Muzzle Blasts Online
June/July 1999      Volume 4, Number 3
Past Issues Index
Adventures with Jack Horner



Some hints on fashioning a powder horn in the manner of a commercial horn producer in centuries past

Click on image for enlarged view.
In a horn works long ago and far away, before steel wool was a compound noun and disk, rotary, belt, and vibrating were terms that had nothing to do with sanders, a lone worker in the finishing department stood trembling before a pile of 6,850 raw horns.

Our story really begins some months before when Jack left the farm and those dull cows to seek his fame and fortune in the big city. Alas, after spending all he had on riotous living, Jack finally found a job finishing horn at a busy three-man horn factory where powder horns were the chief product.

Jackís responsibility was to finish the horns to a uniform wall thickness with an extra-smooth surface. Since the horns had first to be turned at the butt and tip and the threads had to be chased by the turner in the other room, Jack had a couple of minutes before his work would start. In those brief moments before the turned horns arrived, Jack sharpened his tools and wondered if his trip was really going to be worthwhile.

By this point in our story, you may be wondering if there ever were commercial horn works. Could a horn be turned at the butt and tip? Could threads be chased on? Could somebody like Jack actually finish 6,850 horns in a year, and was Jack the workerís real name? The answer to all but the last question is yes. However, we will don our horn rims and gaze only at question number four in this installment. The other questions, alas, will have to wait until future pennings, assuming at least that this attempt at describing the minutiae of hornsmithing is well received.

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As we examine the tools Jack is honing, we are bemused by their commonness. Surely one would not attack this entire pile of horns armed with nothing more than a small draw knife and a curved scraper! Yet close examination does not reveal familiar names such as Ryobi, Rockwell, Dewalt, Makita, and Sears. Perhaps it would be best to see if Jack knows something that any one of us could put to use in our own shop.

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A smiling Jack holds up a horn that has just been turned and threaded. Notice that what the horn turner has established is two finished dimensions. Now all Jack needs to do is remove everything between that is extraneous.

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This picture shows the horn swaged over a tapered form held in Jackís horn press (a common vise will do). Although you canít see it, there is a resolute yet winsome expression on Jackís face. There is a twofold reason for this expression. One is that his tools are sharp, and the second is a long-hidden piece of horn knowledge that can render all horns submissive to your efforts: the growth grain on horn is like a flipped stack of paper cups.

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Next Jack starts lifting layer after layer from tip to base with his draw knife held bevel down. I know that elsewhere in this tabloid the matter of Bevel Up or Bevel Down is a source of debate, but in horn work bevel down is called for. Always skive from tip to butt, lifting a layer in reverse. If you do otherwise, the chip may run in and ruin the horn. I am sure the temptation will be too great for some of you to bear. Go ahead, but "I told you so!"

Then a moderately feverish Jack begins to scrape with the curved scraper. Surely the reasons are obvious. Itís during this process that chatter marks could appear on the surface. Armed with another bit of knowledge (that chatter is caused by too much speed and not enough feed, and correction is made by slowing the speed and increasing the feed, along with a change in the angle of the blade to the chatter mark), Jack successfully finishes scraping.

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There are just enough lateral scrape marks so that Jack has now decided to rub the horn smooth with the whet stone that he keeps in his scythe (or whetstone) horn that always hangs beside his press. The stone is a medium-to-fine grain sandstone with several differently shaped faces (concave, straight, ninety-degree edge, and rounded edge). Sometimes he adds vinegar to the water in his scythe horn. This is as much to soften the horn odor as it is to soften the hornís outer layer.

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Then a persistent Jack rubs the horn with potash and water. The end result will be a perfectly smooth and squeaky-clean horn. A thin coat of clear shellac will give the horn a luster and prevent silvering from the ozone rays.


Our last picture shows a triumphant Jack. He knows his part on this horn has taken twenty minutes, and he has only 6,849 horns to go!

Where can one acquire this vast array of horning tools?

Draw knife and curved scraper:

Melvin Lytton and Nathan Allen
Connor Prairie
13400 Allisonville Road
Fishers, IN 46038;

Robert Chattin
P.O. Box 43
Danielsville, PA 18038.

Scythe sharpening stone: local hardware store. (It will probably be synthetic, but it will work.)
Potash: from your fireplace, wood stove, or campfire.

The method I have described is that used by professional horners. The tools reflect the tradesmanís lower-middle-class status. The only other tool sometimes used in the sequence described is a grail file, which is similar to a modern auto-body file.

The health benefits of the above method are obvious especially to those who have mechanically sanded horn without a respirator. The horn shavings are good fertilizer, also.

This article is brought to you by "Jack" and the Honourable Company of Horners. For information about joining the guild, contact:

Russ Young
42 Camino Tetzcoco
Santa Fe, NM 87505.


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