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The Antiquity of the Swage Block
A History

Two ancient swage blocks seperated by 3000 years of history. Antique early American block and the Bronze Age Cape Gelidonya block.

Why are there so few ancient blocks and why are they not described in old literature?

We know from the Bronze Age Cape Gelidonya block that swage blocks have been in existence for over 3200 years. So why do they not show up in Diderot's Encyclopædia, Agricola's De Re Metallica or Moxon's Mechanick Exercises?

So why is such an ancient tool that is labeled "indispensable" by some, completely dispensed with by others? There are numerous reasons, not all clear.

The Cape Gelidonya block is perhaps a typical small anvil of the period. It nearly stands alone. There are so few Bronze Age metalworking tools in existence that little can be said about style or development. Most of the metal of that era has been recycled numerous times and those pieces found in museums quite rare compared to the popular use of the time. The Bronze Age anvil developed into more of a multifunction tool than either the modern swage block or anvil.
In The Antiquaries Journal, in her article "The Anvils of Bronze Age Europe" Margaret Ehrenbery describes 37 small bronze anvils that are located in museums in Western Europe and the British Isles. Most have been dated from about 1200 to 700 BC because of the material with them. They are not just little blocks with a flat side, but some of them have horns, punching holes, swages of various shapes in them and a stake for mounting them. Although they are relatively small, they contain about every complexity or feature that has been used on smiths anvils to date.1
Fresne' la Me're

Above, an engraving of a Bronze Age anvil found in France at Fresné la Mère as described by both Ehrenbery above and John Evans in Ancient Bronze Implements of Great Britain2. It is a typical multipurpose Bronze Age anvil. It can be used in two positions the metal in the stake not wasted. John Evans has this to say on Bronze Age anvils,
In my own collection is what appears to have been a larger anvil of bronze, which was found with other instruments of the same metal, at Macarsca, Dalmatia. In form it is not unlike unlike an ordinary hammer-head about 5 inches long; but the eye through it appears to be too small for it to have ever served to receive a haft of the ordinary kind, though it probably held a handle by which to steady the tool when in use. One end is nearly square by slightly convex; the other oblong and rounded the narrow way. Both ends are much worn. On one face and one side are rounded notches or swages. This tool has been cast in an open mould, as one face presents the rough surface of the molten metal, which contains a large proportion of tin. The other face and sides are fairly smooth.2 
Modern use would indicate that the "eye" Evans speaks of is probably a punching hole.

Thus the Bronze Age anvil had features of both anvil and swage block. The block was generally not a separate tool and when it appears as in the Cape Gelidonya block it is actually a simplified anvil of the time.

The Iron Age:    While many manufacturing techniques transferred from bronze to iron one did not, casting. The bronze age smith was largely a foundryman, the Iron Age smith was not. The Iron Age smith forged wrought iron between hammer and anvil. He worked his metal much more directly and more with a hammer than did the Bronze Age smith. The anvil became a different kind of tool needing to be a larger flat and sturdy work surface. It was much less a multifunction tool than the Bronze age anvil.

When forging iron it was common to use helpers with sledges and the delicate features of a multifunction tool would quickly become battered and useless. In the Western Iron Age the smith had to forge an anvil to shape, a difficult job requiring several men and significant effort. The new metal was also very valuable and little was spared on tools. So anvils simplified, the multifunction swage forgotten and replaced by separate tools. However, by the 16th century we are seeing anvils with distinctly shaped bodies. The so-called "church windows" appear on anvils. It is speculated that the sides of these anvils could be used as swages, particularly for the plate workers such as armourers. In fact some examples have a distinctly flat side where no feet extend so that the anvil can be used on its side.

It would not be until the Industrial Age that the anvil started to develop into the multi-function tool it is today. However, it has developed as a completely different tool than the Bronze Age multi-function anvil/swage.

Temporary Tools:    The other reason for the absence of swage blocks in many shops is the substitution of temporary materials for many of their uses. The swages were there but they came and went. It would be easy for authors writing about the tools of the smith to overlook them.

In 1122 Theophilus describes a shop with anvils broad and flat, long and round as well as swages on stakes. He also describes the use of lead backing and wood blocks with troughs or notches. Illustrations of a gold smiths shop in 1576 by Stephaunus show depressions cut in the wood stumps supporting the shop anvils and stakes3. The tools of this shop are unchanged from those of Theophilus 450 years earlier and are probably not different from centuries earlier. Notably missing is the vice. Another tool that would soon come to be common.

wood stump swage Wood blocks or "stumps" are used for both hot and cold work. Thin material such as iron spoons and ladles can be dished hot in a wood block the depression forming as the wood burns. The burned depression can then be scraped and used for cold work. Wood blocks are also carved in positive and negative for a variety of work especially for thin and nonferrous metal work. A great deal of light and heavy sheet metal work such as armour is produced in wood blocks that seem to be nothing more than a short section of log unless one looks close. After a wood block becomes too worn for continued use it just becomes more kindling and added to the forge fire. Thus there is no evidence for historians or archaeologists.

Lead blocks were used for hundreds of years as a standard tool in the metal working shop. It was used for file cutting and straightening, dishing, repousse' and embossing. For dishing the depression in the lead block was not cast but was hammered into the block as needed.4  After a time when the lead block became too battered on both sides it was melted down and re-cast in a simple slab or block shape again. Thus it was a temporary tool and easily overlooked by those writing about the tools of the smith. Today the lead block is frowned upon due to its toxicity but they still have uses.

Cast Iron:    It was not until the 15th century that the West started casting iron in quantity. This changed the character of iron working in Europe and was the beginning of the Industrial Age. Swage blocks as separate tools would come back as foundries spread and the cost of metal dropped. However, until the 18th century and the age of machinery cast swage blocks were tools made by individuals and quite rare.

The Hardie Hole: Sometime in the late 17th or 18th century the the square hardie hole became a feature of blacksmiths anvils. Originally intended to hold a small steel chisel upright for hot cutting other uses for the hardy hole developed. Miniature bickerns (narrow round anvils) and bottom swages started to become standard anvil accessories. Having a hole to key then in place and prevent them from hopping off the anvil during use made bottom swages a popular tool. The metal swage came back as a common shop tool. Often these swages would have multiple grooves taking advantage of a single difficult to forge shank.

With industry and modern machines of the steam era came the need for machine bolts of all sizes. At first the smith forged all the bolts, upsetting and heading them by hand and dressing with a file. Anvil top swage tools came into popular use. When a smith needed a great number of swages a swage block would become an economical alternative.

As industry developed the smith was relegated to making the large machine bolts that were not made in high production. The factory smith was also called upon to make numerous axles and shafts with shoulders that were were dressed with swages. This was the era of the industrial factory blacksmith and the Industrial Swage Block. Blocks for these purposes were the first block manufactured in production quantities. Industrial swage blocks became popular enough that they were catalog items by the late 1800's.

Summary

During most of the Iron Age, for nearly 2500 years the swage block was a forgotten or overlooked tool. Substitutes serving the same basic purpose were used as the need was still there. Without a tradition of use they were largely ignored except by a few. With the development of the anvil hardie hole iron steel anvil top tools became common and the need increased. The need and the easy availability of foundries to make castings brought the swage block back. However, even after they were a common tool listed in catalogs many authors ignored their existence.

It was not until the 20th century that swage blocks and dapping blocks became a popular tool. At the end of the 20th century the artist blacksmith block has become the dominate style due to need but blocks of all styles continue to be manufactured and in demand.

That brings us to today. The artist blacksmith or universal block is now the most common. They are made as both tools and works of art. The industrial block is still manufactured in a range of sizes and styles, and it is used in all types of blacksmith shops. And, here we have the first detailed articles devoted to this often overlooked tool.

- Jock Dempsey, November 2006


1. Anvils in America, Richard A. Postman, 1998. p.19
2. Ancient Bronze Implements of Great Britain, Weapons and Ornaments of Great Britain and Ireland, John Evans, 1881, Longmans, Green and Co. London. pp.182-183, fig.217
3. Theophilus On Divers Arts - 1122, Translation by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, 1963, plates IV, V.
4. Sheet Metal Workers' Manual, L. Broemel, 1942, Frederick J. Drake and Company, Chicago. p.216

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Copyright © 2006 Jock Demspey, swageblocks.com

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