American Rifleman

February 1990

A One-Of-A-Kind


Sharon Dressel is the only female gun builder
in the 100-plus member
American Custom Gunmakers Guild.




Photo by Mustafa Bilal
     If you fancy flamboyant firearms, don't commission Sharon Dressel to build one for you. They say an artist's work is a direct reflection of his or her personality, and there's absolutely nothing flamboyant about Dressel. Not her slight but athletic build, not her reserved Virginia drawl, not her neat but functional clothing, not even the customized Browning Citori 12-ga. she stocked for the North Carolina chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. That shotgun is expected to be one of   the organization's most successful fund-raising projects in recent years.
     What Dressel brings to her work, as a custom gun builder is a tasteful, under-stated elegance. "I think of firearms as, well, not really dainty, but sort of chic looking. That's the kind I like to build," she says.
     That "chic" look, which she incorporated into the Citori, grabbed the attention of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, which accepted her as a member two years ago. To date, she's one of just two females in the Guild and the only one who actually builds custom guns. The other woman specializes only in engraving.
     "I don't want to come across sounding braggy," she says quietly, almost apologetically, as she glances toward the red light on the tape recorder sitting next to her-it's her first-ever interview - “but I'm pretty proud of what I've accomplished so far.”


     She has every right. In the past few years, she's become more than a pretty face standing next to her husband, gunmaker Paul Dressel, Jr., in their display booths at the Guild shows. She's established a name for herself by developing her own style at her own pace, and by putting a little extra effort into any endeavor that really impassions her. That's how Sharon Farmer was raised, back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and this native of Draper, VA, has remained true to her Southern upbringing.
     "When I was a kid. I always wanted to climb the tree higher than anyone else," she says. "It wasn't that I wanted to beat everyone. I just wanted to go as far as I could in everything I did." She's hardly more that a kid now by most custom gunmaker's standards. And at age 32, Dressel is still climbing as high as she can.
     The determination seems to be inherited. When she was 5 years old, a very influential grandmother told her, "Child, if you can't do something right, don't waste your time with it." Her interest in firearms, however, was cultivated. "My father had hunting dogs and Browning shotguns, and even though I was never allowed to go near the gun cabinet, they always fascinated me," she says. Later, during her teens, her parents purchased a protection handgun for their restaurant. Something clicked, and Dressel suddenly found herself enamored with pistols-particularly stainless steel Smith & Wesson's, which she began collecting. The avocation led her to local gunshops where one day she overheard a conversation about gunsmithing schools.
     "I thought that sounded like something I'd like to do," she moved to North Carolina and started school soon after. "I thought it would be the neatest thing in the world to blue a gun, or maybe even build one, and be able to tell someone I'd done something like that."
     Dressel enrolled in a two-year program at a junior college. Coupled with the financial strains of school, she ran headlong into classroom pressures she'd never anticipated. She was the first female in the program, which included 27 hours a week at a workbench and covered everything from welding to woodworking to machining to metallurgy. In her tomboyish childhood, Dressel had been exposed to a variety of mechanical things, "but I still didn't know the difference between a one-cut file and a coarse-cut file. I was about as green as I could be," she confesses. As the renegade female in the class of 70 men, she felt everything she did was severely scrutinized. "It was as if they were just waiting for me to mess up," she recalls. She also found herself in philosophical disagreement with some of her instructors over the style of work they were teaching, preferring a more modern, sleek approach than they promoted.
     "There were a couple of times I thought about quitting-except that I'm not a quitter," she says. "One of my best teachers was Russ Holmes, and he helped convince me to stay with it. He backed me in any project and any approach I wanted to take in the class."
     She still maintains contact with Holmes, who still teaches at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, NC, and now collaborated on projects with the individual who was to become Dressel's true mentor, Joe Balickie. His was a name she'd never heard until she happened to be introduced to him one day in a Raleigh gunshop. "We stood out in the parking lot and talked for about two hours. He was one of the nicest, friendliest people I'd ever met," she remembers. "He really encouraged me to follow my dream and go into gunsmithing."


Dressel not only builds guns--she hunts with them
as well. This Trophy Rio Grande gobbler fell to a
Remington pump she stocked with a 12'' pull length.


     About a year later, Balickie visited her school as a guest lecturer and brought a couple of custom guns with him. "I couldn't take my eye off them," she says. "I knew from that point on that I wanted to build custom guns."
     Balickie recalls how Dressel initially impressed him as an uncommonly determined individual. "I told her back when she was in school that she had the makings of a good gun builder," he says. "She's always demonstrated the desire, certainly along with the talent, and when she makes up her mind to do something, she certainly can do it well."
     The gunmaker soon became -and remained- Dressel's role model. "While I was building my first gun, all I could think about was doing the best job I could so Joe would be proud of me," she confesses.
     Even before she graduated in 1982, Dressel had a job lined up with a gunshop out of state. But the position fell through at the last minute. Undaunted, she set up a workbench on her mother's back porch, subsequently built herself a 14' x 30' shop, and took in general gunsmithing jobs -rebluing, stock refinishing and minor repair work. Realizing she still lacked some basic skills, she went back to school for a year of machine shop and subsequently landed a job as a machinist, running a CNC lathe.
     "I was saving money for a mill and lathe. At that time I was 29 and had decided it was either time for me to get on with this custom gun work or forget about it. So I went to my second Custom Gunmakers Guild show specifically looking for someone to go to work for. I felt I had the basics but still lacked the confidence, and I wanted to work for someone I could learn from."
     A year earlier, acting on Balickie's advice, Dressel had attended her first Guild Show. It was an information- gathering expedition; she scoped out the wares and their artists, hoping to find inspiration and direction for her own work. She thought she'd met every gunmaker there, but she managed to miss one- her future husband, Paul Dressel. Even at her second show, it was a custom rifle, not the gunmaker himself, who initially attracted her attention.
     "Paul had this beautiful Mannlicher on the table, and I thought it was the prettiest little gun I'd ever seen." The two began conversing and it didn't take the gunmaker long to realize the young woman knew what she was talking about. It just so happened he was in the market for an able assistant for his Yakima, Washington shop; an offer was extended and accepted. Not long after, a marriage proposal was also extended and accepted. Since then, the two gunmakers have been working side by side and traveling to the top gun shows nationally.


Paul Dressel's work first attracted his
future wife, and now that the two work
together he tries not to influence her art.


     The Dressels occasionally collaborate on a project, but they're careful to keep an amicable distance on matters of personal style. According to him they're both perfectionists- a potentially explosive combination in any business partnership, let alone a marriage. "We're quite critical of each other's work, but only if we ask each other," he says. "I really try not to influence her because I don't want to interfere with her artistic ability. I make it a real point to say 'I don't know' if she asks me how I think a particular gun should look. The last thing I want is for someone to tell her, 'Gosh, your guns look just like Paul's'. "I've seen this happen when other apprentices work with only one gunmaker for a few years."
     Dressel's unique trademark - her own "look"- is one of understatement, right down to the size. "I'd like to specialize in building small guns for small people. I don’t think the manufacturers realize how much demand there is for such a product. There are a lot of junior-size people, including women, who hunt. I've always hunted with a gun that was to long for me, and consequently I've never learned to mount a gun up properly, even when it fits me."
     That, however, didn't stop her from bagging the first -and biggest- Rio Grande turkey ever legally killed in Washington state on opening morning in 1988. She did it with a Remington pump she'd stocked herself. "It's funny looking because it’s a 12'' length of pull, so the stocks real short. I lengthened the forearm about an inch, so the forearm actually looks as big as the buttstock. But it fits me; it's balanced, and that's what's important."
     A firearm's cosmetics, she feels, are secondary in importance to its mechanical soundness. "The most important thing is that it's able to do what it was built to do." Nonetheless, she has strong convictions on what she thinks is attractive. "Most gunmakers feel if they're not working with English walnut or Turkish Circassian walnut, they're wasting their time. But I like any wood, as long as it's not real porous. I prefer the darker woods. I feel black walnut has gotten an undeserved bad name over the years. For color, strength and beauty, it can't be beat. I don't think a small gun needs a racy piece of wood on it. I don't want any one part of the gun to over power the rest."
     Dressel admits she enjoys stock work the most but says she doesn't mind the metal work. "because I feel I really know what I'm doing. I don't get bored with it, even though it can be tedious work. There are times when I think I could be doing something easier on myself, but there's so much gratification in seeing the finished product that it keeps me going. It's not your common person-especially female- who wants to be covered with oil and have her hands all ratted out from polishing metal. But if you want to succeed in this occupation, you have to put in as much time as it takes and believe that what you're doing is worthwhile."
     Dressel's self -confidence spills over into the business side of her partnership with her husband. She enjoys the sales aspect of their business and knows their products are well worth the prices.
     She also appears to have a natural talent for the marketing side of their business. Recently she contacted the Fort Knox safe company president, who was already familiar with the Dressel's work and reputation. She suggested the company use a testimonial and photo of the two gunmakers in its ad campaign. "They were already using some big name movie stars and celebrities, " she says. "So I suggested that the two custom gunmakers would also be perfect endorsers for their product." The company bought the idea and the Dressel's picture will soon appear in Fort Knox ads.
     "I can be pretty outspoken at times," she says, grinning. "People find out real fast I'm not as shy as I might initially seem to be. If there's something I really believe in, I pretty much speak out on it."
     Dressel believes in herself and, according to Balickie, that's her ticket to success in an extremely elite occupation. As she puts it, "Someone asked me, 'How come Ft. Knox picked you as an endorser? Are you that well known?' I said, 'No, but I will be!' " <>


Paul and Sharon Dressel ã 2003