How holiday favorite Wendell August Forge rose from the ashes, stronger than ever

Jeffrey Bonior Researcher/Writer, AAM

The artisans and craftsmen at Wendell August Forge have been making holiday-ready hand-hammered metal gifts and ornaments in Mercer, Pa., for nearly 100 years.

But in 2010, it all went up in flames.

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Located about 40 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh — the capital of the American steel industry — America’s largest and oldest forge sits tucked away in an industrial part of Pennsylvania.

Forging is one of the oldest working techniques of artisans. It involves heating, hammering and shaping metal objects. Every Wendell August Forge piece follows this old school tradition, hand-shaped one at a time by the company’s craftsmen (who also are members of the United Steelworkers).

Wendell August Forge makes a variety of items, including holiday gifts — the company is well-known for its one-of-a-kind Christmas tree ornaments — and just launched a new line of NFL-themed coasters and keychains. The company also creates home décor items including bowls, dishes, cutting boards, glassware, and other tabletop pieces. Wendell August Forge has a gift for nearly every special occasion, including wedding gifts, commemorative gifts, baby gifts, Mother’s and Father’s days gifts and patriotic holidays. 

Will Knecht owns Wendell August Forge with his sister. His mother and father bought the company in 1978, and Knecht continues to take pride in the time-tested traditions of its past.

“We really believe in this thing called American craftsmanship. We get calls two or three times a quarter with people saying there is this factory in China that you guys should really consider, and it is no way,” Knecht said. “We were Made in America before it was cool to be Made in America, and we will continue to be Made in America.”

But the future of the tough-as-metal company looked grim in 2010, when a fire caused the factory, corporate offices and flagship retail store to burn to the ground. This was just after the company had gotten its largest order ever from the Pittsburgh Penguins National Hockey League team.

“On a Thursday in March of 2010, we got the largest order in our history to commemorate the closing of the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Penguins last hockey game there,” Knecht said. “The order we got was for 18,000 commemorative metal tickets for all those in attendance and they were to be produced in 4 ½ weeks by our artisans. You can imagine, not only are we American-made, we are also handmade. It was going to be a heroic task to begin with, but then two days after the order, we burned to the ground.

“What happened over the following weeks is literally miraculous. We had an outpouring of support from the community, our employees and our customers. We had community members who had space, whether it be office space, manufacturing space or retail space literally give it to us on a handshake. No money upfront, just ‘pay us whenever you can.’”

The employees worked 24/7 for four weeks attempting to finish the order on time.

Wendell August Forge even received an assist from Pittsburgh Penguin team owner Mario Lemieux. Although Lemieux had many assists during his Hall of Fame playing career, none could have been as smooth as this one.

“The fire is on a Saturday, and we just had celebrated getting our largest order, which we had just started working on the night before,” Knecht said. “And by Saturday night, I look at our chief sales guy and say ‘Gosh, we are going to lose the Penguins order.’

“So, the next day we are waiting for the call from the Penguins saying. ‘We are sorry, all the best, but we have to go with someone we can count on.’ So not only did that not happen, the head of the Penguins marketing team at that time calls and says, ‘I’m sorry about the fire, but can you guys still make these tickets for us?”

Knecht said they could indeed fill the order — even though he wasn’t sure how that was going to come together. But the Penguins management kept the order.

“The Penguins even tell us they can imagine cash flow is a little bit tight right now, and they send a courier the next day, a Sunday, with a check for the entire order,” Knecht said. “The fact that they stuck with us and sent that check was so critical, and a rallying point for us to recover as quickly as we did. So, part of this miraculous story is the Pittsburgh Penguins playing an integral role in showing they had confidence in us, and we wanted to live up to the confidence they’ve shown us.

“Four weeks and a day after the fire, I had the pleasure of driving the corporate van to Pittsburgh to deliver 18,000 handmade tickets. Isn’t that awesome?”

Awesome indeed, just as the forge’s 96-year longevity is remarkable for a company that began when coal mine owner Wendell McMinn August decided to engage a blacksmith in his mine to hand-forge door latches for his home in 1923. A new business was born.

Wendell August Forge has continuously added to its catalog of products that are made by its designers and craftsmen, and over the years has become synonymous with eye-catching metal Christmas tree ornaments. The ornaments are unique in that since each one is hand-made, no two pieces are exactly alike. Like a painting, each piece has a story.

To add to its vast catalog of intricate, hand-hammered metal pieces, Wendell August Forge began producing NFL gifts this year. It has joined an elite group, becoming one of only 300 manufacturers licensed to incorporate the NFL logos into its products.

“The NFL deal is such a big deal for us,” Knecht said. “The Christmas tree ornaments have been our best sellers, but this year we have added the NFL designs and those gifts have been selling well and will only get better during the next two months.”

The expert artisans hand-etch original designs into a die and each piece is hand-hammered using an eight-step process with its roots in ancient metalworking techniques.

“It’s the technique of forcing metal, then raising the metal on the other side,” Knecht said. “We have a die created and the die is like the original oil painting. It’s engraved into a piece of steel in reverse using hammers and chisels.

“Remember when we did Silly Putty on the comics as kids and you would turn it over and there it is? So, you turn it over and Silly Putty is the sheet metal and the actual comic is the die. The technique is a European art process called repousse.”

About 98 percent of the finished pieces are made with a type of metal. Aluminum is used predominantly because it is a softer metal that is easier to work with, but artisans also create custom pieces in bronze, copper, pewter and stainless steel.

“I think we as a country have failed people who are creative and work with their hands,” Knecht said. “One of the things we talk about all the time is the dignity of working with your hands. And the dignity of being a plumber, the dignity of being a carpenter, the dignity of being a metal crafter. There is great dignity in doing those jobs and at one time we honored those. Now it’s almost if you don’t have a college education or advanced degree you’re looked down on. We truly honor our people’s skill sets.

You can find Wendell August Forge’s hand-made, metal gifts at stores throughout the United States, including its flagship retail outlets in Mercer and Berlin, Ohio. You can also order online through the company website.

There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work

Union Matters

Human Service Workers at Persad Center Vote to Join the USW

From the USW

Workers at Persad Center, a human service organization that serves the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities of the Pittsburgh area, voted last week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The unit of 24 workers, ranging from therapists and program coordinators to case managers and administrative staff, announced their union campaign as the Persad Staff Union last month and filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“We care about our work and the communities we serve,” said Johanna Smith, Persad’s Development, Communications, and Events Associate. “We strongly believe this work and our connections to our clients will only improve now that we will be represented by a union.”

The Persad workers join the growing number of white-collar professionals organizing with the USW, especially in the Pittsburgh region. Their membership is also in line with the recent work the Steelworkers have been doing to engage LGBTQ+ members and improve contract language regarding issues that affect their lives.

“Workplaces are changing and evolving, and the labor movement is changing and evolving along with that,” said USW Vice President Fred Redmond, who oversees the union’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee as well as the USW Health Care Workers Council. “This campaign gives us an opportunity to diversify our great union while uplifting and empowering a group of workers who give their all for others.”

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