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Vulcan: The First Hundred Years

The Vulcan steam hammer (the use of air came later) began when the company began to manufacture hammers under the patent of Thomas T. Loomis (U.S. Patent 160,781) in 1875. This hammer used many of the main features of the Nasmyth hammer (which had been developed in the UK) but used an improved valve gear. Below: Loomis hammer, from its patent drawings.

The success of this hammer led to an improved hammer under the patents of Thomas M. Skinner, who reduced the number of parts and used a steam actuated valve. (The Skinner Hammer is shown at the right.) This hammer had success, as the following letter (written the year after Vulcan was incorporated) shows:

BLOOMINGTON, ILL., Oct. 30, 1882

W. H. WARRINGTON, ESQ., President Vulcan Iron Works


The Skinner Pile Driver Hammer, built by your Company, has been in use on our Pile Driver Car since last April, and we are much pleased with its work. It has always given entire satisfaction, doing the work effectively and economically.

Respectfully yours,

Gen'l Roadmaster .

The Skinner Hammer was not perfect. Its steam actuated valve was a source of difficulties, a problem that did not end with the Skinner Hammer (Menck hammers also had difficulties with steam or air actuated valves, especially when used with rubber-lined hose where the hose pieces would jam the valve.) To address this and other problems, the first "Warrington-Vulcan" single-acting steam hammer, a #2 with a ram weight of 3,000 lbs., was designed and built in 1887. James N. Warrington was granted a patent on this hammer in 1888 (U.S. Patent 378,745).

The success of this hammer prompted the immediate development of the #1 hammer, with a 5,000 lb. ram. This was the progenitor of the "#1 Series," which eventually included the 06, 306 and 506, and was further developed by Raymond with their 1 and 1-S hammers. The #0 hammer, with a ram weight of 7,500 lbs, was introduced in 1912. (Click here for a detailed study of the "Vulcan 00," its interaction with the Raymond Concrete Pile Company, and other details of this series of hammers.)

The hammers were an early success. As noted by Charles Evan Fowler in his book A Practical Treatise on Sub-Aqueous Foundations (1914):

Many modifications of this (Nasmyth's) hammer have been manufactured, and one much used at present is the Warrington-Nasmyth hammer, made by the Vulcan Iron Works. This made in three sizes, the weight of the striking parts being 550 pounds (#4) for sheet-pile work, 3000 pounds (#2) for medium pile work and 4800 pounds (#1) for use on heavy work. This machine is provided with a positive valve gear, a short steam passage to avoid the waste of steam, a wide exhaust opening to prevent back pressure as the hammer drops, a piston-head forged on the rod, and channel bards on the side to allow the pile to be driven lower than the leads of the derrick. The hammer is attached to the hoist rope, but this is left slack when the hammer is resting on the head of the pile, steam is turned on and the hammer pounds automatically at the rate of sixty to seventy blows per minute until the pile is driven. The bottom casting which rests on the pile is a bonnet which encases the top and prevents brooming or splitting.

The hammer should have plenty of play in the leads, and the steam-pipe should extend halfway up the derrick to save the length of hose. This hammer has a record of as high as seventy-five to one hundred piles a day, and one account gives the record of 3000 lineal feet of piling per day at a cost of $50, the number of men being employed being sixteen and the coal consumption one ton. This hammer is shown in Fig. 40 (above left) in use driving piles for bridge work on the Fair Haven Bridge. (p. 62)

Vulcan developed a wide variety of accessories for these hammers. One of the most enduring was the McDermid Base, which enabled the #2 and #1 hammers to drive wood piling without the need for a cushion block. Although the Vulcan hammers were first developed in an age when wood piling was predominant, it was quickly adapted for use with the "new" concrete piles, H-piles and steel sheet piles as well. Vulcan also had many other related products in the early years of its pile hammer manufacture, including pipe followers (for driving piles below the ground surface,) pile points, pile bands, and a pile saw arbor for cutting wood piles off underwater. The company was also active with drop hammers and drop hammer rigs as well.

Note: we have an entire page dedicated to catalogue images of early Vulcan pile driving rigs (steam and drop hammers) and sheet piling accessories and sections.

Fowler and others referred to the new hammers as "Warrington-Nasmyth," while Vulcan itself called it the "Warrington" or "Warrington-Vulcan" hammer. This and the other hammers Vulcan put out (Loomis, Skinner, etc.) bore the names of their American patentees. This didn't sit well with some people. In 1883 Don J. Wittemore make the following statement in the Transactions of the ASCE:

This machine is being manufactured and is called by the manufacturer after an individual who has added several perhaps very important minor details that have made it a little more practicable than it was thirty years ago. But wherever the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers witness the operations of this machine. I desire that they shall not drop the name of the Scotchman who was its inventor--James Nasmyth.

Although Nasmyth was the original inventor, the improvements made by those mentioned above, and especially the Warringtons, made the hammer a durable and practical machine, some of which (as shown below) have lasted more than a century.

Below we show some earlier photos of Vulcan pile hammers and related products. Other Vulcan onshore products with pages of their own are as follows:

We also have photos of a Vulcan #2 which was featured on The History Channel.

At the seat of power: a Vulcan #0 driving 12" pipe piles for an addition to the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. The Capitol dome itself can be seen in the background. The contractor was McCloskey Enterprises of Philadelphia. (Photo by Adams Studio, Washington)

A skid rig with a Vulcan hammer driving steel Monotube piles for a blast furnace. Skid rigs were the most common way of handing pile driving equipment until the wide acceptance of modern crawler cranes for this purpose. Monotube piles are still in common use.

A #1 Warrington-Vulcan hammer driving long timber piles for a high approach for the D.M. & N.R.R. at Hibbing, MN. A locomotive rig is being used to handle the hammer.

Two rigs at once speed up work for Spencer, White and Prentis, one of the pioneering firms in deep foundations installation. In 1936 Lazarus White reported that "I read some papers last night where some of these pile driving formulas were derived, and the result was that my sleep was very much disturbed." This didn't stop Vulcan from putting Engineering News charts and tables in their literature for many years.

A Vulcan Mariner hammer driving piles underwater. The Mariner series of hammers was related to the first differential acting hammers Vulcan put out, which were closed type (U.S. Patent 2,000,908.) Although the downward assist, simple valving (the same as the Warrington-Vulcan hammers) and the faster blow rate were popular with contractors, the invisible ram and the expense of manufacture forced Vulcan to produce open type differential hammers (the "C" series) after World War II. (An example of an open "C" hammer is shown at the right.) A closed hammer is still generally necessary for underwater use, as evidenced by those of IHC and Menck, but Vulcan actually commissioned a design for an open underwater hammer, the Sea Water Hammer, in 1994.

More information on the "Super-Vulcan" differential acting hammers can be found here.

A Vulcan differential acting hammer driving sheet piling using the staggered procedure, i.e., driving alternating sheeting and then coming back and driving those skipped. Note the use of stub leaders. Merritt-Chapman-Scott was the contractor.

And the boiler too: until World War II steam was the primary power source for Vulcan hammers, and for offshore hammers until the end of the Twentieth Century. Keep in mind, however, that the boiler shown below isn't just for powering the hammer but the entire pile rig, which Vulcan made available to its customers. Vulcan had many years experience with boilers when it started making pile driving equipment and that experience went to good use.

It's interesting to note that the boiler below is a "fire-tube" construction, with the firebox at the right and the water at the left. This was also the case with Raymond, although they preferred vertical fire tubes and not the horizontal ones shown below. However, during the offshore era, Vulcan recommended (and most of its customers adopted) the water tube boiler, as it was found that the intermittent flow of steam was best kept constant with a water tube boiler. The boiler was an important part of the pile driving rig; it was crucial in Vulcan's success in China.

Planned obsolescence was a foreign concept to Vulcan. These photos (below) show a #2, S/N 290, driving piles in October 2008 at Little Sugar Creek in Charlotte, NC. The hammer was built in 1905. Dellinger Incorporated was the contractor.

Photos courtesy of Jim Davidson of Charlotte Mecklenberg Utilities.

But sometimes it breaks sooner or later: below right, a Vulcan ram with a broken "integral" ram point. All of the early (before World War I) Warrington-Vulcan hammers had a ram point which was integrally cast with the ram. Since the ram point is the point of impact, and the rams were gray cast iron, the weakness of this became apparent early.

In 1909 Vulcan cautiously advertised a steel "repair" point, stating that:

This method (of repair) we have used once only, hence it is not sufficiently tested to determine whether to apply it or make a new ram when the point becomes so worn as to require replacing.

Evidently the method worked out, because by 1911 it was characterised as "very satisfactory." The "repair point" eventually became the ram point familiar to Vulcan users. Vulcan's 1915 literature stated that "(t)he rams of all Warrington-Vulcan steam hammers are now made with a removable steel point instead of the integral cast iron point."

Although one would think by now that all the integral points would have worn out, such is not the case. At the right is a ram in 2011 with a point ready for the century-old repair procedure. Photo courtesy of Pile Hammer Equipment.

More on ram point installation and removal:

More information on this subject is available in the Guide to Pile Driving Equipment.

Living on the edge: the New Orleans contractor Doullut and Williams, using a Vulcan hammer to drive piles for a public grain elevator. Don't try this at home or anywhere else!

A drawing of a similar rig, but for a drop hammer..

Another one of Col. Doullut's enterprises at work, in this case Doullut and Ewin driving piles for a bridge across the Blakley River at Mobile Bay on 3 November 1926. Although many of the contractors depicted in the early photographs have come and gone, this one is an interesting exception: J.P. Ewin moved the firm to Mobile in 1946, and today it is the well known engineering firm of Volkert, Inc.

Left and below: "Busting rocks" wasn't just for convicts on the chain gang. Although demolition work is generally associated with DGH series hammers, the classic Warrington-Vulcan hammer was used for this application every now and then. At the left is an application where the hammer is held in a "stub" leader and a demolition point is part of the "driving" accessory, using a classic Vulcan cushion arrangement. Below is a more elaborate arrangement, since the demolition was to be performed below water. Such applications show both the versatility of the equipment and the ingenuity of both Vulcan and its contractors in applying it the work.



An unusual application for sheet piling and the hammer, this 1905 layout shows the Vulcan #2 being used to drive sheet piling in a mine.  Note that the steam to the hammer is being supplied to the hammer by a hose going to the surface, in a manner similar to underwater hammers.  It's also interesting the way the sheeting is placed relative to the U-type leader the hammer is being run in, i.e., the wall is actually in front of the leader and the sheets are driven eccentrically.  That's doubtless easier with the flat/nearly flat sheets being driven here.  Steel sheet piling was very much in its infancy when this was drawn up, but it shows an interesting solution to a problem in both tight quarters and with a clearance problem as well.
Driven Pile Manual Volume 1a
Driven Pile Manual 1b
Driven Pile Manual 2