Precision Bench Blocks have been around for many years as indispensable assistants to perform many functions. This is part of a family of guides about old precision tools. To access the current Index for all these guides, please click on: Back to Index Guide.
Whether you are someone starting a collection, an experienced Master Watchmaker, a Jeweler, a dealer or just someone who loves the craftsmanship that goes into beautiful precision tools... you might find some useful information in this guide.
Bench blocks or Flat Anvils are one of the most common tools found in any work bench. They encompass a broad family of tools. Some are specially manufactured to perform specific functions for certain trades while most are intended for general bench work. This humble tool rarely has any moving parts and it often can't be used by itself but almost invariably in conjunction with other tools. Including a hammer, stump, stake, punch, pliers, tweezers, picks, etc. Flat Anvils differ from "Horn Anvils" in that the latter have pointed "horns" and bench blocks generally have more flat surface.
In this guide we cover just a very narrow subset of small precision flat anvils. The main function of these bench blocks is to act as a base for common operations, including:
a) Flattening and shaping
b) Support for laying out small designs
e) Drilling and much more...
This is one of the most useful bench blocks patterns available, the No. 1086A. It was made of hardened steel by the Kendrick and Davis Co. with machine ground top and bottom. It has 4 milled slots, 9 graduated holes with the largest hole sized for K and D staking tool stumps as shown in the picture. It features a "V" slot for removing watch pinions. This one has a mirror polished top face with a tiny hole on the upper left portion to prevent small pivots from slipping over the bright surface.
While a simple bench block could be made with a small piece of flat steel, some of them are made of different metals, they have graduated holes, etc. to increase their suitability for many operations. Different combinations of these features has given rise to multiple designs. Few tool patterns created many years ago have proven particularly effective and are still popular today. A tool pattern developed for one trade often find use by another, so it is not uncommon to find a jeweler's block on an optician's bench and a watchmaker's block on a luthier's bench. Adequately covering the versatility of this tool exceeds the space available in these guides. Some of the relevant characteristics include:
Most of the steel bench blocks are case-hardened and ground flat on at least one face. High end blocks are often made with special steel alloys, tempered to correct hardness and ground on all sides perfectly parallel.
The precision flat anvils typically have carefully graduated holes useful for staking, drilling and punching. Some are reversible with different hole sizes on each side. One hole is generally sized for holding stumps commonly used in staking tool sets. Using a bench block for common staking operations saves the more costly die in the staking tool.
They also can have milled slots and a special "V" slot for removing watch rollers, pinions and similar items. Milled slots are useful for laying out small pieces with salient parts.
There are diverse models of bench blocks to cover many common and some special operations. Due to limitations in the number of pictures available to be posted in eBay Guides, we are listing below some common and few seldomly seen models that can still show up in the marketplace and collections.
This is a type of flat anvil called the "Universal Anvil" for its extremely versatile design. It has been manufactured by Bergeon and others. This cube shaped block is popular across multiple trades, and particularly sought out by watchmakers and jewelers. It has 16 bigger holes on the sides, all different. It also has high precision "V" and "U" shaped grooves, as well as flat grooves on the sides, and notches on the corners to bend wire. The top flat piece with staking holes is held by a screw and it can be changed if the holes ever wear out. Beautifully blued to protect it against rust all over except the top face .
This is the classic hexagonal No. 1085A block manufactured by Kendrick and Davis, also by Hammel and Riglander Co. (HR) as well as others. Easy to grab by hand or in the bench vise. Hardened steel and tempered for the right hardness. This model is reversible with different size holes on both sides, 36 graduated holes in total. One hole is sized to hold a stump as shown. It has 5 milled slots for holding and staking small parts. This is a high precision block with all faces ground.
This is one of the smallest profile blocks with the highest concentration of features. Generally found as being French manufactured in high quality hardened steel alloy tempered for right hardness. It has 20 graduated holes, 5 milled slots at the ends, one key slot and one rectangular slot in the center. Designed to be held in the bench vise. The milled slots at the ends are not only graduated but they are also very thin at the ends and they can function as a "V" slot to help removing rollers and pinions.
The "Roller Block" is a top of the line bench block. A precision tool manufactured by the M-B Tool Mfg. Co., Inc. It is made with one of the best quality steel alloys available, precision machined and ground. The entire tool is case-hardened and tempered for correct hardness. The sides and inside of the holes are blackened to minimize rust. This is a highly specialized bench block for watchmakers. It has 12 graduating holes with one hole sized to hold standard staking tool stumps. It has 7 ganged milled slots so arranged for overlapping grip on pieces with salient parts. It has a specially machined "V" slot for removing pinions, however the most prominent feature is the knife edge "V" slot for removing roller tables. It is longer, thinner and gives a larger working area than comparable models. The inserts are case-hardened, removable for sharpening and replaceable. Four set screws hold the inserts in place. The tool comes with the tiny Allen wrench for the screws and two blackened punches, one small flat face punch and one roller remover punch with cleaning holes. The punches fit in the stump sized hole for added versatility.
This is a group of traditional staking blocks that can be held in a bench vise. The unusually bigger block on the left has 31 graduated holes. It is made of hardened tempered steel. The central block is made of brass with 36 holes; preferred by many because it will not mar soft metals. The one on the right is a nickelled steel block with 24 graduated holes, sought out because of its durability.
This is a specialty bench block for watchmakers that can be held in a bench vise for flattening watch escapement wheels as shown in the biggest size ring. It is made of ZAMAK, an alloy of Zinc, aluminum, magnesium and copper. It is very useful as well for working on small pieces that may have salient parts. It has been manufactured by Bergeon and others in different variations of the same tool pattern.
This is a high quality round double metal bench block mainly for staking. The inner ring is made of hardened tempered steel with 13 graduated holes. The central hole is sized for taking stumps as shown. The outter brass ring has 12 graduated holes that will protect soft metals.
This is not properly a "flat anvil" though it deserves a place as a model of bench block. This is an old ring forming block made of cast steel with 4 graduated rounded concave depressions designed to form soft wire into different curved shapes.
Some of the newer tools are of high quality and they are made with good manufacturing standards as the old ones, though they fetch a higher price as well. Many imports are not made with high quality steel or brass alloys and are neither hardened nor tempered for correct hardness. These characteristics could be difficult to detect when buying online and the result is not only lower durability but also the possibility of damaging the parts that you are trying to fix or assemble. A good quality bench block carefully used can last for generations of craftsmen. In spite of many years of service, some of the old blocks would still be able to perform reasonably well over an even longer period. However some may show some signs of wear, neglect or breakage. The following pictures show some of the most common challenges found in this type of tools:
The picture on the left shows a block with a chipped corner. This missing piece does not affect the functionality of the tool and it is not an issue but rather a cosmetic blemish. However, if the missing pieces were bigger and getting into a hole, then it may take away part of the functionality of the tool and it must be factored into the consideration of the tool's practical value. This problem commonly may ocur when a block falls on a hard surface or it is hammered hard. If surface cracks appear, they tend not to be an issue unless they go all the way through the block in which case the block has an increased liability of breaking and becoming a potential safety hazard. That type of problem may prove hard to fix. Sometimes, hard soldering the crack, re-tempering and surface grinding the block could fix the problem though it might be easier to just replace the block.
The rightmost view shows a round mark around the biggest hole. This is a very common situation mostly due to normal wear. In most cases, it does not impact the functionality of the tool for every day work. All bench blocks may eventually develop wear patterns due to tool marks around the holes, as well as dents, scratches, etc. For more exacting work on finer pieces the working face must be in top shape. Bench blocks are extra thick so their working faces can be re-surfaced. This is normal maintenance and most local machine shops with a surface grinder could do the job. A good quality bench block can be re-surfaced many times over its useful life. A particular consideration is required for those blocks that have nickelled or cemented surfaces. The chemical process to cement the block generally penetrates only through a very thin layer on its surface. The re-surfacing may shave off part or all of that thin cemented layer. If that is the case, the block could be re-cemented or case-hardened at a local gunsmith shop with a carbon nitriding furnace.
Simple tips to acquire, maintain and use these tools:
Before acquiring any of these tools, ask questions about the common challenges listed above and check for signs that may indicate the condition and quality of the tool. Always procure the best quality tool you can afford.
Most of the old tools were manufactured using top quality materials and processes that ensured long lasting performance. Try to learn the differences with lesser quality tools and value them accordingly.
Always oil the "V" slot when trying to remove a roller table or a pinion. These slots can take a substantial pressure, though try not to force them to avoid the risk of nicking the inside thinner portion of the "V" slot with the staff.
Avoid punching too hard on the anvils. Even though the steel is tempered, it is not hardened to the point that it will not get tool marks or scratches. Some may even crack or break around the holes.
If seldom used, keep the tool covered with a thin coat of bee's wax or grease to minimize the formation of rust.
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