Mike Wagner of Cornfield Customs Ltd. has made a name for himself with masterpieces on wheels. He’s a metal shaping star on social media. But the craft is its own reward for this self-described introvert. “I like to work, but the only time I really feel free is when I’m shaping metal,” he says. “I don’t care if anybody else likes what I do, but for me as a person and my own sanity, it’s what I’m on this planet to do.”
With keen insight and experience, Wagner turns complex projects into a logical series of tasks. “Metal shaping to me just makes sense, because I can physically touch the problem and I break everything down into five basic steps: you can shrink it, stretch it, cut it, bend it, weld it. That is it,” Wagner explains. “With my lack of education and formal training, if you break it down to those simple steps, it’s not that complicated. You just have to arrange everything in a certain process to get from A to B.”
Wagner got into automotive metal shaping because he wanted to build himself a Model A. His talent and promise quickly impressed a seasoned hot rod fabricator. “I knew nothing about hot rods,” he recalls. “I went to vocational school for welding and machining. I knew how to do basic machining processes, and I met this old guy who’d been building hot rods since the 50s then he’s like, ‘Man, you’re pretty good at this. You should quit your job.’ And that’s exactly what I did. So, at 20 years old, I quit my production TIG welding job and just opened up a shop.”
Wagner’s over 15-year relationship with Baileigh Industrial has influenced his trajectory in the field as well: “Once I started getting equipment through Baileigh, it kind of opened my eyes to a lot of stuff.”
Baileigh’s machines brought the sought-after strength and performance of legacy power hammers within reach of a wider range of creators. “When I got into metal shaping… 20 years ago you had to find a Pettingell or a Yoder buried in the pigsty on a farm and dig it out and completely re-engineer and rebuild it yourself. The fact that I could look in a catalog and I could call Baileigh and say, ‘Hey, I need this hammer and I need this tooling with it for this job I need to do’… it really helped me out. I think it really… changed the path of my career.”
After rigorously training with simpler tools, Wagner came to appreciate how machinery like Baileigh power hammers can save time and effort. “I’ve gone from doing things the hard way—which I think makes people a better craftsman—to understanding how valuable efficiency and quality is. Yeah, I could make a quarter panel with a hammer and dolly and a tucking fork and it might take three weeks to get to the same way I could produce it with a power hammer in three days,” Wagner explains. “The machinery can be very expensive but the efficiency over time is where that comes into play.”
Wagner is known for quality results in many facets of the custom automotive community. “Some people will tell you I’m known for metal shaping. Some people will say tube chassis. Some other guys will say traditional hot rod chassis,” he says. “In the beginning, it was traditional hot rod stuff. I kind of evolved into making door skins and quarters for those, which then led to more exotic stuff, like aluminum bodied race cars and exotic European stuff.”
One high-profile project that Wagner mentions is a 1961 Aston Martin DB4 Zagato tourer from a few years back. “That kind of got a lot of attention because the whole car was polished to a mirror.”
Overall, how does Wagner summarize his focus as a fabricator and metal shaper? “I specialize in… early traditional-type hot rods that have a modern twist on it, with a lot of detail and craftsmanship.”
In this Baileigh Biography video, Wagner took us on a tour of the facilities at Cornfield Customs in Milford, Ohio.
First, you get to check out Wagner’s showroom, where his Shelby Daytona replica and the Rouster Indy roadster are proudly on display. The Rouster roadster started out as a client project, but Wagner later acquired it and restored the vehicle back to beauty.
“It’s based on an A. J. Watson Indy car but the client I originally built it for wanted a two-seater street car, so we changed some stuff around with it… then it was involved in an accident that kind of totaled the car out, so I ended up buying it back from the insurance company and him and I rebuilt it,” explains Wagner. “Now I just take it all over and enjoy it as a car.”
In the main work area, Wagner walked us around some exciting projects like a 1968 Mustang convertible and a 1949 Shoebox Ford, for which he’s remaking the body from scratch. Wagner is building a whole new nose for a 1958 Lotus Seven, which was damaged in a front-end collision on the track. “It’s been road-raced its entire life so it’s kind of rough around the edges, which makes it even cooler.”
Vintage cars and vintage tools go together. In Wagner’s arsenal, you’ll find classics like a Bridgeport drill press and a Gorton Pantograph engraver. He has a fondness for equipment with a soul and a story to tell. He points out the cast iron blacksmith tong rack where he hangs his hammers and a Rotex turret punch once used by the U.S. Air Force.
A Pettingell hammer from the early 20th century has a local connection: “It’s got a lot of neat history. It was originally in the Bellevue Brewing Company building in Cincinnati, Ohio and they closed in 1918 from Prohibition and it hung in their basement until I got it about five years ago.”
Modern fabrication technology also helps Wagner turn his designs and plans into reality—quickly, accurately and dependably. You’ll spot several trusted Baileigh machines in Wagner’s metal shaping area. “Pretty much everything I need to do in the shaping side is all in one unit,” Wagner notes, “and I set it up to where I can efficiently walk around each machine, work on what I need, and try to be as productive and efficient while shaping as I can.”
All around the shop, Wagner can rely on a variety of Baileigh machines, from mighty metal shaping tools to equipment that boosts the self-sufficiency of Wagner’s business. Here’s what he had to say about them.
MH-19 Power Hammer – Wagner describes this machine as “the first real metal shaping piece of machinery I’d ever had.” As he remembers, it turned out to be a game-changer: “This… opened a lot of doors for me in the metal shaping industry. I had used it at the Baileigh classes when I went up and worked and helped out there. And then I kind of fell in love with the concept so when I got it… everything instantly changed. I was able to make door skins, roof inserts, one-piece quarter panels. So it really kind of changed the way my mind worked and how I could function as a metal shaper.”
MH-37HD Power Hammer – This beast is “the main focal point” of Wagner’s metal shaping area. “As you can see, it is quite the large machine. The reason I upgraded to having a machine of this size was mainly to be able to do larger panels. Now I can do full roof inserts in one piece instead of breaking it down into two. It’s just a larger machine and it hits so much harder, so I can shape that much faster and be that much more efficient.”
Are you thinking of sizing up to this monster? As Wagner observes, “this machine is not necessarily for everybody, because it’s so big and it’s so powerful. But the option, if you need that, is great to be able to have access to.”
Heavy-Duty English Wheel EW-37HD – The wheel has taken a backseat to some other Baileigh tools in Wagner’s shop, but it comes in handy at times. “When I got this machine I did all of my shaping on it and then once I kind of went to the dark side and used power hammers I kind of never went back. Every once in a while this gets used to shape stuff. Mainly now I use it for forming and that’s what the rubber upper wheel is for now I just put form into my panels.”
Bead Roller BR-16E-36 – Wagner doesn’t do a ton of bead rolling, but he appreciates the fine points of this design. “I really like this one, how it has the deep throat, the chain drive, and then this quick release handle so that was one reason I wanted to go with this one for when I need it.”
Shrinker Stretcher MSS-14F – The design of this powerful tool offers a major advantage over its legacy equivalents. “If you use a lot of the older machines like an ERCO, it’s got little pins and stuff that line up to change all the tooling out,” observes Wanger. “The feature for this that I like is, everything’s held in with magnets, so if you want to switch from shrinking and stretching you can pop those guys out and you just flip them around. You can change the tooling out in a matter of a couple seconds.”
BP-3305CNC CNC Press Brake – “When it came down to looking for a new break for the shop it was either a finger break or a press brake,” Wagner recalls. “And this one fit my needs more and it was actually more budget-friendly than just a standard manual box pan brake. I went out on a limb and kind of got this machine and it’s exceeded all my expectations and it’s actually been a really valuable asset to have in the shop.”
Mandrel Bender MB-4×2 – In the “dirty work” area of the shop, you’ll find a massive Baileigh bender. “This is where I bend all my frame rails for everything we do in-house and for other shops and individuals that need material bent for their frame projects.”
CNC Plasma Table – “I do all my own brackets in-house. [Except] if it’s going to be a mass-produced thing; I’ll send it out. [I] design everything in AutoCAD, export it out to the CNC and I’ll burn out my own brackets and tabs for race car applications.”
Baileigh equipment has not only helped Wagner modify and create astonishing vehicles, but the brand has also helped his work find a larger audience.
“I know I wouldn’t be where I am without the social media exposure Baileigh has given me,” Wagner declares. Baileigh’s Instagram presence has promoted businesses like his and globally cultivated interest in metal shaping as a craft. “Whether you think it’s good or bad, it’s been impactful on the industry.”
For Wagner, quality and transparency go hand in hand. “I like to show everything in the bare metal process… That way I‘m not hiding anything from the body shop or the client and they know exactly what they’re getting. there’s nothing hidden under filler or primer.”
His builds are sometimes as beautiful inside as they are outside. Take his Bonneville roadster. “I’m getting pretty carried away with show car stuff on it,” Wagner confesses. “It’s kind of silly that I’m going to the extremes I am on a race car, but I think race cars can be just as nice as show cars. They can be kind of dual purpose as long as you take care of everything.” A work in progress when we visited, the roadster has since wowed the crowds at the Grand National Roadster Show.
Wagner applies exacting standards to his projects. “I just want to build what I like the way I want it and have a certain level of quality.” Wagner hopes to be remembered “for the fact that I was passionate about the craft and always focused on the final product. I don’t hide things. I don’t cut corners.”
Above all, Wagner would want people to say, “He built cool shit.” And indeed he has.