The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Making a Powder Horn for Black Powder
Image Credit: Dan Morphy's Auctions
After missing out on the long rifle, powder horn, and accoutrement auction a couple of weeks ago, I felt obligated, at the very least, to make something. Fortunately for me I have a couple of bull horns sitting somewhere in the shop waiting for me to do something constructive with them. A powder horn seems like the right project to tackle, and I think it would be a worthwhile project for those of you that shoot traditional black powder firearms, or for those of you that like to make things even if you don’t have an immediate use for it.
I am guessing that the first thing you might want to do is get a horn or two to work on. If there is a meat packing plant somewhere nearby, you can get a steady supply of horns from them for next to nothing. They will certainly be the freshest horns you will find, with the added advantage that you can select hand select the ones you want. More than likely they will still have the bone and nerve tissue in the core which must be removed as quickly as is possible. But we will get to that later.
Other places that you can get horns from are “Mountain Man” rendezvous, Black Powder meets, and specialty houses that sell horns via the internet or through mail-order.
Cow horns are found in a variety of colors ranging from black and white to creams and browns. Grey, bluish, and moss are also possible. When choosing a horn, try to look for one that curves solely on a single plain. Most horns though curve on two planes. You will want the curve that matches the side of the body you intend to wear it on, along with the direction you want the horn itself hanging. Horns that twist, even though they may be very appealing, should be avoided unless you are making a purely decorative one.
Now that you have chosen a horn, it must be cleaned. If it is a fresh horn, you will need to boil it in order to loosen the core, which can then be pulled out. It would be best if you did this out of doors. The smell can be offensive to those with a, uhmmm, more delicate constitution.
After pulling the core, give the inside of the horn a good hard scrubbing. You must dislodge every bit of membrane and tissue that may remain; otherwise your powder horn is going to stink to high heaven. A splash of bleach when you’re done will make sure it is all gone.
Before we go any further, there are a few tools that you will need. You could probably do everything with a fine toothed hacksaw blade, a nail, and a sharpening stone, but for the sake of efficiency you should have a few more tools at your disposal. A a half inch chisel, rasp, bastard file, sandpaper, steel wool, a roll of electrical tape, drill and a scraper will make the job go smooth and easy. Access to a wood turning lathe or a drill press would be awesome.
The base must be trimmed to solid horn. The portion of the horn closest to the skull is thin, and usually uneven. Cut off the flared base portion as close to perpendicular to the horn’s axis at the base as possible. Use electrician’s tape to mark the cut line.
Using your fine toothed hacksaw, and scoring around the horn at the line marked by the tape, will minimize any splintering. I use the blade sans handle, and a cut a little bit at a time as I go around the circumference creating a groove for the blade to follow. Once the horn is trimmed, a bit of rubbing on a piece of sandpaper laid out on a flat surface will square the back nicely.
There is a hard outer layer of material on the horn that is usually nicked and cracked. It’s called scale by some, and needs to be removed. You can rasp it off, though I think it creates more work for you later on. Coarse sandpaper, about 100 to 120 does a good job and it is easier to sand out those scratches than the ones left by the rasp. A cabinet scrape does a very good job of it, but you need to develop the technique of holding it at the correct angle.
The scraper is a great tool for smoothing any workable surface, and leaves a surface that rarely needs any finishing. When I mentioned that you could do this project with nothing more than a nail, hacksaw blade, and sharpening stone, I meant that one could square and sharpen the back of the hacksaw blade with the stone. There’s your scraper!
Reality check: After spending a considerable amount of time just scraping, I have come to the conclusion that it is advisable to use a four-in-hand file or a good sharp rasp!
The four-in-hand, as you can see, is a half round file with both rasp and coarse files on both the curved and flat side. It makes short work of getting through the scale, cleaning up dings and gouges, and generally speeds things up. After using the rasp, smoothing with the mill file, the scraper smoothed things down for sanding.
Remove the scale by whichever means you decide, also working on any gouges that the horn may have. Blend nicks into the surrounding areas, being careful that you don’t go through the horn, or create an obvious depression.
While you are sanding initially, check the inside of the horn. When the back plug is cut and turned, it will need a relatively smooth area to seat into. Sand any ridges down to accommodate the plug.
We have now prepared the horn. It is clean, smooth, and square. Now we get into the trickier aspects.
The first step is to cut the tip of the horn off square to where the spout tip’s axis will be. Cut back far enough that there is enough material for you to carve the pour spout from. Save the cut off, we are going to use it.
Looking at traditional powder horns, I have found that in most cases the spout is carved directly from the horn itself. Note the shape of the tips in the adjacent pictures. Those are carved directly from the thick portion of the horn tips.
Other horns have what appears to be turned spouts. I have given this a great deal of consideration these last few days, and I believe I have a couple of different ways in which it could be done. The first would be a lathe set up to hold horns in such a fashion that the spout could be turned directly on the horn. The other method could be that the spouts were turned independently from the cut off tips, and then remounted and glued on a tenon cut directly into the remains of the horn. This method would allow any number of profiles and custom tips.
Create a new profile for the tip by rasping and maintaining the curve. It's a little more work but it will help later on by keeping the tip aligned properly. I am somewhat challenged artistically speaking, and taking a little off at a time, makes for a better finished product.
Mark off the area where you're going to cut with tape. Cut deeply enough depending on the thickness of the horn. In the case of this horn it would ultimately need to be cut almost 1/2 an inch deep.
Take a slice and turn, trying to cut evenly all the way around.
Cutting to the shoulder. Notice that I have my hands in
a mutually blocking position so that the chisel can only cut to the shoulder.
a mutually blocking position so that the chisel can only cut to the shoulder.
Cut around the shoulder again in order to deepen the shoulder. You will need to do it several times untill you have reached the appropriate depth.
Continue to trim with the chisel, round of with the rasp, and smooth with the file.
Again, using tape, I demarcated the lines after measuring the inside dimensions of the horn. I carefully scored around the horn and then carved to the line. A rasp can be used to rough in the initial shape which can then be refined with scraper and sandpaper.
There's a lot of material that needs to be removed with this type of horn. The substantial amount of solid horn material makes for a lot of cutting and rasping. As I have been researching the making of powder horns, I have found that there are different types of horns, some better suited than others. I am pleased with the length of the solid portion because it will allow me to make other objects for the powder horn from the solid tip. But for the first time, it might have been better to get a horn with less tip on it.
That's as far as we will go for now. In the next installment we'll continue to refine the shape of the spout, boil and form the back, and start on the wood furniture. Making a powder horn is turning out to be a pretty fun project. Some of the examples I have seen are artwork - polished, carved and scrimshawed with what is obviously skill and great talent. At the end of this project I'll list the references and makers I have found.
Making a Powder Horn Pt I: A Chronicles' Project
Making a Powder Horn Pt II: A Chronicles' Project
Making a Powder Horn: Almost There!
Making a Powder Horn Pt III: A Chronicles' Project