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."
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
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.
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.
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
on School of Iron blacksmithing classes, contact firstname.lastname@example.org