Benjamin Sunderlin is the new kid on the block.
He established his bellfoundry in Caroline County two years ago.
Some of his competitors in the business of bellfounding casting bells for use in churches and public buildings have been around for 500 years. The traditional craft of bellfounding is thousands of years old. A Benedictine monk named Theophilus first described the process in a DIY handbook, “On Divers Arts,” written in 1100. “It’s been done the same way pretty much ever since,” Sunderlin, 30, said.
Some foundries have updated their processes to suit a more industrial age, but for Sunderlin, the thousand-year-old method is what’s attractive. He learned it while studying for his masters degree in fine arts from the University of Notre Dame, where his area of research was campanology—the study of how bells are cast, tuned and rung. “I got hooked on the craft,” he said.
He obtained grants to study at traditional bellfoundries in England and France. Back home, he conducted research and found that no other foundry in the United States was making bells in the traditional way. So he decided to establish one. He said he tried to talk himself out of it many times. “It takes someone equal parts crazy, passionate and stupid,” he said. “It’s not a common thing. It’s not cheap and there’s not a lot of demand.” By not a lot of demand, he means that, on average, only a few hundred jobs come available each year for all the working bellfoundries located around the world, and most jobs usually go to companies in the country where the job is.
But the work that does become available is lucrative. One small tower bell of 39 pounds can cost around $2,600 and the price goes up to almost $70,000 for the largest bells, which can be as heavy as 4,500 pounds. Churches and public buildings in the United States that need replacement bells must add shipping costs and the export and import duties required to get the bell here from Europe. And if the bell were to crack or break during shipping, it would have to be completely recast. Sunderlin thought he could provide a local option.
“It’s nice to be able to step up and say, ‘We can do this,’ ” he said.
He points to the fact that the original Liberty Bell was commissioned from a U.K. foundry and cracked immediately upon being rung for the first time after its arrival in the U.S. Two local founders, John Pass and John Stow, despite being inexperienced in bellfounding, offered to try recasting it. “John Stow stepped up and said, ‘I think we can do this.’ I’m doing the same thing,” Sunderlin said. “I’m pretty patriotic. I want to convince Americans that there is a domestic way to do this.
“I want to see a return to traditional craftsmanship that is distinctively American and that can be a product that equals European craftsmanship,” he continued. Originally from Indiana, Sunderlin chose Caroline as a location for his foundry when his wife, Kate, was accepted to a Ph.D. program at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Caroline is perfect,” he said. “I love the isolation. And Virginia is a great place for this. There’s tons of great American history right here.”
For example, historic Jamestown. Archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery project there unearthed three bell fragments and reached out to Sunderlin to find out more about them. From those three fragments he was able to create a profile—a cross-section diagram—of a bell that rang for the Jamestown settlers 410 years ago. Based on that diagram, he made a mold and this summer cast a new bell that is the twin of that 17th-century one. “It produces the same sound that called the Jamestown settlers to worship,” Sunderlin said. “Maybe it rang at the wedding of Pocahontas.”
Getting that authentic sound is an extremely complex process. It starts with an exact stone model of the outer bell, called a false bell. This is covered with Sunderlin’s special loam recipe—sand, human hair that he collects from salons and clay that he dug from a river bed in Indiana.
“I’m looking to make a Virginia loam now,” he said. “It’s neat, it kind of connects you to the land.”
The loam is spread over the false bell and the whole thing is covered with wax. If the finished bell is to have designs or inscriptions on it, they are drawn on at that point. Then the false bell is encased in fireproof clay and then a steel mantle. The space between the mantle and the false bell is filled with cement. When that hardens, the false bell is chipped away, leaving a cement mold of the outer bell. The outer mold is lowered over a stone mold of the inside of the bell. Bell metal, a bronze alloy, is melted over a furnace heated to 2,000-plus degrees and poured into the space between the inner and outer mold. Once the bell cools, it has to be tuned to produce the needed sound. Sunderlin does this by shaving the interior wall to a specific thickness. “It’s more like a science than anything else,” he said. “It’s like cutting a diamond. You only need to remove just enough. If you cut too much, you have to remake the bell.”
Sunderlin said he’s made five or six bells since he established his foundry. He also does maintenance and restoration work on existing bells and can do other kinds of metal casting work. Earlier this month, he cast bells designed by Virginie Bassetti, a French woman who was recently knighted for her bell-making work in France—which includes eight bells she made for the famed cathedral Notre Dame de Paris. Bassetti said she will be working exclusively with the Sunderlin foundry to produce her work for the U.S.
When Sunderlin was 27, he delivered a TEDx talk at Notre Dame called, “What if we remade the Liberty Bell?” “We would be forced to use it more than we do the broken icon,” he said. “What would we ring it for?” He tells the story of a church in Germany that, while restoring one of its bells, found it had been cast with a swastika.
“They didn’t know,” Sunderlin said. “They never went up and looked at it. But that is the length [the Nazis] went to assert their dominance. It had been used in church. They had to ask, ‘Do we use it now that we know?’ For Sunderlin, bells are “interesting artifacts between music, industry and art.” They are both timeless and representative of the particular moment in time when they were made.
“[Bells] go beyond something that goes ‘ding dong’ in church,” he said.