Pa. blacksmith forges into past

July 14, 1998

photos: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Austin GunnellBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MONT ALTO, Pa. - The anvil on a sawed-off tree trunk next to the coal-fired forge at Antietam Iron Works was made in England, but no one knows when.

A man just showed up with it one day and asked Austin Gunnell if he wanted to buy it. It weighs nearly 400 pounds and was forged from a single chunk of iron.

Its builder welded an inch-thick sheet of steel on the top so it would keep its shape when iron is pounded into different forms.


The anvil and the tree trunk make up the logo on Gunnell's business cards.

Gunnell does architectural iron work and blacksmithing at Antietam Iron Works, 6585 Anthony Wayne Highway.

The property was a dairy farm when Gunnell, 41, and his wife, Kathleen, 38, bought it in 1989. The 14 acres contain a 1787 stone farmhouse, wooden barn and a large metal farm implement storage shed that Gunnell converted into his workshop.

In 1996, a steel company truck driver dropped off a sheet of 3/4-inch steel plate 8-feet wide and 20-feet long and weighing about 5,000 pounds.

Gunnell, working alone, used steel rollers to push it into the shed and position it where he wanted it. Then, using a jack and wooded blocks, he raised it up, built legs under it, set I-beams atop the legs and created a work table.

Gunnell draws a full-scale image in chalk of what his customers want him to build in iron. Before creating the table, he drew on the cement floor of the workshop.

He forges wrought iron railings, gates, iron fences and brackets for signs. He also restores pieces and makes reproductions.

He spends 10 to 12 hours a day in his shop doing what Kathleen calls "signature-quality work ranging from simple handrails to elaborate estate gates."

Iron Gate"This is not like Joe's welding shop down the street. I do custom work," Gunnell said.

This week Gunnell finished an elaborate gate 16 feet long and 9 feet high for a Hagerstown customer. Its ornate design is highlighted with vines and roses.

"He went to the library and got books on roses. He duplicated beautifully in iron what he saw in those books, from buds to flowers," Kathleen said.

Gunnell spent 250 hours making the gate.

His next project is restoration of the wrought iron arch at the entrance to City Park in Hagerstown.

Gunnell grew up in Rockville, Md. He was employed as a sheet metal worker the year he married Kathleen and they had their first child. Then he was laid off.

iron rose"I had to do something. We just bought a house," he said. He set up shop in his back yard and made iron railings. His reputation began to grow by word of mouth.

The family moved to Keedysville and Gunnell did his work in a rented building in Hagerstown until the move to Mont Alto.

The couple has four children, ages 6 to 15. The two older boys have begun to work in the shop, but Gunnell said he won't push them to stay unless they like it.

"If it's not in their hearts, I wouldn't want them to do it," he said.

Gunnell's heart is in the work.

"It's neat going into the 21st century and doing work like they did in the 19th century," he said. "Today everybody has their computers and I've got my forge and anvil."

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