As mass production has overshadowed the craftsmanship and artistry of blacksmiths, Kent Knapp, owner of Milwaukee Blacksmith Inc., is setting out to spark new energy around the trade with beginner forging classes at his Milwaukee shop.
Knapp, who operates his company with his wife, Shannon, three sons and two daughters, has been forging iron for the past 15 years, building on a passion that began with an apprenticeship at Cedar Creek Forge in Cedarburg.
“When I was younger when I first walked into the shop that I learned in, I saw what could be done with the seemingly tough substance that was iron or steel and how people were able to make it flow so gracefully and look so delicate when it was this immovable object,” Knapp said.
He launched Milwaukee Blacksmith Inc. in 2005 and today focuses primarily on custom commissions and architectural projects, producing railings, fencing, gates, balconies, fireplace surrounds and tools. He also forges iron for interior spaces, often making curtain rods, wine racks, bottle openers and plant brackets. Those smaller items are available online and are shipped to five continents, according to Knapp.
In fall of 2012, Knapp held his first private party, after a soon-to-be groom contacted him hoping he would host a bachelor party in the shop and teach a group of friends how to forge iron.
Knapp has since hosted about a half dozen parties with other inquiries and began promoting his classes to the general public at the start of the year.
The four-hour classes run at his 518 E. Erie St. shop in an 8,000-square-foot facility that also houses a bar, a stage and a gallery, which Knapp anticipates using for public gatherings, such as networking events.
During classes, which are limited to six students at most, Knapp touches on the basics of forging and teaches participants how to use an anvil and tongs as well as improve hammer control. He also instructs students on square and round tapering, bending, scrolling, twisting and safety. Students typically make a bottle opener during class time and walk home with one of Knapp’s handmade made bottle openers.
Much of Knapp’s work emulates the style of famed Milwaukee blacksmith Cyril Colnik, who lived and worked in Milwaukee from 1894 to 1958. Colnik’s work adorns many Milwaukee landmarks including City Hall, the Pabst Theater, and several mansions along Lake Drive, according to Knapp.
An exhibition of some of his finest work also resides at Milwaukee’s Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum.
“He was an unbelievable master, probably the best American blacksmith ever,” said Knapp, who has been commissioned to copy or replace some of Colnik’s pieces throughout Milwaukee.
Despite Colnik’s reputation as a top-notch artisan blacksmith, a lot of people have no idea who he was or that he even existed, Knapp said.
“I don’t think people today really look back upon turn-of-the-century craftsmanship and really have an understanding for it or an appreciation for it,” Knapp said. “So I think his type of work tends to get lost in the shuffle of modern art.”
The work and artistry of blacksmiths has also largely gotten lost in the shuffle of technology, according to Knapp.
Through his new classes, he aims to revive appreciation for the trade and compel people to begin working with their hands again.
“It’s important to me that this craft stays alive for the next generation,” Knapp said.
Beginner classes cost $125 per person and can be arranged at www.milwaukeeblacksmith.com.