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What is a Swage Block?
Two industrial swage blocks and an artist blacksmith block.

A Swage Block is a multi-purpose tool used similar to an anvil by blacksmiths, metal sculptors, armourers and other metalworkers. Swage blocks are generally thick square or rectangular blocks of cast iron, ductile iron or steel. They have also been made of wood and bronze. They may weigh from as little as 10 pounds (4.5kg) up to hundreds of pounds (~230kg max). Their surfaces have impressions of various shapes for the craftsperson to work hot or cold metal on or into. Most swage blocks have a variety of holes that pass through the thin direction. These holes are used for bending, forging heads and punching holes.

As a multipurpose tool the industrial swage block substitutes for mutiple size and shape bottom swages, grooving and edging dies, punching dies, bolster plates, monkey tools, bending plate and stake plate. The artist blacksmith block also substitutes for a variety of stakes, sinking forms and spoon molds. Blocks combining these features are the "Swiss Army Knife" of blacksmith's tools.

A Swage Block is not an anvil but have been called "hollow anvils" due to their holes or depressions. Anvils are made of hardened tool steel so that they can resist the heavy hammering required to forge steel into different shapes and thicknesses. A swage block is made of cast iron (a metal inferior to steel) and is used for finish sizing hot work that has been forged on the anvil and to shape by bending or for forming sheet metal. High quality swage blocks are made of ductile iron or low carbon cast steel. These blocks can take much more severe duty than cast iron blocks but they still are not anvils.

General Shapes of swage blocks are almost always square, their thickness about 1/3 to 1/4 their width. Square blocks have the advantage of fitting on stands any direction they are turned and when on edge being the same height. However, rectangular is also popular and hexagonal and round blocks have also been made. Except for small Jewelers dapping blocks they are never a cube. Cubes are very efficient compact mass but have less useful surface shapes for the the purpose of being a blacksmiths work block.

Swage Blocks are made in an almost infinite variety of designs. There is no "standard" swage block. However, swage blocks can be categorized as follows.

TYPES:
Personal Blocks
The earliest swage blocks were "personal" blocks. These were made from the pattern of a master smith and perhaps cast only once or a few times. As a pattern made by an amateur pattern maker (a blacksmith is not a foundryman) personal cast iron blocks rarely had holes cast in them. Their shapes were usually simple having just what the smith wanted or thought he might need.

Industrial Blocks
These were the mass produced blocks made for industrial shops. For a time they were the closest thing to a "standard" block except they were made by hundreds of unidentified foundries each to their own pattern. Small industrial blocks were 8 x 8 x 2" (~200 x 200 x 50mm) and big industrial blocks 24 x 24 x 5" (~600 x 600 x 125mm) or larger. As commercial castings targeting a large market industrial blocks wasted no space.

The typical industrial block has three types of geometric edge grooves.
  • Half rounds for dressing shafts or axles.
  • 90° V's or half squares for dressing squares.
  • Half hexes for dressing hexagon bars and bolt heads.

The typical industrial block has three types of geometric holes.
  • Round
  • Square
  • Rectangular

Occasionally there would be other shapes such as 60° V's, octagons, ovals and large half rounds. Industrial blocks designed for wheel wrights or the general smithy often had a long radius that could be used for taking kinks out of wagon tires.

Artist Blacksmith Blocks
Most personal blocks were also artist blacksmith's blocks. The primary feature of the artist blacksmith block is the bowl and semispherical depressions. These are followed by spoon and ladle depressions and occasionally funnel shapes. The edges of the artist blacksmith block often have the common half rounds and V's as well as large concave and convex curves. These shapes are not so incremental as on industrial blocks having large jumps in size to fit a wide range of curves on a small block. Most of these blocks do not have holes as the faces are taken up with the bowl and spoon depressions. Often a wood (swage) block or "stump" is used for dishing hemispherical and spoon shapes. Unusual features are most likely to be found on artist blacksmith blocks.

Combination or General Purpose Blocks
Obviously these combine features of industrial and artist blacksmiths' blocks. Combination blocks can be primarily one type or the other. Most are larger blocks where there is room for both holes and impressions.

Armourer's Maids
A specialty block for the armourer with shapes suitable for forming plate armour. Possibly named for their similarity to the female form. They may have been humaniform or just suggestive of it as some artist blacksmith blocks are. The term is known but we have yet to see an example. Possibly made of hardwood.

Dapping Blocks
These are a jeweler's or watchmaker's tool machined from a solid block of hardenable steel, brass or hardwood under 3" (~75mm) square or round and have polished surfaces. A dapping block is similar to a to a very small industrial block with the addition of small hemispherical depressions.

Dapping blocks typically have drilled holes, milled hemispherical depressions, V grooves and half round grooves. Most are cubes but some are rectangular and some cylindrical.

Gun Anvils or "Gunsmith's Anvil"
Several authors have called blocks used by gun smiths to forge rifle barrels "gunsmith's anvils". These are standard swage blocks with a half octagon impression the right size for forge welding and shaping an old fashioned octagon rifle barrel. Most are simply general purpose blocks. Often the impression was hand filed from a hex or half round. In this case a well worn impression would indicate that a gunsmith or gun barrel maker had used it. Blocks with the octagon impression are no more specialized for gunsmithing than for any other craft. For more see The Gunsmiths Anvil

From M.T. Richardson:
Engraving of general industrial block The books, Practical Blacksmithing were published in 1889-1891 by M.T. Richardson, editor of "Blacksmith and Wheelwright", and is a collection of articles by many contributors. The following is what they had to say.1

Swage-blocks, such as shown in Fig.108, should have holes passing through than as at A, a true circle or square, as the case may be, and parallel for the full length of the hole. But the recesses, B, should be oval, as in the case of hand-swages. Swage-slots, such as shown at C, should for parallel work be parallel in their lengths, but taper in their depths. . .
Practical Blacksmithing also has numerous layouts of blacksmith shops showing every major tool. Some showed swage blocks while others did not. The above is all that Practical Blacksmithing had to say on swage blocks.

It is interesting to note that while swage blocks were commonly available in the 1800's the Sears Roebuck Tools Machinery Blacksmiths' Supplies catalog of 1915, while very complete, does not list swage blocks.

Block type definitions by Jock Dempsey, anvilfire.com
1 Practical Blacksmithing M.T. Richardson, Book 1, Chapter IV, p.146

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