Can I Use a Railroad-Track Anvil for Jewelry?

Q: Anvils I’ve made from sections of railroad tracks work great for making knives. Why are people telling me they aren’t good enough for making jewelry on?

A: A good craftsman could make the same blade with either a good anvil or a piece of junk steel. I recall way back in the ’60s, while travelling to Cozumel with my parents, we went over to the ruins at Chichen Itza. It wasn’t then the big tourist center it is now, and we got a ride from a fellow at the air strip into the little town adjacent to the ruins, and wandered around there a bit before heading to the ruins themselves. I saw a number of interesting little shops where they were doing all sorts of crafts. One in particular sticks in my memory. The guy in it was making silver and stone-inlay jewelry. It was pretty typical; the sort of stuff one finds even today. Colorful inlay patterns of turquoise, coral, black onyx (or other things pretending to be them). It was decently made for what it was and the low prices being asked.

But here’s the thing: the guy’s whole workshop basically existed in those small spaces in his garage not taken up by his truck, and mostly in the dirt or gravel driveway itself. He had a small table set up and was working at it. Grinding, polishing, “lapidary” grinding, all was done on a small hand-cranked grinder, the type that used to be sold for sharpening knives. Soldering was done with a beat-up gasoline blow torch. His anvil was just a chunk of truck axle cut and jammed into a large wooden stump of some sort. Careful gentle hammering was done with a beat-up carpenter’s hammer. And when he was ready to inlay the stones, he’d glue them in with a black adhesive his kid gathered from the middle of the road where the sun had warmed the asphalt paving enough so he could dig out a spoonful.

I think about the only actual jeweler’s tool he had there was a saw frame. The rest was just salvaged: whatever tools he’d picked up wherever he could. But to look at his work, you’d never guess just how primitive his shop was. The point is, your knife-making skill is what made that blade. Not the anvil. An anvil does not make the finished work; it just makes the work easier to do. You can shape metal with a dull, damaged file. It doesn’t work all that easily, although you can do it if you put the effort into it. But a clean sharp file works a lot easier and faster, and you have to correct for fewer shortcomings of the tool. It’s the same thing with rail anvils as opposed to real anvils.

I should mention too, that I made a rail anvil many years ago. It was a decent piece of steel on which you could pound little things for jewelry making. It worked fine, as well as any large piece of steel for doing small lightweight work. But I’d never have tried to forge larger pieces on it, since for that, I had better, heavier tools even then.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.