A branding iron is a tool which uses the process of pressing a heated metal shape against an object or livestock with the intention of leaving a mark. From the branding of livestock to prove ownership to the branding of woodcrafts to prove craftsmanship, branding irons are used in many different ways.
The history of branding is very much tied to the history of using animals as a commodity. The act of marking livestock with fire-heated marks to identify ownership begins in ancient times, with use dating back to the ancient Egyptians. The process continued throughout the ages, with Romans using the process to brand slaves as well.
In the English lexicon, the word "brand" originally meant anything hot or burning, such as a fire-brand, a burning stick. By the European Middle Ages it commonly identified the process of burning a mark into a stock animals with thick hides, such as cattle, so as to identify ownership under animus revertendi. The practice became particularly widespread in nations with large cattle grazing regions, such as Spain.
These European customs were imported to the Americas and were further refined by the vaquero tradition in what today is the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the American West, a branding iron consisted of an iron rod with a simple symbol or mark which cowboys heated in a fire. After the branding iron turned red-hot, the cowboy pressed the branding iron against the hide of the cow. The unique brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could then graze freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at round-up time for driving to market.
From the Americas, many cattle branding traditions and techniques spread to other countries such Australia, where a distinct set of traditions and techniques developed
Branding Irons come in a variety of styles, designed primarily by their method of heating.
The traditional fire-heated method is still in use today. While they require longer lengths of time to heat, are inconsistent in temperature and all around inferior to more advanced forms of branding, they are inexpensive to produce and purchase, which all but guarantees their continued use. Fire-heated branding irons are used to brand wood, steak, leather, livestock and plastics.
Electric branding irons utilize an electric heating element to heat a branding iron to the desired heat in much the same way an electric toaster or space heater works. Electric branding irons come in many variations from irons designed to brand cattle, irons designed to mark wood and leather and models designed to be placed inside a drill press for the purposes of manufacturing. An Electric Branding Iron's temperature can be controlled by increasing or decreasing the flow of electricity.
Propane Branding Irons use a continuous flow of propane to heat the iron head. They are commonly used where electricity is not available. Utilizing the flow of propane, the temperature can be adjusted for varying branding environments.
A commercially built branding iron heater fired with L.P. gas is a common and good method of heating several branding irons at once.
In contrast to traditional hot-iron branding, freeze branding uses a branding iron that has been chilled with a coolant such as dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Rather than burning a scar into the animal, a freeze brand damages the pigment-producing hair cells, causing the animal's hair to grow white where the brand has been applied. To apply a freeze brand, the hair coat of the animal is shaved so that the bare skin is exposed, then the frozen iron is applied to the bare area for a period of time that varies with both the species of animal and the color of its hair coat: Shorter times are used on dark-colored animals, simply causing the hair follicles to lose all color and regrow as white hairs. Longer times are needed on animals with white hair coats, as the brand is applied long enough to permanently stop the hair from growing in the branded area and only skin remains.
Livestock branding is perhaps the most prevalent use of a branding iron. Modern use includes gas heating, the traditional fire-heated method, an iron heated by electricity (electric cattle branding iron) or an iron super cooled by dry ice (freeze branding iron). Cattle, horses and other livestock are commonly branded today for the same reason they were in Ancient times, to prove ownership.
Woodworkers will often use Electric or Fire-Heated Branding Irons to leave their maker's mark or company logo.
Steak branding irons are used commonly by BBQ enthusiasts and professional chefs to leave a mark indicating how well done a steak is or to identify the chef or grill master.
Branding Irons are used often by makers of horse tack often in place of a steel leather stamp to indicate craftsmanship.