Swift25682015-09-13

There was no practical reason.

I had never sanded or polished metal before, so I viewed this as an educational opportunity. It's all banged and scuffed up now, though!

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Ralphxyz (author)2015-09-13

Thank you, I have had a piece of rail that I have been thinking of making into an anvil you have given me hope that I might just be able to do it.

Thanks also for the instruction on flattening a log, that I know I will use!!

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gabrielma (author)2015-09-13

Es un trabajo hermoso, yo lo llevaria al Louvre

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opticschief59 (author)2015-09-12

Pretty darn neat. Thanks for posting it.

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RiversP (author)2015-09-12

A good soaking in vinegar before tackling the cutting and grinding will remove most of the rust. It takes a lot of vinegar to cover big pieces but its a lot cheaper than elbow grease.

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Garmann (author)2015-09-12

That is very nice work and explained in detail!! I always wanted a horn but never thought to make one on my railroad track anvil. Thanks for sharing.

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spark master (author)2015-09-12

sweet

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woodreaux (author)2015-09-11

Very good 'ible and nice looking anvil. I made one 45 years ago or so. I was in welding school at the time and used a cutting torch to profile the shape. I have been blacksmithing for many years and own way too many anvils, LOL! I have six "full size" appx 125-160 lb. and several smaller ones. HOWEVER, the pitfall with RR track anvils is that there is no appreciable "body" to the anvil. there is no mass under the sides of the top surface and there will be spring. The spring may or may not be noticeable but it makes each blow struck very inefficient. The upright position of a piece of rail is best as more center mass "hits back". As far as physics, there is only the size of your hammer face that you need for an anvil but the more mass, the more efficient your efforts will be at forging. All in all though very nice!

author
seamster (author)woodreaux2015-09-11

Thank you for your thoughtful comment and compliments! I appreciate it.

I was vaguely aware of the physics issues you've outlined (read about the springiness and lack of mass drawbacks somewhere online, at some point), but decided to just go for it despite these weaknesses.

However, I am in the market for a good full size anvil, and will hopefully get one soon. If we were neighbors, I'd try to buy one of yours!

In the meantime, I'll try to get by with this little one for simple things like pounding on old forks and making rings out of silver quarters :)

author
RiversP (author)2015-09-11

I made two anvils from an old piece of dinky or donkey track. It is about 3.25" tall. The head is 1.25" wide. The base is 2.5" but was wider when it was new. It was so rusted I had to cut it back. The anvil I use most is 5.75" long. The base is 2.5" square with 4 holes drilled and half moons cut into the sides.The base is centered on the main part of the anvil -the horn and also has cutouts in the tee section. I intended to make a hardy hole but haven't, yet. I need to figure out how to drill a square hole in a 1.5" piece of steel. I left it rounded on the top because it works better for my purposes. I use it to make rings from pre-1964 silver quarters. I stand the ring on its edge and tap it with a heavy stainless steel soup spoon while slowly turning it. The convex surface of both the spoon and the anvil concentrates the energy into a smaller area. The coin spreads laterally and becomes smaller in circumference. I used a round file to cut a slot across the back of the anvil. Since the ring is relatively flat laterally, I use the rounded slot to roll over the ring slightly. My anvil isn't rusty but it has a patina except in the places where the work is done. Those parts are silver plated.

If you would like to see the anvil and see how the ring is made, here is a link;

http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com/blind_pig_the_acorn/2012/03/how-to-make-a-silver-ring-from-a-quarter.html

author
seamster (author)RiversP2015-09-11

Very nice! That little anvil looks terrific, as does the silver quarter ring.

Thank you for sharing the details, and for that link. Awesome stuff!

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spremoneb (author)2015-09-11

Excellent job. Very nice and clean photos. Inspiring work.

Too bad for the notches though. Perhaps if you drilled them through the base, slightly angled perpendicular to the surface. The screws look as if they are going to fall off.

Beautiful job nevertheless.

Thank you for sharing

author
seamster (author)spremoneb2015-09-11

Oh, I wouldn't feel too bad about those notches :)

If you take a look at that 3rd photo in step 16, imagine what kind of force would be required to make the anvil just wiggle. Those are 5/16" thick lag bolts tightened deeply into an old, bone-dry stump. They are not going to fall off.

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GaryJ1 made it! (author)2015-09-10

You did a very nice job on that ! A friend gave me a piece of track years ago, I cut the shape with an OXY/ACET. torch and finish grinding. Someday I may round that horn off more. I also have a Harbor Freight anvil, they get me by.

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seamster (author)GaryJ12015-09-11

Thank you! Your rail anvil looks beastly; I like it!

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anilbot (author)2015-09-10

Brilliant idea.... But donno' where I can get a piece of railroad steel...

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M2aestro (author)2015-09-10

I've been using a bench top piece of railroad track as an anvil for some years. I traded a 140 - 180 lbs piece of machined cast iron that I had found too heavy to move conveniently and no longer needed for its original purpose (it also had 4 nodular cast iron handles) for a 14" section of standard rail that had been painted with red oxide. Never tested it to see if it were red lead or red cadmium or what, but just went ahead and used it. My father-in law had a rail anvil, also standard freight size that he'd used at least 40 years. Never put a horn on it, for I already had an anvil with horn, and so did he. Anybody who uses one of these should remember not to beat really hard materials on it, for risk of two outcomes; either the hard material could fracture or splinter...dangerous splinters or shards, and/or the anvil gets unwanted deep dings in it. If you don't care about the latter consequence, then whang away at it, but with good safety goggles.

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GaryJ1 made it! (author)2015-09-10

You did a very nice job on that .

This is mine I made years ago .

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harposrepair (author)2015-09-10

You must be careful how you acquire railroad metal. They are very strict on people just picking it up and keeping it. Without proof of purchase they have been known to prosecute for theft. I learned this from my father who retired from Norfolk Southern after 30+ years.

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DanielR68 (author)2015-09-10

nice!

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zacker (author)2015-09-10

Wowo you did a great job. I started one of these a couple summers ago but got tired of trying to grind the top flat. lol I'll pick up on it again at some point though, after all, I still need to finish the little propane oven I started to make to go along with it... lol too many projects, not enough money, time and patience! lol

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seamster (author)zacker2015-09-10

Thanks zacker!

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impied (author)2015-09-10

Gorgeous AND functional!

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seamster (author)impied2015-09-10

Huge compliment, thank you!

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neffk (author)2015-09-10

Looks nice. It's probably good for light work. For heavy work, it's better stood up on end so you have more weight under the hammer. I think that's called a post anvil.

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seamster (author)neffk2015-09-10

Thank you!

Since posting this, one of my older neighbors saw it in my garage, ran home and came back with two larger railroad track pieces and gave them to me. So I'll probably mount one of them upright in another stump!

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LegendofPedro (author)2015-09-10

Great work! I'm going to give this a try myself.

Be careful with those leather handles: drilled holes are weaker than punched holes, due to how the fibres are split.

How about adding a hardy hole?

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seamster (author)LegendofPedro2015-09-10

Thanks!

I may add a hardy hole once I've got a little forge made. Will update if/when I get to that point!

Good tip on the leather holes too. I didn't have a punch, but I'll keep that tip in mind for all future projects :)

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JasmineandViolets (author)2015-09-10

Wow that is awesome, I love how the steel and wood look together with the leather straps.

author

Thank you! I feel the same way.

There's just something pleasing about simplistic, fairly raw materials combined in a useful way.

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Slim49 (author)2015-09-10

Very Nicely done!

I made a RR track andivl on the JOB 30 yrs ago.

"When I was a Scaleman"

I used a cutting torch to create shapes, & burn Holes in teh base to mount it.

Did a fine enough job for task at hand. Wish I had not gave it away when I moved.

there are timesI need it. And , Now I could flatten its top!

thx,

Slim49

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zacker (author)2015-09-10

lol its still got a lot of grinding needed to get it straight but it was coming along nicely. now I am actually thinking of getting a piece of 1.5" thick steel welded to the top of it because this track isn't wide at all and the piece of thick steel I have is about 4 or 5 inches wide.... it will give me more room to work on but im not sure this track can be welded to. I don't know if its weldable or not.

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tnetcenter (author)zacker2015-09-10

It should be weldable - it's hard stuff but it can be cut by flame and wheel and welded or fused (the technique the railroad uses - thermite welding). To machine it, it will have to be annealed, and then rehardened afterwards.

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tnetcenter (author)2015-09-10

Nice polishing job! I made a similar anvil from a full size piece of rail - the original wgt was 49 lbs. I probably cut off about 5 to 10 lbs shaping it and it's not polished to the level yours is, but it turned out nice enough to use for jewelry making which is what I wanted it for. $14 at the local scrap metal yard. The picture show the basic shape after flame cutting and some basic grinding. I've done a lot more grinding and sanding since this picture was taken.

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