Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Powder Horn

Since I'm shooting black powder lately I thought I'd make a powder horn. Making a basic horn is pretty easy. Here's the cow horn I started with. It was was about 12" long:

The first step is to remove any 'scale', a loose covering, from the horn. I did this with a file. Then I cut the big end square so it could receive an end cap, cut the tip off, and bored the spout hole.

Already it isn't so gross :-) I assure you, it smelled like a cow.

I bored the spout to 1/4" using a standard twist drill bit. But the stopper will hold more securely if the hole is tapered, not straight sided. Being totally cheap, I wasn't about to buy a tapered reamer. Instead, I made one using from a piece of bar stock using a hacksaw and a few files. The taper is 1/16" over 1 1/4". I sawed a 5/16" wide finger in the bar stock then filed one edge so it tapered to 1/4" at the end. I selected one corner to be the cutting edge. I rounded the two opposite corners. Then I relieved the remaining corner so it wouldn't rub.

In this picture you can see the taper clearly. The shoulders at the wide end of the taper serve as a depth stop - when the shoulders touch the spout, the tapered hole is finished.

In the next picture, the geometry of the reamer is a little more evident. The 'rounded' corners on the right ride against the far side of the hole. The corner on the left top is the relieved edge. The remaining edge (left bottom) is the cutting edge.

I turned a cherry stopper on the lathe taking care to produce the same taper. Here's the stopper in the spout.

The next step was to fashion the end cap, a wooden plug glued into the end of the horn. Normally the large end is rounded using heat and a form. Then a round end cap fits very well. I opted to leave the horn in its natural shape pare the end cap to fit. Sometimes the end caps are inserted all the way into the horn. I wanted this end cap to protrude from the horn and overlap it's edges. I traced the large end of the horn onto a piece of 3/4" cherry then bandsawed the cap, adding some 'diameter' for the overlap I wanted.
I decided that 1/4" of the disk should remain outside the horn. To assure I had a clean shoulder to butt against the horn, I scribed a line around the circumference of the cap 1/4" from the 'outside' end. I sawed with a dovetail saw on the line all the way around to about 1/4" deep.

I pared the corners off the 'inside'-side of the blank so it would fit, if barely, into the horn. I rubbed a pencil lead on the inside of the horn to form a 'marking medium.' When I tried to insert the unshaped blank, it didn't go in far. The parts that rubbed on the inside of the horn picked up some graphite. This showed where the end cap was too large and prevented the end cap from seating properly. I pared off the graphite and a little wood underneath it then reinserted it. Now a different place rubbed and picked up some graphite. I pared that too. I repeated this fit/pare procedure until the lip I left on the end cap sat against flush against the end of the horn. This process, which is simple if tedious, eventually produces an end cap that fits beautifully.

After doing the fit/pare cycle about 100 times,... success.

Now horns are very thick at the pointy end. So thick, in fact, you can shape them easily using files, rasps, sandpaper, scrapers, etc. Powder horns frequently have a ring carved in them so they can be securely hung from a strap. I filed such a ring, then added flats to the spout to make a hexagon.

Once I was satisfied with the spout, I glued the end cap in. I used the entirely non-traditional Gorilla glue as it is waterproof and very strong. In addition, it expands when it cures hopefully plugging any gaps between the horn and the end cap. Common wood glue works too.

Once the glue cured I inserted 8 pegs around the circumference of the horn into the end cap. If the glue fails hopefully the pegs will prevent the end cap from popping off and dumping the powder onto the ground. Once the end cap was properly secured, I shaped it to my satisfaction using files, sandpaper, and steel wool. Then I carefully inserted a staple I made from a nail. I said previously that I carved a ring for one end of the carry strap. The staple holds the other end.

I think the perspective of the image is a little off - the staple isn't that large, lol.

A good going over with sand paper and steel wool finished the horn.

This was a very entertaining project. This horn is very spartan and is likely a fair representation of most 18th century horns. Most of these 'everyman' horns have been lost to time - there was no reason for people to save these relics. The next time I make a horn I'll try my hand at some more advanced carving and scrimshaw.


  1. WOW! Nice work!!!


  2. Very well done, and Kudo's on an excellent write-up


  3. Nice job, the way you tackled the obstacles, I've done most of the same things. I also have a fruit wood pour spout plug in the one I carry. It has never swollen or shrunk in the last 9 years.