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Smithin' School

By NAN BIALEK
Photos by Courtney Ann Photography

August 2014

Blacksmith Kent Knapp, third from right.

At a Cedarburg gig with hisoutlaw country band, the Carpetbaggers, Kent Knapp of Bay View quickly became smitten with smithin’. The owner of the club where the band was playing is a musician and a blacksmith. "When I walked into the shop and saw how these guys could take a rigid substance like iron or steel and make it flow so gracefully, I was in love with the craft from the moment I saw it," Knapp says.

Knapp asked the Cedarburg blacksmith to teach him the basics of the trade, "so that’s how I got my foot in the door."

He continued to learn about working with iron, even spending time in an iron factory in Beijing, where he says working conditions for the Chinese were comparable to those experienced by American workers at the dawn of the industrial age. America’s Industrial Revolution, Knapp notes, is one reason artisan blacksmithing declined. Handcrafted tools were replaced by cheaper, mass-produced versions. "I’m betting there are a lot of little tricks that died with some lonely blacksmith somewhere around the middle of the 20th century," he says.

Knapp is inspired by the legendary Cyril Colnik, who not only did the decorative wrought-iron work on the Pabst Theater, as well as the Miller and Uihlein mansions, but also at Bay View High School and the old Goldmann’s Department Store on Mitchell Street, as well as many other locales around the city. "Colnik is arguably the best American blacksmith ever, and we had him right here in Milwaukee," Knapp says.

At his own shop, Knapp produces everything from coat hooks to bottle racks to iron gates. About 98 percent of his work is commissioned, he says, like the interior railings in the restoration of the historic Iron Block Building, 205 E. Wisconsin Ave. On the exterior, Knapp had a hand in re-creating pieces that have been missing since World War I, when the building featured lion heads with 6-foot-long grapevines.

"I hand-forged one (grapevine) and they took it to a foundry and made a mold of it and cast the rest. Talk about an honor to re-create something that’s been missing for almost 100 years," he says.

Knapp is hoping to forge a local resurgence of the blacksmith’s craft, not only by producing new work, but also by offering School of Iron classes every two weeks at his Milwaukee Blacksmith Shop in the Third Ward, 518 E. Erie St.

Knapp says he started teaching classes about a year ago, when a group of guys were looking for something interesting to do for a bachelor party. Word got around, and Knapp soon began offering four-hour beginners’ classes. "We’ve had 12-year-olds and 65-year-olds in class. They’re all chomping at the bit and they want to have a shop to come and work in," he says.

Knapp is also looking for vintage blacksmithing tools, such as anvils, that he suspects are gathering dust in local garages. "I get a kick out of using tools that are 100 or 150 years old. I think it’s fascinating to be working with a tool that somebody used that long ago," he says. "We’re just trying to keep this craft alive."

For information on School of Iron blacksmithing classes, contact sidney@milwaukeeblacksmith.com

 


This story ran in the August 2014 issue of: