Making A Powder Horn
Tools and Supplies: A rasp, coarse and fine files, needle files, scraper, drill, hacksaw, wood-saw, various grades of sand paper and coarse and fine steel wool are all that is necessary to create a powder horn. A disc sander and Dremel tool are useful as well.
The Horn: The horn may be from either a cow or buffalo (bison). Cow horns can come in various colors ranging from whites and cream to browns, greenish-grey and black. Buffalo horns are ebony black in color. Horns which are curved in a single plane are best because they can be worn on either the left or right side. Horns which have a slight curve in a second plane can be acceptable but make sure it curve matches the side you intend to wear the horn on. Horns which are corkscrew shaped should be avoided for making powder horns.
Trimming the Base: The first step in working a buffalo horn is to remove the lowest part of the base where it flares out and is attached to the buffalo’s skull. This portion of the horn really can’t be used as it tends to be much thinner that the rest of the horn, and it would be difficult to incorporate this shape in the construction of the powder horn. Try to cut off this flared portion as close to perpendicular to the horn axis at the base as possible. A fine toothed saw, such as a hack-saw, or band-saw works well for this task.
Remove the Scale: Remove the scale and other deep nicks and gouges in the horn. The scale is very hard, brittle and dry material that covers roughly the lower two thirds of the horn. This material cannot be worked and should be removed. The scale can be softened somewhat and more easily removed by soaking the horn in water for a couple of hours. You can tell when you’ve removed all of the scale, there is a definite change in the feel of the rasp as it moves over the work surface.
Remove Rasp Marks: After removal of the scale, work over the horn with a coarse or medium file to remove most of the deep tooth marks left by the rasp.
Drill the Spout Hole: The spout hole should be drilled at this point. If the horn is going to be spoiled, it will most likely be during drilling of the spout hole and you don’t want to have too many hours of work invested in the horn if that should happen. To prepare the tip of the horn for drilling, cut off enough of the tip so that the spout hole can be drilled and still have a about 1/8 to 3/16 inch wall thickness around the hole. If the tip of the spout is to be carved, a greater wall thickness should be left at the tip. In drilling the spout hole, do not drill parallel the axis of the horn at the tip, but rather towards the center of the horn where the cavity begins. You can determine this location by running a stiff piece of wire down the inside of the horn so that the wire contacts the wall of the inner wall of the horn. Then place the wire along the outside of the horn with the same hold point. Drill to the center of the horn at this location and the hole shouldn’t come out the side of the horn
Forming the Base of the Horn: The base of the horn should now be shaped. Most buffalo horns will start off having an irregularly shaped cross-section at the base. Horns will be far more appealing to the eye if the base presents a circular cross-section. The horn will also be easier to lay out patterns, and to work and fit butt plugs if the base opening is circular. Horn material when heated becomes plastic, and can be re-shaped to have a circular cross-section. Heating can be accomplished by boiling the horn in water, dipping in hot oil, or by using a paint stripper/heat gun. Boiling in water is not the most effective way to reshaping a horn because the maximum temperature that can be obtained is just over 200 degrees F. Although the horn can be shaped, it will retain a memory of its original shape, and over time will attempt to return to that shape. Even if the new shape is supported, for example by the butt plug, the horn material will still be under stress which may result in cracking at some time in the future. However, the material memory can be erased by heating the horn material to about 325 degrees F. The most controlled way of heating to this temperature is through the use of oil heated in the oven at 325. The end of the horn should be dipped in the oil for only a few seconds to prevent scorching. Wear heavy gloves while heating the horn because it will become very hot to the touch. As the horn is heated flex it to see if it is becoming pliable. If frothy brown bubbles form on the surface, the horn has gotten too hot and is beginning to scorch. The brown froth can be removed by sanding after it has cooled. After the base has been heated, insert a cylindrical or cone shaped form into the base and allow it to cool.
Fitting the Butte Plug: The design of plugs can range from very simple to extremely ornate. Once I’ve got a good fit, I epoxy the plug inside the base of the horn. This forms a good air-tight seal around the edge. After the epoxy cures I smooth and flatten the plug flush to the bottom of the horn using a disk sander. Next remove the center of the inner butt plug with a hole cutter. If you skip this step, no-one will ever know. However, removal of the center of the inner butt plug results in a powder horn that weighs less, and with somewhat greater powder carrying capacity.
The Outer Butt Plug: Trace the outline of the base of the horn onto the stock that will be used for the outer butte plug. The butt plug will be more pleasing to the eye if the wood grain runs either parallel to the curve of the horn, or perpendicular to the curve. Cut out the outer butte plug blank, just slightly oversized. Epoxy the plug to the base. After the epoxy has cured, finish rounding off the outer butte plug using various rasps and files. Butte plugs fashioned in this manner should be absolutely air-tight.
Carving the Horn: Historically, most powder horns were probably smooth and uncarved; especially commercial production horns. Unlike the finely carved or scrimshawed horns produced by artisans of the time, these commercial horns were strictly a tool, to be used to extinction. Those powder horns that are preserved today in museums tend to be those exceptional examples of craftsmanship and artistry which were recognized as being worth preserving. The tip of the horn is solid. Even beyond the beginning of the inner cavity, the horn will be thicker than at the butte end. Rings, grooves and facets can be worked into the horn using various rasps and files. You do need to be careful not to carve too deeply, or you’ll break through into the cavity. Carvings can range from simple rings and facets to incredibly complex patterns or effigies. Depending on the complexity of the design, carving will require anywhere from a couple of hours to many tens of hours of extra effort. However, even a simple design will add immensely to the attractiveness of your powder horn.
Removing High, Low and Flat Spots in the Lower Horn: The lower, uncarved portion of the horn may be smooth, but still may have some irregularities in shape. Hold the lower part of the horn loosely between your thumb and first finger and spin it with your other hand. Any high, low or flat spots can be detected this way much better than by a visual inspection. As you identify these areas, work them down with a rasp. It may not be possible to entirely eliminate such irregularities, but a little effort at this stage can do a lot to minimize these imperfections.
Installing Pins into the Butt Plug: Brass, iron or wooden pins can now be inserted through the horn into the butte plug. Make certain to drill holes large enough to received the pins at least through the horn. Driving the pins through the horn, or through undersized holes this close to the end will split the horn.
Final Preparation of the Horn Surface: If there are any tooth marks remaining from the rasp or coarse file remove them now with a fine file. The lower horn and flush edges of the outer butt plug can be sanded with a progression of papers from coarse to fine. Go over the flats one last time with the flat scraper. This leaves a surface which can be directly polished with fine steel wool. You'll probably still get some rounding on the edges of the flats, but it will be minimal.
Polish: Careful work with the fine steel wool will result in a polish. Apply a thin coat of woodworkers paste wax. This leaves a lustrous, easily maintained surface.
Making the Spout Plug: Make spout plugs or stoppers using 3/8th or ½ inch “hardwood” dowel. Start working with the entire length of dowel, its much easier to hold than a piece which is the final length. To form the insert end of the plug start by scribing a line with a knife about ½ inch from the end around the circumference of the dowel. Work down the end of the dowel until there is enough of a shoulder to hold a flat file against. Continue working down the end by rolling the dowel while holding the file against the end until it fits snugly (not tightly) in the spout hole. Cut off the end of the dowel about one inch from the end. When the desired shape is obtained, the wood surface can be smoothed with sandpaper while the drill continues to run. Soak it in linseed oil overnight. If soaking in oil has cause the plug to swell, file it down till it fits “snugly.” You don't want the stopper to fit too tightly in the spout as it will create stresses on the spout which may eventually lead to cracking.
|Notable Horn Makers|
Jeff started making horns in the late 70's. He became a member of HCH in 2006 and currently holds the rank of Journeyman in the Guild. You can contact Jeff at 573-435-0021