Richmond-area bellfoundry makes them ring like they’re 400 years old

CAROLINE COUNTY, Va. -- So how does a 30-year-old guy from Indiana become a bell-maker in the Richmond area specializing in reproducing the ringing from church and town hall towers back when this nation was born?

WTVR profiled Benjamin Sunderlin of B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry, which calls itself the only traditional bellfoundry in the U.S.

"I couldn't escape it," Sunderlin said.

He's an artist at his core, the son of an engineer and teacher. He found he loved foundry work and was able to attract some grants to study the art of traditional bell-making in England and France.

Benjamin Sunderlin

And that was it. He became totally hooked, he said, on finding the formula for making new bells look and sing like they're hundreds of years old.

"I became captivated by that craft," Sunderlin said, "the search for that craft."

We're talking the earliest casting methods - making complex inner and outer wax-covered molds from a special recipe of sand, clay, loam, horse manure, and hair. Even the wax has a specific formula for the bell at hand. The mix on Wednesday had some tallow in it.

And that's just part of the process that is needed to get the proper size, shape, tone and note of bell sought by the maker. A beer keg-sized bell in the key of C, for example? Or one twice that size? How do you make that happen?

As a campanologist, Sunderlin has collected, studied and experimented with bells from around the world - each with its own voice and life.

Making reproductions requires not just skill and knowledge, but a sprawling personal factory in rural Caroline County filled with a wide array of the heavy machinery that allows Sunderlin, his wife, Kate, and a few other helpers make and finish bells without a small village filled with powerful peons. (Ben and Kate moved here two years ago so Kate could earn her arts doctorate at Virginia Commonwealth University.)

Currently, they're partnering on a project in the shop with Virginie Bassetti of France, whose bell-making for Notre Dame in Paris will see her knighted. Yes, knighted. That's how cherished the art is by those whose historic buildings are heralded and sort of anchored by their bells.

And Ben is finishing up a replica of a church bell that rang in Jamestown here in the 1600s. They were able to recreate it from just four small pieces that were found in an excavation. (See them at work in our video report.)

"They still resonate on a symbolic level and they still draw people to these important places around the globe," Sunderlin said. "I'm really excited to be able to sort of bring something back."