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McNew casts his lot in iron, bronze works

August 05, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - His first foundry was a crude contraption, but that cannot be said of the work Foster McNew has turned out over the past three decades.

"I made a little furnace out of a grease bucket and a propane tank and a motor off a sewing machine" to power the blower, McNew said Thursday. "It would blow enough hot air to melt aluminum."

McNew became good enough at casting to go into business full time until a fire destroyed the building in which he rented space for his shop and put him back on the road. In a couple of years, the 59-year-old truck driver plans to retire and turn his hobby back into a business.

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"I was taking my kids to the roller rink when we saw the sky light up," he said of the fire years ago at a building on Wolf Avenue. "My knees got weak."

Three examples of his work, one-sixth scale models of Civil War iron and bronze Napoleon cannons and a Parrott rifle, are on display at the Council for the Arts at 159 S. Main St. in Chambersburg, along with the Civil War-themed paintings and sculptures of other artists.

These are not the kind of die-cast models sold for a few dollars as souvenirs at historic tourist attractions. His creations are almost entirely hand-crafted, down to the blanket atop the limber, and sell for $1,000 or more.

"All of this stuff has to be hand filed. You can't just put this piece on a lathe and turn it," he said, showing off an unfinished barrel. "They are poured the same as the originals."

McNew said he's made more than two dozen Napoleons, Parrotts, James guns and howitzers over the years, and his stock of parts would make at least as many more.

From the barrels and wheels to the tiny "H" and "J" hooks and elevation screws, the exacting work requires a patient hand.

When that patience wears a little thin, McNew said, "I don't get mad. I just walk away from it."

His work is not limited to cannons. Over the years, McNew has cast everything from weather vanes and penny banks to paper weights, ashtrays, custom license plates and machine parts. It is an art he grew up with.

McNew's grandfather worked in the foundry at Frick Co. in Waynesboro, Pa., and his father worked in the TB Woods Inc. foundry in Chambersburg, where he also worked for several years.

"I like to sit down and design things," McNew said.

He said he often starts by cutting a wood pattern, then carving details into the surface. The pattern then is pressed into a sand mold, which is filled with molten metal from his backyard foundry, one he bought used.

Many of his designs have car or hunting themes, while others are more whimsical.

"I try to design and make things you can't buy in a store," he said. Most of his work is sold by word-of-mouth, he said.

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