Peering through magnifying lenses, master engraver Len Youngo bends over a slab of inch-thick steel and uses a small hammer and chisel to etch an intricate skyline design that will grace aluminum platters and trays forged at Wendell August, America’s oldest maker of hand-hammered metal giftware, in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
“You need a lot of patience to engrave the dies, and the ability to know how deep or shallow to go into the steel,” says Youngo, 54, while pressing a putty-like material into the reverse etching and peeling it back to check his work.
Attention to detail is a tradition at Wendell August Forge, which since 1923 has produced hand-wrought ornamental giftware made of aluminum, iron and other metals.
Named for founder Wendell McMinn August, the company was established in Brockway, Pennsylvania, after the coalmine owner recruited mine blacksmith Ottone Pisoni to forge iron door latches for his home. August was so impressed with the results that he launched a decorative ironware business that became the foundation for Wendell August Forge.
In 1930, the Aluminum Company of America ordered a set of large aluminum gates and elevator doors for its research facility in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, introducing the forge to a decorative metal that would become its signature material. The forge was relocated to Grove City in 1932 and purchased in 1978 by Ohio businessman F.W. “Bill” Knecht, whose family still runs the business.
“He appreciated beauty and saw an opportunity to preserve what American craftsmen did,” says Knecht’s son, Will, company president since 1998.
With its 115 employees, the forge produces more than 1,000 different products, including platters, bowls, trays, coasters, Christmas ornaments, picture frames and jewelry. Designs range from the company’s enduring Dogwood pattern to its more contemporary Monet line. Besides aluminum, the giftware is made of bronze, copper, pewter, stainless steel and sterling silver. Most products range in price from $10 to $250.
Since the company’s founding, the forge has used an eight-step process that begins with master engravers such as Youngo. After a die is created, craftsmen hammer metal into its etched portions to create a raised design. Next, the metal is flattened and hammered to add random marks and a distinctive edge before firing in the company’s forge, which creates black highlights. After forging, the pieces are polished to remove excess carbon color and to enhance the metal’s luster. Finally, the products are hammered on an antique wooden form or shaped on a forming press.
The entire process can take hours or even months, depending on the size and complexity of the design. In recent years, jewelry, pewter ware, and a line of sports logo giftware have been added to the company’s product lineup.
The company has survived economic downturns and overseas competition. Then, in 2010, Wendell August faced trial by fire when a blaze destroyed its historic building and some of its dies. The operation resumed five days later in a nearby workshop, where the company regrouped until it could rebuild, opening a 52,000-square-foot facility last year.
“We call ourselves ‘America’s oldest startup,’” says Knecht, 47. “Wendell August meant too much to consider closing. We believe we’re stewards of American craftsmanship. We make a beautiful and unique American product.”