Establishing a proper working height for the face of your anvil largely comes down to personal preference. Competitors, for instance, have quite a variety of anvils and stand set-ups, each with its own explanation. 

While taking photos of various anvil stands at a recent contest in Oklahoma, I realized that over the years my own anvil height has ranged from too low to too high. Here’s some of what I’ve learned along the way.

Tailor Height

At our shoeing school, the first day includes establishing anvil height on an individual basis using conventional wisdom. Most people are taught to set up their anvil so the face is at the bottom of the knuckles when standing beside the anvil with a closed fist (figure 1).

This is the most common way to establish a good working height. If you’re comfortable with this height, stay with what works. If you suffer from back pain after a long practice session, you may want to slightly raise your anvil.

A call to Draper, Utah, farrier Shayne Carter to get his input quickly proved how much there is to learn about this craft. For his everyday working anvil, Shayne likes the face to be level with his knuckles as described above. However, two main considerations for Shayne are the type of work he’s doing and who he’s working with.

For example, if he’s making tools with a striker, his anvil is set lower to accommodate the height of the top tool and striker. This can involve a difference of several inches depending on the type of top tools used and the overall length of sledgehammer head. Carter said he didn’t notice any contestants at last winter’s American Farrier’s Association convention who set up their stations with the striker in mind. Perhaps positioning a pallet on the off-side of the anvil is just what the doctor ordered.

Height Differences

My wife, Kelly, often strikes for me. In our shop, we place a platform on her side of the anvil to adjust for our height differences.

Photos of us competing in the draft team class in Oklahoma show exactly what Carter described. Figure 2 is staged to show Kelly hammering in relation to the flatter placed on the anvil. Notice the angle of the hammer handle when in contact with the tool.

Figures 3 and 4 show us fullering a shoe during the actual competition. Notice in figure 3 how Kelly is standing on her tiptoes to get high enough. Figure 4 shows her on her toes at the end of her swing, but raising her shoulder unnaturally due to the anvil height. There certainly would be more hammer power if she could hit my tool flat without having to raise her shoulder. In figure 4, her hammer handle isn’t even close to being parallel to the face of the anvil.

Pitch Away

“Hickman’s Farriery” suggests the anvil be placed 27 to 30 inches high, with the face pitched away from the blacksmith. Pitching the face has two advantages.

First, it helps slag fall off the anvil face. Realize, however, that too much pitch will also cause your work to fall off the anvil.

A pitched face also allows you to lower the anvil without having to bend your back. Because the face is pitched, the hammer can continue in an arc even though your hand has reached the bottom of the swing (figure 5).

Dusty Franklin of Pleasant Hill, Mo., likes an anvil that’s positioned at the bottom of his knuckles or lower. He explains that he can lower his body to accommodate a low anvil, but it’s hard to raise up and hit flat on a high anvil (figure 6). This is a very valid observation. If a higher anvil causes you to lose hammer control, try lowering the anvil or pitching the face.

Change Is Good

For most of us, change is difficult but often necessary. Above all, if what you’re doing isn’t working, change it! Several years ago, I lowered my anvil several inches trying to gain power in my swing as well as to prepare for the height of the anvils used at the Calgary Stampede.

Lowering an anvil allows the hammer to travel further, provided you involve your whole body in the swing. This means using your knees and back to reach full height at the top of the swing and then lowering your body on the downswing. Few people have perfected this method of hammer swing as well as Edgewood, N.M., shoer Craig Trnka or Carter. It’s indeed something to watch.

I couldn’t get the benefits of the lowered anvil without causing lower back pain. I dreaded practice because it hurt my back so badly. As my back began to hurt, I would stop bending enough for the lowered anvil, making it difficult to hit with a flat, clean blow (figure 7). As a result, I had to raise my anvil.

Through trial and error, I discovered the perfect anvil height for me has nothing to do with my hammer hand. Instead, I’ve set my anvil height so my tongs are in line with the anvil face (figure 8). This keeps my elbow slightly bent when my hammer hits the stock (figure 9), which has produced another desirable effect–my elbow stopped hurting. There’s a loss of power, but it’s negligible.

Heavy Hits

When I really need to hit hard, I find myself standing on my tiptoes to gain some height and using my calves instead of my back to gain power. Figure 10 shows me working on the same anvil shown in figure 1, which is the industry standard for anvil height. Compare my postures in figures 9 and 10 and notice that my back is bent in figure 10 to accommodate the anvil.

I really miss a short anvil when I have to upset a piece of stock. The lost inches from a higher anvil add up when aiming at a target several inches higher than your comfortable work zone. If the stock is long enough, I use the foot of my anvil as a working face for upsetting.

Randy Norton, a farrier from Clio, Mich., builds custom anvil stands for several competitors and is knowledgeable about anvil height. He says most people want their anvil to reach the end of their first knuckle when their hand is partially open (figure 11). This height generally maximizes hammer swing power while retaining good hammer control.

All Shapes, Sizes

There’s no magic formula for determining the perfect anvil height. Experiment until you find your individual preference and don’t be afraid to try something new just because it doesn’t work for someone else. We’re all built differently–just look at me and my Calgary two-man partner, Lapeer, Mich., farrier Dick Becker in figure 12!